With Afterburn, Richard Heinberg paints a bleak picture of an inevitable post-carbon future

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      Very slowly, environmentalists have begun to convince the world we can have our cake and eat it too.

      They argue human civilization can transition away from fossil fuels without suffering a significant blow to the global economy. Capitalism, continual growth, and high standards of living can all continue, and continue without the onset of catastrophic climate change.

      We can transition to renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind, and hydro—which, in recent years, have become substantially more economically viable. And that allow us save the planet while continuing to update to the latest iPhone each year and without forgoing the annual vacations in Hawaii.

      But Richard Heinberg argues this optimistic future is a fantasy. It is absolutely imperative that the world does move away from fossil fuels, he maintains. But it is not going to happen without severe economic sacrifice, political upheaval, and a “simplification and decentralization of societal systems”.

      “One way or another, we are going to get off of fossil fuels this century,” Heinberg told the Straight. “The question is, how are we going to do it? Are we going to do it in some kind of planned and managed way? Or is it going to be a series of economic and environmental catastrophes?”

      Heinberg is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute and the author of The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Society. That 2003 book was one of the earlier works to attract mainstream attention to peak oil, the point in human history when we reach—or reached—the maximum rate of oil extraction before the resource’s finite nature means reserves and production will forever after decline. His latest book, Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels, was published in April 2015.

      Now, Heinberg revealed, his next “big project” is called “Our Renewable Future”, an analysis of various energy uses and an attempt to determine how each one can theoretically be replaced with a renewable source of fuel. Heinberg said he expects the results out in September or October.

      “There are a lot of challenges with switching to renewables for all energy consumption,” Heinberg said in a wide-ranging telephone interview.

      Some aspects of this transition are easy enough and well underway, he continued. In British Columbia, for example, entire cities stay warm through the winter running on electricity produced at hydroelectric dams. And companies like Tesla have shown how automobiles can plug into those same grids instead of relying on combustible fuels.

      But there are real and significant constraints on the extents to which clean sources of power can replace the dirtier forms we rely on for more energy-intensive requirements, Heinberg said.

      “We can electrify automobile transportation, but what about airplanes, ships, and big 18-wheel trucks?” he asked.

      “Then there are lots of industrial uses of energy for heat,” he continued. “How about using high heat to smelt metals or to produce concrete and steel?....A lot of resource extraction is going to be very hard to electrify. Big mining equipment. The same goes for forestry operations….When you get to the really big stuff, it is much more difficult.”

      Intercontinental travel similarly requires combustion. The electricity produced by a solar-power installation, farm of wind turbines, or even a hydroelectric dam the size of the Hoover can’t produce energy with the density that’s required to move an airplane, freight train, or cargo ship.

      “We are not going to have electric airliners,” Heinberg said. “I think we have to be realistic and recognize there are going to be some serious challenges along the way.”

      So, if the future is not a greener version of the world we know today, what will the economies of our grandchildren look like?

      “I think we’re already seeing the first signs of it, which is economic contraction,” Heinberg said. “Economic growth all around the world—in China, in Europe, in Japan, in North America, Australia—instead of three or four-percent annual GDP growth, we’re seeing fractions of one percent or even less….We are moving into a post-growth era.”

      Citizens are catching on, Heinberg said. But our leaders are woefully far behind them, strapped to promises of perpetual growth their re-elections depend on no matter how unrealistic they might be.

      “This is probably going to be a crisis-led transition,” Heinberg concluded. “On a finite planet, nothing grows forever.”

      Comments

      14 Comments

      MeMeMe

      May 17, 2015 at 3:57pm

      What, we can't keep our mephones? Crap like mephones, mepads, metunes, are what's really screwing up our world.

      craig

      May 17, 2015 at 10:16pm

      Show up at a protest wearing a potato sack and wood shoes and i will take you serious

      Oily bird

      May 17, 2015 at 10:42pm

      i predict we will actually suffer a population drop due to lack of phosphorus first. The world will not run out of oil but food.

      fails

      May 18, 2015 at 6:55am

      Fails to include recent technologies such as Audi's system to render fuel carbon neutral by continually recycling the carbon. There are so many technologies that can be a game changer and allow us to have a high energy, low carbon society e.g. man-made photosysthesis, cold fusion, high efficiency solar cells and storage - graphene might allow for a super capacitor layer or layers on the back of a solar cell, combining charging and storage into one light weight panel. Yes, we are in a precarious position and it could well go off the rails, but there is a lot of potential to get it fixed in time.

