The challenge of Climate Justice – Talk at Melbourne Anarchist Bookfair 2016

How do we achieve climate justice? It’s a profound and complex question. But in another sense its disarmingly simple. All we have to do is rapidly decarbonise the economy – right? In 2014 it was calculated the global economy needs to decarbonise at 6.2 percent a year, more than five times faster than the current rate, every year from now till 2100. A tall order, but the solutions are simple –  right? After all, to dramatically cut our emissions we just have to rapidly move to 100% renewable energy and do things a little bit more efficiently. It’s just those damn fossil fuel companies and their crony fossil addicted governments who stand in the way – right?

If only! How I wish this comforting story was true.  At best it’s a simplistic one; at worst its an outright delusion –  but one we are all too willing to believe. In truth, to defuse the climate crisis, as well as the wider eco-justice crisis of which it is just one part, we have to engage in a process of organised, egalitarian, de-growth. That is, a historically unprecedented economic contraction and reorganisation of the economy. Obviously capitalism can’t do this. Capitalism has a growth compulsion built into its very fabric. So we will need to embrace some kind of socialism– albeit a totally reconceived version from the industrial-consumer-hierarchical-20th century brand and, we hope, with a strong anarchist twist. But the task is not just to scrap capitalism. Sorry, this revolution is much bigger and more challenging than that. Among other things, we will need to radically localise economies and settlements. Substantially de-urbanize. Embrace simpler, more frugal lifestyles. And, of course, all that implies profound and far reaching cultural change. It need not be a matter of extreme sacrifice to save the planet. There is a strong case the quality of life could be improved for most people within well designed and run new local settlements. Imagine, for example, having a lot of free time, because you only work for money about 2 days a week, thus having much time for arts, crafts, gardening, home-making, learning, personal development. Or thriving within a highly supportive and friendly local community. But while the benefits could be rich, what is certain is that sustainability will not make us wealthier – in fact total wealth and income will be greatly reduced.

How we achieve these huge changes is beyond my scope today. It’s a big subject, which I still grapple with. But, however we do it, that is the task. By the way, do you still want climate justice?  Or do people only want climate justice if they get to keep consumer affluence and convenience? I’m challenging you to consider that we cannot have both.

But, I sense some of you are not convinced. Why can’t green-growth, renewable energy, techno-fixes and smarter, efficient practices solve this crisis? Let me, very briefly spell out four fundamental reasons why not.

The first reason why renewables can’t save capitalism is that they won’t be scaled up in time – unless you also dramatically cut energy demand. The experts predict they will need to roughly double energy supply from current use – and, remember, that is assuming a world of grotesque inequality. You will probably need at least six times today’s energy to provide all 9 billion with a Brunswick lifestyle. But let’s take the more moderate goal. How do you double energy demand, at the same time as massively cutting back on fossil fuels, as we so urgently need to do to reach the 2 degree target? Answer: you have to massively, and I mean massively, scale up renewable energy. But here’s the thing: on the scale needed and the time we have, it won’t happen. While the modern renewables are growing fast, they still only account for 1.3% of rise and fallworldwide primary energy . But big energy transitions take decades; they don’t happen overnight. In their excellent book “the rise and fall of carbon civilization” (2011) Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery show that to meet the 2 degree target and provide for expected energy growth, 2050 wind power would have to supply “twice the most optimistic estimates’ by authoritative bodies such as the Global Wind energy council (Moriarity & Honniery, 2011: 182). Solar thermal would have to scaled up ‘four orders of magnitude over current use,’ (i.e 10,000 times) which would be ‘many times greater than even the most ambitious solar farm schemes being discussed for the world’s deserts’ (Moriarity & Honniery, 2011: 182). And this is even after factoring in optimistic assumptions for take up of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and nuclear energy. Instead, these experts argue that our only hope is to actively reduce total global energy use 9 (from i.e 500 EJ to 300 EJ), from current levels – the exact opposite of what all governments, global institutions and even green NGOs are planning! And remember, capitalism doesn’t like reductions…

The second reason why the renewable revolution is insufficient is that wind and solar, only produce electricity from stationary power – and that’s a small part of the overall GHG problem. Globally speaking, electricity only makes up roughly 1/5 of world energy use. The other 4/5 comes from a whole variety of sources including transport, industry and heating. So even if tomorrow we moved to 100% renewable electricity, we would only have addressed 1/5 of the problem. Well, you say, let’s just electrify everything and run it on renewables! Well, maybe you could do that for some things like cars and heaters, but it will be difficult for big trucks and aeroplanes. And even if we did that, as John Hinkson points out, we would still have only dealt with 70% of the problem. That’s because the burning of fossil fuels only accounts for about 70% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining 30% comes from a number of causes, including deforestation, the degradation of soil caused by industrial agriculture and the methane generated by livestock farming.

