George Monbiot Just Attacked a Key Solution to Climate Change — Why?

In 2015, the Electric Power Research Institute partnered with NRDC in producing a report assessing the ability of electrical vehicles to reduce global carbon emissions. Their findings were as profound as they were simple:

Electric vehicles and a clean grid are essential to arresting climate change

(Adding electrical vehicles to the energy and transportation mix considerably reduced global carbon emissions. In addition, the batteries on which the vehicles are based provide essential, low-cost means to store renewable based electricity coming from wind and solar power. Image source: NRDC.)

The findings also represented basic common sense.

The start of major atmospheric increases in CO2 and other greenhouse gasses began with the burning of fossil fuels. Rapid global warming subsequently followed. Human burning of wood, cow-based agriculture, and destruction of forests prior to that time may or may not have marginally increased atmospheric greenhouse gasses and tweaked global temperatures. But the simple truth is that from the end ice age interval about ten thousand years ago until fossil fuel burning began in the 18th Century, the primary gas contributing to global warming — Carbon Dioxide — had remained in a tight range between 265 to 275 parts per million (methane concentrations increased by less than 100 parts per billion, and nitrous oxide levels only increased by about 10 parts per billion).

The big hit obviously came when humans began digging up coal, oil and gas, putting them into machines, and burning these materials en-masse. And today we are adding 10 parts per million of heat trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every 3-5 years. An increase that possibly took all the plowing, burning, domesticating, and breaking of the Earth by humans ten thousand years to achieve by harmful land use activity alone. Meanwhile, methane and nitrous oxide levels since the commencement of fossil fuel burning around 1750 have rapidly risen by 1,200 and 60 parts per billion respectively.

(Levels of heat trapping carbon dioxide remained relatively stable for thousands of years until the commencement of fossil fuel burning by humans. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)

And these dangerous carbon emissions in today’s energy, agriculture and manufacturing systems all ultimately come down to one chief source — fossil fuel burning. If there’s a carbon emission from the making of steel, for example, it mostly comes from burning fossil fuels. If there’s a long lasting and harmful carbon emission coming from industrial agriculture, it’s in large part coming from the burning of fossil fuels. And if there’s a carbon emission coming from our use of machines, it’s due entirely to the internal combustion engines within them that burn fossil fuels.

In all of the human system, the vast majority of carbon emissions come from oil, gas, and coal. And all of the most dangerous, old carbon emissions come from this source. In other words, if you want to stop climate change, you have to deal with the real elephant in the room. There is no bargaining. No dissembling. ERPI and NRDC are right. You’ve got to switch your energy sources and your engines if you’re to have any hope of dealing with human-caused climate change. Electric vehicles and a renewable grid are, therefore, essential. They’re our escape hatch. They’re our main path out of future climate change hell.

(It’s clear where the additional heat trapping gases are coming from — old fossil carbon sources. Video source: NASA.)

The big, heavy lift all just boils down to halting fossil fuel burning as soon as possible. This is our best hope, our best means, of removing future carbon from the atmosphere — never burning the fossil fuels at all. Leaving it all in the ground.

New Solutions vs the Old Gridlocked Dialectic 

Notably, there are many conceptual, if difficult to enact, ways that we as human beings could achieve this end. Over the past half century at least, wise environmentalists have been calling for a renewed focus on living simply. On public transport. On re-building close-knit communities fractured by rampant consumerism and marketeering. On using less to do more.

This goal was admirable, helpful. But, for various reasons, it has, so far, largely failed to address the larger climate crisis. This is not to downplay the helpful successes of a number of cities and communities around the world who have provided walkable communities, added bike lanes, advanced public transport, and helpfully re-strengthened local ties. Yet despite these helpful advances, about 80 million fossil fuel powered vehicles are produced each year. So we obviously have to address that larger issue as well.

One reason that this helpful environmental movement has not grown its influence more is due to the noted and powerful strength of the fossil fuel industry in manipulating governments and the public interest. If calls by greens for restraint were loud and compelling, they were often drowned out by fossil fuel advertising dollars and legislation that increasingly leaned toward protecting harmful economic interests. Another reason was that these goals, though noble, did not speak to the present economic reality in which many people lived their daily lives. Technology based on fossil fuels enabled many to do more, make more, raise their families up from poverty — but at a terrible long term external cost that was often invisible to the users.

