Why I am still anti Lithium and EV

13 04 2017

Originally published at Alice Friedemann’s excellent blog, energyskeptic.com/

[ This is by far the best paper explaining lithium reserves, lithium chemistry, recycling, political implications, and more. I’ve left out the charts, graphs, references, and much of the text, to see them go to the original paper in the link below.

I personally don’t think that electric cars will ever be viable because battery development is too slow, and given that oil can be hundreds of times more energy dense than a battery of the same weight, the laws of physics will prevent them from ever achieving enough energy density — see my post at Who Killed the Electric Car. (and also my more-up-to-date version and utility-scale energy storage batteries in my book When Trains Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation.  Some excerpts from my book about lithium and energy storage:

Li-ion energy storage batteries are more expensive than PbA or NaS, can be charged and discharged only a discrete number of times, can fail or lose capacity if overheated, and the cost of preventing overheating is expensive. Lithium does not grow on trees. The amount of lithium needed for utility-scale storage is likely to deplete known resources (Vazquez, S., et al. 2010. Energy storage systems for transport and grid applications. IEEE Transactions on Industrial Electronics 57(12): 3884).

To provide enough energy for 1 day of storage for the United states, li-ion batteries would cost $11.9 trillion dollars, take up 345 square miles and weigh 74 million tons (DOE/EPRI. 2013. Electricity storage handbook in collaboration with NRECA. USA: Sandia National Laboratories and Electric Power Research Institute) 

Barnhart et al. (2013) looked at how much materials and energy it would take to make batteries that could store up to 12 hours of average daily world power demand, 25.3 TWh. Eighteen months of world-wide primary energy production would be needed to mine and manufacture these batteries, and material production limits were reached for many minerals even when energy storage devices got all of the world’s production (with zinc, sodium, and sulfur being the exceptions). Annual production by mass would have to double for lead, triple for lithium, and go up by a factor of 10 or more for cobalt and vanadium, driving up prices. The best to worst in terms of material availability are: CAES, NaS, ZnBr, PbA, PHS, Li-ion, and VRB (Barnhart, C., et al. 2013. On the importance of reducing the energetic and material demands of electrical energy storage. Energy Environment Science 2013(6): 1083–1092). ]

Vikström, H., Davidsson, S., Höök, M. 2013. Lithium availability and future production outlooks. Applied Energy, 110(10): 252-266. 28 pages



Lithium is a highly interesting metal, in part due to the increasing interest in lithium-ion batteries. Several recent studies have used different methods to estimate whether the lithium production can meet an increasing demand, especially from the transport sector, where lithium-ion batteries are the most likely technology for electric cars. The reserve and resource estimates of lithium vary greatly between different studies and the question whether the annual production rates of lithium can meet a growing demand is seldom adequately explained. This study presents a review and compilation of recent estimates of quantities of lithium available for exploitation and discusses the uncertainty and differences between these estimates. Also, mathematical curve fitting models are used to estimate possible future annual production rates. This estimation of possible production rates are compared to a potential increased demand of lithium if the International Energy Agency’s Blue Map Scenarios are fulfilled regarding electrification of the car fleet. We find that the availability of lithium could in fact be a problem for fulfilling this scenario if lithium-ion batteries are to be used. This indicates that other battery technologies might have to be implemented for enabling an electrification of road transports.


  • Review of reserves, resources and key properties of 112 lithium deposits
  • Discussions of widely diverging results from recent lithium supply estimates
  • Forecasting future lithium production by resource-constrained models
  • Exploring implications for future deployment of electric cars


Global transportation mainly relies on one single fossil resource, namely petroleum, which supplies 95% of the total energy [1]. In fact, about 62% of all world oil consumption takes place in the transport sector [2]. Oil prices have oscillated dramatically over the last few years, and the price of oil reached $100 per barrel in January 2008, before skyrocketing to nearly $150/barrel in July 2008. A dramatic price collapse followed in late 2008, but oil prices have at present time returned to over $100/barrel. Also, peak oil concerns, resulting in imminent oil production limitations, have been voiced by various studies [3–6].

It has been found that continued oil dependence is environmentally, economically and socially unsustainable [7].

The price uncertainty and decreasing supply might result in severe challenges for different transporters. Nygren et al. [8] showed that even the most optimistic oil production forecasts implied pessimistic futures for the aviation industry. Curtis [9] found that globalization may be undermined by peak oil’s effect on transportation costs and reliability of freight.

Barely 2% of the world electricity is used by transportation [2], where most of this is made up by trains, trams, and trolley buses.

A high future demand of Li for battery applications may arise if society choses to employ Li-ion technologies for a decarbonization of the road transport sector.

Batteries are at present time the second most common use, but are increasing rapidly as the use of li-ion batteries for portable electronics [12], as well as electric and hybrid cars, are becoming more frequent. For example, the lithium consumption for batteries in the U.S increased with 194 % from 2005 to 2010 [12]. Relatively few academic studies have focused on the very abundance of raw materials needed to supply a potential increase in Li demand from transport sector [13]. Lithium demand is growing and it is important to investigate whether this could lead to a shortfall in the future.


[My comment: utility scale energy storage batteries in commercial production are lithium, and if this continues, this sector alone would quickly consume all available lithium supplies: see Barnhart, C., et al. 2013. On the importance of reducing the energetic and material demands of electrical energy storage. Energy Environment Science 2013(6): 1083–1092.]

Aim of this study

Recently, a number of studies have investigated future supply prospects for lithium [13–16]. However, these studies reach widely different results in terms of available quantities, possible production trajectories, as well as expected future demand. The most striking difference is perhaps the widely different estimates for available resources and reserves, where different numbers of deposits are included and different types of resources are assessed. It has been suggested that mineral resources will be a future constraint for society [17], but a great deal of this debate is often spent on the concept of geological availability, which can be presented as the size of the tank. What is frequently not reflected upon is that society can only use the quantities that can be extracted at a certain pace and be delivered to consumers by mining operations, which can be described as the tap. The key concept here is that the size of the tank and the size of the tap are two fundamentally different things.

This study attempts to present a comprehensive review of known lithium deposits and their estimated quantities of lithium available for exploitation and discuss the uncertainty and differences among published studies, in order to bring clarity to the subject. The estimated reserves are then used as a constraint in a model of possible future production of lithium and the results of the model are compared to possible future demand from an electrification of the car fleet. The forecasts are based on open, public data and should be used for estimating long term growth and trends. This is not a substitute for economical short-term prognoses, but rather a complementary vision.

Data sources

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has been particularly useful for obtaining production data series, but also the Swedish Geological Survey (SGU) and the British Geological Survey (BGS) deserves honourable mention for providing useful material. Kushnir and Sandén [18], Tahil [19, 20] along with many other recent lithium works have also been useful. Kesler et al. [21] helped to provide a broad overview of general lithium geology.

Information on individual lithium deposits has been compiled from numerous sources, primarily building on the tables found in [13–16]. In addition, several specialized articles about individual deposits have been used, for instance [22–26]. Public industry reports and annual yearbooks from mining operators and lithium producers, such as SQM [27], Roskill [28] or Talison Lithium [29], also helped to create a holistic data base.

In this study, we collected information on global lithium deposits. Country of occurrence, deposit type, main mineral, and lithium content were gathered as well as published estimates for reserves and resources. Some deposits had detailed data available for all parameters, while others had very little information available. Widely diverging estimates for reserves and resources could sometimes be found for the same deposit, and in such cases the full interval between the minimum and maximum estimates is presented. Deposits without reserve or resource estimates are included in the data set, but do not contribute to the total. Only available data and information that could be found in the public and academic spheres were compiled in this study. It is likely that undisclosed and/or proprietary data could contribute to the world’s lithium volume but due to data availability no conclusions on to which extent could be made.

Geological overview

In order to properly estimate global lithium availability, and a feasible reserve estimate for modelling future production, this section presents an overview of lithium geology. Lithium is named after the Greek word “lithos” meaning “stone”, represented by the symbol Li and has the atomic number 3. Under standard conditions, lithium is the lightest metal and the least dense solid element. Lithium is a soft, silver-white metal that belongs to the alkali group of elements.

As all alkali elements, Li is highly reactive and flammable. For this reason, it never occurs freely in nature and only appears in compounds, usually ionic compounds. The nuclear properties of Li are peculiar since its nuclei verge on instability and two stable isotopes have among the lowest binding energies per nucleon of all stable nuclides. Due to this nuclear instability, lithium is less abundant in the solar system than 25 of the first 32 chemical elements [30].

Resources and reserves

An important frequent shortcoming in the discussion on availability of lithium is the lack of proper terminology and standardized concepts for assessing the available amounts of lithium. Published studies talk about “reserves”, “resources”, “recoverable resources”, “broad-based reserves”, “in-situ resources”, and “reserve base”.

A wide range of reporting systems minerals exist, such as NI 43-101, USGS, Crirsco, SAMREC and the JORC code, and further discussion and references concerning this can be found in Vikström [31]. Definitions and classifications used are often similar, but not always consistent, adding to the confusion when aggregating data. Consistent definitions may be used in individual studies, but frequently figures from different methodologies are combined as there is no universal and standardized framework. In essence, published literature is a jumble of inconsistent figures. If one does not know what the numbers really mean, they are not simply useless – they are worse, since they tend to mislead.

Broadly speaking, resources are generally defined as the geologically assured quantity that is available for exploitation, while reserves are the quantity that is exploitable with current technical and socioeconomic conditions. The reserves are what are important for production, while resources are largely an academic figure with little relevance for real supply. For example, usually less than one tenth of the coal resources are considered economically recoverable [32, 33]. Kesler et al. [21] stress that available resources needs to be converted into reserves before they can be produced and used by society. Still, some analysts seemingly use the terms ‘resources’ and ‘reserves’ synonymously.

It should be noted that the actual reserves are dynamic and vary depending on many factors such as the available technology, economic demand, political issues and social factors. Technological improvements may increase reserves by opening new deposit types for exploitation or by lowering production costs. Deposits that have been mined for some time can increase or decrease their reserves due to difficulties with determining the ore grade and tonnage in advance [34]. Depletion and decreasing concentrations may increase recovery costs, thus lowering reserves. Declining demand and prices may also reduce reserves, while rising prices or demand may increase them. Political decisions, legal issues or environmental policies may prohibit exploitation of certain deposits, despite the fact significant resources may be available.

For lithium, resource/reserve classifications were typically developed for solid ore deposits. However, brine – presently the main lithium source – is a fluid and commonly used definitions can be difficult to apply due to pumping complications and varying concentrations.

Houston et al. [35] describes the problem in detail and suggest a change in NI 43-101 to account for these problems. If better standards were available for brines then estimations could be more reliable and accurate, as discussed in Kushnir and Sandén [18].

Environmental aspects and policy changes can also significantly influence recoverability. Introduction of clean air requirements and public resistance to surface mining in the USA played a major role in the decreasing coal reserves [33].

It is entirely possible that public outcries against surface mining or concerns for the environment in lithium producing will lead to restrictions that affect the reserves. As an example, the water consumption of brine production is very high and Tahil [19] estimates that brine operations consume 65% of the fresh water in the Salar de Atacama region. [ The Atacama only gets 0.6 inches of rain a year ]

Regarding future developments of recoverability, Fasel and Tran [36] monotonously assumes that increasing lithium demand will result in more reserves being found as prices rise. So called cumulative availability curves are sometimes used to estimate how reserves will change with changing prices, displaying the estimated amount of resource against the average unit cost ranked from lowest to highest cost. This method is used by Yaksic and Tilton [14] to address lithium availability. This concept has its merits for describing theoretical availability, but the fact that the concept is based on average cost, not marginal cost, has been described as a major weakness, making cumulative availability curves disregard the real cost structure and has little – if any – relevance for future price and production rate [37].

Production and occurrence of lithium

The high reactivity of lithium makes it geochemistry complex and interesting. Lithium-minerals are generally formed in magmatic processes. The small ionic size makes it difficult for lithium to be included in early stages of mineral crystallization, and resultantly lithium remains in the molten parts where it gets enriched until it can be solidified in the final stages [38].

At present, over 120 lithium-containing minerals are known, but few of them contain high concentrations or are frequently occurring. Lithium can also be found in naturally occurring salt solutions as brines in dry salt lake environments. Compared to the fairly large number of lithium mineral and brine deposits, few of them are of actual or potential commercial value. Many are very small, while others are too low in grade [39]. This chapter will briefly review the properties of those deposits and present a compilation of the known deposits.

Lithium mineral deposits

Lithium extraction from minerals is primarily done with minerals occurring in pegmatite formations. However, pegmatite is rather challenging to exploit due to its hardness in conjunction with generally problematic access to the belt-like deposits they usually occur in. Table 1 describes some typical lithium-bearing minerals and their characteristics. Australia is currently the world’s largest producer of lithium from minerals, mainly from spodumene [39]. Petalite is commonly used for glass manufacture due to its high iron content, while lepidolite was earlier used as a lithium source but presently has lost its importance due to high fluorine content. Exploitation must generally be tailor-made for a certain mineral as they differ quite significantly in chemical composition, hardness and other properties[13]. Table 2 presents some mineral deposits and their properties.

Recovery rates for mining typically range from 60 to 70%, although significant treatment is required for transforming the produced Li into a marketable form. For example, [40, 41] describe how lithium are produced from spodumene. The costs of acid, soda ash, and energy are a very significant part of the total production cost but may be partially alleviated by the market demand for the sodium sulphate by-products.

Lithium brine deposits

Lithium can also be found in salt lake brines that have high concentrations of mineral salts. Such brines can be reachable directly from the surface or deep underground in saline expanses located in very dry regions that allow salts to persist. High concentration lithium brine is mainly found in high altitude locations such as the Andes and south-western China. Chile, the world largest lithium producer, derives most of the production from brines located at the large salt flat of Salar de Atacama.

