New Internationalist

The stuff problem

28.09.15-yes-to-renewables-590x393.jpg [Related Image]
'Yes to renewables!' Hundreds rallied outside the Victorian Parliament House, Melbourne, 10 December 2013. Takver under a Creative Commons Licence

How much mined material will we need to build a 100-per-cent renewable world? Danny Chivers works it out.

The problem with wind turbines, solar panels, ground-source heat pumps and electric cars is that they’re all made of stuff. When people like me make grand announcements (and interactive infographics) explaining how we don’t need to burn fossil fuels because fairly shared renewable energy could give everyone on the planet a good quality of life, this is the bit of the story that often gets missed out. We can’t just pull all this sustainable technology out of the air – it’s made from annoyingly solid materials that need to come from somewhere.

So how much material would we need to transition to a 100-per-cent renewable world? For my new NoNonsense book, Renewable Energy: cleaner, fairer ways to power the planet, I realized I needed to find an answer to this question. It’s irresponsible to advocate a renewably powered planet without being open and honest about what the real-world impacts of such a transition might be.

In this online article, I make a stab at coming up with an answer – but first I need to lay down a quick proviso. All the numbers in this piece are rough, ball-park figures, that simply aim to give us a sense of the scale of materials we’re talking about. Nothing in this piece is meant to be a vision of the ‘correct’ way to build a 100-per-cent renewably powered world. There is no single path to a clean-energy future; we need a democratic energy transition led by a mass global movement creating solutions to suit people’s specific communities and situations, not some kind of top-down model imposed from above. This article just presents one scenario, with the sole aim of helping us to understand the challenge.

How much aluminium, copper, iron and cement would we need?

In October 2014, a joint academic study between researchers from Norway, the US, the Netherlands, Chile and China made an assessment of the main materials needed to build renewable generators: steel, concrete, copper and aluminium.1 They looked at the materials required for renewables to provide 40 per cent of global energy use by 2050, and concluded that this would be feasible within current rates of global resource use.

I’ve taken their figures and attempted to go a step further. How much material would be needed for a transition to a 100-per-cent renewable world, where everyone had access to 13,000 KWh of energy per year? (This is one estimate of the amount of energy needed for an eco-efficient version of a “modern” lifestyle – it’s less than half of the energy currently used per person in the EU). For this calculation, I assumed that 3,000 KWh per person would be provided by non-electric generation (rooftop solar heat collectors, heat pumps, geothermal heat, waste gas, maybe energy crops). I then assumed we would build the following generation sources to provide 10,000 KWh of electricity for nine billion people (these totals all fit comfortably within realistic estimates of the amount that could be sustainably generated from these sources using current technology)2:

If we transitioned to 100-per-cent renewable energy by 2040 – thus giving ourselves a decent chance at avoiding runaway climate change – we would need the materials laid out in the table below to build and maintain this amount of generation.

The table shows that this is a serious undertaking and that we’re cutting things rather fine – particularly with regard to aluminium and copper – but also that the amounts of material required fall within current production totals and so are certainly possible to obtain.3 Once these materials have been extracted once, the metals can theoretically be recycled indefinitely, meaning that we’re talking about a short-term burst of new material use to get everything installed, from which point onwards we’ll be able to get most of what we need from recycling the old turbines, panels and so on.

What if we had to do more mining to achieve this?

Ideally, we would get these materials by diverting production away from less socially useful consumer junk into the sustainable technology that we actually need, so there’d be no net increase in mining. However, what if that isn’t possible? What if our shift to a renewable future requires us to pull an extra four billion tonnes of material out of the ground over the next 25 years? There is no such thing as zero-impact mining; it is one of the most notoriously destructive, poisonous and corrupt industries in the world.

Let’s look at this worst-case scenario. The final amount of raw material produced is just the tip of the extraction iceberg; every tonne of metal or cement requires many more tonnes of rock and ore to be hauled out of the ground in the mining and production process. Making four billion tonnes of copper, aluminium, iron and cement will require 50 billion tonnes of real-life extraction.