The resource curse thus became ingrained in many regions outside the political reach of environmentalists as these consumers were captured in a new, generational, economic reality dominated by fossil fuel use. And there was much reason to lament and resist this ultimately harmful reality — even if the message of blaming a consumer that was essentially shackled to fossil fuel use and sometimes ineffectively pushing toward a less and less clear vision of efficiency and simplicity without also providing broader access to alternatives was a proposition destined for failure.

(The price of a solar panel from 1977 to 2013 had dropped from 77 dollars per watt to 74 cents per watt. In 2017, solar panels now regularly sell for between 25 and 35 cents per watt. This provides a significant escape hatch to present fossil fuel burning. Low cost wind and emerging electrical vehicles add to this escape route. Image source: Clean Technica.)

This dialectic itself described a systemic downward spiral from which there appeared to be no escape. But recently, the very technological and economic advantages represented by fossil fuels have begun to seriously erode. The cost of non-fossil-fuel based energy systems — wind and solar primarily — plunged to less than that of traditional coal, oil, and gas. Meanwhile, the desirable machines that burned the devil’s juice of oil, began to trade in their black internal combustion engine hearts for far cleaner electrical engines and batteries. Drive systems that could easily be mated to clean energy and remove fossil fuels from the energy picture entirely.

This new opportunity for clean energy to leverage the same strengths that led fossil fuels to prominence not only threatened fossil fuels. It threatened that old dialectic. And some purists were unable to reconcile the reality of far more benevolent new technologies able to replace fossil fuels with the older ideals and conflicts.

Public Transport and Bikes are Great. But why Attack Electrical Vehicles if They are also Helpful?

And it is for this reason that we can understand, a bit, where George Monbiot is coming from when he appears to falsely equate electrical vehicles with fossil fuel based vehicles. A car-less society has long been a big ideological push for George and other environmentalists. The car itself, his reviled icon of harmful consumerism. And, yes, removing cars would achieve a significant reduction in UK carbon emissions if such a thing were even remotely politically possible. Those driving on grid-locked Great Britain highways can certainly have sympathy for a generally helpful reduction in car use. In adding more widely available electrified, renewable-based public transportation. In making bike transport more widely available.

But ultimately, it appears to this observer that George is counter-productively attacking the wrong object. That George is unintentionally committing more harm than good. In other words, as a practical matter, Great Britain is highly unlikely to be able to achieve the goal of a car-less society any time soon. But if it does, eventually, reduce the number of its ‘iron chariots’ as Monbiot suggests, the electrical vehicle will probably have played its part in helping speed that transition.

(Increased adoption rates of electrical vehicles will reduce oil consumption and at the same time erode the power of industries that have for so long blocked green initiatives like public transportation, ride sharing, and walkable and bikeable cities. Why throw water on a much-needed energy revolution that would be very helpful by providing air in the room for green causes? Image source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance.)

Going back to the old dialectic, we find that the primary political opponents to societies with greatly reduced automobile use per person are both traditional automobile manufacturers and fossil fuel companies that rely on ICE based vehicle transportation to support oil demand. Add electrical vehicles to the mix and you reduce fossil fuel demand, thus eroding one pillar of that political power base.

This, by itself, might not be enough to break the larger environmental log jam. But consider the fact that the primary leaders of the electrical vehicle movement are companies like Telsa and countries like China. Tesla itself is more an energy company than a vehicle company. The company produces energy platforms and renewable energy applications. Batteries, solar, and electrical vehicles are its stock and trade. High quality vehicles that primarily do not rely on the same levels of mass production that traditional, single stream automakers have relied on. China, meanwhile, is mass-producing electrical vehicles in an effort to clean its air. Neither are as shackled to the notion of everyone owning a vehicle as traditional automakers now are. And to this point, Tesla itself has identified ride sharing as a strategic goal to enable people to access road transport without owning a vehicle — thus considerably reducing the number of cars per person and helping to enable Monbiot’s ultimate goals.

The net result in bringing EVs in to compete with ICEs will be not only reduced carbon emissions, but a change in the economic based power dynamic within the UK and in other countries. And the economic interests of disruptive new companies like Tesla will be divergent enough from those of traditional automakers to allow the breaking of the old grid-lock at the political level. In such a new dialectic, the voices of those like Monbiot could be even more poignant and helpful as we pursue a path to greater sustainability — so long as they do not shrilly attack the various forces that are enabling their empowerment to achieve those very ends.