Lithium has similar ionic properties as magnesium since their ionic size is nearly identical; making is difficult to separate lithium from magnesium. A low Mg/Li ratio in brine means that it is easier, and therefore more economical to extract lithium.

Lithium Market Research SISThe ratio differs significant at currently producing brine deposits and range from less than 1 to over 30 [14]. The lithium concentration in known brine deposits is usually quite low and range from 0.017–0.15% with significant variability among the known deposits in the world (Table 3).

Exploitation of lithium brines starts with the brine being pumped from the ground into evaporation ponds. The actual evaporation is enabled by incoming solar radiation, so it is desirable for the operation to be located in sunny areas with low annual precipitation rate. The net evaporation rate determines the area of the required ponds [42].

It can easily take between one and two years before the final product is ready to be used, and even longer in cold and rainy areas.

The long timescales required for production can make brine deposits ill fit for sudden changes in demand. Table 3. Properties of known brine deposits in the world.

Lithium from sea water

The world’s oceans contain a wide number of metals, such as gold, lithium or uranium, dispersed at low concentrations. The mass of the world’s oceans is approximately 1.35*1012 Mt [47], making vast amounts of theoretical resources seemingly available. Eckhardt [48] and Fasel and Tran [36] announce that more than 2,000,000 Mt lithium is available from the seas, essentially making it an “unlimited” source given its geological abundance. Tahil [20] also notes that oceans have been proclaimed as an unlimited Li-source since the 1970s.

The world’s oceans and some highly saline lakes do in fact contain very large quantities of lithium, but if it will become practical and economical to produce lithium from this source is highly questionable.

For example, consider gold in sea water – in total nearly 7,000,000 Mt. This is an enormous amount compared to the cumulative world production of 0.17 Mt accumulated since the dawn of civilization [49]. There are also several technical options available for gold extraction. However, the average gold concentration range from <0.001 to 0.005 ppb [50]. This means that one km3 of sea water would give only 5.5 kg of gold. The gold is simply too dilute to be viable for commercial extraction and it is not surprising that all attempts to achieve success – including those of the Nobel laureate Fritz Haber – has failed to date.

Average lithium concentration in the oceans has been estimated to 0.17 ppm [14, 36]. Kushnir and Sandén [18] argue that it is theoretically possible to use a wide range of advanced technologies to extract lithium from seawater – just like the case for gold. However, no convincing methods have been demonstrated this far. A small scale Japanese experiment managed to produce 750 g of lithium metal from processing 4,200 m3 water with a recovery efficiency of 19.7% [36]. This approach has been described in more detail by others [51–53].

Grosjean et al. [13] points to the fact that even after decades of improvement, recovery from seawater is still more than 10–30 times more costly than production from pegmatites and brines. It is evident that huge quantities of water would have to be processed to produce any significant amounts of lithium. Bardi [54] presents theoretical calculations on this, stating that a production volume of lithium comparable to present world production (~25 kt annually) would require 1.5*103 TWh of electrical energy for pumping through separation membranes in addition to colossal volumes of seawater. Furthermore, Tahil [20] estimated that a seawater processing flow equivalent to the average discharge of the River Nile – 300,000,000 m3/day or over 22 times the global petroleum industry flow of 85 million barrels per day – would only give 62 tons of lithium per day or roughly 20 kt per year. Furthermore, a significant amount of fresh water and hydrochloric acid will be required to flush out unwanted minerals (Mg, K, etc.) and extract lithium from the adsorption columns [20].

In summary, extraction from seawater appears not feasible and not something that should be considered viable in practice, at least not in the near future.

Estimated lithium availability

From data compilation and analysis of 112 deposits, this study concludes that 15 Mt areImage result for lithium reasonable as a reference case for the global reserves in the near and medium term. 30 Mt is seen as a high case estimate for available lithium reserves and this number is also found in the upper range in literature. These two estimates are used as constraints in the models of future production in this study.

Estimates on world reserves and resources vary significantly among published studies. One main reason for this is likely the fact that different deposits, as well as different number of deposits, are aggregated in different studies. Many studies, such as the ones presented by the USGS, do not give explicitly state the number of deposits included and just presents aggregated figures on a national level. Even when the number and which deposits that have been used are specified, analysts can arrive to wide different estimates (Table 5). It should be noted that a trend towards increasing reserves and resources with time can generally be found, in particularly in USGS assessments. Early reports, such as Evans [56] or USGS [59], excluded several countries from the reserve estimates due to a lack of available information. This was mitigated in USGS [73] when reserves estimates for Argentina, Australia, and Chile have been revised based on new information from governmental and industry sources. However, there are still relatively few assessments on reserves, in particular for Russia, and it is concluded that much future work is required to handle this shortcoming. Gruber et al. [16] noted that 83% of global lithium resources can be found in six brine, two pegmatite and two sedimentary deposits. From our compilation, it can also be found that the distribution of global lithium reserves and resources are very uneven.

Three quarters of everything can typically be found in the ten largest deposits (Figure 1 and 2). USGS [12] pinpoint that 85% of the global reserves are situated in Chile and China (Figure 3) and that Chile and Australia accounted for 70 % of the world production of 28,100 tonnes in 2011 [12]. From Table 2 and 3, one can note a significant spread in estimated reserves and resources for the deposits. This divergence is much smaller for minerals (5.6–8.2 Mt) than for brines (6.5– 29.4 Mt), probably resulting from the difficulty associated with estimating brine accumulations consistently. Evans [75] also points to the problem of using these frameworks on brine deposits, which are fundamentally different from solid ores. Table 5. Comparison of published lithium assessments.


One thing that may or may not have a large implication for future production is recycling. The projections presented in the production model of this study describe production of lithium from virgin materials. The total production of lithium could potentially increase significantly if high rates of recycling were implemented of the used lithium, which is mentioned in many studies.

USGS [12] state that recycling of lithium has been insignificant historically, but that it is increasing as the use of lithium for batteries are growing. However, the recycling of lithium from batteries is still more or less non-existent, with a collection rate of used Li-ion batteries of only about 3% [93]. When the Li-ion batteries are in fact recycled, it is usually not the lithium that is recycled, but other more precious metals such as cobalt [18].

If this will change in the future is uncertain and highly dependent on future metal prices, but it is still commonly argued for and assumed that the recycling of lithium will grow significantly, very soon. Goonan [94] claims that recycling rates will increase from vehicle batteries in vehicles since such recycling systems already exist for lead-acid batteries. Kushnir and Sandén [18] argue that large automotive batteries will be technically easier to recycle than smaller batteries and also claims that economies of scale will emerge when the use for batteries for vehicles increase. According to the IEA [95], full recycling systems are projected to be in place sometime between 2020 and 2030. Similar assumptions are made by more or less all studies dealing with future lithium production and use for electric vehicles and Kushnir and Sandén [18] state that it is commonly assumed that recycling will take place, enabling recycled lithium to make up for a big part of the demand but also conclude that the future recycling rate is highly uncertain.

There are several reasons to question the probability of high recycling shares for Li-ion batteries. Kushnir and Sandén [18] state that lithium recycling economy is currently not good and claims that the economic conditions could decrease even more in the future. Sullivan and Gaines [96] argue that the Li-ion battery chemistry is complex and still evolving, thus making it difficult for the industry to develop profitable pathways. Georgi-Maschler [93] highlight that two established recycling processes exist for recycling Li-ion batteries, but one of them lose most of the lithium in the process of recovering the other valuable metals. Ziemann et al. [97] states that lithium recovery from rechargeable batteries is not efficient at present time, mainly due to the low lithium content of around 2% and the rather low price of lithium.

In this study we choose not to include recycling in the projected future supply for several reasons. In a short perspective, looking towards 2015-2020, it cannot be considered likely that any considerable amount of lithium will be recycled from batteries since it is currently not economical to do so and no proven methods to do it on a large scale industrial level appear to exist. If it becomes economical to recycle lithium from batteries it will take time to build the capacity for the recycling to take place. Also, the battery lifetime is often projected to be 10 years or more, and to expect any significant amounts of lithium to be recycled within this period of time is simply not realistic for that reason either.

The recycling capacity is expected to be far from reaching significant levels before 2025 according to Wanger [92]. It is also important to separate the recycling rates of products to the recycled content in new products. Even if a percentage of the product is recycled at the end of the life cycle, this is no guarantee that the use of recycled content in new products will be as high. The use of Li-ion batteries is projected to grow fast. If the growth happens linearly, and high recycling rates are accomplished, recycling could start constituting a large part of the lithium demand, but if the growth happens exponentially, recycling can never keep up with the growth that has occurred during the 10 years lag during the battery lifetime. In a longer time perspective, the inclusion of recycling could be argued for with expected technological refinement, but certainties regarding technology development are highly uncertain. Still, most studies include recycling as a major part of future lithium production, which can have very large implications on the results and conclusions drawn. Kushnir and Sandén [18] suggest that an 80% lithium recovery rate is achievable over a medium time frame. The scenarios in Gruber et al. [16], assumes recycling participation rates of 90 %, 96% and 100%. In their scenario using the highest assumed recycling, the quantities of lithium needed to be mined are decreased to only about 37% of the demand. Wanger [92] looks at a shorter time perspective and estimates that a 40% or 100% recycling rate would reduce the lithium consumption with 10% or 25% respectively by 2030. Mohr et al. [15] assume that the recycling rate starts at 0%, approaching a limit of 80%, resulting in recycled lithium making up significant parts of production, but only several decades into the future. IEA [95] projects that full recycling systems will be in place around 2020–2030.

The impact of assumed recycling rates can indeed be very significant, and the use of this should be handled with care and be well motivated.

Future demand for lithium

To estimate whether the projected future production levels will be sufficient, it isImage result for lithiuminteresting to compare possible production levels with potential future demand. The use of lithium is currently dominated by use for ceramics and glass closely followed by batteries. The current lithium demand for different markets can be seen in Figure 7. USGS [12] state that the lithium use in batteries have grown significantly in recent years as the use of lithium batteries in portable electronics have become increasingly common. Figure 7 (Ceramics and glass 29%, Batteries 27%, Other uses 16%, Lubrication greases 12%, Continuous casting 5%, Air treatment 4%, Polymers 3%, Primary aluminum production 2%, Pharmaceuticals 2%).

Global lithium demand for different end-use markets. Source: USGS [12] USGS [12] state that the total lithium consumption in 2011 was between 22,500 and 24,500 tonnes. This is often projected to grow, especially as the use of Li-ion batteries for electric cars could potentially increase demand significantly. This study presents a simple example of possible future demand of lithium, assuming a constant demand for other uses and demand for electric cars to grow according to a scenario of future sales of

electric cars. The current car fleet consists of about 600 million passenger cars. The sale of new passenger cars in 2011 was about 60 million cars [98]. This existing vehicle park is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels, primarily gasoline and diesel, but also natural gas to a smaller extent. Increasing oil prices, concerns about a possible peak in oil production and problems with anthropogenic global warming makes it desirable to move away from fossil energy dependence. As a mitigation and pathway to a fossil-fuel free mobility, cars running partially or totally on electrical energy are commonly proposed. This includes electric vehicles (EVs), hybrid vehicles (HEVs) and PHEVs (plug-in hybrid vehicles), all on the verge of large-scale commercialization and implementation. IEA [99] concluded that a total of 1.5 million hybrid and electric vehicles had been sold worldwide between the year 2000 and 2010.

Both the expected number of cars as well as the amount of lithium required per vehicle is important. As can be seen from Table 9, the estimates of lithium demand for PEHV and EVs differ significantly between studies. Also, some studies do not differentiate between different technical options and only gives a single Li-consumption estimate for an “electric vehicle”, for instance the 3 kg/car found by Mohr et al. [15]. The mean values from Table 9 are found to be 4.9 kg for an EV and 1.9 kg for a PHEV.

As the battery size determines the vehicles range, it is likely that the range will continue to increase in the future, which could increase the lithium demand. On the other hand, it is also reasonable to assume that the technology will improve, thus reducing the lithium requirements. In this study a lithium demand of 160 g Li/kWh is assumed, an assumption discussed in detail by Kushnir and Sandén [18]. It is then assumed that typical batteries capacities will be 9 kWh in a PHEV and 25 kWh in an EV. This gives a resulting lithium requirement of 1.4 kg for a PHEV and 4 kg for an EV, which is used as an estimate in this study. Many current electrified cars have a lower capacity than 24 kWh, but to become more attractive to consumers the range of the vehicles will likely have to increase, creating a need for larger batteries [104]. It should be added that the values used are at the lower end compared to other assessments (Table 9) and should most likely not be seen as overestimates future lithium requirements.

Figure 8 shows the span of the different production forecasts up until 2050 made in this study, together with an estimated demand based on the demand staying constant on the high estimate of 2010– 2011, adding an estimated demand created by the electric car projections done by IEA [101]. This is a very simplistic estimation future demand, but compared to the production projections it indicates that lithium availability should not be automatically disregarded as a potential issue for future electric car production. The amount of electric cars could very well be smaller or larger that this scenario, but the scenario used does not assume a complete electrification of the car fleet by 2050 and such scenarios would mean even larger demand of lithium. It is likely that lithium demand for other uses will also grow in the coming decades, why total demand might increase more that indicated here. This study does not attempt to estimate the evolution of demand for other uses, and the demand estimate for other uses can be considered a conservative one. Figure 8. The total lithium demand of a constant current lithium demand combined with growth of electric vehicles according to IEA’s blue map scenario [101] assuming a demand for 1.4 kg of lithium per PHEV and 4.0 kg per EV. The span of forecasted production levels range from the base case Gompertz model

Concluding discussion

Potential future production of lithium was modeled with three different production curves. In a short perspective, until 2015–2020, the three models do not differ much, but in the longer perspective the Richards and Logistic curves show a growth at a vastly higher pace than the Gompertz curve. The Richards model gives the best fit to the historic data, and lies in between the other two and might be the most likely development. A faster growth than the logistic model cannot be ruled out, but should be considered unlikely, since it usually mimics plausible free market exploitation [89]. Other factors, such as decreased lithium concentration in mined material, economics, political and environmental problems could also limit production.

