The Hopium of the people

8 11 2018

The Consciousness of Sheep has published another important article. I first came across the impossibility of carbon capture and storage as a silver bullet for ‘solving’ climate change while listening to Kevin Anderson speaking on the matter…….  he says CCS is assumed to work in the future and adopted in ALL of the IPCC’s scenario, even the bleakest 6-8 degrees C rise by 2100. Yet, not one single attempt at this technology has come close to working or being economically viable. And it won’t because it’s literally the stupidest idea yet, even if George Monbiot’s latest garbage comes a close second….

It was this realisation that eventually drove me to accepting nothing but de-industrialisation would save us now…….


If it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is.  That, at least, is the approach I’m taking to the flurry of crowd-funder videos currently doing the rounds on social media, promoting technologies that suck carbon out of the atmosphere.  As with a raft of other faux-green technologies that were hawked around social media, like solar roadways, waterseers and hyperloops, the machine that can suck carbon dioxide out of the air will never fulfill its promise.

To understand why, consider that the atmosphere is very big – roughly 5.5 quadrillion tons of gas.  But the carbon dioxide content is very small – just over 405 parts per million.  And humans release around 40 billion tons of the stuff every year.  So any machine that is going to attempt the task – even assuming 100 percent efficiency – would need to hoover up 2,470 tons of atmosphere to capture just 1 ton of carbon dioxide; and it would have to do this roughly a thousand times a second to keep up with our ongoing emissions.


Even when fitted to chimneys – where the carbon dioxide is at least concentrated – carbon capture technologies have proved excessively expensive in both financial and energy terms.  There is little point deploying technologies that are so energy-intensive that they themselves depend upon fossil fuels to power them.  However, this issue pales into insignificance when compared to the difficulty of storing any carbon dioxide that is captured.  As Kevin Bullis warned a few years ago in MIT Technology Review:

“Even if costs are made far lower than they are today, the impact of carbon capture will be limited by the sheer scale of infrastructure needed to store carbon dioxide… Vaclav Smil, a professor at University of Manitoba and master of sobering energy-related numbers, calculates that if we were to bury just one-fifth of the global carbon dioxide emissions, we would need to build an industry capable of handling twice the volume of stuff as the entire oil industry, an industry that took 100 years to develop, driven by a large and mostly expanding market.”

Selling captured carbon might provide a means of financing some limited deployment of carbon capture technology.  However, as Bullis notes, ironically:

“One market is for enhanced oil recovery; that is, injecting carbon dioxide into oil wells to increase the amount of oil they can produce. The carbon dioxide would stay underground. In some cases, this technique could double the amount of oil that comes out of a well. And, of course, burning that oil emits a fair amount of carbon dioxide.”

One reason why so many of us might be prepared to stump up the cash to fund carbon capture technologies – both those hawked around social media and those on laboratory benches in our universities – is that the alternative is too bleak to face up to.  As Mayer Hillman at the Guardian notes:

“There are three options in tackling climate change. Only one will work… the first and only effective course, albeit a deeply unpopular one, would be to stop using any fossil fuels. The second would be to voluntarily minimise their use as much as climate scientists have calculated would deliver some prospect of success. Finally, we can carry on as we are by aiming to meet the growth in demand for activities dependent on fossil fuels, allowing market forces to mitigate the problems that such a course of action generates – and leave it to the next generation to set in train realistic solutions (if that is possible), that the present one has been unable to find…”

The stark reality, of course is that “we” are not going to do anything about climate change.  This is because – in the US, UK and EU where lifestyles will need to change the most – there is no “we,” but rather an increasingly polarised “us” and “them.”  Andy Stone at Forbes alludes to this when he says:

“Summing up, the path to least climate impact will require nations to work together to cut global carbon emissions by 45% in just over a decade.”

“Such a cut in emissions will require an unprecedented degree of political will and global cooperation…

“Yet, despite the major political barriers to dramatic near-term emissions cuts, a terrifying realization is that such action is, in fact, the most realistic option available to hold climate change in check. Of the climate action pathways modeled by the IPCC, the scenario that requires boldest action in the near term is the only one that doesn’t also require a leap of faith that a suite of uneconomic, logistically challenging, and ultimately unproven negative emissions technologies will in fact deliver us from our collective peril.”

In more egalitarian societies in which the gap between rich and poor is narrower, an “unprecedented degree of political will” might be possible.  However, after decades of neoliberal politics and economics, only massive sacrifices on the part of the very wealthy are likely to prevent a further drift toward a climate change denying populism among the majority of impoverished citizens.  Speaking to the likelihood of the affluent making such sacrifices, Hillman points out that:

“Remarkably, public expectations about the future indicate that only minor changes in the carbon-based aspects of our lifestyles are anticipated. It is as if people can continue to believe that they have an inalienable right to travel as far and as frequently as they can afford. Indeed, there is a widespread refusal by politicians to admit to the fact the process of melting ice caps contributing to sea level rises, and permafrost thawing in tundra regions cannot now be stopped, let alone reversed.”

