‘We’re doomed’: Mayer Hillman on the climate reality no one else will dare mention

30 04 2018

 

“We’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels. So many aspects of life depend on fossil fuels, except for music and love and education and happiness. These things, which hardly use fossil fuels, are what we must focus on.”

‘We’re doomed’: Mayer Hillman on the climate reality no one else will dare mention thumbnail“We’re doomed,” says Mayer Hillman with such a beaming smile that it takes a moment for the words to sink in. “The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps. And very few appear to be prepared to say so.”

Hillman, an 86-year-old social scientist and senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute, does say so. His bleak forecast of the consequence of runaway climate change, he says without fanfare, is his “last will and testament”. His last intervention in public life. “I’m not going to write anymore because there’s nothing more that can be said,” he says when I first hear him speak to a stunned audience at the University of East Anglia late last year.

From Malthus to the Millennium Bug, apocalyptic thinking has a poor track record. But when it issues from Hillman, it may be worth paying attention. Over nearly 60 years, his research has used factual data to challenge policymakers’ conventional wisdom. In 1972, he criticised out-of-town shopping centres more than 20 years before the government changed planning rules to stop their spread. In 1980, he recommended halting the closure of branch line railways – only now are some closed lines reopening. In 1984, he proposed energy ratings for houses – finally adopted as government policy in 2007. And, more than 40 years ago, he presciently challenged society’s pursuit of economic growth.

“With doom ahead, making a case for cycling as the primary mode of transport is almost irrelevant,” he says. “We’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels. So many aspects of life depend on fossil fuels, except for music and love and education and happiness. These things, which hardly use fossil fuels, are what we must focus on.”

While the focus of Hillman’s thinking for the last quarter-century has been on climate change, he is best known for his work on road safety. He spotted the damaging impact of the car on the freedoms and safety of those without one – most significantly, children – decades ago. Some of his policy prescriptions have become commonplace – such as 20mph speed limits – but we’ve failed to curb the car’s crushing of children’s liberty. In 1971, 80% of British seven- and eight-year-old children went to school on their own; today it’s virtually unthinkable that a seven-year-old would walk to school without an adult. As Hillman has pointed out, we’ve removed children from danger rather than removing danger from children – and filled roads with polluting cars on school runs. He calculated that escorting children took 900m adult hours in 1990, costing the economy £20bn each year. It will be even more expensive today.

Our society’s failure to comprehend the true cost of cars has informed Hillman’s view on the difficulty of combatting climate change. But he insists that I must not present his thinking on climate change as “an opinion”. The data is clear; the climate is warming exponentially. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that the world on its current course will warmby 3C by 2100. Recent revised climate modelling suggested a best estimate of 2.8C but scientists struggle to predict the full impact of the feedbacks from future events such as methane being released by the melting of the permafrost.

Hillman believes society has failed to challenge the supremacy of the car.
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Hillman believes society has failed to challenge the supremacy of the car. Photograph: Lenscap / Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

Hillman is amazed that our thinking rarely stretches beyond 2100. “This is what I find so extraordinary when scientists warn that the temperature could rise to 5C or 8C. What, and stop there? What legacies are we leaving for future generations? In the early 21st century, we did as good as nothing in response to climate change. Our children and grandchildren are going to be extraordinarily critical.”

Global emissions were static in 2016 but the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was confirmed as beyond 400 parts per million, the highest level for at least three million years (when sea levels were up to 20m higher than now). Concentrations can only drop if we emit no carbon dioxide whatsoever, says Hillman. “Even if the world went zero-carbon today that would not save us because we’ve gone past the point of no return.”

Although Hillman has not flown for more than 20 years as part of a personal commitment to reducing carbon emissions, he is now scornful of individual action which he describes as “as good as futile”. By the same logic, says Hillman, national action is also irrelevant “because Britain’s contribution is minute. Even if the government were to go to zero carbon it would make almost no difference.”

Instead, says Hillman, the world’s population must globally move to zero emissions across agriculture, air travel, shipping, heating homes – every aspect of our economy – and reduce our human population too. Can it be done without a collapse of civilisation? “I don’t think so,” says Hillman. “Can you see everyone in a democracy volunteering to give up flying? Can you see the majority of the population becoming vegan? Can you see the majority agreeing to restrict the size of their families?”

Hillman doubts that human ingenuity can find a fix and says there is no evidence that greenhouse gases can be safely buried. But if we adapt to a future with less – focusing on Hillman’s love and music – it might be good for us. “And who is ‘we’?” asks Hillman with a typically impish smile. “Wealthy people will be better able to adapt but the world’s population will head to regions of the planet such as northern Europe which will be temporarily spared the extreme effects of climate change. How are these regions going to respond? We see it now. Migrants will be prevented from arriving. We will let them drown.”