It can be debated whether this kind of forecasting should be used for short term projections, and the actual production in coming years can very well differ from our models, but it does at least indicate that lithium availability could be a potential problem in the coming decades. In a longer time perspective up to 2050, the projected lithium demand for alternative vehicles far exceeds our most optimistic production prognoses.

If 100 million alternative vehicles, as projected in IEA [101] are produced annually using lithium battery technology, the lithium reserves would be exhausted in just a few years, even if the production could be cranked up faster than the models in this study. This indicates that it is important that other battery technologies should be investigated as well.

It should be added that these projections do not consider potential recycling of the lithium, which is discussed further earlier in this paper. On the other hand, it appears it is highly unlikely that recycling will become common as soon as 2020, while total demand appears to potentially rise over maximum production around that date. If, when, and to what extent recycling will take place is hard to predict, although it appears more likely that high recycling rates will take place in electric cars than other uses.

Much could change before 2050. The spread between the different production curves are much larger and it is hard to estimate what happens with technology over such a long time frame. However, the Blue Map Scenario would in fact create a demand of lithium that is higher than the peak production of the logistic curve for the standard case, and close to the peak production in the high URR case.

Improved efficiency can decrease the lithium demand in the batteries, but as Kushnir and Sandén [18] point out, there is a minimum amount of lithium required tied to the cell voltage and chemistry of the battery.

IEA [95] acknowledges that technologies that are not available today must be developed to reach the Blue Map scenarios and that technology development is uncertain. This does not quite coincide with other studies claiming that lithium availability will not be a problem for production of electric cars in the future.

It is also possible that other uses will raise the demand for lithium even further. One industry that in a longer time perspective could potentially increase the demand for lithium is fusion, where lithium is used to breed tritium in the reactors. If fusion were commercialized, which currently seems highly uncertain, it would demand large volumes of lithium [36].

Further problems with the lithium industry are that the production and reserves are situated in a few countries (USGS [12] in Mt: Chile 7.5, China 3.5, Australia 0.97, Argentina 0.85, Other 0.135]. One can also note that most of the lithium is concentrated to a fairly small amount of deposits, nearly 50% of both reserves and resources can be found in Salar de Atacama alone. Kesler et al. [21] note that Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and China hold 70% of the brine deposits. Grosjean et al. [13] even points to the ABC triangle (i.e. Argentina, Bolivia and Chile) and its control of well over 40% of the world resources and raises concern for resource nationalism and monopolistic behavior. Even though Bolivia has large resources, there are many political and technical problems, such as transportation and limited amount of available fresh water, in need of solutions [18].

Regardless of global resource size, the high concentration of reserves and production to very few countries is not something that bode well for future supplies. The world is currently largely dependent on OPEC for oil, and that creates possibilities of political conflicts. The lithium reserves are situated in mainly two countries. It could be considered problematic for countries like the US to be dependent on Bolivia, Chile and Argentina for political reasons [105]. Abell and Oppenheimer [105] discuss the absurdity in switching from dependence to dependence since resources are finite. Also, Kushnir and Sandén [18] discusses the problems with being dependent on a few producers, if a problem unexpectedly occurs at the production site it may not be possible to continue the production and the demand cannot be satisfied.

Final remarks

Although there are quite a few uncertainties with the projected production of lithium and demand for lithium for electric vehicles, this study indicates that the possible lithium production could be a limiting factor for the number of electric vehicles that can be produced, and how fast they can be produced. If large parts of the car fleet will run on electricity and rely on lithium based batteries in the coming decades, it is possible, and maybe even likely, that lithium availability will be a limiting factor.

To decrease the impact of this, as much lithium as possible must be recycled and possibly other battery technologies not relying on lithium needs to be developed. It is not certain how big the recoverable reserves of lithium are in the world and estimations in different studies differ significantly. Especially the estimations for brine need to be further investigated. Some estimates include production from seawater, making the reserves more or less infinitely large. We suggest that it is very unlikely that seawater or lakes will become a practical and economic source of lithium, mainly due to the high Mg/Li ratio and low concentrations if lithium, meaning that large quantities of water would have to be processed. Until otherwise is proved lithium reserves from seawater and lakes should not be included in the reserve estimations. Although the reserve estimates differ, this appears to have marginal impact on resulting projections of production, especially in a shorter time perspective. What are limiting are not the estimated reserves, but likely maximum annual production, which is often missed in similar studies.

If electric vehicles with li-ion batteries will be used to a very high extent, there are other problems to account for. Instead of being dependent on oil we could become dependent on lithium if li-ion batteries, with lithium reserves mainly located in two countries. It is important to plan for this to avoid bottlenecks or unnecessarily high prices. Lithium is a finite resource and the production cannot be infinitely large due to geological, technical and economical restraints. The concentration of lithium metal appears to be decreasing, which could make it more expensive and difficult to extract the lithium in the future. To enable a transition towards a car fleet based on electrical energy, other types of batteries should also be considered and a continued development of battery types using less lithium and/or other metals are encouraged. High recycling rates should also be aimed for if possible and continued investigations of recoverable resources and possible production of lithium are called for. Acknowledgements We would like to thank Steve Mohr for helpful comments and ideas. Sergey Yachenkov has our sincerest appreciation for providing assistance with translation of Russian material.

Tom Murphy: Growth has an Expiration Date

20 02 2017

While searching for Tom Murphy’s latest post over at do the math (and he hasn’t posted anything new in months now, after promising to write an article on Nickel Iron batteries which I assume he must be testing…) I found the following video on youtube. probably not much new for most people here, but he has a talent for explaining things very clearly, and it’s definitely worth sharing.

More gnashing of teeth

7 02 2017

The Über-Lie

By Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute

heinbergNevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration…It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.

This is an excellent article from Richard Heinberg, the writer who sent me on my current life voyage all those years ago. Hot on the heels of my attempt yesterday of explaining where global politics are heading, Richard (whom I met years ago and even had a meal with…) does a better job than I could ever possibly muster.  Enjoy……


Our new American president is famous for spinning whoppers. Falsehoods, fabrications, distortions, deceptions—they’re all in a day’s work. The result is an increasingly adversarial relationship between the administration and the press, which may in fact be the point of the exercise: as conservative commentators Scott McKay suggests in The American Spectator, “The hacks covering Trump are as lazy as they are partisan, so feeding them . . . manufactured controversies over [the size of] inaugural crowds is a guaranteed way of keeping them occupied while things of real substance are done.”

But are some matters of real substance (such as last week’s ban on entry by residents of seven Muslim-dominated nations) themselves being used to hide even deeper and more significant shifts in power and governance? Steve “I want to bring everything crashing down” Bannon, who has proclaimed himself an enemy of Washington’s political class, is a member of a small cabal (also including Trump, Stephen Miller, Reince Priebus, and Jared Kushner) that appears to be consolidating nearly complete federal governmental power, drafting executive orders, and formulating political strategy—all without paper trail or oversight of any kind. The more outrage and confusion they create, the more effective is their smokescreen for the dismantling of governmental norms and institutions.

There’s no point downplaying the seriousness of what is up. Some commentators are describing it as a coup d’etat in progress; there is definitely the potential for blood in the streets at some point.

Nevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration—one that predates the new presidency, but whose deconstruction is essential for understanding the dawning Trumpocene era. I’m referring to a lie that is leading us toward not just political violence but, potentially, much worse. It is an untruth that’s both durable and bipartisan; one that the business community, nearly all professional economists, and politicians around the globe reiterate ceaselessly. It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.

Yes, this lie has been debunked periodically, starting decades ago. A discussion about planetary limits erupted into prominence in the 1970s and faded, yet has never really gone away. But now those limits are becoming less and less theoretical, more and more real. I would argue that the emergence of the Trump administration is a symptom of that shift from forecast to actuality.

Consider population. There were one billion of us on Planet Earth in 1800. Now there are 7.5 billion, all needing jobs, housing, food, and clothing. From time immemorial there were natural population checks—disease and famine. Bad things. But during the last century or so we defeated those population checks. Famines became rare and lots of diseases can now be cured. Modern agriculture grows food in astounding quantities. That’s all good (for people anyway—for ecosystems, not so much). But the result is that human population has grown with unprecedented speed.

Some say this is not a problem, because the rate of population growth is slowing: that rate was two percent per year in the 1960s; now it’s one percent. Yet because one percent of 7.5 billion is more than two percent of 3 billion (which was the world population in 1960), the actual number of people we’re now adding annually is the highest ever: over eighty million—the equivalent of Tokyo, New York, Mexico City, and London added together. Much of that population growth is occurring in countries that are already having a hard time taking care of their people. The result? Failed states, political unrest, and rivers of refugees.

Per capita consumption of just about everything also grew during past decades, and political and economic systems came to depend upon economic growth to provide returns on investments, expanding tax revenues, and positive poll numbers for politicians. Nearly all of that consumption growth depended on fossil fuels to provide energy for raw materials extraction, manufacturing, and transport. But fossil fuels are finite and by now we’ve used the best of them. We are not making the transition to alternative energy sources fast enough to avert crisis (if it is even possible for alternative energy sources to maintain current levels of production and transport). At the same time, we have depleted other essential resources, including topsoil, forests, minerals, and fish. As we extract and use resources, we create pollution—including greenhouse gasses, which cause climate change.

Depletion and pollution eventually act as a brake on further economic growth even in the wealthiest nations. Then, as the engine of the economy slows, workers find their incomes leveling off and declining—a phenomenon also related to the globalization of production, which elites have pursued in order to maximize profits.

Declining wages have resulted in the upwelling of anti-immigrant and anti-globalization sentiments among a large swath of the American populace, and those sentiments have in turn served up Donald Trump. Here we are. It’s perfectly understandable that people are angry and want change. Why not vote for a vain huckster who promises to “Make America Great Again”? However, unless we deal with deeper biophysical problems (population, consumption, depletion, and pollution), as well as the policies that elites have used to forestall the effects of economic contraction for themselves (globalization, financialization, automation, a massive increase in debt, and a resulting spike in economic inequality), America certainly won’t be “great again”; instead, we’ll just proceed through the five stages of collapse helpfully identified by Dmitry Orlov.

Rather than coming to grips with our society’s fundamental biophysical contradictions, we have clung to the convenient lies that markets will always provide, and that there are plenty of resources for as many humans as we can ever possibly want to crowd onto this little planet. And if people are struggling, that must be the fault of [insert preferred boogeyman or group here]. No doubt many people will continue adhering to these lies even as the evidence around us increasingly shows that modern industrial society has already entered a trajectory of decline.

While Trump is a symptom of both the end of economic growth and of the denial of that new reality, events didn’t have to flow in his direction. Liberals could have taken up the issues of declining wages and globalization (as Bernie Sanders did) and even immigration reform. For example, Colin Hines, former head of Greenpeace’s International Economics Unit and author of Localization: A Global Manifesto, has just released a new book, Progressive Protectionism, in which he argues that “We must make the progressive case for controlling our borders, and restricting not just migration but the free movement of goods, services and capital where it threatens environment, wellbeing and social cohesion.”

But instead of well-thought out policies tackling the extremely complex issues of global trade, immigration, and living wages, we have hastily written executive orders that upend the lives of innocents. Two teams (liberal and conservative) are lined up on the national playing field, with positions on all significant issues divvied up between them. As the heat of tempers rises, our options are narrowed to choosing which team to cheer for; there is no time to question our own team’s issues. That’s just one of the downsides of increasing political polarization—which Trump is exacerbating dramatically.

Just as Team Trump covers its actions with a smokescreen of controversial falsehoods, our society hides its biggest lie of all—the lie of guaranteed, unending economic growth—behind a camouflage of political controversies. Even in relatively calm times, the über-lie was watertight: almost no one questioned it. Like all lies, it served to divert attention from an unwanted truth—the truth of our collective vulnerability to depletion, pollution, and the law of diminishing returns. Now that truth is more hidden than ever.

Our new government shows nothing but contempt for environmentalists and it plans to exit Paris climate agreement. Denial reigns! Chaos threatens! So why bother bringing up the obscured reality of limits to growth now, when immediate crises demand instant action? It’s objectively too late to restrain population and consumption growth so as to avert what ecologists of the 1970s called a “hard landing.” Now we’ve fully embarked on the age of consequences, and there are fires to put out. Yes, the times have moved on, but the truth is still the truth, and I would argue that it’s only by understanding the biophysical wellsprings of change that can we successfully adapt, and recognize whatever opportunities come our way as the pace of contraction accelerates to the point that decline can no longer successfully be hidden by the elite’s strategies.

Perhaps Donald Trump succeeded because his promises spoke to what civilizations in decline tend to want to hear. It could be argued that the pluralistic, secular, cosmopolitan, tolerant, constitutional democratic nation state is a political arrangement appropriate for a growing economy buoyed by pervasive optimism. (On a scale much smaller than contemporary America, ancient Greece and Rome during their early expansionary periods provided examples of this kind of political-social arrangement). As societies contract, people turn fearful, angry, and pessimistic—and fear, anger, and pessimism fairly dripped from Trump’s inaugural address. In periods of decline, strongmen tend to arise promising to restore past glories and to defeat domestic and foreign enemies. Repressive kleptocracies are the rule rather than the exception.

If that’s what we see developing around us and we want something different, we will have to propose economic, political, and social forms that are appropriate to the biophysical realities increasingly confronting us—and that embody or promote cultural values that we wish to promote or preserve. Look for good historic examples. Imagine new strategies. What program will speak to people’s actual needs and concerns at this moment in history? Promising a return to an economy and way of life that characterized a past moment is pointless, and it may propel demagogues to power. But there is always a range of possible responses to the reality of the present. What’s needed is a new hard-nosed sort of optimism (based on an honest acknowledgment of previously denied truths) as an alternative to the lies of divisive bullies who take advantage of the elites’ failures in order to promote their own patently greedy interests. What that actually means in concrete terms I hope to propose in more detail in future essays.

