The renewable revolution cannot occur with limitless growth, experts warn

Despite the hopes attached to renewable energy, a rapid transition to green technologies, coupled with continued economic growth, could lead to severe energy and mineral shortages, as well as conflict and environmental damage.

Nevertheless, these pitfalls can be avoided by focusing the renewable revolution on wellbeing rather than on green growth.

This week, the 25th Conference of Parties (COP25), where the United Nations is trying to get the entire international community on the same line regarding climate change, kicked off in Madrid.

“The point of no return is no longer over the horizon,” warned UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

Despite this renewed momentum and despite the ground-breaking Paris Agreement (COP21) to combat global warming, global emissions continue to rise at an alarming rate, the UN warned last week.

Over the past decade, greenhouse gas emissions have been rising by an average of 1.5% per year, reaching a record high of 55.3 gigatons of CO2 equivalent in 2018, compared with 53.5 gigatons in 2017, according to the UN’s Emissions Gap Report 2019. Members of the G20 club of the world’s largest economies account for almost four-fifths of this output.

A lack of political will, a dearth of ambition, vested commercial interests and societal inertia have all been blamed for this lack of progress.

Distant peaks

“There is no sign of GHG emissions peaking in the next few years; every year of postponed peaking means that deeper and faster cuts will be required,” the UN report concludes. “By 2030, emissions would need to be 25% and 55% lower than in 2018 to put the world on the least-cost pathway to limiting global warming to below 2⁰C and 1.5°C respectively.”

Under the Paris Agreement, governments pledged to keep global warming at below 2⁰C above pre-industrial levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) goes even further, emphasising the urgent need to halt climate change at 1.5⁰C or lower in order to avoid the catastrophic consequences for humanity, nature and the planet.

To achieve this, the world will, among other things, need to derive 70-85% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050 to keep temperature rises below 1.5⁰C, the IPCC estimates, according to its mid-range scenarios, while its high-end forecasts project the figure to be as high as 97%.

In 2017, less than a quarter of the world’s electricity supply was derived from renewable sources, mostly large-scale hydropower installations which cause immense environmental impact, while electricity accounted for only a fifth of global energy consumption, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Source: Eurostat 2019; Graph: EEB

(Net) zero progress

Despite the absence of measurable reductions in emissions to date, there has been political progress, as an increasing number of states and blocs pledge to reach net zero emissions in the common decades.

One example is the European Green Deal, the flagship initiative of new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, which will be officially unveiled next week. The EU has also unveiled its intention to reach the Paris Agreement target of climate neutrality by 2050.

“Reaching a climate neutral economy by 2050 is feasible from [the] technological, economic and social perspective, but it requires deep societal and economic transformations within a generation,” the Commission said in a vision document.

The UNEP agrees that deep change is necessary. “Decarbonising the global economy will require fundamental structural changes, which should be designed to bring multiple co-benefits for humanity and planetary support systems,” says the authors of the Emissions Gap Report.

Important prongs of the Commission’s proposed strategy to achieve climate neutrality include focusing on the ‘decarbonisation’ of the economy by electrifying the EU’s energy and transportation system, switching to renewable energy sources, and bolstering energy efficiency in such a way as to halve energy consumption in 2050 compared with 2005.

If the EU manages to deliver on its carbon neutrality pledges and the rest of the world follows suit, is it feasible and what would be the ramifications of this profound transition?

Electrifying challenges

People tend to have the idea that because solar, wind and other forms of renewables are practically boundless sources of energy compared to our needs, the only limit to our ability to exploit them is a lack of will or an absence of imagination. “When it comes to renewables, of course, the total theoretical potential is huge,” observes Iñigo Capellán-Pérez, who is part of the Research Group on Energy, Economy and System Dynamics at the University of Valladolid in Spain. “The question is how much of this potential is really economically feasible, and how much of it is really sustainable, because renewable and sustainable are not necessarily the same thing.”