However, we need to look at the other side of the equation too. Phasing out fossil fuels over the next 25 years will mean a huge reduction in the amount of oil, coal and gas extracted over that period. Based on IEA projections, shifting to 100-per-cent renewables would avoid the need for around 230 billion tonnes of fossil fuels between now and 2040. Coal, tar sands and heavy oil, like metals, require the extraction of large amounts of extra rock and earth; when all this is added in, our transition would prevent 1,850 billion tonnes of fossil-related extraction up to 2040.

So even if we needed the full 50 billion tonnes of new extraction to build our new electricity generators, we’d still be creating a large reduction in the amount of destructive extractive industry taking place worldwide. We might be able to reduce the damage further by recycling the materials from all the oil and gas rigs, pipelines, and fossil-fuel power stations that we’ll no longer need, providing raw materials for our sustainable alternatives.4

Rare Earth Elements

As well as the high-volume materials, there are also a number of rarer minerals (known as ‘Rare Earth Elements’ or REEs) that we need to watch out for. These include indium, gallium and tellurium, which are used as semi-conductors in some types of solar panel. These metals have important uses in other technologies too (for example, indium is used in solder and flat-screen technologies, and gallium is used in computing components and LEDs), and are relatively rare; this means that there is likely to be a limit to how many solar panels can be made with these particular semiconductors. Luckily, this only affects certain specific designs of panel (not including our familiar black silicon panels),5 and so shouldn’t prevent us from rolling out the amount of solar power we need.

There’s a similar issue with dysprosium, which is used for making magnets in many modern wind turbines. The rarity of this element is likely to constrain the number of turbines that can be made this way. There are, however, alternative ways of making magnets without dysprosium, and so this shouldn’t act as a serious constraint either.

What about the materials needed for the rest of our sustainable transition? A typical ground-source heat pump weighs around 200 kg; air-source units tend to be a little lighter.6 If 200-kg heat pumps were installed – slightly excessively – in three billion buildings around the world, that would require 0.6 billion tonnes of materials. If we also installed three billion solar water heaters, weighing 100 kg each, that would give us another 0.3 billion tonnes. So the rest of our power generation would come in at less than a billion tonnes of material. Even if this required 10 times as much extracted material, bringing our total (when added to electricity generation, above) up to 60 billion tonnes, it would still leave us with a huge material saving thanks to the 1,850 billion tonnes of fossil-fuel extraction that we’re preventing.

A worst-case scenario would involve having enough storage facilities and back-up generators to support our wind and photovoltaic solar generation, making sure that the lights stay on even when the sun sets and the wind drops. Assuming that these facilities required similar quantities of material per KWh as a gas-fired power station, this would add another 0.4 billion tonnes of material, and three billion tonnes of mining.

Electric cars

What about electric vehicles? Well, there are currently more than a billion road vehicles in the world. Currently we are on a path of pure expansion, with the number of cars on the road expected to double in the next 20 years. In 2014, for example, the world manufactured over 80 million new cars, buses and trucks.7

A billion vehicles are probably enough. If distributed more fairly around the world, with the priority on buses and car-sharing schemes, they are likely to give us all the mobility we need. Consider, for example, that cities considered to be well served with buses such as London, Rio and Hong Kong contain between 650 and 1,700 buses per million inhabitants.8 If we decided to err on the side of caution and provide 2,000 buses per million people globally, that would require around 20 million buses. Add in a few billion bicycles (most of which probably already exist) and we’ll have sorted out most people’s daily transport needs. The remaining 980 million vehicles should then be enough to plug the global transport gaps as shared cars, taxis, and trucks for freight.

So what if, instead of doubling the number of vehicles globally in the next 20 years, we instead gradually replaced the existing fleet with renewably powered vehicles? This would require no increase in manufacturing overall, just a change in what we manufactured and where. We could even provide a large amount of the necessary raw materials by recycling old fossil-powered vehicles at the same rate as clean-energy vehicles emerge from the factories.

