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.”