Sagar Dhara: Response to Alan Rusbridger

Pot calling the kettle black will not mitigate global warming, eco-socialism can

by Sagar Dhara

(This article was originally published on Frontierweekly.com on 2 June, 2015)

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In a recent interview published in The Hindu, Alan Rusbridger, the former editor-in-chief of the Guardian, expressed the fear that India “is going to burn a vast amount of dirty coal in very inefficient ways, and that could be really devastating.”  He advises India to use more solar energy.

By withholding inconvenient facts that developed countries emitted 78% of carbon dioxide (CO2) released since 1750 (historic emissions), Rusbridger is like the pot that called the kettle black.  Per the Guardian’s website UK’s per capita historic emissions of 1,127 T, is the second highest in the world, and forty times that of India’s.

Moreover, India gets a higher fraction of its primary energy from the sun than developed countries.  The solar energy that Indian farmers and the poor use in agriculture, and for their cooking and heating needs, as a fraction of India’s primary energy, called net primary production-solar (NPPs), is 41%.  The NPPs for USA, Europe and the world (as a whole) are 21%, 26% and 31%, respectively.

Rusbridger’s advice to dump coal (read fossil fuels) and favour solar energy holds for the world as a whole.  As developed countries are primarily responsible for global warming and use a smaller fraction of solar energy in their energy basket than developing countries, Rusbridger should have first advised the former to become more sustainable.

India and other developing countries must also share responsibility for the world to become sustainable. There is urgency for this as fossil fuels must be phased out completely by 2050 to avoid a temperature rise over the 2oC rise that climate scientists consider as the do-not-cross redline.  Oil and gas will exhaust in 50 years and coal in 100 years.  Yet fossil fuels are preferred.  Consequently 80% (excluding NPPs) of the world energy is from fossil fuels.

Reasons for fossil fuel addiction
The world is addicted to fossil fuels for good reasons.  They are the densest known energy source other than nuclear fuels, and have an Energy return on energy invested (EROEI) of 15-50, i.e., 1 Joule invested in obtaining fossil fuels yields 15-50 Joules (J) as surplus energy.  Almost all other energy sources have lower EROEIs, e.g., photovoltaics (PV) 4-10, solar thermal 2-5.

A high EROEI makes fossil fuels cheap.  The average international levellized energy cost of power generated by a fossil fuel plant is Rs 3-4/kWh, whereas it is over Rs 5/kWh for wind and solar plants.  Recent advances in wind and solar energy technologies have reduced their costs, but they are still above that of fossil fuel plants.  If externalities of these energy sources were to be included, these costs would change a bit, but to what extent is still to be worked out as the environmental impacts of solar and wind generating plants are still not well understood.

A high EROEI makes fossil fuels return large profits.  Using more fossil fuels creates more surplus energy that translates into higher profits.  A market economy driven by profits is in contradiction with the environment that needs a reduction in fossil fuel use to avoid the ravages of global warming.

Large profits accrued by increasing fossil fuel use do not necessarily result in inclusive development.  India’s per capita energy consumption is twice that of Cambodia’s.  Fossil fuels contribute 45% and 15% of India and Cambodia’s primary energy.  Yet India’s human development index (HDI) is only one rank above Cambodia’s.  India has 54% of its population below the multi-dimensional poverty (MDP) line whereas Cambodia has only 47%.  Fossil fuels are being harnessed by Indian businesses to cater to middle-class consumerism to reap large profits.

At lower per capita energy consumption levels that have low fossil fuel percentage, Cambodia’s standard of life matches India’s. Bangladesh, Bhutan and Laos performance is similar to Cambodia’s.  Srilanka has outperformed India.  Its per capita energy consumption is two-thirds of India’s, yet its HDI is 62 ranks above India’s and its population below the MDP line is below 5%.

Solar energy travails
Commercial solar energy is not without problems.  Solar PV panel manufacture emits CO2 as fossil fuels are used to make them.  Life cycle analysis studies indicate that if the growth rate of PV panel manufacture exceeds the inverse of its CO2 payback time, PV will emit more CO2 in its manufacture than it will save by substituting fossil fuel burning.  The global average CO2 payback period is about 8 years, i.e., PV growth should be below 12% per annum for it to be a net CO2 mitigator.  But PV grew at 40% and 59% per annum between 1998-2008 and 2008-2014, respectively, making it a net CO2 emitter since 1998.