Links:

NRDC

The Keeling Curve

NASA

Clean Technica

Bloomberg New Energy Finance

Denmark Kicking Fossil Fuels Addiction With Record 39 Percent (and Growing) Wind Generation

“We have set a one-of-a-kind world record. And it shows that we can reach our ultimate goal, namely to stop global warming.” — Denmark’s Climate and Energy Minister Rasmus Helveg Petersen.

*   *   *   *

Back in 1971, on the eve of the world’s first global oil shocks, the European country of Demark generated more than 80 percent of its electricity from crude. As the 70s progressed and the nation staggered under rising energy costs and failure to obtain supplies from this limited, exploited, and monopolized fuel source, Denmark began to embark on a campaign for energy independence that was then unprecedented. A campaign to rid itself of a destructive dependence on economically volatile, climatologically destructive, and easily manipulated fossil fuels.

Wind in the Distance

(Offshore wind turbines in the distance. Image source: Urland.)

At the time, Denmark began to turn back to its traditional use of wind — but as a direct source of electricity itself. The country, situated on a peninsula between the North and Baltic Seas is awash in breezes and the ever shifting flows of conflicting air masses. The idea, for Denmark, was to harness this energy as a means to break its dependence on foreign oil and, ultimately, remove fossil fuel use entirely.

At first, the going was slow. Wind energy facility construction moved gradually from test sites to small farms, to the first large utility scale ventures in the late 1980s. At this point, the nascent Vestas as well as the established Siemens had become primary producers of wind turbines on the global market. Steady growth through the year 2000 resulted in Denmark providing slightly more than 10 percent of its electricity from wind, solar and geothermal sources — with wind providing the bulk of this portion.

At this point, economies of scale began to kick in as wind power adoption in Denmark began to expand exponentially. Vestas and Siemens grew concordantly from niche energy players to primary contributors for a rapidly growing global electricity market. By the end of 2014, Denmark supplied more than 39 percent of its energy from wind alone.

The amount of oil used for electricity generation in Denmark now? Less than 3 percent. A staggering success that many, especially those supporting fossil fuel interests, never believed possible.

But despite these amazing achievements, Denmark is still shooting for more, with an ultimate goal of completely kicking a nasty and climatologically destructive fossil fuel habit. For Denmark is now within striking distance of achieving its goal of getting more than 50 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020 and becoming completely fossil fuel free by or before 2050.

Global_Wind_Power_Cumulative_Capacity.svg

(Global wind energy capacity since 1996. As Denmark pursues independence from fossil fuels — spear-headed by a surge in wind generation — global installed wind capacity continues to increase along an exponential curve. Image source: Commons.)

As Denmark pushes toward and beyond the 50 percent renewables mark, challenges remain. Grid storage and smart grid type energy movement will become more and more important. But, fortunately for Denmark and a number of other rising renewables states (including Germany at 27 percent renewables and California at 23 percent renewables) distributed and centralized storage systems are becoming more accessible. Electric vehicles, with their large batteries which can be utilized for grid storage when plugged in at home or at a smart charging station, are becoming more accessible. In addition, the cost of battery storage for grid applications is rapidly falling in many regions with nearby Germany seeing a 25 percent fall in the cost of battery storage this year alone.

With wind and solar energy now increasingly beating out coal and natural gas generation costs on a cents per kilowatt/hr basis, it becomes easier for responsible-minded governments like Denmark to shift more support to smart grids and storage in order to continue to grow renewable based power systems.

Lastly, the advent of new very large battery factories like those being built by Tesla, Solar City and Byd are likely to continue to drive down battery costs over the next few years — making transition beyond the 30 and 50 percent renewable electric generation milestones much more directly accessible.

It’s a megatrend which, should it become widely adopted and promoted, has the potential to start bending down the fossil fuel emissions curve soon — potentially pushing it to zero by mid century. Something that’s an absolute necessity if we’re serious about dealing with the ramping calamity that is human caused climate change.

Links:

Denmark Sets World Record for Wind Power Production

Germany and Denmark Join UK in Smashing Wind Energy Records

Battery Storage Systems Prices Fall 25% in Germany

Commons

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