Thirdly, even if we address all these issues and move to 100% renewable energy, then there is a very strong case that we are going to have to get by on far less net energy. Why? I am no expert, but from what I understand there are two fundamental reasons. First, because, today, renewables receive a huge, but hidden, fossil fuel subsidy. Think, for example, of all the fossil energy it takes to create a single wind-farm. Oil-based combustion engines are used from start to finish, to mine the material to make the windmills, fabricate them, and deliver the components to the installation site. Then you need to make and pour the enormous amount of concrete needed, and run the required maintenance vehicles. But what happens when we have phased out fossil fuels, as we must? Will renewables be able to reproduce themselves and provide enough energy for society? I think they can, but not as much energy as fossil fuels have provided. Recent estimates suggest that the energy return on solar PV in Spain is only 2.45:1, when reasonable estimates are made of all the energy inputs that go into to making a solar panel. Historically fossil fuels provided us with well above 20 units of net energy – though this ratio is fast declining as we desperately frack and deep sea mine our fast depleting fossil bounty. And there is a second problem with renewables. They are intermittent – the sun does not always shine and the wind blow. This is a big drawback. To overcome it, you either have to build huge amounts of backup plant or work out how to store electricity on an industrial scale – something the science techies do not yet know how to do. In any case, a renewable energy system will be costly. And a costly energy system, means there will be less capital left over for cars, i-phones, big-screen TVs and Pokémon. So renewables won’t sustain “green-growth”.

But my fourth and final point is the real kicker. Suppose I am wrong and we can indeed decarbonise capitalism. What then? I’ll tell you what then – we would still be faced with a huge and ever worsening eco-justice predicament. As Steb Fisher has said, “our sustainability problems didn’t start and won’t stop with climate change”. With all that economic growth, and therefore energy growth, we would still be rapidly deforesting, over-fishing,chemical polluting, degrading the soil and destroying precious habitat. And, according to a report from the CSIRO, there would still be six billion people excluded from the consumer class – you can bet they won’t be peacefully celebrating “green capitalism” to the end of history.

To be clear, and to conclude, we must move to a society run on renewables. We must do this as fast as possible. But for all the above reasons, we will monumentally fail, if we try to do so via mere reforms within our current socio-economic system. Instead we need to build a big, forceful, global, new society movement, demanding  de-growth! Demanding a simpler way! And yes demanding Climate Justice! And not just demanding it, but building and demonstrating the new ways at the grassroots. Our chances may seem slim, but we must try. Needless to say, the situation is urgent. We have no time to waste.



5 thoughts on “The challenge of Climate Justice – Talk at Melbourne Anarchist Bookfair 2016

  1. Oh boy there are some big bad assumptions in this reworking of the PeakOilers ‘Energy Decent’ hypothesis/fallacy.

    ” I am no expert, but from what I understand there are two fundamental reasons. First, because, today, renewables receive a huge, but hidden, fossil fuel subsidy. […] Recent estimates suggest that the energy return on solar PV in Spain is only 2.45:1, when reasonable estimates are made of all the energy inputs that go into to making a solar panel.”

    Neither am I expert, but I do know how to consult Dr Google before putting a myth out there and declaring it (unreferenced) as a fact. Check out this comment (posted in response to another dubiously conceived article doubting solarPV’s meritorious rise). >the links in this comment will provide further support for the claim that you are talking nonsense regards EROI of PV.

    EROI from a literature review of papers from 2000-2013 averages ~11.6. Contemporary single layer panels would be significantly higher. In the next five to ten years the market will transition to PERC cells which are much more efficient in converting sunlight. Materials per watt of output are always being reduced as it increases profitability.

    Also consider the fact that PV deployment doubles every two years (and has done for two decades). It gets 20% cheaper for each doubling in deployment, which as Ray Kurzweil has observed points to virtually-free modules by ~2036 deployed at a scale comparable to todays total global energy demand (not just electrical). And if that turns out to not be enough then wait another two years, hey it just doubled again, so maybe we can power some CO2 or methane scrubbing technologies to reduce atmospheric GHG levels from the current 400ppm to something like 320ppm or less. Battery storage learnings curves have also been favourable and deployment also set to explode with exponential growth.


    • Thanks for comment.

      Firstly, peak oil isn’t a “fallacy” but an empirical theory that is very convincing – see peer reviewed study of evidence here. We are probably at peak now for conventionals, and only non-conventionals are adding to supply – but these are expensive low EROI sources. All this is having a big impact RIGHT NOW on the global economy. See Richard Heinberg’s article for the latest evidence.