Even those – like Hillman and Stone – who have dropped the techno-rose-tinted glasses and acknowledged the huge changes to our lifestyles that are needed to reverse the climate damage that has already been done are oblivious to the consequences of that change.  More than six out of every seven people alive today only exist because of the Haber–Bosch process that produces synthetic ammonia (fertiliser) from fossil fuels.  Any genuine effort at reversing climate change had to have as its starting point a reduction in the human population at least to the level prior to the (industrial agriculture) “Green Revolution;” less than half of today’s population.  Instead – with a great deal of help from religions that implore us to go forth and multiply, and economists that need a new base for the global Ponzi scheme – we have grown our population as fast as agricultural productivity has improved.

Comic actor/director Woody Allen summed up our predicament thus:

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other to total extinction.  Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

The choice before us is that we can take action to reverse climate change and a lot of people are going to die.  Alternatively, we can do nothing about climate change and a lot of people are going to die.  And since nobody has the wisdom or the bravery to make that choice, we can all sit around pretending that some incredibly implausible technology is going to come riding to our rescue… the opium of the people indeed.


It’s going to require something drastic……

30 10 2018

Like…..  maybe…..  DE-INDUSTRIALIZATION?

Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children

30 10 2018

Most people think that selling your car, avoiding flights and going vegetarian are the best strategies for fighting climate change, but in fact, according to a study into true impacts of different green lifestyle choices, having fewer children beats all those actions by a very long margin…….

I’ve been saying this for years and years, but the graphic below might just about convince anyone……..

The greatest impact individuals can have in fighting climate change is to have one fewer child, according to a new study that identifies the most effective ways people can cut their carbon emissions.

The next best actions are selling your car, avoiding long flights, and eating a vegetarian diet. These reduce emissions many times more than common green activities, such as recycling, using low energy light bulbs or drying washing on a line. However, the high impact actions are rarely mentioned in government advice and school textbooks, researchers found.

Carbon emissions must fall to two tonnes of CO2 per person by 2050 to avoid severe global warming, but in the US and Australia emissions are currently 16 tonnes per person and in the UK seven tonnes. “That’s obviously a really big change and we wanted to show that individuals have an opportunity to be a part of that,” said Kimberly Nicholas, at Lund University in Sweden and one of the research team.

The new study, published in Environmental Research Letters, sets out the impact of different actions on a comparable basis. By far the biggest ultimate impact is having one fewer child, which the researchers calculated equated to a reduction of 58 tonnes of CO2 for each year of a parent’s life.

The figure was calculated by totting up the emissions of the child and all their descendants, then dividing this total by the parent’s lifespan. Each parent was ascribed 50% of the child’s emissions, 25% of their grandchildren’s emissions and so on.

The graphic shows how much CO2 can be saved through a range of different actions.
fewer children

“We recognise these are deeply personal choices. But we can’t ignore the climate effect our lifestyle actually has,” said Nicholas. “It is our job as scientists to honestly report the data. Like a doctor who sees the patient is in poor health and might not like the message ‘smoking is bad for you’, we are forced to confront the fact that current emission levels are really bad for the planet and human society.”

Besides, who in their right mind would want to bring children into this dysfunctional world? Oh wait……  nobody is in their right mind!

World’s first multi-million dollar carbon-capture plant does work of just $17,640 worth of trees

30 04 2018

This is a shortened and reworded version of the original article.  Obviously, since we’re at the peak of global fossil fuel production, when the plateau ends sometime between now and 2025 and production declines exponentially, greenhouse gas emissions will start to drop dramatically as well. Meanwhile, transportation, supply chains, diesel engines, blast furnaces, the chemical industry (500,000 products made with and OF fossil fuels), are utterly dependent on petroleum. We simply can’t kick the fossil fuel habit no matter how much we’d like to since there are no commercially viable alternatives (I explain why in my book: “When Trucks Stop Running”).

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical PreppingKunstlerCast 253KunstlerCast278Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Editorial Staff. June 2, 2017. World’s First Multi-Million Dollar Carbon-Capture Plant Does Work Of Just $17,640 Worth Of Trees—It’s The “Worst Investment In Human History. National Economics.

On May 31st the world’s first commercial carbon dioxide capture-plant was opened in Hinwil, Switzerland.  It’s designed and operated by a Swiss company called Climeworks, and uses a modular design that can be scaled up over time.

The company says that the plant will remove 900 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year by passing it through a special filter that isolates carbon dioxide molecules.

What will happen to all of this carbon dioxide?

Some of it will be cycled into nearby greenhouses to help the plants grow and some to use in carbonated beverages, the rest underground.