A small band of artists and writers, such as Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain project, have embraced the idea that “civilisation” will soon end in environmental catastrophe but only a few scientists – usually working beyond the patronage of funding bodies, and nearing the end of their own lives – have suggested as much. Is Hillman’s view a consequence of old age, and ill health? “I was saying these sorts of things 30 years ago when I was hale and hearty,” he says.

Hillman accuses all kinds of leaders – from religious leaders to scientists to politicians – of failing to honestly discuss what we must do to move to zero-carbon emissions. “I don’t think they can because society isn’t organised to enable them to do so. Political parties’ focus is on jobs and GDP, depending on the burning of fossil fuels.”

Without hope, goes the truism, we will give up. And yet optimism about the future is wishful thinking, says Hillman. He believes that accepting that our civilisation is doomed could make humanity rather like an individual who recognises he is terminally ill. Such people rarely go on a disastrous binge; instead, they do all they can to prolong their lives.

Can civilisation prolong its life until the end of this century? “It depends on what we are prepared to do.” He fears it will be a long time before we take proportionate action to stop climatic calamity. “Standing in the way is capitalism. Can you imagine the global airline industry being dismantled when hundreds of new runways are being built right now all over the world? It’s almost as if we’re deliberately attempting to defy nature. We’re doing the reverse of what we should be doing, with everybody’s silent acquiescence, and nobody’s batting an eyelid.”

 

Guardian

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Project Drawdown

9 02 2018

I’m writing this, because Sustainable Living Tasmania has invited Paul Hawken, author/editor of his latest book by the same title as this blog entry, to speak in Hobart….. and I won’t be going, because all I’d end up doing is yelling and screaming at him!!

Hawken’s book lists 100 ways to ‘effectively combat climate change’. I vehemently disagree with most of this list, because in my opinion the solutions are not technical as Hawken suggest, but social. I’m really sticking my neck out challenging someone as prominent as Hawken, whose techno Utopia has obviously been universally embraced going by a quick google of the subject matter….  but at the very least, an alternative form of discussion needs to be attempted.

collage-drawdownThe book’s number one entry is refrigeration. Hawken claims, and probably quite rightly, that changing refrigerants and effectively destroying those gases at end of life could avoid emissions equivalent to 89.7 gigatons of carbon dioxide. But there’s no mention of making better insulated fridges, or fridges that last 30 to 40 years, like they used to….. nor that the current craze for enormous fridges should end. As an aside, while we were all thinking the ozone layer problem was fixed, along come the news it’s getting worse……. and scientists apparently don’t know why.  Except that some scientists might have a grip on the problem, and yes, it’s good old industrial agriculture at it again.

Number two on the list is wind turbines. Give me a break……  we need to use way less energy, not more. As I’ve stated many times on this blog, every time a turbine is built and erected, more CO2 is emitted, that said turbine will never remove in its lifetime. It’s just more consumption, period. Solar farms only makes the list at number 8.

Number three is reducing food waste. Now I’m all for that, but one of the ironies of refrigeration is that it may cause more food waste than most people realise. Even I have to confess to losing fresh produce in the back of the fridge to only be retrieved for composting purposes…… in my experience, the best way to not waste food is to grow it yourself and fit into a system where there is no waste thanks to chickens and composting. But of course the world won’t change to this until it’s all too late…

Number four is my latest pet hate…….  plant rich diet. Now there’s no denying that too much meat is consumed, but that is only because we have access to refrigeration and fossil fuels to distribute meat to abattoirs and supermarkets. For anyone to even consider we could all become vegetarian, let alone vegan, is a preposterous notion. I have made a big deal lately of the quality of our soils and what they are actually capable of producing; and a global vegetarian diet in a post fossil fuel era, which is after all what we have to strive for if we have any chance of fending off the worst case climate scenarios, is simply Utopian nonsense……  what we have to actually do is dismantle the industrial agricultural system, for both meat and fruit and vegetable production, and turn to permaculture principles.

To his credit, Hawken does in his book mention regenerative agriculture, but it’s ranked 11th, whereas I think it should be at the very top of the list…… he also separates out ‘silvopasture’, not a term I’m familiar with, but which is more or less regenerative farming and permculture. That’s ranked at 9 and should be incorporated with 11 above at the top of the list.

Deforestation at number 5 is a no brainer

The list of 100 is way too long for me to go right through and critique individually, it is literally another book in the making, and maybe someone will have a crack at it one day. I’m certainly too busy implementing my own strategies, and, worse, preparing for the future in which basically none of the things he proposes will happen because we are fast running out of time.

Hawken is a capitalist, and as such will never mention the fact we have to rid ourselves of this crazy system and the monetary setup it is supporting at any cost to preserve the wealth of the 1 to 5%…..