Final Warning Limits to Growth

24 11 2016

Just when I thought I knew it all regarding Limits to Growth, along comes this one year old little doco produced by DW. What I particularly liked about this one is its historical perspective on the complete lack of action during the past forty years…..

In 1972, the study ‘Limits to Growth’ warned against the impact of capitalism. Did anyone act on it? It shows that Capitalism lies at the root of problems such as overpopulation and environmental pollution, yet few seem to be aware of the connection.

After its publication in 1972, the Club of Rome’s study, “Limits to Growth,” came to epitomize a historical turning point. The book calls into question the fundamental principle of the American economic ideology of capitalism, with its insatiable pursuit of growth. However, the work did not just pillory contemporary practices. It also warned of the extremely diverse and massive consequences for all of humanity. Although there is scarcely any doubt as to the validity of the study and its 1992 successor, “Beyond the Limits,” governments worldwide have done very little to solve the major problems. Topics such as overpopulation, environmental pollution, depletion of resources, and consumption are now familiar to everyone, but few people are aware of the impact they can have in the context of exponential growth on Earth, and therefore on all of humanity. This documentary sheds light on the effect the work has had on public perceptions in the past four decades.

Date 25.11.2015 Duration 42:30 mins.

The Extreme Implausibility of Ecomodernism.

20 07 2016

Another essay by Ted Trainer.


Ted Trainer


Abstract: “Ecomodernism” is a recently coined term for that central element in mainstream Enlightenment culture previously well-described as “Tech-fix faith”. The largely taken for granted assumption has been that by accelerating modern technologies high living standards can be achieved for all, while resolving resource and ecological problems.  The following argument is that ecomodernism falls far short of having a substantial, persuasive or convincing case in its support. It stands as a contradiction of the now voluminous “limits to growth” literature, but it does not attempt to offer a case against the limits thesis. Elements in the limits case will be referred to below but the main line of argument will be to do with the reasons why achievement of the reductions and “decouplings” assumed by ecomodernism is extremely implausible. The conservative social and political implications are noted before briefly arguing that the solution to global problems must be sought via The Simpler Way.

What is ecomodernism?.

The 32 page Ecomodernist Manifesto (2015), by 18 authors, is a clear and emphatic restatement of the common belief that technical advance within the existing social structure can or will solve global problems, and there is therefore no need for radical change in directions, systems, values or lifestyles. Thus the fundamental commitment to ever more affluent “living standards”, capital intensive systems, technical sophistication and constantly rising levels of consumption and GDP is sound, and indeed necessary as it is the only way to enable the future technical advance that it is believed will solve global problems. This will enable human demands to be met while resource and ecological impacts on nature are reduced, thus making it possible to set more of nature aside to thrive. Modern agriculture for instance will producer more from less land, enabling more to be returned to nature and freeing Third World people from backbreaking work while moving into urban living.  Thus the fundamental assumption frequently asserted is that economic growth can be “decoupled” from the environment.

These kinds of visions would obviously require vastly increased quantities of energy but renewable sources are judged not to be capable of providing these, so it is no surprise to find late in the document that it is being assumed that nuclear reactors are going to do the job, nor that the pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute champions the Manifesto.

Unfortunately the Manifesto is little more than a claim.  It provides almost no supporting case apart from giving some examples where technical advance has improved human welfare at reduced resource or ecological impact. It does not deal with the many reasons for thinking that technical advance cannot do what the ecomodernists are assuming it can do.  Above all it does not provide grounds for thinking that that resource demand and ecological damage can be sufficiently decoupled from economic growth. When one of the authors was asked for the supporting case reference was made to the 106 page document Nature Unbounded by Blomqvist, Nordhaus and Shellenberger, (2015.) However this document too is essentially a statement of claims and faith and can hardly be said to present a case that those claims can be realized.

The following discussion is mainly intended to show how implausible and unsubstantiated the general “tech-fix” and decoupling claims are, and that they are contrary to existing evidence.  Most if not all critical discussions of ecomodernism and of left modernization theorists such as Phillips (2015), e.g., by Hopkins (2015), Caradonna et al., 2015, Crist, (2015) and Smaje, (2015a, 2015b), have been impressionistic and “philosophical”. In contrast, the following analysis focuses on numerical considerations which establish the enormity of the ecomodernist claims. When estimates and actual numbers to do with resource demands, resource bases, and ecological impacts are attended to it becomes clear that the task for technical advance set by the ecomodernists is implausible in the extreme.

The basic limits to growth thesis.

The “limits to growth” thesis is that with respect to many factors crucial to planetary sustainability affluent-industrial-consumer society is grossly unsustainable. It has already greatly exceeded important limits. Levels of production and consumption are far beyond those that could be kept up for long or extended to all people.  Present consumption levels are achieved because resource and ecological “stocks” are being depleted much faster than they can regenerate.

But the unsustainable present levels of production, consumption, resource use and environmental impact only begin to define of the problem.  What is overwhelmingly crucial is the universal obsession with continual, never ending economic growth, i.e., with increasing production and consumption, incomes and GDP as much as possible and without limit.  The most important criticism of the ecomodernist position is its failure to grasp the magnitude of the task it confronts when the present overshoot is combined with the commitment to growth.  The main concern in the following discussion is with quantities and multiples, to show how huge and implausible ecomodernist achievements and decouplings would have to be.

The magnitude of the task.

It is the extent of the overshoot that is crucial and not generally appreciated. This is the issue which the ecomodernists fail to deal with and it only takes a glance at the numbers to see how implausible their pronouncements are in relation to the task they set themselves. Their main literature makes no attempt to carry out quantitative examinations of crucial resources and ecological issues with a view to showing that the apparent limits can be overcome.

Let us look at the overall picture revealed when some simple numerical aggregates and estimates are combined.  The normal expectation is for around 3% p.a. growth in GDP, meaning that by 2050 the total amount of producing and consuming going on in the world would be about three times as great as at present. World population is expected to be around 10 billion by 2050.  At present world  $GDP per capita is around $13,000, and the US figure is around $55,000. Thus if we take the ecomodernist vision to imply that by 2050 all people will be living as Americans will be living then, total world output would have to be around 3 x 10/7 x 55,000/13,000 = 18 times as great as it is now.  If the assumptions are extended to 2100 the multiple would be in the region of 80.

However, even the present global level of producing and consuming has an unsustainable level of impact.  The world Wildlife Fund’s “Footprint” measure (2015) indicates that the general overshoot is around 1.5 times a sustainable rate.  (For some factors, notably greenhouse gas emissions, the multiple is far higher.) This indicates that the target for the ecomodernist has to be to reduce overall resource use and ecological impact per unit of output by a factor of around 27 by 2050, and in the region of 120 by 2100. In other words, by 2050 technical advance will have to have reduced the resource demand and environmental impact per unit of output to under 4% of their present levels.

The consideration of required multiples shows the inadequacy of the earlier pronouncements and expectations of the well-known tech-fix optimist Amory Lovins who enthused about the possibility of “Factor Four” or better reductions in materials and energy uses per unit of GDP.  (Von Weisacker and Lovins, 1997, and Hawken, Lovins and Lovins, 1999).If there is a commitment to constant, limitless increase in economic output then the reductions in resource use and environmental damage that can be achieved by such technical advance are soon likely to be overwhelmed.  For instance if use and impact rates per unit of GDP were cut by one-third, but 3% p.a. growth in total output continued, then in about 17 years the resource demands and impacts would be back up to as high as they were before the cuts, and would be twice as great in another 23 years.

This issue of multiples is at the core of the limits and decoupling issues. If ecomodernists wish to be taken seriously they must provide a numerical case showing that in all the relevant domains the degree of decoupling that can be achieved is likely to be of the magnitude that would be required.  There appears to be no ecomodernist text which even attempts to do this.  At best their case refers to a few instances where impressive decoupling has taken place.

Note also the importance here of the Leibig “law of the minimum.” It does not matter how spectacular various technical gains can be if there remains one crucial area where they can’t be made on the required scale.  Plants for instance might have available all the nutrients they need except for one required in minute quantities but if it is not available there will be little or no growth.  High-tech systems often depend heavily on tiny quantities of “mineral vitamins”, notably rare earths which are extremely scarce.

The typically faulty national accounting.

An easily overlooked factor is that in general measures and indices of rich world resource and ecological performance greatly misrepresent and underestimate the seriousness of the situation, because they do not include the large volumes of energy, materials and ecological impact embodied in imported goods.  Rich countries now do not carry out much manufacturing but import most of the goods they consume from Third World plantations and factories.  The implications for resource depletion and ecological impact have only recently begun to be studied. (Weidmann, et al., 2014, 2015, Lenzen, et al., 2012, Wiebe, et al,

2012, Dittrich, et al., 2014, Schütz, et al., 2004.)

An example is given by the conventional measure of CO2 emissions. Australia’s 550 MtCO2e/y equates to a per capita rate of around 25 t/y, which is about the highest in the world. But this does not include the emissions in Third World countries generated by the production of goods imported into Australia.  For Australia and for the UK this amount is actually about as great as the emissions within the country.  (Clark, 2011, Australian Government Climate Change Authority, 2013.)

In addition Australia’s “prosperity” is largely achieved by exporting coal, oil and gas and these contain about three times as much carbon as all the energy used within Australia.  It could be argued therefore that the country’s contribution to the greenhouse gas problem more or less corresponds to five times the official and usually quoted 25 t/pp/y.  The IPCC estimates that by 2050 global emissions must be cut to about 0.3 t/pp/y. (IPCC, 2014.)  This is around one-three hundredth of the amount Australia is now responsible for. Again the centrality of the above magnitude point is evident; how aware are tech-fix optimists of the need for reductions of such proportions?

Assessing the validity of the general “tech-fix” thesis.

Firstly attention will be given to some overall numerical considerations which show the extreme implausibility of the general tech-fix claim, such as the gulf between current “decoupling” achievements and the far higher levels that ecomodernism would require. But that does not take into account the fact that it is going to take increasing effort just to maintain current achievements, for instance as ore grades deteriorate. This what the limits to growth analysis makes clear.  The added significance of this will be discussed later via brief examination of some domains such as energy scarcity, declining ore grades, and deteriorating ecological conditions.

How impressive have the overall gains been?

It is commonly assumed that in general rapid, large or continuous technical gains are being routinely made in crucial areas such as energy efficiency, and will continue if not accelerate.  As a generalisation this belief is quite challengeable. Ayres (2009) notes that for many decades there have been plateaus for the efficiency of production of electricity and fuels, electric motors, ammonia and iron and steel production. His Fig. 4.21a shows no increase in the overall energy efficiency of the US economy since 1960.  He reports that the efficiency of electrical devices in general has actually changed little in a century (2009) “…the energy efficiency of transportation probably peaked around 1960.” This has been partly due to greater use of accessories since then. Ayres notes that reports tend to publicise selected isolated spectacular technical advances and this is misleading regarding long term average trends across whole industries or economies. Mackay (2008) reports that little gain can be expected for air transport.  Huebner’s historical study (2005) found that the rate at which major technical advances have been made (per capita of world population) is declining.  He says that for the US the peak was actually in 1916.

Decoupling can be regarded as much the same as productivity growth and this has been in long term decline since the 1970s. Even the advent of computerisation has had a surprisingly small effect, a phenomenon now labelled the “Productivity Paradox.”

The historical record suggests that at best productivity gains have been modest. It is important not to focus on national measures such as “Domestic Materials Consumption” as these do not take into account materials in imported goods.  Thus the OECD (2015) claims that materials used within its countries has fallen 45% per dollar of GDP, but this figure does not take into account materials embodied in imported goods. When they are included rich countries typically show very low or worsening ratios. The commonly available global GDP (deflated) and energy use figures between 1980 and 2008 reveals only a 0.4% p.a. rise in GDP per unit of energy consumed.   Hattfield-Dodds et al. (2015) say that the efficiency of materials use has been improving at c. 1.5% p.a., but they give no evidence for this and other sources indicate that the figure is too high. Weidmann et al. (2014) show that when materials embodied in imports are taken into account rich countries have not improved their resource productivity in recent years. They say “…for the past two decades global amounts of iron ore and bauxite extractions have risen faster than global GDP.” “… resource productivity…has fallen in developed nations.” “There has been no improvement whatsoever with respect to improving the economic efficiency of metal ore use.”

The fact that the “energy intensity” of rich world economies, i.e., ratio of GDP to gross energy used within the country has declined is often seen as evidence of decoupling but this is misleading. It does not take into account the above issue of failure to include energy embodied in imports. Possibly more important is the long term process of “fuel switching”, i.e., moving to forms of energy which are of “higher quality” and enable more work per unit. For instance a unit of energy in the form of gas enables more value to be created than a unit in the form of coal, because gas is more easily transported, switched on and off, or converted from one function to another, etc. (Stern and Cleveland, 2004, p. 33, Cleveland et al., 1984, Kaufmann, 2004,  Office of Technology Assessments, 1990, Berndt, 1990, Schurr and Netschurt, 1960.)

Giljum et al. (2014, p. 324) report only a 0.9% p.a. improvement in the dollar value extracted from the use of each unit of minerals between 1980 and 2009, and that over the 10 years before the GFC there was no improvement. “…not even a relative decoupling was achieved on the global level.” They note that the figures would have been worse had the production of much rich world consumption not been outsourced to the Third World. Their Fig. 2, shows that over the period 1980 to 2009 the rate at which the world decoupled materials use from GDP growth was only one third of that which would have achieved an “absolute” decoupling, i.e., growth of GDP without any increase in materials use.

Diederan’s account (2009) of the productivity of minerals discovery effort is even more pessimistic. Between 1980 and 2008 the annual major deposit discovery rate fell from 13 to less than 1, while discovery expenditure went from about $1.5 billion p.a. to $7 billion p.a., meaning the productivity expenditure fell by a factor in the vicinity of around 100, which is an annual decline of around 40% p.a. Recent petroleum figures are similar; in the last decade or so discovery expenditure more or less trebled but the discovery rate has not increased.