Capellán-Pérez and his colleagues on the EU-funded MEDEAS project, the forerunner of the LOCOMOTION project, have modelled what a large scale switchover to renewables would entail and what ramifications it may have on society, the economy and the environment.

The model measured the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) for various future scenarios of renewable energy penetration in the context of ‘gre’en growth. EROI is the ratio of useable energy generated to the energy required to deliver it.

To illustrate the concept of EROI, Capellán-Pérez uses the analogy of a wolf. The lower the effort a wolf requires to hunt its prey, the greater the surplus left over for it to thrive and do other things. The greater the effort, the lower the surplus and the more time and energy the wolf must expend to feed itself. An EROI of 1:1 represents subsistence, while anything lower is dangerous for the wolf’s survival and would spell extinction at the species level.

Low returns

In order to thrive, a modern, complex human society needs a high EROI. In our current fossil fuel-based society, the ratio is about 12:1. If the world were to switch over to the lower range estimate of renewable electricity which the IPCC calculates is necessary to keep global warming at or below 1.5⁰C (70-85%), what consequences would this have for humanity’s EROI?

At 75%, the EROI would drop to around 9:1 in 2050 and to below 6:1 by 2060, according to projections obtained from the MEDEAS model. The near 100% required by the IPCC’s high-end forecast would lead the EROI to fall further, to around 4:1 by 2050, about 3:1 by 2055 and around 5:1 by 2060.

This relatively low EROI is due to a number of factors, says Capellán-Pérez. Enormous amounts of new infrastructure would need to be constructed in a relatively short span of time, meaning that upfront investments would be very high. Renewable energy facilities require large initial investments but have low operating costs, while exploiting fossil fuels involves relatively low initial investments but significantly higher operating costs. Moreover, the difficulties involved in storing renewable energy and the intermittent nature of its supply means that large spare and storage capacities would need to be constructed.

“A lower EROI means that society is less efficient at using energy resources. This means that more people and investments need to be diverted to maintain the system instead of sustaining and improving people’s lives,” explains Capellán-Pérez. “The functioning of human societies is conditioned (but not determined) by the amount of available energy: lower useful energy means less complexity, less free time, the possibility of less centralised control, etc.”

Crunch time ahead

This could have profound consequences for our complex modern societies. Since the oil era began, we have grown accustomed to an abundance of surplus energy. Continuing along the same trajectory is likely to lead to crisis. To gain the same useable energy during the transition would require energy production to expand by 35%, MEDEAS estimates.

Failure to expand capacity to this degree could lead to unreliable energy flows and energy shortages could become a thing of the future.

Counterintuitively, the transition to renewables could lead to severe environmental damage, not in the form of the greenhouse gas emissions that dominate the climate change debate, but in the form of the waste, destruction and pollution produced by mining as the demand for the materials, especially metals, required to make solar panels, wind turbines and other renewable energy infrastructure soars. “Impacts associated with the mining of key metals used in renewable energy and storage include pollution and heavy metal contamination of water and agricultural soils, and health impacts on workers and surrounding communities,” observes the MEDEAS paper.

“The concept of sustainable mining is still a theoretical one. All mines have substantial social and environmental impacts,” says Capellán-Pérez. “This is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of mining is performed in countries with very low social and environmental protection.”

Even assuming today’s low recycling rates improve, which is not a foregone conclusion, the model suggests that this is unlikely to reduce the impact of mining during the transition because mined minerals used in the transition will remain locked into the energy system beyond the transition.

Such burgeoning demand for and tightening supplies of minerals could also have immense geopolitical consequences. For example, the shift to renewables could, instead of making Europe more energy independent, simply shift its dependence, from imported fossil fuels to imported minerals, notes Capellán-Pérez.

Moreover, a scramble for these resources could do to mineral-rich countries what petroleum did to the Middle East, potentially triggering local, regional and international conflicts.

Unexplored worlds

MEDEAS’s successor LOCOMOTION will continue to model these aspects and other neglected elements of the transition. The new integrated assessment model under development will systematically include all the energy, material and financial investments required for the shift towards the new technologies.