Fortunately, some of the very last items on the list like battery storage and grid flexibility are right where they deserve to be……. Biochar at 72 deserves way better ranking. And while I think green roofs are really cool, I have decided they are of little use wherever water harvesting from roofs will be needed. I find that the simple mention of airplanes (ranked 43) is baffling beyond words. Flying has zero future, in reality (peak oil) and in any climate strategy, period. It only proves to me, Hawken, like most people in his position, simply don’t want to give up their toys. Like electric cars at 26…. or simply cars at 49 about which the list says….:

4 GIGATONS REDUCED CO2
$-598.69 BILLION NET IMPLEMENTATION COST
$1.76 TRILLION NET OPERATIONAL SAVINGS
I can’t help wondering whether that includes manufacturing emissions, mining of Lithium and Cobalt (until they run out, and soon…) or whether Hawken has considered that removing $1.76 trillion from the economy would do to it! The list even claims that the Chevy Volt does an astonishing 150MPG (sorry, but this is an American article, and Americans still haven’t joined the rest of the world and use SI units…) I googled this and could find zero mention of fuel consumption remotely close to this, because while running on petrol/gasoline, it only does 38MPG, and its non fossil fuel range is only 38 miles/70km. It’s also a measure of mass thinking that the main criticism of the car in articles I read was that it only had four seats!  But I digress…..
We have already reached critical climate thresholds. As far as I’m concerned, it’s too late already to implement any of this mostly rubbish. If we are serious about climate change, flying should be banned, car factories should be closed down, all coal fired power stations should be closed, banks should be shut up, and people need to learn to live off the already installed renewable energy, and stop having kids. The problem remains consumption, and no capitalist wants to reduce consumption, they just want to turn it green.
There you go……  I didn’t even have to write a book about it.




Reading The News On America Should Scare Everyone, Every Day… But It Doesn’t

22 07 2017

Whilst this is Amero-centric, make no mistake, it also applies to Australia in bucket loads…….

Authored by Raul Ilargi Meijer via The Automatic Earth blog,

Reading the news on America should scare everyone, and every day, but it doesn’t. We’re immune, largely. Take this morning. The US Republican party can’t get its healthcare plan through the Senate. And they apparently don’t want to be seen working with the Democrats on a plan either. Or is that the other way around? You’d think if these people realize they were elected to represent the interests of their voters, they could get together and hammer out a single payer plan that is cheaper than anything they’ve managed so far. But they’re all in the pockets of so many sponsors and lobbyists they can’t really move anymore, or risk growing a conscience. Or a pair.

What we’re witnessing is the demise of the American political system, in real time. We just don’t know it. Actually, we’re witnessing the downfall of the entire western system. And it turns out the media are an integral part of that system. The reason we’re seeing it happen now is that although the narratives and memes emanating from both politics and the press point to economic recovery and a future full of hope and technological solutions to all our problems, people are not buying the memes anymore. And the people are right.

Tyler Durden ran a Credit Suisse graph overnight that should give everyone a heart attack, or something in that order. It shows that nobody’s buying stocks anymore, other than the companies who issue them. They use ultra-cheap leveraged loans to make it look like they’re doing fine. Instead of using the money/credit to invest in, well, anything, really. You can be a successful US/European company these days just by purchasing your own shares. How long for, you ask?

There Has Been Just One Buyer Of Stocks Since The Financial Crisis

 As CS’ strategist Andrew Garthwaite writes, “one of the major features of the US equity market since the low in 2009 is that the US corporate sector has bought 18% of market cap, while institutions have sold 7% of market cap.” What this means is that since the financial crisis, there has been only one buyer of stock: the companies themselves, who have engaged in the greatest debt-funded buyback spree in history.

 

 Why this rush by companies to buyback their own stock, and in the process artificially boost their Earning per Share? There is one very simple reason: as Reuters explained some time ago, “Stock buybacks enrich the bosses even when business sags.” And since bond investor are rushing over themselves to fund these buyback plans with “yielding” paper at a time when central banks have eliminated risk, who is to fault them.

More concerning than the unprecedented coordinated buybacks, however, is not only the relentless selling by institutions, but the persistent unwillingness by “households” to put any new money into the market which suggests that the financial crisis has left an entire generation of investors scarred with “crash” PTSD, and no matter what the market does, they will simply not put any further capital at risk.

So that’s your stock markets. Let’s call it bubble no.1. Another effect of ultra low rates has been the surge in housing bubbles across the western world and into China. But not everything looks as rosy as the voices claim who wish to insist there is no bubble in [inject favorite location] because of [inject rich Chinese]. You’d better get lots of those Chinese swimming in monopoly money over to your location, because your own younger people will not be buying. Says none other than the New York Fed.

Student Debt Is a Major Reason Millennials Aren’t Buying Homes

 College tuition hikes and the resulting increase in student debt burdens in recent years have caused a significant drop in homeownership among young Americans, according to new research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The study is the first to quantify the impact of the recent and significant rise in college-related borrowing—student debt has doubled since 2009 to more than $1.4 trillion—on the decline in homeownership among Americans ages 28 to 30. The news has negative implications for local economies where debt loads have swelled and workers’ paychecks aren’t big enough to counter the impact. Homebuying typically leads to additional spending—on furniture, and gardening equipment, and repairs—so the drop is likely affecting the economy in other ways.