A recent paper in Nature by a group of 18 scientists at the high-prestige Australian CSIRO (Hatfield-Dodds et al., 2015) argued that decoupling could eliminate any need to worry about limits to growth at least to 2050. The article contained no support for the assumption that the required rate of decoupling was achievable and when it was sought (through personal communication) reference was made to the paper by Schandl et al. (2015.)  However that paper contained the following surprising statements, “ … there is a very high coupling of energy use to economic growth, meaning that an increase in GDP drives a proportional increase in energy use.”  (They say the EIA, 2012, agrees.) “Our results show that while relative decoupling can be achieved in some scenarios, none would lead to an absolute reduction in energy or materials footprint.” In all three of their scenarios “…energy use continues to be strongly coupled with economic activity…”

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural Economics (ABARE, 2008) reports that the energy efficiency of energy-intensive industries is likely to improve by only 0.5% p.a. in future, and of non-energy-intensive industries by 0.2% p.a. In other words it would take 140 years for the energy efficiency of the intensive industries to double the amount of value they derive from a unit of energy.

Alexander (2014) concludes his review of decoupling by saying, ”… decades of extraordinary technological development have resulted in increased, not reduced, environmental impacts.”  Smil (2014) concludes that even in the richest countries absolute dematerialization is not taking place. Alvarez found that for Europe, Spain and the US GDP increased 74% in 20 years, but materials use actually increased 85%. (Latouche, 2014.) Similar conclusions re stagnant or declining materials use productivity etc. are arrived at by Aadrianse, 1997, Dettrich et al., (2014), Schutz, Bringezu and Moll, (2004), Warr, (2004), Berndt, (undated), and Victor (2008, pp. 55-56).

These sources and figures indicate the lack of support for the ecomodernists’ optimism. It was seen above that they are assuming that in 35 years time there can be massive absolute decoupling, i.e., that energy, materials and ecological demand associated with $1 of GDP can be reduced by a factor of around 27. But even if the 1.5% p.a. rate Hattfield-Dodds et al. say has been the recent achievement for materials use could be maintained the reduction would only be around a factor of 1.7, and various sources noted above say that their assumed rate is incorrect. There appears to be no ecomodernist literature that even attempts to provide good reason to think a general absolute decoupling is possible, let alone on the required scale.

The overlooked role of energy in productivity growth and decoupling.

Discussions of technical advance and economic growth have generally failed to focus on the significance of increased energy use. Previously productivity has been analysed only in terms of labour and capital “factors of production”, but it is now being recognized that in general greater output etc. has been achieved primarily through increased use of energy (and switching to fuels of higher “quality”, such as from coal and gas to electricity.)  Agriculture is a realm where technical advance has been predominantly a matter of increased energy use. Over the last half century productivity measured in terms of yields per ha or per worker have risen dramatically, but these have been mostly due to even greater increases in the amount of energy being poured into agriculture, on the farm, in the production of machinery, in the transport, pesticide, fertilizer, irrigation, packaging and marketing sectors, and in getting the food from the supermarket to the front door, and then dealing with the waste food and packaging. Less than 2% of the US workforce is now on farms, but agriculture accounts for around 17% of all energy used (not including several of the factors listed above.) Similarly the “Green Revolution” has depended largely on ways that involve greater energy use.

Ayres, et al., (2013), Ayres, Ayres and Warr (2002) and Ayres and Vouroudis (2013) are among those beginning to stress the significance of energy in productivity, and pointing to the likelihood of increased energy problems in future and thus declining productivity. Murillo-Zamorano, (2005, p. 72) says  “…our results show a clear relationship between energy consumption and productivity growth.” Berndt (1990) finds that technical advance accounts for only half the efficiency gains in US electricity generation. These findings caution against undue optimism regarding what pure technical advance can achieve independently from increased energy inputs; in general its significance for productivity gains appears not to have been as great as has been commonly assumed.

The productivity trend associated with this centrally important factor, energy, is itself in serious decline, evident in long term data on EROI ratios. Several decades ago the expenditure of the energy in one barrel of oil could produce 30 barrels of oil, but now the ratio is around 18 and falling. The ratio of petroleum energy discovered to energy required has fallen from 1000/1 in 1919 to 5/1 in 2006. (Murphy, 2010.) Murphy and others suspect  that an industrialised society cannot be maintained on a general energy ratio under about 10. (Hall, Lambert and Balough, 2014.)

The changing components of GDP.

Over recent decades there has been a marked increase in the proportion of rich nation GDP that is made up of “financial” services. These stand for “production” that takes the form of key strokes moving electrons around.  A great deal of it is wild speculation, making risky loans and making computer driven micro-second switches “investments”. These operations deliver massive increases in income to banks and managers, and these have significantly contributed to GDP figures. It could be argued that this domain should not be included in estimates of productivity because it misleadingly inflates the numerator in the output/labour ratio.

When output per worker in the production of “real” goods and services such as food and vehicles, or aged care is considered very different impressions can be gained.  For instance Kowalski (2011) reports that between 1960 and 2010 world cereal production increased 250%, but nitrogen fertilizer use in cereal production increased 750%, and land area used increased 40%. This aligns with the above evidence on steeply falling productivity of various inputs for ores and energy. It is therefore desirable to avoid analysing productivity, the “energy intensity” of an economy, and decoupling achievements in relation to the GDP measure.

Factors limiting the benefits from a technical advance.

There are several factors which typically determine the gains a technical advance actually enables are well below those that seem possible at first.  Engineers and economists make the following distinctions.

“Technical potential”  refers to what could be achieved if the technology could be fully applied with no regard to cost or other problems.

Economic (or ecological) potential”.  This is usually much less than the technical potential because to achieve all the gains that are technically possible would cost too much.  For instance some The Worldwide Fund for Nature quotes Smeets and Faiij (2007) as finding that it would be technically possible for the world’s forests to produce another 64 EJ/y of biomass energy p.a., but they say that the ecologically tolerable potential is only 8 EJ/y.

What are the net gains?  Enthusiastic claims about a technical advance typically focus on the gains and not the costs which should be subtracted to give a net value.  For instance the energy needed to keep buildings warm can be reduced markedly, but it costs a considerable amount of energy to do this, in the electricity needed to run the air-conditioning and heat pumps, and in the energy embodied in the insulation and triple glazing. There are also knock-on effects.  The Green Revolution doubled food yields, but only by introducing crops that required high energy inputs in the form of expensive fertlilzer, seeds and irrigation, and created social costs to do with the disruption of peasant communities.

  • What is socially/politically possible?  There are limits set by what people will accept.  It would be technically possible for many more people in any city to get to work by public transport, but large numbers would not give up the convenience of their cars even if they saved money doing so.
  • The Jeavons or “rebound” effect.  There is a strong tendency for savings made possible by a technical advance to be spent on consuming more of the thing saved, or something else.

Thus it is important to recognise that initial claims usually refer to “technical potential”, but significantly lower savings etc. are likely in the real world.

Now add the worsening limits.

The discussion so far has only dealt with decoupling achievements to date, but the difficulties involved in those achievements are in general likely to have been much less severe than those ahead, as there is continued deterioration in ore grades, forests, soils, chemical pollution, water supplies etc.  It is important now to consider briefly some of these domains, to see how they will make the task for the ecomodernist increasingly difficult.

Before looking at some specific areas the general “low hanging fruit” effect should be mentioned.  When effort is put into dealing with problems, recycling, conserving, increasing efficiency etc. the early achievements might be spectacular but as the easiest options are used up progress typically becomes more difficult and slow. This is so even when there are no problems of dwindling resource availability.


The grades of several ores being mined are falling and production costs have increased considerably since 1985. Topp (2008) reports that the productivity for Australian mining has declined 24% between 2000 and 2007. While reserve estimates can be misleading as they only state quantities miners have found to date, and they often increase over time, there is considerable concern about the depletion rate.

Dierderen (2009) says that continuation of current consumption rates will mean that we will have much less than 50 years left of cheap and abundant access to metal minerals, and that it will take exponentially more energy and minerals input to grow or even sustain the current extraction rate of metal minerals. He expects copper, nickel, molybdenum and cobalt to peak before 2035. Deideren’s conclusion is indeed, as his title says, sobering; “The peak in primary production of most metals may be reached no later than halfway through the 2020s.” (p. 23.) “Without timely implementation of mitigation strategies, the world will soon run out of all kinds of affordable mass products and services.”  Such as… “cheap mass-produced consumer electronics like mobile phones, flat screen TVs and personal computers, for lack of various scarce metals (amongst others indium and tantalum). Also, large-scale conversion towards more sustainable forms of energy production, energy conversion and energy storage would be slowed down by a lack of sufficient platinum-group metals, rare-earth metals and scarce metals like gallium. This includes large-scale application of high-efficiency solar cells and fuel cells and large-scale electrification of land-based transport.” Deideren points out that Gallium, Germanium, Indium and Tellurium are crucial for renewable technologies but are by-products currently available in low quantity from the mining of other minerals.  If the latter peak so will the availability of the former.

Scarcities in one domain often have knock-on and negative feedback effects in others.  Diederan says, “The most striking (and perhaps ironic) consequence of a shortage of metal elements is its disastrous effect on global mining and primary production of fossil fuels and minerals: these activities require huge amounts of main and ancillary equipment and consumables (e.g. barium for barite based drilling mud)”. (p. 9.)

The ecomodernist’s response must be to advocate mining poorer grade ores, but this means dealing with marked increases in energy and environmental costs.

  • The quantity of rock that has to be dug up increases. For ores at half the initial grade the quantity doubles, and so does the energy needed to dig, transport and crush it.
  • Poorer ores require finer grinding and more chemical reagents to release mineral components, meaning greater energy demand and waste treatment.
  • Meanwhile the easiest deposits to access are being depleted so it takes more energy to find, get to, and work the newer ones. They tend to be further away, deeper, and smaller.
  • Processing rich ores can be chemically quite different to processing poor ores. Only a very small proportion of any mineral existing in the earth’s crust has been concentrated by natural processes into ore deposits, between .001% and .01%, and the rest exists in common rock, mostly in silicates which are more energy-intensive to process than oxides and sulphides.  To extract a metal from its richest occurrence in common rock would take 10 to 100 times as much energy as to extract if from the poorest ore deposit. To extract a unit of copper from the richest common rocks would require about 1000 times as much energy per kg as is required to process ores used today.

Now consider the minerals situation in relation to the multiples issue. At present only a few countries are using most of the planet’s minerals production.  For instance the per capita consumption of iron ore for the ten top consuming countries is actually around 90 times the figure for all other countries combined. (Weidmann et al., 2013.) How long would mineral supply hold up, at what cost, if 9 – 10 people billion were to try to rise to rich world “living standards”? How likely is it that in view of current ore grade depletion rates and the miniscule decoupling achievement for minerals, the global amount of producing and consuming could multiply by 27, or 120, while the absolute amount of minerals consumed declined markedly?

The ecomodernist cannot hope to deal with the minerals problem without assuming very large scale adoption of nuclear energy, which they are willing to do.


Most climate scientists now seem to accept the approach put forward by Meinshausen et al., (2009), and followed by the IPCC (2013) in analyzing in terms of a budget, an amount of carbon release that must not be exceeded if the 2 degree target is to be met.  They estimate that to have a 67% chance of keeping global temperature rise below this the amount of CO2e that can be released between 2000 and 2050 is 1,700 billion tonnes. By 2012 emissions accounted for 36% of this amount, meaning that if the present emission rate is kept up the budget would have been used up by 2033.  Given the seriousness of the possible consequences many regard a 67% chance as being too low and a2 degree rise as too high. (Anderson and Bows, 2008, and Hansen, 2008.)  For an 80% chance the budget limit would be 1,370 billion tonnes.

Few would say there is any possibility of eliminating emissions by 2033. Many emissions come from sources that would be difficult to control or reduce, such as carbon electrodes in the electric production of steel and aluminium. Only about 40% of US emissions come from power generation. Thus power station Carbon Capture and Storage technology cannot solve the problem.

Even the IPCC’s most optimistic emissions reduction scenario, RCP 2.6, could be achieved only if as yet non-existent technology will be able to take 1 billion tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere every year through the last few decades of this century. (IPCC, 2014.)

Ecomodernists mostly regard the climate problem as solvable by the intensive adoption of nuclear energy. However even the most rapid build conceivable could not achieve the Meinschausen et al. target.


About half the world’s people now live in cities, and the ecomodernist strongly advocates increasing this markedly, on the grounds that intensification of settlement will enable freeing more space for nature.  This is an area where knock-on effects are significant. Urban living involves many high resource and ecological costs, including having to move in vast amounts of energy, goods, services and workers, to maintain elaborate infrastructures including those to lift water and people living in high-rise apartments, having to move out all “wastes”, having to provide artificial light, heating, cooling, air purification, having to build freeways, bridges, railways, airports, container terminals, and having to staff complex systems with expensive highly trained professionals and specialists.  Little or none of this dollar, energy, resource or ecological cost has to be met when people live in villages (See on Simpler Way settlements below).

The frequent superficiality and invalidity of the Manifesto’s case is illustrated by the following statement. “Cities occupy just 1 to 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet are home to nearly 4 billion people. As such, cities both drive and symbolize the decoupling of humanity from nature, performing far better than rural economies in providing efficiently for material needs…” This statement overlooks the vast areas needed to produce and transport food etc. into the relatively small urban areas. If four billion were to live as San Franciscans do now, with a footprint over 7 ha per person, the total global footprint would be almost 30 billion ha, 200% of the Earth’s surface, not 1- 3%. (WWF, 2014.) Urbanisation does not  “decouple humanity from nature”.

Biological resources and impacts.