The company says their technology could be used to stop climate change.

They estimate that 250,000 such plants would be necessary to capture enough carbon to meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change‘s goals of capturing 1% of global emissions by 2025.

Why would anyone do this when you could plant beautiful trees instead, trees that provide shade and fruits, as well as take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and replace it with breathable oxygen?  Trees are really good at this. It only takes an average of 98 trees to remove 1 ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year.

That means that this plant is worth only 88,200 trees per year — and really more than that if you add in the enormous carbon and energy footprint for the fabrication of all the parts.

We can’t compare the costs of Climeworks “solution” to trees, because Climeworks doesn’t state the cost of their plant on their website—probably because it’s egregiously high.

But we do know the cost of planting trees.  You can sponsor charities to plant trees for you at 20 cents per tree.

We probably don’t even need to plant more trees, we just need to stop cutting them down to make room for new development and ranch land—better land management is actually our cheapest, and most effective option at preserving the environment.

Changing the conversation

8 12 2017

I have to say I have been baffled by some of the comments readers of this blog have left behind when I challenged the sustainability of planting a wind farm in the middle of nowhere in Australia’s outback…… well my friends, I am no longer the only one voicing the need for de-industrialisation. This piece from Resilience dot org, by Richard Smith, and originally published by Common Dreams and another I will soon also republish agree with me.  The time to add ANY MORE CO2 to the air is over…


For far too long, polite conversation, public debate and consideration of policy initiatives have been subordinated to the imperatives of capitalist reproduction, above all profit maximization. Profit maximization and job creation go hand in hand and crucially depend upon economic growth. All “reasonable” solutions to the crisis of global warming take that as their starting point, a fundamental principle that cannot be challenged. This is the unspoken premise of carbon taxes: Carbon taxes do not threaten growth. They’re simply another cost of doing business, another tax which moreover can be passed along to consumers. This is why ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and most big fossil fuel companies support carbon taxes as the lesser evil (cap and trade is the greater evil precisely because a cap would threaten growth, which is why cap and trade are not acceptable to business and why such schemes have all been either rejected outright as in the United States or so watered down as to be useless charades as in Europe, British Columbia and elsewhere). The oil companies are not looking to put themselves out of business. Industry and IEA studies project that global demand for fossil fuels will rise by 40% over the next few decades and the oil companies intend to cash in on this growth. To do so they need to deflect criticism by being good citizens, paying their carbon taxes, contributing to the “solution” or at least appearing to do so.

The problem is, we live in an economy built on perpetual growth but we live on a finite planet with limited resources and sinks. To date, all efforts to “green” capitalism have foundered on this fundamental contradiction: maximizing profit and saving the planet are inherently in conflict and cannot be systematically aligned even if, here and there, they might coincide for a moment. That’s because under capitalism, CEOs and corporate boards are not responsible to society, they’re responsible to private shareholders. CEOs can embrace environmentalism when it boosts profits, as with energy efficiency, recycling, and new “green” products and the like. But saving the world requires that the pursuit of profits be systematically subordinated to ecological concerns—and this they cannot do. No corporate board can sacrifice earnings, let alone put itself out of business, just to save the humans because to do so would be to risk shareholder flight or worse. Profit-maximization is an iron rule of capitalism, a rule that trumps all else, and this sets the limits to ecological reform within capitalism—and not the other way around as the promoters of “green capitalism” imagined.

To save the humans we know we have to drastically cut fossil fuel consumption. But “Keep It in the Ground” is not just an abstraction and not just about future supplies. If we’re going to radically suppress fossil fuel consumption in the here and now as we must, then this has to translate into drastic retrenchments and closures of industrial plants across the economy—and not just of coal mines, oil and gas companies but all the fossil fuel dependent industries: autos, trucking, petrochemical industries, airlines, shipping, construction and more.

What’s more, the global ecological crisis we face is far bigger than just fossil fuels. We’re not just overconsuming fossil fuels. We’re overconsuming every resource on the planet, driving ourselves and countless other species to extinction. Ultimately, if we really want to save the planet, we’re going to have to shut down or at least drastically retrench all kinds of resource-hogging, polluting, unnecessary, unsustainable industries and companies from fossil fuels to bottled water, from disposable products to agrichemicals, plastic junk to military weapons of destruction.

Take just one: Cruise ships are the fastest growing sector of mass tourism on the planet. But they are by far the most polluting tourist indulgence ever invented: Large ships can burn more than 150 tons of the filthiest diesel bunker fuel per day, spewing out more fumes—and far more toxic fumes—than 5 million cars, polluting entire regions, the whole of southern Europe – and all this to ferry a few thousand boozy passengers about bashing coral reefs. There is just no way this industry can be made sustainable. The cost of the ticket for that party boat cruise is our children. The same can be said for dozens if not hundreds of industries, thousands of companies around the world. We can save these industries, save capitalism, or we can save the planet. We can’t save both.

