I have read many articles over these last few months, telling us that technology is the way to escape global warming it is not, the silver bullet, the panacea. Yes, we have come a long way to change to renewable over the last decade, so ask yourself this, “Why is CO2 in the atmosphere still rising?”
Growth is the enemy; growth is embedded in our economics and politics the system can’t survive without it. So it is no surprise to learn that governments around the world have placed the full force of the state behind perpetuating the treadmill of accumulation – growth when we should be cutting back on growth ‘for growth’s sake’.
If we tally up the total weight of all the stuff humans extract and consume each year, including biomass, minerals, fossil fuels and construction materials we find that in the first half of the 1900s it jumped from 7 billion tons per year to 14 billion tons per year – then came the decades after 1945 something truly astonishing happened. As GDP growth becomes entrenched as a core political objective around the world and expansion starts to accelerate, material use explodes. 35 million tones in 1980 – 50 billion tones by 2000 an eye-watering 92 billion tons by 2017
Facts are facts, the evidence about the relationship between economic growth and ecological breakdown continues to pill up yet growth remains entrenched. But so long as we go down the path of constant growth we can never build enough clean energy, to outweigh the amount required to meet even a 3% annual growth, from where we are today.
If clean energy was the silver bullet that many put their trust in – but whilst wind and sunshine are clean the infrastructure we need to capture it is not.
In 2017 the World Bank released a report looking at the increase in material extraction that would be required to build enough solar and wind utilities to produce an annual output of about 7 terawatts of electricity by 2050 (about enough to the power needed for about half of the global economy). Double these figures and the results would be 34 billion metric tons of copper, 40 million tons of lead, 50 million tons of zinc, 162 million tons of aluminium and no less than 4.5 billion tons of iron. The same is true for silver, which a critical ingredient in solar panels is. Silver extraction will go up 38% and perhaps as much as 105%. Demand for indium, also essential to solar technology, will more than triple and could end up skyrocketing by 920%
We also need to think about vehicles – yes we need to change to e-cars but we also need to reduce their usage. And as we run out of known deposits of key materials – what next excavating the polar regions – the sea bed………..
No, believing that GDP should continue to grow year on year, is unsustainable, and that is where we must look for a solution.
The scale of resources that will be required to go ‘Green’ is staggering. Take silver, the Penasquito open cast mine in Mexico is the biggest in the world, it covers an area of 40 square miles, a sprawling open-cast site. With two tailing dumps full of toxic sludge held back by a wall 7 miles around and as high as a fifty-story skyscraper. Penasquito will produce 11,000 tons of silver in the next ten years before the reserves are exhausted. The transition the global economy to renewable will require 130 mines on the scale of Penasquito.
Lithium is another ecological disaster. It takes 500,000 gallons of water to produce a single ton of lithium. Even at present levels of extraction, this is causing real problems. In the Andes, where most of the world’s lithium is located, mining companies are burning through the water table and leaving farmers with nothing to irrigate their crops. Lithium mines have poisoned rivers from Chile to Argentina, Nevada to Tibet, killing off whole freshwater ecosystems and the Lithium boom has barely started. I read that, I read that the Bolivia government will receive 30 trillion dollars from its Lithium deposits – I wonder how much of that will be invested to clean up the mess afterwards or the companies simply go into receivership and leave the ecological disaster for others to clean up. And how much of the 30 trillion will go to help the people of Bolivia – and how much will be squirrelled away by corrupt parliamentarians. Or does that only happen at Westminster?
And remember this is simply to power the global economy by 2050 – add to this the energy needs to for future growth – even after achieving full energy transition – to keep the global economy growing it would mean doubling the total global stock of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries every thirty or forty years forever and ever and ever…….
Let’s suppose we were able to move to 100% clean energy, what would we do with it?
If following the capitalist system of ever-increasing growth year on year, we would be simply swapping one problem for another, doing exactly the same things we did under fossil fuels. We would raze more forests, trawl more fish, mine more mountains, build more roads, expand industrial farming, and send more waste to landfills.
There is no future in Capitalism and constant growth, it has failed. The whole idea behind using clean energy to power a ‘Green Growth’ system is only so that we can keep growing material production and consumption – otherwise what would be the point – why would we need to keep growing energy demand???????