As much as 35% of the decline in young American homeownership from 2007 to 2015 is due to higher student debt loads, the researchers estimate. The study looked at all 28- to 30-year-olds, regardless of whether they pursued higher education, suggesting that the fall in homeownership among college-goers is likely even greater (close to half of young Americans never attend college). Had tuition stayed at 2001 levels, the New York Fed paper suggests, about 360,000 additional young Americans would’ve owned a home in 2015, bringing the total to roughly 2.9 million 28- to 30-year-old homeowners. The estimate doesn’t include younger or older millennials, who presumably have also been affected by rising tuition and greater student debt levels.

Young Americans -and Brits, Dutch etc.- get out of school with much higher debt levels than previous generations, but land in jobs that pay them much less. Ergo, at current price levels they can’t afford anything other than perhaps a tiny house. Which is fine in and of itself, but who’s going to buy the existent McMansions? Nobody but the Chinese. How many of them would you like to move in? And that’s not all. Another fine report from Lance Roberts, with more excellent graphs, puts the finger where it hurts, and then twists it around in the wound a bit more:

People Buy Payments –Not Houses- & Why Rates Can’t Rise

 Over the last 30-years, a big driver of home prices has been the unabated decline of interest rates. When declining interest rates were combined with lax lending standards – home prices soared off the chart. No money down, ultra low interest rates and easy qualification gave individuals the ability to buy much more home for their money. The problem, however, is shown below. There is a LIMIT to how much the monthly payment can consume of a families disposable personal income.

 

 In 1968 the average American family maintained a mortgage payment, as a percent of real disposable personal income (DPI), of about 7%. Back then, in order to buy a home, you were required to have skin in the game with a 20% down payment. Today, assuming that an individual puts down 20% for a house, their mortgage payment would consume more than 23% of real DPI. In reality, since many of the mortgages done over the last decade required little or no money down, that number is actually substantially higher. You get the point. With real disposable incomes stagnant, a rise in interest rates and inflation makes that 23% of the budget much harder to sustain.

 

 

In 1968 Americans paid 7% of their disposable income for a house. Today that’s 23%. That’s as scary as that first graph above on the stock markets. It’s hard to say where the eventual peak will be, but it should be clear that it can’t be too far off. And Yellen and Draghi and Carney are talking about raising those rates.

What Lance is warning for, as should be obvious, is that if rates would go up at this particular point in time, even a lot less people could afford a home. If you ask me, that would not be so bad, since they grossly overpay right now, they pay full-throttle bubble prices, but the effect could be monstrous. Because not only would a lot of people be left with a lot of mortgage debt, and we’d go through the whole jingle mail circus again, yada yada, but the economy’s main source of ‘money’ would come under great pressure.

Let’s not forget that by far most of our ‘money’ is created when private banks issue loans to their customers with nothing but thin air and keyboard strokes. Mortgages are the largest of these loans. Sink the housing industry and what do you think will happen to the money supply? And since inflation is money velocity x money supply, what would become of central banks’ inflation targets? May I make a bold suggestion? Get someone a lot smarter than Janet Yellen into the Fed, on the double. Or, alternatively, audit and close the whole house of shame.

We’ve had bubbles 1, 2 and 3. Stocks, student debt and housing. Which, it turns out, interact, and a lot.

An interaction that leads seamlessly to bubble 4: subprime car loans. Mind you, don’t stare too much at the size of the bubbles, of course stocks and housing are much bigger issues, but focus instead on how they work together. As for the subprime car loans, and the subprime used car loans, it’s the similarity to the subprime housing that stands out. Like we learned nothing. Like the US has no regulators at all.

Fears Mount Over a New US Subprime Boom – Cars

It’s classic subprime: hasty loans, rapid defaults, and, at times, outright fraud. Only this isn’t the U.S. housing market circa 2007. It’s the U.S. auto industry circa 2017. A decade after the mortgage debacle, the financial industry has embraced another type of subprime debt: auto loans. And, like last time, the risks are spreading as they’re bundled into securities for investors worldwide. Subprime car loans have been around for ages, and no one is suggesting they’ll unleash the next crisis.

 But since the Great Recession, business has exploded. In 2009, $2.5 billion of new subprime auto bonds were sold. In 2016, $26 billion were, topping average pre-crisis levels, according to Wells Fargo. Few things capture this phenomenon like the partnership between Fiat Chrysler and Banco Santander. [..] Santander recently vetted incomes on fewer than one out of every 10 loans packaged into $1 billion of bonds, according to Moody’s.

If it’s alright with you, we’ll deal with the other main bubble, no.5 if you will, another time. Yeah, that would be bonds. Sovereign, corporate, junk, you name it.