Perhaps the most worrying limits being encountered are not to do with minerals or energy but involve the deterioration of biological resources and environmental systems. The life support systems of the planet, the natural resources and processes on which all life on earth depends, are being so seriously damaged that the World Wildlife Fund claims there has been a 30% deterioration since about 1970. Steffen et al., (2015) state much the same situation. A brief reference to a number of impacts is appropriate here to again indicate the magnitude of present problems and their rate of growth.

Biodiversity loss.

Species are being driven to extinction at such an increasing rate that it is claimed the sixth holocaust of biodiversity loss has begun. The rate has been estimated at 114 times the natural background rate. (Ceballos, et al., 2015, Kolbert, 2014.) The numbers or mass of big animals has declined dramatically. “… vertebrate species populations across the globe are, on average, about half the size they were 40 years ago.” (Carrington, 2014.) The mass of big animals in the sea is only 10% of what it was some decades ago. The biomass of corals on the Great Barrier Reef is only half what it was about three decade ago. By the end of the 20th century half the wetlands and one third of coral reefs had been lost. (Washington, 2014.)

Disruption of the nitrogen cycle.

Humans are releasing about as much nitrogen via artificial production, especially for agriculture, as nature releases. This has been identified as one of the nine most serious threats to the biosphere by the Planetary Boundaries Project. (Rockstrom and Raeworth, 2014.)

The increasing toxicity of the environment.

Large volumes of artificially produced chemicals are entering ecosystems disrupting and poisoning them.  This includes the plastics concentrating in the oceans and killing marine life.


Serious water shortages are impacting in about 80 countries. More than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling. Over 175 million Indians and 130 million Chinese are fed by crops watered by pumps running at unsustainable rates. (Brown, 2011, p. 58.) Access to water will probably be the major source of conflict in the world in coming years. About 480 million people are fed by food produced from water pumped from underground. The water tables are falling fast and the petrol to run the pumps might not be available soon. In Australia overuse of water has led to serious problems, such as salinity in the Murray-Darling system. By 2050 the volume of water in these rivers might be cut to half the present amount, as the greenhouse problem impacts.


Nearly all fisheries are being over-fished and the global fish catch is likely to go down from here on.  The mass of big fish in the oceans, such as shark and tuna, is now only 10% of what it was some decades ago. Ecomodernists assume that aquaculture will solve the fish supply problem. It is not clear what they think the farmed fish will be fed on.


Among the most worrying effects is the increasing acidification of the seas, dissolving the shells of many ocean animals, including the krill which are at the base of major ocean food chains.  This effect plus the heating of the oceans is seriously damaging corals.  The coral life on the Great Barrier Reef is down 30% on its original level, and there is a good chance the whole reef will be lost in forty years. (Hoegh-Guldberg, 2015.)

Food, land, agriculture.

Food supply will have to double to provide for the expected 2050 world population, and it is increasingly unlikely that this can be done. Food production increase trends are only around 60% of the rate of increase needed. (Ray, et al., 2013.) Food prices and shortages are already serious problems, causing riots in some countries.  If all people we will soon have on earth had an American diet we would need 5 billion ha of cropland, but there are only 1.4 billion ha on the planet and that area is likely to reduce as ecosystems deteriorate, water supply declines, salinity and erosion continue, population numbers and pressures to produce increase, land is used for new settlements and to produce more meat and bio-fuels, and as global warming has a number of negative effects on food production.

Burn, (2015) and Vidal (2010) both report the rate of food producing land loss at 30 million ha p.a. Vidal says, “…the implications are terrifying”, and he believes major food shortages are threatening. Pimentel says one third of all cropland has been lost in the last 40 years. China might be the worse case, losing 600 square miles p.a. in the 1950 – 1970 period, but by 2000 the rate had risen to 1,400 square miles p.a.  For 50 years about 500 villages have had to be abandoned every year due to incoming sand from the expanding deserts. If the estimates by Burn and Vidal are correct then more than 1 billion ha of cropland will have been lost by 2050, which is two-thirds of all cropland in use today.

The Ecomodernist Manifesto devotes considerable attention to the issue of future food production, using it as an example of the wonders technical advance can bring, including liberating peasants from backbreaking work. It is claimed that advances in modern agriculture will enable production of far more food on far less land, enabling much land to go back to nature. There is no recognition of the fact that modern agriculture is grossly unsustainable, on many dimensions.  It is extremely energy intensive, involving large scale machinery, international transport, energy-intensive inputs of fertilizer and pesticides, packaging, warehousing, freezing, dumping of less than perfect fruit and vegetables, serious soil damage through acidification and compaction, carbon loss and erosion, the energy-costly throwing away of nutrients in animal manures, the destruction of small scale farming and rural communities, the loss of the precious heritage that is genetic diversity … and the loss of food nutrient and taste quality (most evident in the plastic tomato.)

On all these dimensions peasant and home gardening and other elements in local agriculture such as ”edible landscapes”, community gardens and commons are superior. The one area where modern agriculture scores better is to do with labour costs, but that is due to the use of all that energy-intensive machinery. Ecomodernists do not seem to realize what a fundamental challenge is set for them by the well-established “inverse productivity relationship”, i.e., the fact that small scale food producers achieve higher yields per ha. (Smaje, 2015a, 2015b.) They are able to almost completely avoid food packaging, advertising and transport costs, to recycle all nutrients to local soils, benefit from overlaps and multiple functions (e.g., geese weed orchards, ducks eat snails, kitchen scraps feed poultry…) Possibly most importantly, local food production systems maximize the provision of livelihoods and are fundamental elements in resilient and sustainable communities.

Again a daunting challenge is set for the ecomodernist. Presumably the far higher yields from far less land will involve energy intensive high-rise greenhouses, water desalinisation, aquaculture, near 100% phosphorus and other nutrient recycling, elimination of nitrogen run-off, restoration of soil carbon levels, synthetic meat, and extensive global transport and packaging systems. Again numerical analyses aimed at showing what the energy, materials  and dollar budgets would be, or that the goals can be met, are not offered. In addition a glance at the tech fix vision for future food supply reveals the many knock on effects that would multiply problems in many other areas, most obviously energy, infrastructure and water provision and the associated demand for materials.

A glance at the energy implications for beef production should again establish the magnitude point. To produce one kg of beef take can take 20,000 litres of water, and it can take 4 kWh to desalinize 1 liter of water. Again it is evident that there would have to be very large scale commitment to nuclear energy.

            Summarising the biological resource situation.

The environmental problem is essentially due to the huge and unsustainable volumes of producing and consuming taking place.  Vast quantities of resources are being extracted from nature and vast quantities of wastes are being dumped back into nature. Present flows are grossly unsustainable but the ecomodernist believes the basic commitment to ever-increasing “living standards” that is creating the problems can and should continue, while population multiplies by 1.5, resources dwindle, and consumption multiplies perhaps by eight by 2100.

The energy implications.

In all the fields discussed it is evident that the ecomodernist vision would have to involve a very large increase in energy production and consumption, including for processing lower grade ores, producing much more food from much less land, desalinisation of water, dealing with greatly increased amounts of industrial waste (especially mining waste), and constructing urban infrastructures. The “no-limits-to-growth” scenario for Australia 2050 put forward by Hattfield-Dodds et al. concludes that present energy use would have to multiply by 2.7, more than most if not all other projections, and their scenarios do not take into account the energy needed to deal with any of the knock-on effects discussed above. (And their conclusion is based on a highly implausible rate of decoupling materials use from GDP growth, i.e., up to 4.5% p.a.)

If 9 billion people were to live on the per capita amount of energy Americans now average, world energy consumption in 2050 would be around x5 (for the US to world average ratio) x10/7 (for population growth) times the present 550 EJ p.a., i.e., around 3,930 EJ. Let us assume it is all to come from nuclear reactors, that technical advance cuts one-third off the energy needed to do everything, but that moving to poorer ores, desalinisation etc. and converting to (inefficient) hydrogen supply for many storage and transport functions counterbalance that gain.  The nuclear generating capacity needed would be around 450 times as great as at present.

Conclusions re the significance of the limits to growth.

This brief reference to themes within the general “limits to growth” account makes it clear that the baseline on which ecomodernist visions must build is not given by presentconditions. As Steffen et al. (2015) stress the baseline is one of not just deteriorating conditions, but accelerating deterioration. It is as if the ecomodernists are claiming that their A380 can be got to climb at a 60 degree angle, which is far steeper than it has ever done before, but at present it is in an alarming and accelerating decline with just about all its systems in trouble and some apparently beyond repair. The problem is the wild party on board, passengers and crew dancing around a bonfire and throwing bottles at the instruments, getting more drunk by the minute. A few passengers are saying the party should stop, but no one is listening, not even the pilots. The ecomodernist’s problem is not just about producing far more metals, it is about producing far more as grades decline, it is not just about producing much more food, it is about producing much more despite the fact that problems to do with water availability, soils, the nitrogen cycle, acidification, and carbon loss are getting worse.  It can be argued that on many separate fronts halting the deteriorating trends is now unlikely to be achieved. Yet the ecomodernist wants us to believe that the curves can be made to cease falling and to rise dramatically, without abandoning the quests for affluence and growth which are responsible for their deterioration.  Stopping the party is not thought to warrant consideration.

            The implications for centralisation, control and power.

The ecomodernist vision would have to involve vast, technically sophisticated, expert-run, bureaucratized and centralized global systems, most obviously for the control of the nuclear sector, e.g., to prevent access to weapons grade material. Both corporate and governmental agencies would have to be very large in scale, and relations between the corporate sector and top levels of government would set problems to do with openness, public accountability, democratic control, and corruption. Most production would be from a relatively few gigantic and automated mines, factories, feed lots, mega-greenhouses and plantations compressed into the relatively few best sites.  How this would provide jobs and livelihoods to perhaps 6 billion Third world poor would need to be explained. The provision of large amounts of capital would probably become much more centralised and problematic than it has been in the GFC era.

A “development” model focused on these massive, centralized, expert-dependent and capital intensive systems is not obviously going to improve the already severe problem of global inequality. Mega corporations will run the automated vertical farms and desal plants, assisted by governments who in the past have had no difficulty legislating to clear the locals out of the way, as when Third World governments enable GDP-raising palm oil plantations, logging, big dams and aquaculture. Thus Smaje regards ecomodernism as a new enclosure movement.

Morgan (2012) and Korrowicz (2012) provide disturbing accounts of the fragility and lack of resilience of highly integrated and complex systems. Tainter, (1988), draws attention to the way increasing system complexity leads towards negative synergisms and breakdown. For instance where two roads cross in a village no infrastructure might be needed but in a city multi-million dollar flyovers can be required. As Rome’s road system grew the effort needed just to maintain them grew towards taking up all road building capacity. Among the chief virtues of the small and local path are its robustness, redundancy and resilience, the capacity for simple repairs to simple systems, as well as its capacity to provide livelihoods to large numbers of people.

Above all the ecomodernist vision stands for the rejection of any suggestion that the economy needs altering, let alone scrapping, or that rampant-consumer culture needs to be replaced.  The problems are defined as purely technical. If minerals are becoming scare the solution is not to reduce use of them but to increase production of them. Thus there is no need to think about giving up consumerism, economic growth, the market system or the capitalist system. Radical thought and action need not be considered. Smaje describes it as “neoliberalism with a green veneer.” These messages are as consoling to the present working class and the precariat as they are to the capitalist class.

The mistaken “uni-dimensional” assumption.

Frequently evident in ecomodernist thinking is the way that development, emancipation, technology, progress, comfort, the elimination of disease and hunger are seen to lie along the one path that runs from primitive through peasant worlds to the present and the future.  At the modern end of the dimension there is material abundance, science and high technology, the market economy, freedom from backbreaking work, complex civilization with high educational standards and sophisticated culture. It is taken for granted that your choice is only about where you are on that dimension. Third World “development” can only be about moving up the dimension to greater capital investment, involvement in the global market, trade, GDP and consumer society. Thus they see localism and small is beautiful as “going back”, and condemning billions to continued hardship and deprivation.  Opposition to their advocacy of more modernism is met with, “…well, what period in history do you want to go back to?”

This world-view fails to grasp several things.  The first is the possibility that there might be more than one path; the Zapatista’s do not want to follow our path.  Another is that we  might opt for other end points than the one modernization is taking us to.  A third is that we might deliberately select desirable development goals rather than just accept where modernization takes us, and on some dimensions we might choose not to develop any further.  Ecomodernism has no concept of sufficiency or good enough; Smaje sees how it endorses being incessantly driven to strive for bigger and better, and he notes the spiritual costs. Many ecovillages are developed enough.

Possibly most important, it is conceivable that we could opt for a combination of elements from different points on the path. For instance there is no reason why we cannot have both sophisticated modern medicine and the kind of supportive community that humans have enjoyed for millennia, and have both technically astounding aircraft along with small, cheap, humble, fireproof, home made and beautiful mud brick houses, and have modern genetics along with neighbourhood poultry co-ops. Long ago humans had worked out how to make excellent and quite good enough houses, strawberries, dinners and friendships. We could opt for stable, relaxed, convivial and sufficient ways in some domains while exploring better ways in others, but ecomodernists see only two options; going forward or backward. They seem to have no interest in which elements in modernism are worthwhile and which of them should be dumped. The Frankfurt School saw some of them leading to Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

The inability to think in other than uni-dimensional terms is most tragic with respect to Third World “development”.  Conventional-capitalist development theory can only promise a “growth and trickle down” path, which if it continues would take many decades to lift all to tolerable conditions while the rich rise to the stratosphere, but which cannot continue if the limits to growth analysis of the global situation is correct. Yet The Simpler Way might quickly lift all to satisfactory conditions using mostly traditional technologies and negligible capital. (Trainer, 2012, 2013a, 2013b, Leahy, 2009.)

In his critique of Phillips (2014) Smaje (2015b) sees the Faustian bargain here, the readiness to suffer, indeed embrace, the relentless discontent, struggle, disruption and insecurity that modernism involves, without realizing that we might opt to take the benefits of modernism while dumping the disadvantages and designing ways of life that provide security, stability, a relaxed pace and a high quality of life for all.