Needless to say, retrenching and closing down such industries would mean job losses, millions of job losses from here to China (pdf).  Yet if we don’t shut down those unsustainable industries we’re doomed. What to do? There’s no point in chanting “Keep It in the Ground” if we don’t have a jobs program for all those workers whose jobs need to be excessed to save those workers’ children and ours. This is our dilemma.

Planned, managed deindustrialization or unplanned, chaotic ecological collapse

Capitalism cannot solve this problem because no company can promise new jobs to unemployed coal miners, oil-drillers, automakers, airline pilots, chemists, plastic junk makers, and others whose jobs would be lost because their industries would have to be retrenched—and unemployed workers don’t pay taxes. So CEOs, workers, and governments find that they all “need” to maximize growth, overconsumption, even pollution, to destroy their children’s tomorrows to hang onto their jobs today. Thus we’re all onboard the high-speed train of ravenous and ever-growing plunder and pollution.

And as our locomotive races toward the cliff of ecological collapse, the only thoughts on the minds of our CEOS, capitalist economists, politicians and labor leaders is how to stoke the locomotive to get us there faster. Professor Fong is right: Corporations aren’t necessarily evil. They just can’t help themselves. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do for the benefit of their owners. But this means that so long as the global economy is based on capitalist private/corporate property and competitive production for market, we’re doomed to collective social suicide and no amount of tinkering with the market can brake the drive to global ecological collapse.

We can’t shop our way to sustainability because the problems we face cannot be solved by individual choices in the marketplace. They require collective democratic control over the economy to prioritize the needs of society and the environment. And they require local, national, regional and international economic planning to re-organize our economies, to provide new jobs to replace those jobs we need to abolish, and to rationally and fairly redeploy resources to those ends. In a paper I wrote for The Next System Project last year—”Six Theses on Saving the Planet—I laid out my argument for ecosocialism as the only alternative to market-driven ecological collapse in the form of six theses:

  1. Capitalism, not population is the main driver of planetary ecological collapse and it cannot be reformed enough to save the humans.
  2. Green capitalism can’t save us because companies can’t commit economic suicide to save the humans. There’s just no solution to our crisis within the framework of any conceivable capitalism.
  3. The only alternative to market-driven ecological collapse is to transition to some sort of mostly planned, mostly publicly owned economy based on a global ‘contraction and convergence’ around a sustainable level of resource consumption that can provide a dignified living standard for all the world’s peoples while leaving enough for future generations and other species.
  4. Rational planning requires bottom-up democracy.
  5. Democracy requires rough socioeconomic equality – which requires that we abolish extreme differences in incomes and wealth and enforce those rights already in theory guaranteed to us in the Universal Declaration of Rights (1949) including the right to work at fair compensation, the right to equal employment, the right to adequate food, housing, medical care, education, social services, and a comfortable retirement.
  6. Far from “austerity,” an ecosocialist future offers us liberation from the treadmill of consumerism, from the fetishism of commodities. Freeing ourselves from the toil of producing unnecessary and /or harmful products and services would free us to shorten the work day, to enjoy the leisure promised but never delivered by capitalism, to redefine the meaning of the standard of living to connote a way of life that is actually richer, while consuming less, to realize the fullest potential of every human being. This is the emancipatory promise of ecosocialism.

For some readers, my arguments may raise as many questions as they answer. Fine. But if we don’t change the conversation, if we don’t deal with the systemic problems of capitalism and come up with a viable alternative, our goose is cooked.  So if not ecosocialism, then what? This is the public debate we need to be having right now. What are your thoughts?

One of my Facebook allies has written a reply of sorts to this article, because we both agree it doesn’t really go quite far enough……  some of us are true radicals…! I will post Saral’s essay soon.  Mike.

Why I am a double atheist

28 11 2017

For years and years – at least 15 – I argued with Dave Kimble over his notion that solar energy production was growing far too fast to be sustainable, let alone reduce greenhouse emissions.  I eventually had to relent and agree with him, he had a keener eye for numbers than me, and he was way better with spreadsheets!

The whole green technology thing has become a religion. I know, I used to have the faith too….. but now, as you might know if you’ve been ‘here’ long enough, I neither believe in god nor green tech!

This article – to which you will have to go to for the references – landed in my newsfeed…….  and lo and behold, it says exactly the same thing Dave was saying all those years ago…….:

How Sustainable is PV solar power?

How sustainable is pv solar power

Picture: Jonathan Potts.

It’s generally assumed that it only takes a few years before solar panels have generated as much energy as it took to make them, resulting in very low greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional grid electricity.

However, a more critical analysis shows that the cumulative energy and CO2 balance of the industry is negative, meaning that solar PV has actually increased energy use and greenhouse gas emissions instead of lowering them.