The 4 bubbles we’ve seen so far are more than enough to create a huge crisis in America. Don’t want to scare you too much all at once. Just you read the news again tomorrow. There’ll be more. And the US Senate is not going to do a thing about it. They’re too busy not getting enough votes for other things.





The green car myth

28 06 2017

How government subsidies make the white elephant on your driveway look sustainable

And this comes on top of this article that describes how just making electric cars’ battery packs is equivalent to eight years worth of driving conventional happy motoring.

I have written before about the problems with bright green environmentalism. Bright greens suggest that various technological innovations will serve to reduce carbon dioxide emissions enough to avoid catastrophic global warming and other environmental problems. There are a variety of practical problems that I outlined there, including the fact that most of our economic activities are hitting physical limits to energy efficiency.

The solution lies in accepting that we can not continue to expand our economies indefinitely, without catastrophic consequences. In fact, catastrophic consequences are in all likelihood already unavoidable, if we believe the warnings of prominent climatologists who claim that a two degree temperature increase is sufficient to cause significant global problems.

It’s easy to be deceived however and assume that we are in the process of a transition towards sustainable green technologies. The problem with most green technologies is that although their implementation on a limited scale is affordable, they have insufficient scalability to enable a transition away from fossil fuels.

Part of the reason for this limited scalability is because users of “green” technology receive subsidies and do not pay certain costs which users of “grey” technology have to shoulder as a result. As an example, the Netherlands, Norway and many other nations waive a variety of taxes for green cars, taxes that are used to maintain the network of roads that these cars use. As the share of green cars rises, grey cars will be forced to shoulder increasingly higher costs to pay for the maintenance of road networks.

It’s inevitable that these subsidies will be phased out. The idea of course is that after providing an initial gentle push, the transition towards more green driving will have reached critical mass and prove itself sustainable without any further government subsidies. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to occur. We’ve seen a case study of what happens when subsidies for green technologies are phased out in Germany. After 2011, the exponential growth in solar capacity rapidly came to a stop, as new installs started to drop. By 2014, solar capacity in Germany had effectively stabilized.1 Peak capacity of solar is now impressively high, but the amount of solar energy produced varies significantly from day to day. On bad days, solar and wind hardly contribute anything to the electricity grid.

Which brings us to the subject of today’s essay: The green car. The green car has managed to hide its enormous price tag behind a variety of subsidies, dodged taxes and externalities it has imposed upon the rest of society. Let us start with the externalities. Plug-in cars put significant strain on the electrical grid. These are costs that owners of such cars don’t pay themselves. Rather, power companies become forced to make costs to improve their grid, to avoid the risk of blackouts, costs that are then passed on to all of us.

When it comes to the subsidies that companies receive to develop green cars, it’s important not just to look at the companies that are around today. This is what is called survivorship bias. We focus on people who have succeeded and decide that their actions were a good decision to take. Everyone knows about the man who became a billionare by developing Minecraft. As a result, there are droves of indie developers out there hoping to produce the next big game. In reality, most of them earn less than $500 a year from sales.2

Everyone has heard of Tesla or of Toyota’s Prius. Nobody hears of the manufacturers who failed and went bankrupt. They had to make costs too, costs that were often passed on to investors or to governments. Who remembers Vehicle Production Group, or Fisker automotive? These are companies that were handed 193 million and 50 million dollar in loans respectively by the US Federal government, money the government won’t see again because the companies went bankrupt.3 This brings the total of surviving car manufacturers who received loans from the government to three.

To make matters worse, we don’t just subsidize green car manufacturers. We subsidize just about the entire production chain that ultimately leads to a green car on your driveway. Part of the reason Fisker automotive got in trouble was because its battery manufacturer, A123 Systems, declared bankruptcy. A123 Systems went bankrupt in 2012, but not before raising 380 million dollar from investors in 2009 and receiving a 249 million dollar grant from the U. S. department of energy back in 2010.

Which brings us to a de facto subsidy that affects not just green cars, but other unsustainable projects as well: Central bank policies. When interest rates are low, investors have to start searching for yield. They tend to find themselves investing in risky ventures, that may or may not pay off. Examples are the many shale companies that are on the edge of bankruptcy today. This could have been anticipated, but the current financial climate leaves investors with little choice but to invest in such risky ventures. This doesn’t just enable the growth of a phenomenon like the shale oil industry affects green car companies as well. Would investors have poured their money into A123 Systems, if it weren’t for central bank policies? Many might have looked at safer alternatives.

One company that has benefited enormously from these policies is Tesla. In 2008, Tesla applied for a 465 million dollar loan from the Federal government. This allowed Tesla to produce its car, which then allows Tesla to raise 226 million in an IPO in June 2010, where Tesla receives cash from investors willing to invest in risky ventures as a result of central bank policies. A $7,500 tax credit then encourages sales of Tesla’s Model S, which in combination with the money raised from the IPO allows Tesla to pay off its loan early.