The point is that a genuine transition to a sustainable transport system wouldn’t require an increase in manufacturing, but a redirection of existing manufacturing. This would need a significant shift from our current position though; out of the 80-90 million vehicles currently manufactured per year, only 200,000-300,000 are fully electric.9

Of course, we should check in with the worst-case scenario too: what if we ended up manufacturing a billion renewably powered vehicles in a way that added to global material use? Well, a typical car weighs around 1.5 tonnes; trucks and buses, though smaller in number, are larger, so let’s be cautious and say an average vehicle weighs two tonnes. This would add two billion tonnes onto our material demand, and thus around 20 billion tonnes onto our grand extraction total, bringing it up 80 billion tonnes. This is still far less than the 1,850 billion tonnes of fossil-fuel extraction that we would prevent.

In addition, there are certain elements used in electric cars that we need to be particularly aware of. One of them is copper – a typical electric car contains around 60 kg of copper, compared with 20 kg in a fossil-fuelled car. If we build a billion of these vehicles over 20 years, we’ll need 0.003 billion tonnes of copper per year. This compares with 0.002 billion tonnes per year that’s already being used for manufacturing conventional cars; if we succeed in phasing out fossil-fuel car production and only building clean-energy vehicles, then we’ll only be increasing overall copper demand by 0.001 billion tonnes per year – much of which should be obtainable from recycling old vehicles. In the worst-case scenario, with no recycling, mining the extra copper needed for a billion electric cars would add another nine billion tonnes of mining onto our extraction total,10 still leaving us way below the fossil-fuelled business-as-usual amount.

Rare elements in electric cars

A recent study by Delucchi et al into the material components of electric cars identified a number of rare elements that could potentially limit their growth.11 The first is neodymium, an element used in electric motors and also in the generators of many wind turbines. Maintaining a billion electric vehicles and obtaining a quarter of our energy from wind turbines could exhaust global neodymium supplies in less than 100 years; however, there are alternative ways of building motors and generators without neodymium, which means that this needn’t be a constraining factor.

The second group of potentially problematic elements are rare metals and minerals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, phosphorous and titanium. These are used in the rechargeable batteries in electric cars, and potentially in other energy storage systems too. All of these batteries use lithium, combined with other elements. The Delucchi et al study found that cobalt and nickel reserves, in particular, could be rapidly depleted by a mass rollout of electric cars using batteries containing these elements. Using titanium-based batteries would be unlikely to exhaust global titanium reserves but would involve multiplying the rate of extraction of this metal by more than 100 times, which might create practical difficulties. Fortunately, manganese, iron and phosphorous are much more abundant, and so we should be able to make the batteries we need without relying on cobalt, nickel or titanium.

Lithium itself is more likely to be a problem. The Delucchi et al study suggests that a mass rollout of electric cars could exhaust proven lithium reserves within 100 years – not counting the extra lithium that might be needed for improved electricity storage systems in homes and communities. This means that humanity should be able to obtain enough lithium to make the initial transition to an electrified transport system, but to maintain it beyond the second half of the century we’ll need to either get very good at recycling it, find more supplies, or find safe and affordable ways to extract lithium from the oceans (where it is abundant, but dispersed).

Avoiding a colonialist mindset

New Internationalist
NoNonsense: Renewable Energy by Danny Chivers. Buy the book. New Internationalist

There’s another serious issue here. This is one of those moments where it’s easy to slip accidentally into a colonialist mindset, when referring casually to ‘reserves’ of minerals ‘available’ to the world. Whether or not those materials are dug out of the ground should not be a decision for someone like me, a white guy typing on a computer in Europe; it should be up to the communities that live in the area concerned and would be affected by the extraction. Although the quantities of lithium required for everyone in the world to have decent access to electrified transport are relatively small when compared to high-volume mined materials like iron or coal, the necessary mines would no doubt loom large in their local landscape. Most of the world’s known lithium reserves are located in Bolivia and Chile. These are real places, inhabited by real people – including Indigenous peoples whose lives, livelihoods and culture are intimately bound up with the land they live on. Will it be possible to obtain enough lithium for an electrified world without trampling over the rights of local communities? If not, then we’ll need to find a different path to our renewably powered future.