The problem is that we use and produce solar panels in the wrong places. By carefully selecting the location of both manufacturing and installation, the potential of solar power could be huge.

There’s nothing but good news about solar energy these days. The average global price of PV panels has plummeted by more than 75% since 2008, and this trend is expected to continue in the coming years, though at a lower rate. [1-2] According to the 2015 solar outlook by investment bank Deutsche Bank, solar systems will be at grid parity in up to 80% of the global market by the end of 2017, meaning that PV electricity will be cost-effective compared to electricity from the grid. [3-4]

Lower costs have spurred an increase in solar PV installments. According to the Renewables 2014 Global Status Report, a record of more than 39 gigawatt (GW) of solar PV capacity was added in 2013, which brings total (peak) capacity worldwide to 139 GW at the end of 2013. While this is not even enough to generate 1% of global electricity demand, the growth is impressive. Almost half of all PV capacity in operation today was added in the past two years (2012-2013). [5] In 2014, an estimated 45 GW was added, bringing the total to 184 GW. [6] [4].

Solar PV total global capacitySolar PV total global capacity, 2004-2013. Source: Renewables 2014 Global Status Report.

Meanwhile, solar cells are becoming more energy efficient, and the same goes for the technology used to manufacture them. For example, the polysilicon content in solar cells — the most energy-intensive component — has come down to 5.5-6.0 grams per watt peak (g/wp), a number that will further decrease to 4.5-5.0 g/wp in 2017. [2] Both trends have a positive effect on the sustainability of solar PV systems. According to the latest life cycle analyses, which measure the environmental impact of solar panels from production to decommission, greenhouse gas emissions have come down to around 30 grams of CO2-equivalents per kilwatt-hour of electricity generated (gCO2e/kWh), compared to 40-50 grams of CO2-equivalents ten years ago. [7-11] [12]

According to these numbers, electricity generated by photovoltaic systems is 15 times less carbon-intensive than electricity generated by a natural gas plant (450 gCO2e/kWh), and at least 30 times less carbon-intensive than electricity generated by a coal plant (+1,000 gCO2e/kWh). The most-cited energy payback times (EPBT) for solar PV systems are between one and two years. It seems that photovoltaic power, around since the 1970s, is finally ready to take over the role of fossil fuels.

BUT the bit that caught my eye was this…..:

A life cycle analysis that takes into account the growth rate of solar PV is called a “dynamic” life cycle analysis, as opposed to a “static” LCA, which looks only at an individual solar PV system. The two factors that determine the outcome of a dynamic life cycle analysis are the growth rate on the one hand, and the embodied energy and carbon of the PV system on the other hand. If the growth rate or the embodied energy or carbon increases, so does the “erosion” or “cannibalization” of the energy and CO2 savings made due to the production of newly installed capacity. [16]

For the deployment of solar PV systems to grow while remaining net greenhouse gas mitigators, they must grow at a rate slower than the inverse of their CO2 payback time. [19] For example, if the average energy and CO2 payback times of a solar PV system are four years and the industry grows at a rate of 25%, no net energy is produced and no greenhouse gas emissions are offset. [19] If the growth rate is higher than 25%, the aggregate of solar PV systems actually becomes a net CO2 and energy sink. In this scenario, the industry expands so fast that the energy savings and GHG emissions prevented by solar PV systems are negated to fabricate the next wave of solar PV systems. [20]

Which is precisely what Dave Kimble was saying more than ten years ago.  To see his charts and download his spreadsheet, go to this post.

His conclusions are that “We have been living in an era of expanding energy availability, but Peak Oil and the constraints of Global Warming mean we are entering a new era of energy scarcity. In the past, you could always get the energy you wanted by simply paying for it. From here on, we are going to have to be very careful about how we allocate energy, because not only is it going to be very expensive, it will mean that someone else will have to do without. For the first time, ERoEI is going to be critically important to what we choose to do. If this factor is ignored, we will end up spending our fossil energy on making solar energy, which only makes Global Warming worse in the short to medium term.”


The model is broken…..

22 11 2017

This amazing article was originally published here…….


For a long time now, “sustainable development” has been the fashionable economic objective, the Holy Grail for anyone aiming to achieve economic growth without inducing catastrophic climate degradation. This has become the default position for two, very obvious reasons. First, no politician wants to tell his electorate that growth is over (even in countries where, very clearly, prosperity is now in decline). Second, policymakers prepared to invite ridicule by denying the reality of climate change are thin on the ground.

Accordingly, “sustainable development” has become a political article of faith. The approach seems to be to assume that sustainable development is achievable, and use selective data to prove it.

Where this comfortable assumption is concerned, this discussion is iconoclastic. Using the tools of Surplus Energy Economics, it concludes that the likelihood of achieving sustainable development is pretty low. Rather, it agrees with distinguished scientist James Lovelock in his observation that sustainable retreat might be the best we can expect.