“This will allow us to take into consideration the potential change in the economic structure as the transition evolves, as well as to assess the implications for the entire system of a potential lower energy surplus (lower EROI),” describes Capellán-Pérez. “To our knowledge, no integrated assessment model does this, so these will be insights into an unexplored world.”

LOCOMOTION is also developing models that make allowances for the finite nature of both mineral and fossil fuel reserves and, above all, the natural limitations of ecosystems.

“LOCOMOTION seeks to address the reality that our economic activities profoundly damage ecosystems, but also the fact that the future shortage of energy and the damage done to the biosphere, have the potential to hurt the economy as well, in a kind of vicious cycle,” elaborates Margarita Mediavilla who is also a member of the Research Group on Energy, Economy and System Dynamics at the University of Valladolid. “Integrating all the economic, technological and biological factors at play, and the complex interactions between them, is crucial to empower policymakers and civil society to assess the relative merits of the various technological and policy options on offer, and to choose the right one.”

Fossilised ways

With all these complications and difficulties ahead, it raises the question of whether the transition to renewable electricity generation is worthwhile.

It most definitely is, insists Capellán-Pérez, but with provisos. The world cannot continue with a ‘business as usual’ approach in which we simply substitute renewables for fossil fuels. Constant economic growth, whether green or conventional, is not an option, if sustainability is our objective. “Climate change is telling us loud and clear that our growth-based economy is unsustainable, and that we must correct the underlying structural problems, rather than simply administer temporary painkillers,” posits Mediavilla.

“Given the impacts of generating any type of energy, and the competition of renewables with the flows used by the biosphere to function, we should find the lowest energy consumption which maximises our well-being,” echoes Capellán-Pérez. “Given the inequalities at global level, this social task should especially be undertaken by rich countries.”

Many politicians, policymakers and even quite a lot of ordinary citizens will be loathe to abandon the dream, if not the reality, of endless growth, or will fear that it is politically unworkable. But the consequences could be dire. “The alternative, in the long-term, is widespread recession or even collapse of our societies,” cautions Capellán-Pérez.

Beyond Sustainable Growth, a report by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB)

This is because whether humanity transitions to renewables or continues to exploit fossil fuels, both resources are finite. Moreover, we are approaching, or have even reached, the peak in the supply of petroleum resources (the International Energy Agency estimates that ‘peak oil’ for conventional crude was reached in 2006). This means, or will soon mean, that the oil we are able to extract in the coming decades will not only be more expensive but considerably dirtier for the environment and climate.

“Should the energy transition undertaken soon with credible, strong policies… the world might face economic stagnation and then depression in the coming decades,” found another paper based on the MEDEAS model, whose lead author was Jaime Nieto, who is also a member of the Research Group on Energy, Economy and System Dynamics at the University of Valladolid. “A mere technological energy switch to renewables could be unfeasible if not complemented with huge socioeconomic changes.”

Renewables revolution

If we rethink the way in which our economies and societies function and to what end, renewable energy has the potential to revolutionise the way we live, for the good of humanity and the planet.

“In the era of climate change and fossil fuel depletion, renewable energy sources offer a key transformative social potential due to their modularity and capacity to generate energy at a local level,” emphasises Capellán-Pérez. “The collective ownership of renewable energy sources helps facilitate the democratisation of capital investments in the means of energy production. It also opens the sector to broader participation in comparison to other sectors.”

Examples of such empowering collective ownership models include so-called sustainable community energy systems, in which communities share the costs and benefits, and are more aware of the impact, of the local energy generation system and sell any surpluses to the wider grid.

Advocates of and researchers into ‘postgrowth’ emphasise that society should shift from a fixation on economic growth to measures of welfare and wellbeing of people and nature. This not only makes ecological sense, but also economic and social sense. “The economic costs of keeping GDP growth as the main objective of economic policy could be too high to be socially affordable,” concludes the paper by Jaime Nieto. Instead, the paper advocates redistributive economics and a shift away from capital-intensive towards more labour-intensive quality sectors, including ecological farming, healthcare and education.