In 2013, Tesla then announces that it has made an 11 million dollar profit. Stock prices go through the roof, as apparently they have succeeded at the task of the daunting task of making green cars economically viable. In reality, Tesla made 68 million dollar that year selling its emission credits to other car companies, without which, Tesla would have made a loss.

Tesla in fact receives $35,000 dollar in clean air credits for every Model S that it sells to customers, which in total was estimated to amount to 250 million dollar in 2013.4 To put these numbers in perspective, buying a Model S can cost anywhere around $70,000, so if the 35,000 dollar cost was passed on to the customer, prices would rise by about 50%, not including whatever sales tax applies when purchasing a car.

We can add to all of this the 1.2 billion of subsidy in the form of tax exemptions and reduced electricity rates that Tesla receives for its battery factory in Nevada.5 The story gets even better when we arrive at green cars sold to Europe, where we find the practice of “subsidy stacking”. The Netherlands exempts green cars from a variety of taxes normally paid upon purchase. These cars are then exported to countries like Norway, where green cars don’t have to pay toll and are allowed to drive on bus lanes.6

For freelancers in the Netherlands, subsidies for electrical cars have reached an extraordinarily high level. Without the various subsidies the Dutch government created to increase the incentive to drive an electrical car, a Tesla S would cost 94.010 Euro. This is a figure that would be even higher of course, if Dutch consumers had to pay for the various subsidies that Tesla receives in the United States. After the various subsidies provided by the Dutch government for freelance workers, Dutch consumers can acquire a Tesla S at a price of just 25,059 Euro.7

The various subsidies our governments provide are subsidies we all end up paying for in one form or another. What’s clear from all these numbers however is that an electric car is currently nowhere near a state where it could compete with a gasoline powered car in a free unregulated market, on the basis of its own merit.

The image that emerges here is not one of a technology that receives a gentle nudge to help it replace the outdated but culturally entrenched technology we currently use, but rather, of a number of private companies that compete for a variety of subsidies handed out by governments who seek to plan in advance how future technology will have to look, willfully ignorant of whatever effect physical limits might have on determining which technologies are economically viable to sustain and which aren’t.

After all, if government were willing to throw enough subsidies at it, we could see NGO’s attempt to solve world hunger using caviar and truffles. It wouldn’t be sustainable in the long run, but in the short term, it would prove to be a viable solution to hunger for a significant minority of the world’s poorest. There are no physical laws that render such a solution impossible on a small scale, rather, there are economic laws related to scalability that render it impossible.

Similarly, inventing an electrical car was never the problem. In 1900, 38% of American cars ran on electricity. The reason the electrical car died out back then was because it could not compete with gasoline. Today the problem consists of how to render it economically viable and able to replace our fossil fuel based transportation system, without detrimentally affecting our standard of living.

This brings us to the other elephant, the one in our room rather than our driveway. The real problem here is that we wish to sustain a standard of living that was built with cheap natural resources that are no longer here today. Coping with looming oil shortages will mean having to take a step back. The era where every middle class family could afford to have a car is over. Governments would be better off investing in public transport and safe bicycle lanes.

The problem America faces however, is that there are cultural factors that prohibit such a transition. Ownership of a car is seen as a marker of adulthood and the type of car tells us something about a man’s social status. This is an image car manufacturers are of course all too happy to reinforce through advertising. Hence, we find a tragic example of a society that wastes its remaining resources on false solutions to the crisis it faces.


1 – http://www.ise.fraunhofer.de/en/publications/veroeffentlichungen-pdf-dateien-en/studien-und-konzeptpapiere/recent-facts-about-photovoltaics-in-germany.pdf Page 12

2 – http://www.gameskinny.com/364n3/report-most-indie-game-devs-made-less-than-500-in-game-sales-in-2013

3 – http://www.forbes.com/sites/joannmuller/2013/05/11/the-real-reason-tesla-is-still-alive-and-other-green-car-companies-arent/

4 – http://evworld.com/news.cfm?newsid=30195

5 – http://www.rgj.com/story/news/2014/09/04/nevada-strikes-billion-tax-break-deal-tesla/15096777/

6 – http://www.elsevier.nl/Economie/achtergrond/2015/4/-1742131W/

7 – https://www.cda.nl/mensen/omtzigt/blog/toon/auto-rijden-op-subsidie/





Ugo Bardi on the end of cars…..

25 05 2017

The Coming Seneca Cliff of the Automotive Industry: the Converging Effect of Disruptive Technologies and Social Factors

This graph shows the projected demise of individual car ownership in the US, according to “RethinkX”. That will lead to the demise of the automotive industry as we know it since a much smaller number of cars will be needed. If this is not a Seneca collapse, what is? 



Decades of work in research and development taught me this:

Innovation does not solve problems, it creates them. 

Which I could call “the Golden Rule of Technological Innovation.” There are so many cases of this law at work that it is hard for me to decide where I should start from. Just think of nuclear energy; do you understand what I mean? So, I am always amazed at the naive faith of some people who think that more technology will save us from the trouble created by technology (the most common mistake people make is not to learn from mistakes).