This site is dedicated to the critical relationship between energy and economics, but this should never blind us to the huge threat posed by climate change. There seems no convincing reason to doubt either the reality of climate change science or the role that emissions (most obviously of CO²) are playing in this process. As well as counselling sustainable retreat, James Lovelock might be right, too, in characterising the earth as a system capable of self-regeneration so long as its regenerative capabilities are not tested too far.

False comfort

Economics is central to this debate. Here, comparing 2016 with 2001, are some of the figures involved;

Real GDP, 2016 values in PPP dollars:

2001: $73 trillion. 2016: $120tn (+65%)

Energy consumption, tonnes of oil equivalent:

2001: 9.5bn toe. 2016: 13.3bn toe (+40%)

Emissions of CO², tonnes:

2001: 24.3bn t. 2016: 33.4bn t (+37%)

If we accept these figures as accurate, each tonne of CO² emissions in 2001 was associated with $2,990 of GDP. By 2016, that number had risen to $3,595. Put another way, 17% less CO² was emitted for each $1 of GDP. By the same token, the quantity of energy required for each dollar of GDP declined by 15% over the same period.

This is the critical equation supporting the plausibility of “sustainable growth”. If we have really shown that we can deliver successive reductions in CO² emissions per dollar of GDP, we have options.

One option is to keep CO2 levels where they are now, yet still grow the economy. Another is to keep the economy where it is now and reduce CO2 emissions. A third is to seek a “goldilocks” permutation, both growing the economy and reducing emissions at the same time.

Obviously, the generosity of these choices depends on how rapidly we can continue our progress on the efficiency curve. Many policymakers, being pretty simple people, probably use the “fool’s guideline” of extrapolation – ‘if we’ve achieved 17% progress over the past fifteen years’, they conclude, ‘then we can expect a further 17% improvement over the next fifteen’.

Pretty lies

But what if the apparent ‘progress’ is illusory? The emissions numbers used as the denominator in the equation can be taken as accurate, as can the figures for energy consumption. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the economic numerator. As so often, we are telling ourselves comforting untruths about the way in which the world economy is behaving.

This issue is utterly critical for the cause of “sustainable development”, whose plausibility rests entirely on the numbers used to calculate recent trends.

And there are compelling reasons for suspecting the validity of GDP numbers.

For starters, apparent “growth” in economic output seems counter-intuitive. According to recorded numbers for per capita GDP, the average American was 6% better off in 2016 than in 2006, and the average Briton was 3% more prosperous. These aren’t big numbers, to be sure, but they are positive, suggesting improvement, not deterioration. Moreover, there was a pretty big slump in the early part of that decade. Adjustment for this has been used to suggest that people are growing more prosperous at rates faster than the trailing-10-year per capita GDP numbers indicate.

Yet the public don’t buy into the thesis of “you’ve never had it so good”. Indeed, it isn’t possible reconcile GDP numbers with popular perception. People feel poorer now than they did in 2006, not richer. That’s been a powerful contributing factor to Americans electing Donald Trump, and British voters opting for “Brexit”, crippling Theresa May’s administration and turning in large numbers to Jeremy Corbyn’s collectivist agenda. Much the same can be said of other developed economies, including France (where no established party made it to the second round of presidential voting) and Italy (where a referendum overwhelmingly rejected reforms proposed by the then-government).

Ground-level data suggests that the popular perception is right, and the per capita GDP figures are wrong. The cost of household essentials has outpaced both incomes and general inflation over the past decade. Levels of both household and government debt are far higher now than they were back in 2006. Perhaps worst of all – ‘though let’s not tell the voters’ – pension provision has been all but destroyed.

The pension catastrophe has been attested by a report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), and has been discussed here in a previous article. It is a topic to which we shall return in this discussion.

The mythology of “growth”

If we understand what really has been going on, we can conclude that, where prosperity is concerned, the popular perception is right, meaning that the headline GDP per capita numbers must be misleading. Here is the true story of “growth” since the turn of the century.

Between 2001 and 2016, recorded GDP grew by 65%, adding $47tn to output. Over the same period, however, and measured in constant 2016 PPP dollars, debt increased by $135tn (108%), meaning that each $1 of recorded growth came at a cost of $2.85 in net new borrowing.

This ratio has worsened successively, mainly because emerging market economies (EMEs), and most obviously China, have been borrowing at rates far larger than growth, a vice previously confined to the developed West.

This relationship between borrowing and growth makes it eminently reasonable to conclude that much of the apparent “growth” has, in reality, been nothing more substantial than the spending of borrowed money. Put another way, we have been boosting “today” by plundering “tomorrow”, hardly an encouraging practice for anyone convinced by “sustainable development” (or, for that matter, sustainable anything).