Renewable Energy: cleaner, fairer ways to power the planet by Danny Chivers is published by New Internationalist and available at nin.tl/nononsenserenewables

  1. Hertwich et al, ‘Integrated life-cycle assessment of electricity-supply scenarios confirms global environmental benefit of low-carbon technologies’, PNAS Sep 2014.
  2. The 2014 international study only provides material usage for solar, wind and hydro power. For wave and tidal, I have assumed the same material use per TWh as for offshore wind; for geothermal, I have assumed the same material use per TWh as for a typical gas power station.
  3. At current extraction rates, there are more than enough of all these materials in proven reserves to last for decades to come; once extracted, the metals can in theory be recycled indefinitely.
  4. This recycling process would be unlikely to provide more than a few percent of the raw materials required, however, because wind and solar power require far more building material per MWh than oil, gas or coal power. See greet.es.anl.gov/publication-oil-gas-prod-infra
  5. Hertwich et al (2014) - Annex
  6. nin.tl/groundsourcepumps
  7. Wall Street Journal, nin.tl/carsalesrising
  8. nin.tl/brazilbuses
  9. Forbes, nin.tl/electriccars2014
  10. Copper mining is particularly wasteful, with 310 tonnes of rock extracted for every tonne of metal produced.
  11. MA Delucchi, C Yang, AF Burke, JM Ogden, K Kurani, J Kessler and D Sperling, ‘An assessment of electric vehicles’, Phi Trans R Soc A 2014 372, 2013.

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  1. #1 rsalisbury 30 Sep 15

    ’There are, however, alternative ways of making magnets without dysprosium, and so this shouldn’t act as a serious constraint either.’

    I was wondering what the source of this claim is. Last I checked (Graedel 2013), the alternative ways of making turbine magnets that function at high temperatures were completely inferior (which means a lower EROI for the turbine). Upon taking a second look, it seems a new way to make rare-earth magnets using cerium rather than dysprosium has very recently been discovered (doi: 10.1002/adma.201404892), but I was wondering what you were basing this statement on.

  2. #2 Ian Cooper 30 Sep 15

    The author doesn't get it. Maintaining a system in which we're still releasing a lot of heat into the atmosphere is suicidal. What we need is to power down - way down. Or we need to drastically reduce the number of people on the planet so that the energy we use individually can remain high without damaging the ecosystem.

  3. #3 dannychivers 30 Sep 15

    Thanks for your comments! rsalisbury - the point about alternatives to dysprosium is from the international study by Hertwich et al, referenced in the article - follow the link and check it out.

    Ian Cooper - you're right about the need to power down. These figures are, as it states in the article, based on a world in which we all use less than half (in fact, about a third) of the per capita energy of the average EU citizen. This is enough for a good quality of life (according to research by the Centre for Alternative Technology and others), if we cut out all the waste, inefficiency and overconsumption, and is potentially available for everyone on the planet using existing renewable technology. I explain this in more detail in the book, and also in the Two Energy Futures project if you'd like to read more: www.twoenergyfutures.org

  4. #4 Olduvai 30 Sep 15

    Interesting thought experiment but likely untenable in the real world, particularly given the fact that switching to 'renewables' does nothing to mitigate the challenges posed by the limits to growth that we are bumping up against, particularly surrounding food production--something very reliant upon fossil fuels for in trying to maintain nutritional levels for 7+ billion people. It also doesn't address the important issues of population growth or an economic system built upon exponential growth imperatives (especially the increasingly apparent fact that there is little capital remaining in the fiat current Ponzi to support an extensive transition; in fact, we may have already hit Peak Debt and are just beginning to feel the negative consequences that will create for our finkncialised economic system).