A radically alternative vision; The Simpler Way.

Until the last decade or so there was no alternative to the dominant implicit ecomodernist world view, but now significant challenges have emerged, most evidently in the overlapping Eco-village, Degrowth, Transition Towns and localism movements. The fundamental beginning point for these is acceptance of the “limits to growth” case that levels of production, consumption, resource use and ecological impact are extremely unsustainable and that the resulting global problems cannot be solved unless there are dramatic reductions.  The core Simpler Way vision claim is that these reductions can be made while significantly improving the quality of life, even in the richest countries, but not without radical change in systems and lifestyles.  Following is a brief indication of some of the main elements in this vision. (For the detailed account see Trainer, 2011.)

The basic settlement form is the small scale town or suburb, restructured to be a highly self-sufficient local economy running mostly on local resources and requiring a minimal amount of resources and goods to be imported from further afield.  State and national governments would still exist but with relatively few functions. There would be extensive development of local commons such as community watersheds, forests, edible landscapes, workshops and windmills etc. and cooperatives would provide many goods and services. Extensive use could be made of high tech systems but mostly relatively low technologies would be used in small firms and farms, especially earth building, hand tool craft production, Permaculture, community gardening and commons. Leisure committees would maintain leisure rich communities, and other committees would manage orchards, woodlots, agricultural research, and the welfare of disabled, teenage, aged and other groups. Local economies would dramatically reduce the need for vehicles and transport, enabling conversion of many roads to community food production.

These settlements would have to be self-governing via thoroughly participatory procedures, including town meetings and referenda. Citizens are the only ones who can understand local conditions, problems and needs, and they would have to work out the best policies for the town and to own the decisions arrived at. Centralised states could not govern them at all effectively, especially given the much diminished resources that will be available to states.  More importantly the town would not meet its own needs well unless its citizens had a strong sense of empowerment and control and responsibility for their own affairs.

Systems, procedures and the overriding ethos would have to be predominantly cooperative and collective, given the recognition that individual welfare would depend heavily on how well the town was functioning. It would not be likely to thrive unless there was an atmosphere of inclusion and care, solidarity and responsibility.

An entirely new kind of economy would be needed, one that did not grow, rationally geared productive capacity to social need, had per capita levels of production, consumption, resource use and GDP far below current levels, was under public control, and was not driven by market forces, profit or competition. However, there might also be a large sector made up of privately owned small firms and farms, producing to sell in local markets, but operating under careful guidelines set by the town to ensure optimum benefit for the town. The transition period would essentially be about slowly establishing those enterprises, infrastructures, cooperatives, commons and institutions (Economy B) whereby the town developed its capacity to make sure that what needs doing is done, within the exiting mainly fee enterprise system (Economy A.) Over time experience would indicate the best balance between the two, and whether there was any need for the market sector.

There would be many free” goods from the commons, a large non-cash sector involving sharing, giving, helping and voluntary working bees, and almost no finance sector. Small public banks with elected boards would hold savings and arrange loans for maintenance or restructuring.  Some people might pay all their tax by extra contributions to the community working bees. Communities would ensure that there was no unemployment or poverty, no isolation or exclusion, all felt secure, and that all had a livelihood, a worthwhile and valued contribution to make to the town. Because the goal would be material lifestyles that were frugal but sufficient, involving for instance small and very low cost earth built houses, on average people might need to work for money only two days a week. It can be argued that the quality of life would be higher than it is for most people in rich countries today. Lest these ideas seem fanciful, they describe the ways many thousands now live in ecovillages and Transition Towns.

Beyond the town or suburban level there would be regional and national economies, and larger cities containing universities, steel works, and large scale production, e.g., of railway equipment, but their activities would be greatly reduced, and re oriented to provisioning the local economies. There would be little international trade or travel. The termination of the present vast expenditure on wasteful production would enable the amount spent on socially useful R and to be significantly increased.

A detailed analysis of an Australian suburban geography (Trainer, 2016) concludes that technically it would be relatively easy to carry out the very large reductions and restructurings indicated, possibly cutting in energy and dollar costs by around 90%.

It is obvious that the Simpler Way vision could not be realised unless there was enormous “cultural” change, especially away from competitive, acquisitive, maximising individualism and towards frugality, collectivism, sufficiency and responsible citizenship. Fortunately there is now increasing recognition that pursuing ever greater material wealth and GDP is not a promising path to greater human welfare. In a zero-growth settlement there could be no concern with the accumulation of wealth; all would have to be content with stable and secure circumstances, to enjoy non-material life satisfactions, and to be aware that their “welfare” depended not on their individual monetary wealth but on public wealth, i.e., on their town’s infrastructures, systems, edible landscapes, free concerts, working bees, committees, leisure resources, solidarity and morale.

Thus from The Simpler Way perspective the solution to global problems is not a technical issue; it is a value issue. We have all the technology we need to create admirable societies and idyllic lives. But this can’t be done if growth and affluence remain the overriding goals.

At present there would seem to be little chance that a transition to The Simpler Way will be achieved, but that is not central here; the issue is whether this vision or that of the ecomodernist makes more sense.


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6 07 2016

15 Realities of our Global Environmental Crisis

By Deep Green Resistance

  1. Industrial civilization is not, and can never be, sustainable.

Any social system based on the use of non-renewable resources is by definition unsustainable. Non-renewable means it will eventually run out. If you hyper-exploit your non-renewable surroundings, you will deplete them and die. Even for your renewable surroundings like trees, if you exploit them faster than they can regenerate, you will deplete them and die. This is precisely what civilization has been doing for its 10,000-year campaign – running through soil, rivers, and forests as well as metal, coal, and oil.

  1. Industrial civilization is causing a global collapse of life.

Due to industrial civilization’s insatiable appetite for growth, we have exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity. Once the carrying capacity of an area is surpassed, the ecological community is severely damages, and the longer the overshoot lasts, the worse the damage, until the population eventually collapses. This collapse is happening now. Every 24 hours up to 200 species become extinct. 90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone. 98% of native forests, 99% of wetlands, and 99% of native grasslands have been wiped out.


  1. Industrial civilization is based on and requires ongoing systematic violence to operate.

This way of life is based on the perceived right of the powerful to take whatever resources they want. All land on which industrial civilization is now based on land that was taken by force from its original inhabitants, and shaped using processes – industrial forestry, mining, smelting – that violently shape the world to industrial ends. Traditional communities do not often voluntarily give up or sell resources on which their communities and homes are based and do not willingly allow their landbases to be damaged so that other resources – gold, oil, and so on – can be extracted. It follows that those who want the resources will do what they can to acquire these resources by any means necessary. Resource extraction cannot be accomplished without force and exploitation.

  1. In order for the world as we know it to exist on a day-to-day basis, a vast and growing degree of destruction and death must occur.

Industrialization is a process of taking entire communities of living beings and turning them into commodities and dead zones. Trace every industrial artifact back to its source­ and you find the same devastation: mining, clear-cuts, dams, agriculture, and now tar sands, mountaintop removal, and wind farms. These atrocities, and others like them, happen all around us, every day, just to keep things running normally. There is no kinder, greener version of industrial civilization that will do the trick of leaving us a living planet.

  1. This way of being is not natural.

Humans and their immediate evolutionary predecessors lived sustainably for at least a million years. It is not “human nature” to destroy one’s habitat. The “centralization of political power, the separation of classes, the lifetime division of labor, the mechanization of production, the magnification of military power, the economic exploitation of the weak, and the universal introduction of slavery and forced labor for both industrial and military purposes”[1] are only chief features of civilization, and are constant throughout its history.

  1. Industrial civilization is only possible with cheap energy.

The only reason industrial processes such as large-scale agriculture and mining even function is because of cheap oil; without that, industrial processes go back to depending on slavery and serfdom, as in most of the history of civilization.

  1. Peak oil, and hence the era of cheap oil, has passed.

Peak oil is the point at which oil production hits its maximum rate. Peak oil has passed and extraction will decline from this point onwards. This rapid decline in the availability of global energy will result in increasing economic disruption and upset. The increasing cost and decreasing supply of energy will undermine manufacturing and transportation and cause global economic turmoil. Individuals, companies, and even states will go bankrupt. International trade will nosedive because of a global depression. The poor will be unable to cope with the increasing cost of basic goods, and eventually the financial limits will result in large-scale energy-intensive manufacturing becoming impossible – resulting in, among other things – the collapse of agricultural infrastructure, and the associated transportation and distribution network.

At this point in time, there are no good short-term outcomes for global human society. The collapse of industrial civilization is inevitable, with or without our input, it’s just a matter of time. The problem is that every day the gears of this destructive system continue grinding is another day it wages war on the natural world. With up to 200 species and more than 80,000 acres of rainforest being wiped out daily as just some of the atrocities occurring systematically to keep our lifestyles afloat, the sooner this collapse is induced the better.

  1. “Green technologies” and “renewable energy” are not sustainable and will not save the planet.

Solar panels and wind turbines aren’t made out of nothing.  These “green” technologies are made out of metals, plastics, and chemicals. These products have been mined out of the ground, transported vast distances, processed and manufactured in big factories, and require regular maintenance. Each of these stages causes widespread environmental destruction, and each of these stages is only possible with the mass use of cheap energy from fossil fuels. Neither fossil fuels nor mined minerals will ever be sustainable; by definition, they will run out. Even recycled materials must undergo extremely energy-intensive production processes before they can be reused.[2]


  1. Personal consumption habits will not save the planet.

Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption for organized political resistance. Personal consumption habits — changing light bulbs, going vegan, shorter showers, recycling, taking public transport — have nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet. Besides, 90% of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. Three quarters of energy is consumed and 95% of waste is produced by commercial, industrial, corporate, agricultural and military industries. By blaming the individual, we are accepting capitalism’s redefinition of us from citizens to consumers, reducing our potential forms of resistance to consuming and not consuming.

  1. There will not be a mass voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living.

The current material systems of power make any chance of significant social or political reform impossible. Those in power get too many benefits from destroying the planet to allow systematic changes which would reduce their privilege. Keeping this system running is worth more to them than the human and non-human lives destroyed by the extraction, processing, and utilization of natural resources.

  1. We are afraid.

The primary reason we don’t resist is because we are afraid. We know if we act decisively to protect the places and creatures we love or if we act decisively to stop corporate exploitation of the poor, that those in power will come down on us with the full power of the state. We can talk all we want about how we live in a democracy, and we can talk all we want about the consent of the governed. But what it really comes down to is that if you effectively oppose the will of those in power, they will try to kill you. We need to make that explicit so we can face the situation we’re in: those in power are killing the planet and they are exploiting the poor, and we are not stopping them because we are afraid. This is how authoritarian regimes and abusers work: they make their victims and bystanders afraid to act.

  1. If we only fight within the system, we lose.

Things will not suddenly change by using the same approaches we’ve been using for the past 30 years. When nothing is working to stop or even slow the destruction’s acceleration, then it is time to change your strategy. Until now, most of our tactics and discourse (whether civil disobedience, writing letters and books, carrying signs, protecting small patches of forest, filing lawsuits, or conducting scientific research) remain firmly embedded in whatever actions are authorized by the overarching structures that permit the destruction in the first place.


  1. Dismantling industrial civilization is the only rational, permanent solution.

Our strategies until now have failed because neither our violent nor nonviolent responses are attempts to rid us of industrial civilization itself. By allowing the framing conditions to remain, we guarantee a continuation of the behaviors these framing conditions necessitate. If we do not put a halt to it, civilization will continue to immiserate the vast majority of humans and to degrade the planet until it (civilization, and probably the planet) collapses. The longer we wait for civilization to crash – or we ourselves bring it down – the messier will be the crash, and the worse things will be for those humans and nonhumans who live during it, and for those who come after.

  1. Militant resistance works.

Study of past social insurgencies and resistance movements shows that specific types of asymmetric warfare strategies are extremely effective.

  1. We must build a culture of resistance.

Some things, including a living planet, that are worth fighting for at any cost, when other means of stopping the abuses have been exhausted. One of the good things about industrial civilization being so ubiquitously destructive, is that no matter where you look – no matter what your gifts, no matter where your heart lies – there’s desperately important work to be done. Some of us need to file timber sales appeals and lawsuits. Some need to help family farmers or work on other sustainable agriculture issues. Some need to work on rape crisis hot lines, or at battered women’s shelters. Some need to work on fair trade, or on stopping international trade altogether. Some of us need to take down dams, oil pipelines, mining equipment, and electrical infrastructure. [NOTE: I am NOT in favor of taking down dams…]

We need to fight for what we love, fight harder than we have ever thought we could fight, because the bottom line is that any option in which industrial civilization remains, results in a dead planet.


Parts of this article were drawn from Deep Green Resistance: A Strategy to Save the Planet, by Aric McBay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen.

[1] Lewis Mumford, Myth of the Machine, Volume 2,  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970, page 186.

[2] Recycled materials also usually degrade over time, limiting their recycling potential.

Eight Pitfalls in Evaluating Green Energy Solutions

4 07 2016

Does the recent climate accord between US and China mean that many countries will now forge ahead with renewables and other green solutions? I think that there are more pitfalls than many realize.

Pitfall 1. Green solutions tend to push us from one set of resources that are a problem today (fossil fuels) to other resources that are likely to be problems in the longer term.  

The name of the game is “kicking the can down the road a little.” In a finite world, we are reaching many limits besides fossil fuels:

  1. Soil quality–erosion of topsoil, depleted minerals, added salt
  2. Fresh water–depletion of aquifers that only replenish over thousands of years
  3. Deforestation–cutting down trees faster than they regrow
  4. Ore quality–depletion of high quality ores, leaving us with low quality ores
  5. Extinction of other species–as we build more structures and disturb more land, we remove habitat that other species use, or pollute it
  6. Pollution–many types: CO2, heavy metals, noise, smog, fine particles, radiation, etc.
  7. Arable land per person, as population continues to rise

The danger in almost every “solution” is that we simply transfer our problems from one area to another. Growing corn for ethanol can be a problem for soil quality (erosion of topsoil), fresh water (using water from aquifers in Nebraska, Colorado). If farmers switch to no-till farming to prevent the erosion issue, then great amounts of Round Up are often used, leading to loss of lives of other species.

