The energy transition is not fit for purpose


Image by Thomas Homer-Dixon

The second part of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) has just been released and “climate breakdown is accelerating rapidly, many of the impacts will be more severe than predicted and there is only a narrow chance left of avoiding its worst ravages”.

The Working Group 11 report focuses upon local as well as global impacts in natural and human ecosystems, new understanding about climate risk, possible adaption, and needed transformations. In April the mitigation segment will be released and the whole, completed, AR6 is scheduled for release in September.

The impact of human caused warming is already causing dislocation and pain with costs rising with each added tenth of a degree and there is serious concern that we are running out of time to effectively mitigate.

Globally we need to reduce GHG emissions by at least half this decade to have any chance of staying under a 2C rise in global mean surface temperature (GMST). A 2C rise takes us deep into dangerous climate change territory, but hopefully still safe from the worst of humanity threatening warming and still achievable.

The only failsafe emission reduction pathway to have any hope of staying climate safe now is reducing the production (and therefor use) of fossil fuels on a schedule based upon the best carbon budget science.

Our present orthodox decarbonization, the energy transition, is a Rube Goldberg machine to build renewable energy capacity which (supposedly) will displace fossil fuel use. It hasn’t worked and should be expected to fail to even peak emissions over the next crucial decade.

The energy transition was the logical mitigation plan that developed in the 90s. Without alternative sources of energy we could not stop using fossil
fuels. There was time (and carbon budget) for this energy transition if the powerful actors then had not been far more concerned with protecting the existing economy from needed climate mitigation.

Such an organized, well supported, decarbonization plan could have effectively removed most fossil fuel use by now and we wouldn’t have this crushing problem hanging over our heads. But energy transitions take decades we no longer have; historically new energy sources add to instead of displacing existing sources of energy; and building renewable capacity of a scale needed to displace 50% of fossil fuel use by 2030 is now delusional. The energy transition is not fit for purpose and is now just a delayer strategy.

But a direct, regulated, reduction of the potentially fatal toxin is not allowed. The energy transition promised effective mitigation that was compatible with ongoing political and economic business as usual. It was incremental, used market based policies and instruments, promised transformative action over many decades; it promised to make money and didn’t threaten disruption and would only tweak our very fortunate lifestyles.

A managed decline reducing our primary source of energy by 50% in less than ten years will be painfully disruptive and can’t possible be shoehorned into political and economic BAU.

We greatly benefit from the production and use of fossil fuels but the severe impacts will fall upon innocents in more vulnerable countries today and all generations in the future. Of course we can’t just quit producing fossil fuels immediately, but is it ethical to restrict emission reduction to just what is possible without negatively effecting the economy? Without diminishing our energy supply, without considering powering down? Without even considering a regulated wind-down of production?

Those of us in rich developed countries could survive and even prosper if we bit the bullet and actually reduced our emissions as we should, as we must. We live in a golden age of innovation and in the long term renewables and nuclear promise unlimited energy. The problem is needed change to our present socio-economy and the intransigence of those that most benefit from BAU.

Having procrastinated, subverted and otherwise failed for three decades we now have no choice but failsafe mitigation. “Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a livable future.”

We need to begin failsafe mitigation urgently. There are three thresholds that if crossed will put an end to any hope of effective mitigation:

Human induced warming could trigger a cascade of latent feedbacks which could eventually lead to a GMST rise of more than 5C and create a Hothouse Earth scenario impossible for our global civilization to survive. If we induce this cascade of feedbacks there is an irreversible threshold postulated around 2C of warming beyond which mitigation attempts would be futile.

Climate change is a threat multiplier. We’re already beginning to feel severe impacts, extreme weather, species extinction, etc. Historian Geoffrey Parker’s GLOBAL CRISIS explains how the little ice age climate anomaly in the 17th century led to famine and societal stress, which led to increased pestilence, revolts and wars, which in turn led to more societal dislocation.

We live in unimagined luxury and security compared to the 17th century, but there are signs that pestilence, revolts and wars could be increasing. Trump and the extremists, Covid, and now the war in the Ukraine make climate mitigation ever more difficult. If possible abrupt weather changes lead to famine – on the Indian sub-continent for example – would our global civilization prove resilient? How many years do we have before increasing chaos makes

effective mitigation impossible?

There is a third threshold that hasn’t been explored enough: each decade we didn’t mitigate has made mitigation ever so much harder. (Did we miss our only chance in the 90s?) In order to achieve emission reduction by half by 2030 governments must now undertake immensely disruptive mitigation policies. We must urgently undertake a path to a future socio-economy that can not be just a fossil fuel economy powered by renewables but a barely imaginable reconfiguration of people, places, production and purpose.

If market fundamentalists (our dominating elite)resisted and subverted the energy transition in the 90s, how are they going to perceive this government led and organized emergency evolution in order to effectively mitigate a threat that while unequivocal is still (at least to them)uncertain and in a nebulous future?

Since agreement in Paris, governments everywhere have been mostly missing in action when it comes to effective mitigation. GHG emissions continue to rise. The climate intelligentsia in almost every country are still hopefully beavering away on energy transition planning and policies but practically they are just wasting very precious time. Politicians and energy experts are probably trying to achieve what is feasible and maybe hope for a Hail Mary or Pearl Harbor moment. Meanwhile investments now going into fossil fuels promise increasing emissions for several decades. Have all the realists just given up on the feasibility of effective mitigation? Have we already crossed a threshold of feasibility?

(For just one example from chronic climate laggard Canada : “(A)t the moment, most actors across sectors are in a wait-and-see position, doubtful that the transition will take place and, at best, ready to follow but reluctant to lead……. nobody is ready to do what is needed to get to 2030 or 2050. Nobody is planning the investments. Nobody wants to increase production of clean energy. It’s not there. It’s not in the plans. So there are huge barriers to this transformation.”)

We are therefor close to if not already committed to impossible to fathom failure.

But one of the storylines or narratives of this new IPCC WG11 report is the possibility of tipping points in human understanding and potential for action. Effective mitigation may become feasible through governance innovation that can handle the necessary disruption. But urgent doesn’t begin to describe how soon this awakening must happen or it is certainly too late.

The ‘energy transition’ has now become the prime tactic of the delayers, a distraction keeping us from actually reducing our use of fossil fuels. It is past time to wake up and take needed action.

Bill Henderson is a long time climate activist and long time CounterCurrents contributer. He can be reached at bhenderson(at)dccnet(dot)com

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