  5. #5 Stan Erickson 30 Sep 15

    There has been a lot of thought about peak oil over the last few decades. Is there equivalent material about peak mining, for everything else? We do more recycling, for sure, and more conservation, for sure, and then what? Isn't your conclusion that we can maintain some EU level lifestyle for a century or two and then it's lights out?

    stanericksonsblog.blogspot.com

  6. #6 John Weber 30 Sep 15

    And then the second generation in 20 years will come from the Magic Wand?
    I have shared this before: These are videos from the industries. Look not at the panels or inverters or batteries or recycled aluminum; look at the massive infrastructure behind these products. And once we have the devices, where will the tools and toys come from that we want the electricity for?
    Solar and wind energy collecting devices have an industrial history. It is important to understand the industrial infrastructure and the environmental results for the components of the solar energy collecting devices so we don’t designate them with false labels such as green, renewable or sustainable.
    This is an essay challenging ‘business as usual’. If we teach people that these solar devices are the future of energy without teaching the whole system, we mislead, misinform and create false hopes and beliefs.
    I have provided both charts and videos for the solar cells, modules, aluminum from ore, aluminum from recycling, aluminum extrusion, inverters, batteries and copper.
    Please note each piece of machinery you see in each of the videos has its own industrial interconnection and history.
    http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2015/04/solar-devices-industrial-infrastructure.html

  7. #7 John Weber 30 Sep 15

    In addition: I am proposing that solar and wind energy collecting devices are business as usual, if we do not impose constraints on all energy and other natural resource use.

    In addition, without constraints on electrical usage (toys and tools) then the gross energy inequality globally will continue with solar and wind energy underwriting it. (below find Excel spread sheet info) Without constraints on energy use solar and wind devices and their auxiliary accessories are elitist equipment of the entitled.

    There are two critical questions of the energy/electricity that we are requiring. How do we bring more equitable distribution of energy resources? Is this imbalance and the consequent strife our destiny and our demise?

    Secondly, what do we need the energy for? This must be one of the mantras for survival now and tomorrow. Imagine beginning at the earth resources –the mine and the well- and the subsequent flow of these products. This creates a tremendous picture in motion of ’energy’ and resources flowing around the world. It is a Catch 22; we can't live with it and can't live presently without it.

    I took the table from this site:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_electricity_consumption

    I copied it to an Excel spread sheet. I rank ordered the least energy use to the most and then did an accumulation of population from least energy use to most. I could then look at what 50% or 80% of the world’s population used compared to the US of A.

    Caveat: these figures are approximate however, realistic.

    Caveat: These per capita figures are misleading
    because the wealthy get the ’lion's share.’

    Approximately 50% of the population (approximately 3.5 billion people) use 3.53 kilowatts a day or less. That is 0.0006% of the total used globally.

    Approximately 80% of the population (approximately 5.6 billion people) use 11 kilowatts a day or less. That is 0.0018% of the total globally.

    The USA uses 40.42 kilowatts a day. That is 4.5% of the global population. We are part of the 1% in global electrical energy use. Even that is misleading, because all the products made elsewhere and shipped to the USA add to the electrical (and total energy) available for our consumption.

    See more at: http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2015/07/electrical-constraint-and-inequality.html

  8. #8 Ann MacGarry 01 Oct 15

    This is great. It addresses all the questions that I, as an Education Officer at the Centre for Alternative Technology want to raise with students. It'll be a very useful addition to the workshops we run, getting pupils to design their own visions of a Zero Carbon Future.
    It doesn't definitely answer all questions and that's fine. We need to inspire young people to constantly try to find the right questions and then pursue solutions.

  9. #9 lehman scott 02 Oct 15

    Excellent article, Mr. Chivers, these type of calculations will be necessary for any power-down planning analysis, whether the scenario under consideration be 40% or 4% of current material/energy flows.


    I would like to point out one fundamental error, however:


    ’Once these materials have been extracted once, the metals can theoretically be recycled indefinitely’


    As Robert Ayers noted* in a 1999 analysis, while it may be theoretically possible to achieve 100% recycling of our material stuff, from a practical standpoint it is presently (and for the foreseeable future) impossible, as it would require a secondary ’wastebasket’ of high-entropy waste products that would process and feed these materials back into the primary recycling stockpile.  The size and environmental impact of this secondary stockpile would be ridiculously enormous.