Nor is this all. Since the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008, we have witnessed the emergence of enormous shortfalls in society’s provision for retirement. According to the WEF study of eight countries – America, Australia, Britain, Canada, China, India, Japan and the Netherlands – pension provision was deficient by $67tn in 2015, a number set to reach $428tn (at constant values) by 2050.

Though the study covers just eight countries, the latter number dwarfs current GDP for the entire world economy ($120tn PPP). The aggregate eight-country number is worsening by $28bn per day. In the United States alone, the annual deterioration is $3tn, equivalent to 16% of GDP and, incidentally, roughly five times what America spends on defence. Moreover, these ratios seem certain to worsen, for pension gaps are increasing at annual rates far in excess of actual or even conceivable economic growth.

For the world as a whole, the equivalent of the eight-country number is likely to be about $124tn. This is a huge increase since 2008, because the major cause of the pensions gap has been the returns-destroying policy of ultra-cheap money, itself introduced in 2008-09 as a response to the debt mountain which created the GFC. Finally, on the liabilities side, is interbank or ‘financial sector’ debt, not included in headline numbers for debt aggregates.

Together, then, liabilities can be estimated at $450tn – $260tn of economic debt, about $67tn of interbank indebtedness and an estimated $124tn of pension under-provision. The equivalent number for 2001 is $176tn, expressed at constant 2016 PPP values. This means that aggregate liabilities have increased by $274tn over fifteen years – a period in which GDP grew by just $47tn.

The relationship between liabilities and recorded GDP is set out in the first pair of charts, which, respectively, set GDP against debt and against broader liabilities. Incidentally, the pensions issue is, arguably, a lot more serious than debt. This is because the real value of existing debt can be “inflated away” – a form of “soft default” – by governments willing to unleash inflation. The same cannot be said of pension requirements, which are, in effect, index-linked.

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Where climate change is concerned, what matters isn’t so much the debt or broader liability aggregates, or even the rate of escalation, but what they tell us about the credibility of recorded GDP and growth.

Here, to illustrate the issues involved, are comparative annual growth rates between 2001 and 2016, a period long enough to be reliably representative:

GDP: +3.4% per year

Debt: +5.0%

Pension gap and interbank debt: +9.1%

To this we can add two further, very pertinent indicators:

Energy consumption: +2.2%

CO2 emissions: +2.1%

The real story

As we have seen, growth of $47tn in recorded GDP between 2001 and 2016 was accompanied – indeed, made possible – by a vast pillaging of the balance sheet, including $135tn in additional indebtedness, and an estimated $140tn in other liabilities.

The only realistic conclusion is that the economy has been inflated by massive credit injections, and by a comparably enormous unwinding of provisions for the future. It follows that, absent these expedients, organic growth would have been nowhere near the 3.4% recorded over the period.

SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – has an algorithm designed to ex-out the effect of debt-funded consumption (though it does not extend this to include pension gaps or interbank debt). According to this, adjusted growth between 2001 and 2016 was only 1.55%. As this is not all that much faster than the rate at which the population has been growing, the implication is that per capita growth has been truly pedestrian, once we see behind the smoke-and-mirrors effects of gargantuan credit creation.

This isn’t the whole story. The above is a global number, which embraces faster-than-average growth in China, India and other EMEs. Constrastingly, prosperity has actually deteriorated in Britain, America and most other developed economies. Citizens of these countries, then, are not imagining the fall in prosperity which has helped fuel their discontent with incumbent governing elites. The deterioration has been all too real.

The second set of charts illustrates these points. The first shows quite how dramatically annual borrowing has dwarfed annual growth, with both expressed in constant dollars. The second sets out what GDP would have looked like, according to SEEDS, if we hadn’t been prepared to trash collective balance sheets in pursuit of phoney “growth”. You will notice that the adjusted trajectory is consistent with what was happening before we ‘unleashed the dogs of cheap and easy credit’ around the time of the millenium.

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Flagging growth – the energy connection

As we have seen, then, the very strong likelihood is that real growth in global economic output over fifteen years has been less than 1.6% annually, slower than growth either in energy consumption (2.2%) or in CO² emissions(2.1%). In compound terms, growth in underlying GDP seems to have been about 26% between 2001 and 2016, appreciably less than increases in either energy consumption (+40%) or emissions (+37%).

At this point, some readers might think this conclusion counter-intuitive – after all, if technological change has boosted efficiency, shouldn’t we be using less energy per dollar of activity, not more?

There is, in fact, a perfectly logical explanation for this process. Essentially, the economy is fuelled, not by energy in the aggregate, but by surplusenergy. Whenever energy is accessed, some energy is always consumed in the access process. This is expressed here as ECoE (the energy cost of energy), a percentage of the gross quantity of energy accessed. The critical point is that ECoE is on a rising trajectory. Indeed, the rate of increase in the energy cost of energy has been rising exponentially.