      Alex T

      May 18, 2015 at 8:09am

      There are technologies to create diesel from air and water using electricity. It's currently being developed by the Navy as some ships have access to large power generators (nuclear) and a need to share this power with other, smaller ships. In this case, the diesel is used almost like a battery. I don't see any a priori reason why this or similar technologies can't be employed in the future for other areas which need the high energy density of fuel.

      More importantly, this isn't something that needs to be addressed for another 20-30 years. We have all of the technology and the know-how to high our greenhouse gas reduction targets for a generation at least, we just lack the political will. Articles like this that claim it's futile because in one or two generations from now we will face some challenges aren't merely unhelpful but deceptive - there's all the reason in the world to keep fighting, and every reason to think that we'll have good answers by the time we need them.

      Chrysostomos Fountoulis

      May 18, 2015 at 12:58pm

      Today a super love boat arived at Pireus port Greece with 5000 passengers and 2000 crew members, on a trip from Barcelona to Dubai. I suppose it is using free of tax, subsidized petrol. No carbon tax is applιed.

      Peter Zuris

      May 18, 2015 at 1:32pm

      i don't doubt that in the next 100 years we can transition to sustainable civilization. The longer we wait to aggressively transition the more costly it will be because we'll have to fund recovery as well as adaptation. But when we're done human society will be much different with much trauma in our wake.

      Dana Pearson

      May 18, 2015 at 1:35pm

      I admire Richard greatly. He poses many valid considerations we must address in the necessary transition we are embarking on. However I do deer many solutions and do not think mining, long haul trucks and industry are a problem. The trucking industry is particularly amenable to battery swapping at truck stops and mining is already going Solar in some regions.

      I do think endless growth is totally insane and cradle to cradle analytical thinking is critical.

      The bullshit free market capitalistic system is a huge problem as it focuses on rape pillage plunder tactics that are essentially suicidal. As is our current political infrastructure which is owned by such interests. This is the real death nel starting us in the face.

      Personally I think we need massive amounts of "regrowth" into renewables as the old tech is put to bed. This will be a turbulent time but it is starting. AND IT MUST happen as climate shifts are accelerating faster than ever expected.

      I see a blend of Lovins, Heinberg & Mark Jacobson as the most exciting trajectory that lies before us. Right now each of these visionaries work independently on very important aspects of our future.

      I wish they'd come together and sort this out... As their combined wisdom and insites are exactly what we need in these precious times

      Talking Head Selling Books of Pulp Fiction 1st World Probs

      May 18, 2015 at 6:03pm

      Typical of Think Tank like ideology even in the environmental space to use Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (F.U.D) to "sell" their point of view.

      In this case it's a talking head promoting his next (Paper, transported by Truck, Train and Air) book to profit from after all lets be honest and call a spade a spade it's not like his some type of benevolent Monk lol.

      "Heinberg, after two years in college and a period of personal study, became personal assistant to Immanuel Velikovsky in November 1979 and after Velikovsky's death assisted Mrs. Velikovsky editing manuscripts."

      Source : wiki, his own website just describes his published books and articles no mention of being a qualified Economist or owner / operator of a business unless you count his Books and speaking engagements as business, I suppose you could :)

      OK lets apply some real facts & Data analysis...

      1. Yes we have to transition to renewable resources, no it should not be catastrophe driven,

      2. all major industries can choose to go green renewable today if they choose the only one that is very early on in it's development is the Aviation industry,

      3. Trucks can and do run on alternative to Diesel and Petrol, they use natural Gas and/or electric this can easily scale to semi's, it's the added cost that would reduce profits in the short term that is delaying this particular transition bt

      4. Renewable Energy can and does power industrial scale manufacturing, even more can be done with cleaner Nuclear Power like Thorium based plants etc,

      5. To blame slow rates of Economic growth to the Environmental movement and/or going "Green" is both disingenuous and outright wrong,

      The Slow Economic Growth in major economies...

      Are due primarily to other factors other than the "Green movement / energy".

      Since 2000 we have had a majority of high growth years even with Oil at record high prices which limits access via reducing demand, that is it's so expensive you can't afford it for frivolous use.

      It was the CDO Financial manipulation and various Ponzi like Financial organizations profiteering without fear of persecution due to their influence over Politicians and Regulators that allowed the collapse and led to slow growth rates not transition to Green Energy.

      Climate change will have a far quicker & dramatic effect on the Economy in the medium term than the long term transition to renewable energy.

      Bear Code

      May 18, 2015 at 6:19pm

      Large ships already run on LNG and so do trucks. We can always make different fuels for those items. Replace planes with trains and slow down and live a little better with less stress. It's a mind set that isn't too difficult to think out and solve. There isn't any reason to insert fear into the equation. If the big shots let us accomplish this issue without wars we should be ok.