    The large power-down now upon industrial civilization is only the beginning of a longer de-materialization that is just as inevitable as the end of fossil fuels.  Although the exact timing of this descent is of course unknown given the long time-frames, the overall direction and end point of this trajectory is not:


    In seven generations we will be struggling to recycle the last remaining scraps out of our rusting cities and decaying landfills in order to smelt and forge and cast basic metal agricultural implements with which to feed and clothe and house ourselves.


    In seventy generations we will be looking at a return to the Neolithic Era of technology.


    In our current age of multiple interconnected problems which result in near-intractable dilemmas, the above is perhaps the only singular problem for which there is but one solution:


    In addition to accelerating the transition to decentralized renewable energy sources, the global military-industrial complex must also immediately be converted to building the systems to utilize asteroidal and lunar mineral commons resources so that our descendants will not have to face a certain return to the Stone Age.


    Both initiatives are presently doable, but the capacity to do either will not be with us for very much longer; once that window closes, it will likely never present itself open again to future generations.

  10. #10 lehman scott 02 Oct 15

    Sorry, forgot the citation on my previous comment:

    *Ayers, Robert. 1999. ‘The Second Law, the Fourth Law, Recycling and Limits to Growth’, Ecological Economics, 29, 3: 473-83.

    (Also sorry for the double spacing. :/ )

  11. #11 JR 04 Oct 15

    ’thus giving ourselves a decent chance at avoiding runaway climate change’

    Hardly. Runaway climate change is already here. Current projections are 4C - 8C by 2100 (with the higher figure far more likely at 80% chance).

    You can't replace the missing ice. Heat content now in the world's oceans is extreme, with some areas 12F higher then normal. Same with the Arctic, abnormal temps ranging far above historical averages.

    Gigantic methane thermokarst lakes (millions) are dumping huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Over 700 large eruption craters have been found in Sibera. The Eastern Siberian continental shelf is literally bubbling over hundreds of thousands of square miles with methane leaks from the seabed. The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is ’already lost’ (non-recoverable).

    All this and much more is being documented by climate scientists. You're pretty far behind the curve on what's being measured and what it means for our very survival.

    We're way into ’runaway climate change’ already. Obviously.

    Unfortunately, our belated transition into ’renewables’ won't make any difference. It certainly won't save us or prevent runaway climate change. America politicians refused to extract themselves away from corporate control, and now, they've fucked us all.

  12. #12 Marushka France 04 Oct 15

    This reads like the fossil fuel and nuclear industry isn't go to go down without a fight, are they?

    Neglecting a simple reality: Global Warming nka Climate Change.
    The ability to survive on Planet Earth is the problem we need to solve - and quickly.
    Humans must stop the use of fossil fuels and nuclear because it is the major cause of global warming nka climate change that is destroying planet-wide climate stability. We must convert to renewable energy systems, we must protect an environment in which people cannot survive. We have little time left to accomplish this.

    Important to note that the energy efficiency that occurs by switching makes for a massive reduction in total energy needed to sustain the current standards. Also as Jacobson said ’it's not rocket science, it's about optimization.’

    The Professor does not 'advocate' he provides the science.
    textbook:
    “… presents a proposed solution to global warming and air pollution, namely, the conversion of the world's energy infrastructure to a large-scale, clean, renewable one. Because air pollution and global warming, in particular, are so severe, a rapid and large-scale conversion is needed. The main barriers are not technical, resource based, or even economic. Instead, they are social and political. “
    ~ Mark Z. Jacobson, ’Air Pollution and Global Warming: History, Science, and Solutions,’ Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012. [2nd Ed]

    high school lecture talk:
    Powering the World With Wind, Water, and Sunlight: Mark Jacobson at TEDxPaloAltoHighSchool
    less than 17 minutes
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NnrdvWz6BIQ

    Royal Society of Chemistry,
    Energy and Environmental Science
    Summary Paper published June 2015
    http://web.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/USStatesWWS.pdf

    50 US States, graphics TheSolutionsProject.org

  13. #13 Tariq Abdullah 10 Oct 15

    If electric cars are based on conventional electricity production they are not very green.Most electricity is produced by coal.