PV capacity at the end of 2013 was 140 GW, less than 1% of the global power generation capacity (~0.23% of global energy consumption).  To remain a net CO2 mitigator, PV as being made today, should grow at less than 10% per annum.  Assuming a growth of 2.4% per annum growth in power consumption, PV will take 50 years to replace fossil fuels in power generation alone.

Thinfilm PVs require Indium, Cadmium and Tellurium.  The production of these rare earths will peak in 15 years, and be in short supply subsequently.  Moreover, China produces 97% of the world’s rare earths.  Apprehensions exist whether this will lead to monopolistic control over PV panels.

Baotou, a town in Inner Mongolia, China, processes two-thirds the world’s rare earths, and is highly polluted.  Toxic and radioactive effluents have polluted a 10 km2 tailing pond; making it lifeless.  The air is foul with acid vapours and coal dust.  Agriculture in the surrounding villages has failed and domestic animals have died.  People complain of severe respiratory and other illnesses.  Migration from some nearby villages is 90%.

Whether new PV technologies with short CO2 payback time, no raw materials constraints and environmental problems will be able replace fossil fuels by 2050 is doubtful.

Human sustainability needs eco-socialism, not just switching to solar energy
Global warming is due to fossil fuel overdraws made to satisfy the ever-rising consumption of the rich.  Like a perpetual motion machine, perpetual economic growth is impossible.  At the current global energy growth rate of 2.3% per annum, in 400 years humans will require all solar energy incident on earth.  If the entire world lived like Americans (12 times that of the average Indian) and energy growth is at the Indian rate (5.6% per annum) , that time would be halved.  The waste heat generated in either scenario would raise earth’s surface temperature sufficiently to boil water, even if only solar energy were used.

Several thinkers have reminded us that the earth is finite.  Sixty years ago Hubbert correctly predicted global peak oil (oil production maxing followed by decline) to occur in early-21st Century.  In 1972, the book Limits to growth became a best seller.  In his recent work, Clugston predicts that 89 important non-renewable minerals will dwindle drastically in 15 years.  A century back Gandhiji intuitively said, “The world has enough for everyones need, but not everyones greed, and 30 years ago Catton criticized blind belief in “earth’s limitless resources” and “technology will save us.”

Energy and matter cannot be destroyed, only transformed or redistributed.  As the economy grows, natural resources will deplete.  By cutting half the 80 million km2 forest that existed 8,000 years ago, humans have stolen energy from nature equal to 2,000 Hiroshima sized bombs per annum.  Consequently, the environment has frayed and its ability to support life and a healthy human society has diminished.

By investing small amounts of energy, investors harvest large amount of surplus energy that becomes their property.  The virtuous circle of this process concentrates wealth and drives growth; which causes conflict and resource wars between people with different identities—nationality, class, caste, gender, colour, ethnicity, etc.  In the last century over 100 million people died in such conflicts.

Shifting to solar energy has problems but must be done.  The shift may retard global warming in due course of time but it does not guarantee a sustainable society.  For humans to live sustainably on earth, six programmes are needed: reducing current commercial global energy consumption by 60%; equalizing energy consumption for all people; shifting to solar and biomass energies; innovating biotic and low energy technologies; discarding growth drivers—anthropocentrism and private ownership of nature and its products (means of production) that help create surplus—in favour of usufruct rights; altering global outlook from “gain maximization for a few” to “risk minimization for all”; i.e., implementing an eco-socialist programme .

The implications are radical,  amongst others, that USA and Canada reduce their energy consumption by 90%, Europe, Australasia and Japan by 75%; dismantle borders; destroy weapons of war and of mass destruction; decentralize governance and make it self-administrating; give impetus to localism; shrink cities drastically and dissolve energy differentials between urban and rural areas; guarantee minimum sustenance energy to all; and implement a uniform risk and emission standards for all people; discard credit as it operates on the basis of payback from future energy surplus accruals, etc.

These actions pose philosophical, political and technological challenges.  But they can be overcome if people take the initiative as they did in the recent climate change marches across the world where they said, “Keep the climate, change the economy,”  If such initiatives fructify into concrete change quickly, there is hope that we could transit to a sustainable, equitable and peaceful society, else global warming and peak oil will force changes on us, but with pain.

(The author belongs to the most rapacious predator species that ever stalked the earth-humans, and to a net destructive discipline—engineering, that has to take more than a fair share of the responsibility for bringing earth and human society to tipping points.)

Sagar Dhara may be contacted at ghayh.o

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