As mature resources are depleted, recourse is made to successively costlier (higher ECoE) alternative sources. This depletion effect is moderated by technological progress, which lowers the cost of accessing any given form of energy. But technology cannot breach the thermodynamic parameters of the resource. It cannot, as it were, ‘trump the laws of physics’. Technology has made shale oil cheaper to extract than shale oil would have been in times past. But what it has not done is transform shales into the economic equivalent of giant, technically-straightforward conventional fields like Al Ghawar in Saudi Arabia. Any such transformation is something that the laws of physics simply do not permit.

According to estimates generated on a multi-fuel basis by SEEDS, world ECoE averaged 4.0% in 2001, but had risen to 7.5% by 2016. What that really means is that, out of any given $100 of economic output, we now have to invest $7.50, instead of $4, in accessing energy. The resources that we can use for all other purposes are correspondingly reduced.

In the third pair of charts, the left-hand figure illustrates this process. The area in blue is the net energy that fuels all activities other than the supply of energy itself. This net energy supply continues to increase. But the red bars, which are the energy cost of energy, are rising too, and at a more rapid rate. Consequently, gross energy requirements – the aggregate of the blue and the red – are rising faster than the required net energy amount. This is why, when gross energy is compared with economic output, the energy intensity of the economy deteriorates, even though the efficiency with which netenergy is used has improved.

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Here’s another way to look at ECoE and the gross/net energy balance. Back in 2001, we needed to access 104.2 units of energy in order to have 100 units for our use. In 2016, we had to access 108.1 units for that same 100 units of deployable energy. This process, which elsewhere has been called “energy sprawl”, means that any given amount of economic activity is requiring the accessing of ever more gross energy in order to deliver the requisite amount of net (surplus) energy. By 2026, the ratio is likely to have risen to 112.7/100.

The companion chart shows the trajectory of CO² emissions. Since these emissions are linked directly to energy use, they can be divided into net (the pale boxes), ECoE (in dark grey) and gross (the sum of the two). Thanks to a lower-carbon energy slate, net emissions seem to be flattening out. Unfortunately, gross emissions continue to increase, because of the CO2 associated with the ECoE component of gross energy requirements.

Shot down in flames? The “evidence” for “sustainable development”

As we have seen, a claimed rate of economic growth (between 2001 and 2016) that is higher (65%) than the rate at which CO2 emissions have expanded (37%) has been used to “prove” increasing efficiency. It is entirely upon these claims that the viability of “sustainable development” is based.

But, as we have also seen, reported growth has been spurious, the product of unsustainable credit manipulation, and the unwinding of provision for the future. Real growth, adjusted to exclude this manipulation, is estimated by SEEDS at 26% over that period. Crucially, that is less than the 37% rate at which CO² emissions have grown.

On this basis, a claimed 17% “improvement” in the amount of CO2 per dollar of output reverses into a deterioration. Far from improving, the relationship between CO2 and economic output worsened by 9% between 2001 and 2016. In parallel with this, the amount of energy required for each dollar of output increased by 11% over the same period.

The final pair of charts illustrate this divergence. On the left, economic activity per tonne of CO2 is shown. The second chart re-expresses this relationship using GDP adjusted for the artificial “growth” injected by monetary manipulation. If this interpretation is correct – and despite a very gradual upturn in the red line since 2010 – the comforting case for “sustainable development” falls to pieces.

In short, if growth continues, rising ECoEs dictate that both energy needs, and associated emissions of CO2, will grow at rates exceeding that of economic output.

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We are back where many have argued that we have been all along. The pursuit of growth seems to be incompatible with averting potentially irreversible climate change.

There is a nasty sting-in-the-tail here, too. The ECoE of oil supplies is rising particularly markedly, and there seems a very real danger that this will force an increased reliance on coal, a significantly dirtier fuel. A recent study by the China University of Petroleum predicted exactly such a trend in China, already the world’s biggest producer of CO2. As domestic oil supply peaks and then declines because of higher ECoEs, the study postulates a rapid increase in coal consumption to feed the country’s voracious need for energy. This process is most unlikely to be confined to China.

Where does this leave us?

The central contention here is that the case for “sustainable development” is fatally flawed, because the divergence between gross and net energy needs is more than offsetting progress in greening our energy mix and combatting emissions of harmful gases. “Sustainable development” is a laudable aim, but may simply not be achievable within the laws of physics as they govern energy supply.

If this interpretation is correct, it means that growth in the global economy can be pursued only at grave climate risk. A (slightly) more comforting interpretation might that the super-heated rate of borrowing, and the seemingly disastrous rate at which pension capability is being destroyed, might well crash the system before our obsession with ‘growth at all costs’ can inflict irreparable damage to the environment.