  14. #14 dannychivers 29 Oct 15

    Thanks for all the comments, sorry for the somewhat belated reply!

    Just to be clear, this article is a ballpark attempt to answer the specific question: 'Would it be physically possible to make a transition to a 100% renewable world with the materials we currently know are available?'. For this question, I believe the answer is a tentative 'yes', but only if accompanied by a major redistribution of energy use across the globe.

    John Weber and others, apologies if I didn't make it clear that a clean energy transition is only materially possible *if* also accompanied by this major shift in the way we use energy. Switching current energy use patterns over to renewables and continuing with 'business as usual' would emphatically NOT be possible. However, if the richest reduced their overconsumption so everyone else could come up to a sustainable level, and if we focused on maintaining a fair, sensible level of energy use rather than assuming continued energy use growth forever, then the numbers do (just about) add up. This does take into account population growth projections, by the way - see www.twoenergyfutures.org (or my new book) for more details.

    Of course, as several people above have pointed out, this doesn't answer the bigger question, which is 'is an industrial society sustainable in the longer term?' For our current fossil-fuelled capitalist model based on endless economic growth, the answer is clearly no - as you so rightly say, we are already hitting a number of serious environmental limits in addition to climate change. But would it be possible for a renewably-powered 'eco-modern' world of careful energy use to be sustainable beyond, say, the end of the century, or would it still come up against intractable natural limits? This is a separate, bigger question to the one I was examining in this article, but of course it's an incredibly important one!

    It is, of course, possible that 9+ billion people is just too many to survive on this planet in the long term without rendering it uninhabitable. But there are good reasons to hope, some paths that might start taking us in the right direction. A transition to sustainable energy use would, as several people point out above, need to be just one part of the picture - we'd also need a major transformation of our food system, switching to an agroenvironmental model based on small-scale sustainable/traditional practices, supplemented by clean energy technology, with farmers and communities having control of their own land and food production (the 'food sovereignty' model proposed by La Via Campesina and others). We'd need a radical shift in forest land rights, to ensure Indigenous and other forest peoples have the right to determine what happens on their own lands (which would provide far better forest protection than any number of carbon trading schemes). We'd need to ensure that people around the world are lifted out of poverty, and that women in particular are empowered with access to healthcare and contraception, as the key elements for stabilising population growth. For all of this to be possible, we'd need to shift to a less rapacious economic model not based on endless growth.

    Of course, even this may not be enough for the really long term, and we may indeed be looking at a longer term future of gradual deindustrialisation as Lehman Scott notes above - because of course everything does gradually degrade (I admit my comment about 100% recycling was a short-term simplification). However, even in that scenario I'd suggest our best course would be to try to focus on the word 'gradual', and start by trying to avoid the worst shocks ahead of us by at least shifting to a model that might be sustainable for, say, the next 100 years to give us a chance to figure out where humanity goes next. A much better option than just hitting the walls of climate change, resource shocks, and ecosystem collapse.

    Of course, all of this goes way beyond the scope of the number-crunching in this single blog post! However, a transition to clean energy will be one important step in this wider transformation, and I believe it's important to know that this particular step is - at least in theory - physically and technically possible.

    Thanks for all your thoughts and input everyone!

  15. #15 dannychivers 29 Oct 15

    Oh, and in response to some other specific comments:

    JR: It is of course possible that we've already passed the point of no return on climate change. However, the majority of climate scientists believe there is still a chance to avoid the worst runaway effects, but only if we leave the majority (80-90%) of proven fossil fuels in the ground. So long as there's any chance at all, I personally am going to fight for it. If someone told me there was only a 1% chance, or a 0.01% chance - I'd still fight for it. Surely it would be irresponsible to do anything else? Despair makes nothing happen. All effective action is rooted in hope, however small that hope may be.

    Marushka France: No, they won't go down without a fight. But nor, I hope, will we.

    Tariq Abdullah: Absolutely correct. That's why this article talks about a complete change in our entire energy and transport system.

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About the author

Danny Chivers is a climate change researcher, activist and performance poet. He is the author of the New Internationalist's The No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change: The science, the solutions, the way forward.

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