Encouraging use of forest products because they are renewable can lead to loss of forest cover, as more trees are made into wood chips. There can even be a roundabout reason for loss of forest cover: if high-cost renewables indirectly make citizens poorer, citizens may save money on fuel by illegally cutting down trees.

High tech goods tend to use considerable quantities of rare minerals, many of which are quite polluting if they are released into the environment where we work or live. This is a problem both for extraction and for long-term disposal.

Pitfall 2. Green solutions that use rare minerals are likely not very scalable because of quantity limits and low recycling rates.  

Computers, which are the heart of many high-tech goods, use almost the entire periodic table of elements.

Figure 1. Slide by Alicia Valero showing that almost the entire periodic table of elements is used for computers.

When minerals are used in small quantities, especially when they are used in conjunction with many other minerals, they become virtually impossible to recycle. Experience indicates that less than 1% of specialty metals are recycled.

Figure 2. Slide by Alicia Valero showing recycling rates of elements.

Green technologies, including solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries, have pushed resource use toward minerals that were little exploited in the past. If we try to ramp up usage, current mines are likely to deplete rapidly. We will eventually need to add new mines in areas where resource quality is lower and concern about pollution is higher. Costs will be much higher in such mines, making devices using such minerals less affordable, rather than more affordable, in the long run.

Of course, a second issue in the scalability of these resources has to do with limits on oil supply. As ores of scarce minerals deplete, more rather than less oil will be needed for extraction. If oil is in short supply, obtaining this oil is also likely to be a problem, also inhibiting scalability of the scarce mineral extraction. The issue with respect to oil supply may not be high price; it may be low price, for reasons I will explain later in this post.

Pitfall 3. High-cost energy sources are the opposite of the “gift that keeps on giving.” Instead, they often represent the “subsidy that keeps on taking.”

Oil that was cheap to extract (say $20 barrel) was the true “gift that keeps on giving.” It made workers more efficient in their jobs, thereby contributing to efficiency gains. It made countries using the oil more able to create goods and services cheaply, thus helping them compete better against other countries. Wages tended to rise, as long at the price of oil stayed below $40 or $50 per barrel (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Average wages in 2012$ compared to Brent oil price, also in 2012$. Average wages are total wages based on BEA data adjusted by the CPI-Urban, divided total population. Thus, they reflect changes in the proportion of population employed as well as wage levels.

More workers joined the work force, as well. This was possible in part because fossil fuels made contraceptives available, reducing family size. Fossil fuels also made tools such as dishwashers, clothes washers, and clothes dryers available, reducing the hours needed in housework. Once oil became high-priced (that is, over $40 or $50 per barrel), its favorable impact on wage growth disappeared.

When we attempt to add new higher-cost sources of energy, whether they are high-cost oil or high-cost renewables, they present a drag on the economy for three reasons:

  1. Consumers tend to cut back on discretionary expenditures, because energy products (including food, which is made using oil and other energy products) are a necessity. These cutbacks feed back through the economy and lead to layoffs in discretionary sectors. If they are severe enough, they can lead to debt defaults as well, because laid-off workers have difficulty paying their bills.
  2.  An economy with high-priced sources of energy becomes less competitive in the world economy, competing with countries using less expensive sources of fuel. This tends to lead to lower employment in countries whose mix of energy is weighted toward high-priced fuels.
  3. With (1) and (2) happening, economic growth slows. There are fewer jobs and debt becomes harder to repay.

In some sense, the cost producing of an energy product is a measure of diminishing returns–that is, cost is a measure of the amount of resources that directly and indirectly or indirectly go into making that device or energy product, with higher cost reflecting increasing effort required to make an energy product. If more resources are used in producing high-cost energy products, fewer resources are available for the rest of the economy. Even if a country tries to hide this situation behind a subsidy, the problem comes back to bite the country. This issue underlies the reason that subsidies tend to “keeping on taking.”

The dollar amount of subsidies is also concerning. Currently, subsidies for renewables (before the multiplier effect) average at least $48 per barrel equivalent of oil.1 With the multiplier effect, the dollar amount of subsidies is likely more than the current cost of oil (about $80), and possibly even more than the peak cost of oil in 2008 (about $147). The subsidy (before multiplier effect) per metric ton of oil equivalent amounts to $351. This is far more than the charge for any carbon tax.

Pitfall 4. Green technology (including renewables) can only be add-ons to the fossil fuel system.

A major reason why green technology can only be add-ons to the fossil fuel system relates to Pitfalls 1 through 3. New devices, such as wind turbines, solar PV, and electric cars aren’t very scalable because of high required subsidies, depletion issues, pollution issues, and other limits that we don’t often think about.

A related reason is the fact that even if an energy product is “renewable,” it needs long-term maintenance. For example, a wind turbine needs replacement parts from around the world. These are not available without fossil fuels. Any electrical transmission system transporting wind or solar energy will need frequent repairs, also requiring fossil fuels, usually oil (for building roads and for operating repair trucks and helicopters).

Given the problems with scalability, there is no way that all current uses of fossil fuels can all be converted to run on renewables. According to BP data, in 2013 renewable energy (including biofuels and hydroelectric) amounted to only 9.4% of total energy use. Wind amounted to 1.1% of world energy use; solar amounted to 0.2% of world energy use.

Pitfall 5. We can’t expect oil prices to keep rising because of affordability issues.  

Economists tell us that if there are inadequate oil supplies there should be few problems:  higher prices will reduce demand, encourage more oil production, and encourage production of alternatives. Unfortunately, there is also a roundabout way that demand is reduced: wages tend to be affected by high oil prices, because high-priced oil tends to lead to less employment (Figure 3). With wages not rising much, the rate of growth of debt also tends to slow. The result is that products that use oil (such as cars) are less affordable, leading to less demand for oil. This seems to be the issue we are now encountering, with many young people unable to find good-paying jobs.

If oil prices decline, rather than rise, this creates a problem for renewables and other green alternatives, because needed subsidies are likely to rise rather than disappear.

The other issue with falling oil prices is that oil prices quickly become too low for producers. Producers cut back on new development, leading to a decrease in oil supply in a year or two. Renewables and the electric grid need oil for maintenance, so are likely to be affected as well. Related posts include Low Oil Prices: Sign of a Debt Bubble Collapse, Leading to the End of Oil Supply? and Oil Price Slide – No Good Way Out.

Pitfall 6. It is often difficult to get the finances for an electrical system that uses intermittent renewables to work out well.  

Intermittent renewables, such as electricity from wind, solar PV, and wave energy, tend to work acceptably well, in certain specialized cases:

  • When there is a lot of hydroelectricity nearby to offset shifts in intermittent renewable supply;
  • When the amount added is sufficient small that it has only a small impact on the grid;
  • When the cost of electricity from otherwise available sources, such as burning oil, is very high. This often happens on tropical islands. In such cases, the economy has already adjusted to very high-priced electricity.

Intermittent renewables can also work well supporting tasks that can be intermittent. For example, solar panels can work well for pumping water and for desalination, especially if the alternative is using diesel for fuel.

Where intermittent renewables tend not to work well is when

  1. Consumers and businesses expect to get a big credit for using electricity from intermittent renewables, but
  2. Electricity added to the grid by intermittent renewables leads to little cost savings for electricity providers.

For example, people with solar panels often expect “net metering,” a credit equal to the retail price of electricity for electricity sold to the electric grid. The benefit to electric grid is generally a lot less than the credit for net metering, because the utility still needs to maintain the transmission lines and do many of the functions that it did in the past, such as send out bills. In theory, the utility still should get paid for all of these functions, but doesn’t. Net metering gives way too much credit to those with solar panels, relative to the savings to the electric companies. This approach runs the risk of starving fossil fuel, nuclear, and grid portion of the system of needed revenue.

A similar problem can occur if an electric grid buys wind or solar energy on a preferential basis from commercial providers at wholesale rates in effect for that time of day. This practice tends to lead to a loss of profitability for fossil fuel-based providers of electricity. This is especially the case for natural gas “peaking plants” that normally operate for only a few hours a year, when electricity rates are very high.

Germany has been adding wind and solar, in an attempt to offset reductions in nuclear power production. Germany is now running into difficulty with its pricing approach for renewables. Some of its natural gas providers of electricity have threatened to shut down because they are not making adequate profits with the current pricing plan. Germany also finds itself using more cheap (but polluting) lignite coal, in an attempt to keep total electrical costs within a range customers can afford.

Pitfall 7. Adding intermittent renewables to the electric grid makes the operation of the grid more complex and more difficult to manage. We run the risk of more blackouts and eventual failure of the grid. 

In theory, we can change the electric grid in many ways at once. We can add intermittent renewables, “smart grids,” and “smart appliances” that turn on and off, depending on the needs of the electric grid. We can add the charging of electric automobiles as well. All of these changes add to the complexity of the system. They also increase the vulnerability of the system to hackers.

The usual assumption is that we can step up to the challenge–we can handle this increased complexity. A recent report by The Institution of Engineering and Technology in the UK on the Resilience of the Electricity Infrastructure questions whether this is the case. It says such changes, ” .  .  . vastly increase complexity and require a level of engineering coordination and integration that the current industry structure and market regime does not provide.” Perhaps the system can be changed so that more attention is focused on resilience, but incentives need to be changed to make resilience (and not profit) a top priority. It is doubtful this will happen.

The electric grid has been called the worlds ‘s largest and most complex machine. We “mess with it” at our own risk. Nafeez Ahmed recently published an article called The Coming Blackout Epidemic, discussing challenges grids are now facing. I have written about electric grid problems in the past myself: The US Electric Grid: Will it be Our Undoing?

Pitfall 8. A person needs to be very careful in looking at studies that claim to show favorable performance for intermittent renewables.  

Analysts often overestimate the benefits of wind and solar. Just this week a new report was published saying that the largest solar plant in the world is so far producing only half of the electricity originally anticipated since it opened in February 2014.

In my view, “standard” Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) and Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) calculations tend to overstate the benefits of intermittent renewables, because they do not include a “time variable,” and because they do not consider the effect of intermittency. More specialized studies that do include these variables show very concerning results. For example, Graham Palmer looks at the dynamic EROEI of solar PV, using batteries (replaced at eight year intervals) to mitigate intermittency.2 He did not include inverters–something that would be needed and would reduce the return further.

Figure 4. Graham Palmer's chart of Dynamic Energy Returned on Energy Invested from "Energy in Australia."

Palmer’s work indicates that because of the big energy investment initially required, the system is left in a deficit energy position for a very long time. The energy that is put into the system is not paid back until 25 years after the system is set up. After the full 30-year lifetime of the solar panel, the system returns 1.3 times the initial direct energy investment.

One further catch is that the energy used in the EROEI calculations includes only a list of direct energy inputs. The total energy required is much higher; it includes indirect inputs that are not directly measured as well as energy needed to provide necessary infrastructure, such as roads and schools. When these are considered, the minimum EROEI needs to be something like 10. Thus, the solar panel plus battery system modeled is really a net energy sink, rather than a net energy producer.  

Another study by Weissbach et al. looks at the impact of adjusting for intermittency. (This study, unlike Palmer’s, doesn’t attempt to adjust for timing differences.) It concludes, “The results show that nuclear, hydro, coal, and natural gas power systems . . . are one order of magnitude more effective than photovoltaics and wind power.”


It would be nice to have a way around limits in a finite world. Unfortunately, this is not possible in the long run. At best, green solutions can help us avoid limits for a little while longer.

The problem we have is that statements about green energy are often overly optimistic. Cost comparisons are often just plain wrong–for example, the supposed near grid parity of solar panels is an “apples to oranges” comparison. An electric utility cannot possibility credit a user with the full retail cost of electricity for the intermittent period it is available, without going broke. Similarly, it is easy to overpay for wind energy, if payments are made based on time-of-day wholesale electricity costs. We will continue to need our fossil-fueled balancing system for the electric grid indefinitely, so we need to continue to financially support this system.

There clearly are some green solutions that will work, at least until the resources needed to produce these solutions are exhausted or other limits are reached. For example, geothermal may be solutions in some locations. Hydroelectric, including “run of the stream” hydro, may be a solution in some locations. In all cases, a clear look at trade-offs needs to be done in advance. New devices, such as gravity powered lamps and solar thermal water heaters, may be helpful especially if they do not use resources in short supply and are not likely to cause pollution problems in the long run.

Expectations for wind and solar PV need to be reduced. Solar PV and offshore wind are both likely net energy sinks because of storage and balancing needs, if they are added to the electric grid in more than very small amounts. Onshore wind is less bad, but it needs to be evaluated closely in each particular location. The need for large subsidies should be a red flag that costs are likely to be high, both short and long term. Another consideration is that wind is likely to have a short lifespan if oil supplies are interrupted, because of its frequent need for replacement parts from around the world.

Some citizens who are concerned about the long-term viability of the electric grid will no doubt want to purchase their own solar systems with inverters and back-up batteries. I see no reason to discourage people who want to do this–the systems may prove to be of assistance to these citizens. But I see no reason to subsidize these purchases, except perhaps in areas (such as tropical islands) where this is the most cost-effective way of producing electric power.


[1] In 2013, the total amount of subsidies for renewables was $121 billion according to the IEA. If we compare this to the amount of renewables (biofuels + other renewables) reported by BP, we find that the subsidy per barrel of oil equivalent in was $48 per barrel of oil equivalent. These amounts are likely understated, because BP biofuels include fuel that doesn’t require subsidies, such as waste sawdust burned for electricity.

[2] Palmer’s work is published in Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth, published by Springer in 2014. This book is part of Prof. Charles Hall’s “Briefs in Energy” series.