That doesn’t mean that technological research is useless; not at all. R&D can normally generate small but useful improvements to existing processes, which is what it is meant to do. But when you deal with breakthroughs, well, it is another kettle of dynamite sticks; so to say. Most claimed breakthroughs turn out to be scams (cold fusion is a good example) but not all of them. And that leads to the second rule of technological innovation:

Successful innovations are always highly disruptive

You probably know the story of the Polish cavalry charging against the German tanks during WWII. It never happened, but the phrase “fighting tanks with horses” is a good metaphor for what technological breakthroughs can do. Some innovations impose themselves, literally, by marching over the dead bodies of their opponents. Even without such extremes, when an innovation becomes a marker of social success, it can diffuse extremely fast. Do you remember the role of status symbol that cell phones played in the 1990s?

Cars are an especially good example of how social factors can affect and amplify the effects of innovation. I discussed in a previous post on Cassandra’s Legacy how cars became the prime marker of social status in the West in the 1950s, becoming the bloated and inefficient objects we know today. They had a remarkable effect on society, creating the gigantic suburbs of today’s cities where life without a personal car is nearly impossible.

But the great wheel of technological innovation keeps turning and it is soon going to make individual cars as obsolete as would be wearing coats made of home-tanned bear skins. It is, again, the combination of technological innovation and socioeconomic factors creating a disruptive effect. For one thing, private car ownership is rapidly becoming too expensive for the poor. At the same time, the combination of global position systems (GPS), smartphones, and autonomous driving technologies makes possible a kind of “transportation on demand” or “transportation as a service” (TAAS) that was unthinkable just a decade ago. Electric cars are especially suitable (although not critically necessary) for this kind of transportation. In this scheme, all you need to do to get a transportation service is to push a button on your smartphone and the vehicle you requested will silently glide in front of you to take you wherever you want. (*)

The combination of these factors is likely to generate an unstoppable and disruptive social phenomenon. Owning a car will be increasingly seen as passé, whereas using the latest TAAS gadgetry will be seen as cool. People will scramble to get rid of their obsolete, clumsy, and unfashionable cars and move to TAAS. Then, TAAS can also play the role of social filter: with the ongoing trends of increasing social inequality, the poor will be able to use it only occasionally or not at all. The rich, instead, will use it to show that they can and that they have access to credit. Some TAAS services will be exclusive, just as some hotels and resorts are. Some rich people may still own cars as a hobby, but that wouldn’t change the trend.

To have some idea of what a TAAS-based world can be, you might read Hemingway’s “Movable Feast”, a story set in Paris in the 1920s. There, Hemingway describes how the rich Americans in Paris wouldn’t normally even dream of owning a car (**). Why should they have, while when they could simply ride the local taxis at a price that, for them, was a trifle? It was an early form of TAAS. Most of the Frenchmen living in Paris couldn’t afford that kind of easygoing life and that established an effective social barrier between the haves and the have-nots.

As usual, of course, the future is difficult to predict. But something that we can say about the future is that when changes occur, they occur fast. In this case, the end result of the development of individual TAAS will be the rapid collapse of the automotive industry as we know it: a much smaller number of vehicles will be needed and they won’t need to be of the kind that the present automotive industry can produce. This phenomenon has been correctly described by “RethinkX,” even though still within a paradigm of growth. In practice, the transition is likely to be even more rapid and brutal than what the RethinkX team propose. For the automotive industry, there applies the metaphor of “fighting tanks with horses.”

The demise of the automotive industry is an example of what I called the “Seneca Effect.” When some technology or way of life becomes obsolete and unsustainable, it tends to collapse very fast. Look at the data for the world production of motor vehicles, below (image from Wikipedia). We are getting close to producing a hundred million of them per year. If the trend continues, during the next ten years we’ll have produced a further billion of them. Can you really imagine that it would be possible? There is a Seneca Cliff waiting for the automotive industry.

(*) If the trend of increasing inequality continues, autonomous driven cars are not necessary. Human drivers would be inexpensive enough for the minority of rich people who can afford to hire them.

(**) Scott Fitzgerald, the author of “The Great Gatsby” is reported to have owned a car while living in France, but that was mainly an eccentricity.





CARS: the video……..

12 05 2014

Whilst interesting, this video shows how many resources are needed to build the world’s cars, and associated emissions.  It assumes car numbers will grow to 2050 (we of course know better than that!) and does not take into account the possibilities of the growth in EVs in the future.

EVs actually need more resources than conventional cars, mainly because of the batteries, but also they need bigger tyres to deal with the extra weight.  The emissions caused by future cars are of course totally imaginary, there will be NO cars in 2050…….  but it’s still worth watching.





The 5 key elements of sustainable transport

13 04 2014

The 5 key elements of sustainable transport, or rather ‘so called’ sustainable transport makes for interesting reading.  Some of this info doesn’t really make much sense to me…. like the C intensity of different flights (business and economy, short and long) as a function of emissions per kilometre.

Interestingly, the difference between a ‘small car’ (a car that can only do 35MPG is NOT a small car!  But then, this is written in/for the USA….) and a grid charged electric car is only 15g CO2e/km, or just 9%.  By that measure, the Suzuki Alto I drove in Tasmania emits far less than an electric car, unless that car is 100% solar recharged.  And then I’m doubtful, because since we now know solar has a shockingly low ERoEI, it might be even closer than we think.  I’m also surprised cycling’s numbers are as high as they are shown here.  Does a cyclist really consume a whole lot more food than a motorist?

The article also states “People who live in cities have lower transport emissions.  Fuel economy may be lower in city traffic but that is more than made up for by the fact that city dwellers drive far less.”  Well that depends……  since moving from the city to the country, I’ve actually halved how much I drive!  Then it continues with “In 1950 less than 30% of the world’s population lived in cites, by 2010 that figure was over 50%, and by 2030 it is expected to surpass 60%. This natural trend to urbanization is a huge opportunity to for lowering both distance travelled per person and the carbon intensity of that travel.”  Whoever wrote this has obviously no idea cities will eventually be abandoned for being too far from their food sources, and due to the fact that when grids go down, none of the lifts will work!  Nor the sewerage……..

Shrink That Footprint

sustainabletransport

Transport is responsible for around a seventh of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Of these emissions almost two thirds are the result of passenger travel while the rest is due to freight.

So passenger travel is a big deal for climate.

In the chart above, which comes from our new eBook Emit This, we compare carbon intensity of different types of passenger transport on a per passenger kilometre basis.  Using it we can explain some elements important to the development of a sustainable transport system.

1) Fuel Economy

Our chart today compares the carbon intensity of different transport modes, per passenger kilometre.  The better fuel economy gets the lower emissions go.  If you just look at the cars you’ll see the large car (15 MPG) has emissions almost three times that of the hybrid car (45 MPG).

By improving fuel economy we can get the same mileage while generating fewer emissions.  Something that is achieved by making engines more efficient, vehicles lighter and bodies more aerodynamic.  But even then combustion engines remain relatively inefficient and produce emissions at the tailpipe, so improving them is really just a stop-gap en-route to sustainable transport.

2) Occupancy

The cheapest and simplest way to lower the carbon intensity of a passenger kilometre is to stick more people in the vehicle.  In each of the figures above car occupancy is assumed to be an average of 1.6 passengers (including the driver).  But most cars are designed for 5 people.

If you take a look at the bus examples the importance of occupancy becomes even more stark.  The local bus example has emissions seven times higher than the school bus.  While there routes may vary a little they are both diesel buses.  The main difference is that the school bus has very high occupancy.

With notable exception of flying public transport tends to have quite low carbon emissions, due largely to having relatively high occupancy.

3) Electrification

In the absence of breakthroughs in second generation biofuels electrification is the most important pathway to low carbon transport.

Electric cars using low carbon power have footprints less than half that of the best hybrid, even after you account for their larger manufacturing footprint.  Right down the bottom of our chart is the high-speed EuroStar rail which used low carbon French electricity. Though not on our chart the lowest carbon transport on earth is probably electrified public transport in a place like Norway where electricity generation is almost carbon free.

While there is a natural tendency to obsess about the electrification of cars, there are lots of interesting innovations occurring in the electrification  of rail, motorbikes, scooters and bikes.

4) Pedal power

They may be a bit low tech for some, but when it comes to carbon emissions bicycles are pretty cutting edge.  Even when you account for the foodprint of excess energy used when cycling, the humble bike is incredibly low carbon.

Bikes have obvious limitations around speed and distance, but for short trips in places with good infrastructure they are hard to beat in terms of carbon. They also have a great synergy with public transport systems like intercity rail.

5) Urbanization

Each of the first four elements we have described above refers to improving the carbon intensity of transport.  But emissions are a function of both how we travel and how far we travel.  One thing that tackles both of these issues is the trend towards urbanization.

People who live in cities have lower transport emissions.  Fuel economy may be lower in city traffic but that is more than made up for by the fact that city dwellers drive far less.  Electrification of public transport is more economic and practical in cities.  Occupancy on public transport systems is much higher.  And access to infrastructure for both cycling and walking is often better.

In 1950 less than 30% of the world’s population lived in cites, by 2010 that figure was over 50%, and by 2030 it is expected to surpass 60%. This natural trend to urbanization is a huge opportunity to for lowering both distance travelled per person and the carbon intensity of that travel.

Those are our five elements of sustainable transport: fuel economy, occupancy, electrification, pedal power and urbanization.

Check out our free new eBook Emit This for more ideas on getting more life out of less carbon.

Source: Shrink That Footprint. Reproduced with permission.