      Second, contrary to your insulting comment, I have done far more than “consult Google” re PV EROI. I know the literature review study you cite re EROI of PV which found average of 11:1 etc. As my response I will simply quote Charles Hall, one of the co-authors of the Spanish study which I referenced and, moreover, one of the founding figures of the entire EROI paradigm. You should also read the Post entire response here, which directly address the weaknesses of the study you cite.

      The EROI of our various energy options, and its associated issues, may be the most important issues that will face future civilizations. The present discussion tends to vacillate between people who accept (or advocate) very high EROIs for solar vs people who accept (or advocate) very low such EROIs. I trust only one study, the one I did with Pedro Prieto, who has a great deal of real world experience and data. This study attempted to (conservatively) estimate all the energy used to generate PV electricity in Spain by following all the money spent (per GW) and using physical analysis where possible, and energy intensity of money where necessary. We found that the panels and inverters, which are the only parts measured in most studies, were only about a third of the energy cost of the system. As noted in the responses to Ugo’s last post we estimated an EROI of 2.45:1 in 2008 assuming a lifetime of 25 years and at the juncture with the distribution system. Studies that we think used more or less appropriate boundaries (Palmer, Weissbach) got similar results.

      More generally, I accept that the EROI debate (not just for PV) is controversial and unsettled at this stage – I will revise my post above to note that. But even if PV EROI is much higher, this hardly impacts on my overall argument for degrowth to defuse the climate/ecological crisis which, needless to say, you have not addressed.




  2. yes, peak oil is a real thing, and probably we’ve toped the curve (although fracking changed the accessible reserves dynamics). no argument there, sorry if I wasn’t clear about that. also the costs of recovery may make the extraction curve much stepper on the down side of peak oil than many analysis realise, I’ve read analysis that indicates that will be the case fairly convincingly.

    the hypothesis/fallacy i was referring to was the energy decent, not the fact of peak oil. the concept that mankind would have to cope with a tiny fraction of the energy we had become accustomed to, in agriculture (the focus of many energy decent concept promoters like David Hologren), stationary energy, transport, industrial processes, building construction and services and so on. the big assumption was that wind and solar could never rise the way coal, gas and oil rose from the 19th century in the shorter time frame required. I’d argue that the deployment curves of wind and solar suggest that is not the case. Wind deployment doubles each three years and solarPV every two years. Storage dynamics, well still to early to say but so far there are a vast array of chemical batteries for distributed storage, the cost of various Lithium Ion batteries has been falling dramatically due to deployment in IT goods, EVs will have a dramatic impact and current supplies of Lithium can easily cope with the increase in volume. Buildings may favour other metal air or liquid electorate flow type batteries due to the different demand characteristics and limitations.

    thanks for now providing a link to the Charles Hall comment stating he only supports his own study (well quite). I think the comments of the blog host go to some of the problems with that study. Also consider that as we move to a 50% then 100% RE supply of stationary energy and EVs, much of those assumptions about transportation and labour energy costs Hall makes get reduced to low levels. Comments of Halls like “which were much closer to 18 years than infinity” referring to panel life spans and pointing out the valuable learning that some panels and inverters fail over time suggest a tendency on his part to PV pessimism so I take his study with grains of salt. I wonder if he included the ag sector methane emissions emerging from the life cycle analysis from the meat pies eaten by the contractors who installed the panels?

    as for your other points on de-growth, yes I’m in full agreement that living with less (effectiveness) and greater energy efficiency in all we do is going to be a big part of the solution to catastrophic Climate Change. I’m inclined not to go with the de-growth mantra though, as I see it as overly reductive and somewhat naively inclined towards what someone on that blog you linked to called a universal Amish-people lifestyle for all.

    I see that human endeavour and the vast knowledge base it is now leveraging in the STEM areas, not to mention marketing based economies mean that they’re always be growth in some fields of knowledge and production, just as their will be entropy in others like fossil fuels. This is fundamental to all life. If we tank the ecosystems we currently rely on (which looks increasingly likely I saddened to say) then we will no doubt iterated the industrialisation of our production of food, waste and shelter over again. Even if we can’t grow food outside in many areas there will still be rich people trying to book a flight to space and others attempting to facilitate that for a profit. Unless that amish-revolution you hope for finds a way to attract 10^9 more people.


  3. Oh and Pumped Hydro Energy Storage (PHES) and Concentrated Solar Thermal (CST/CSP) with thermal storage are already vastly cheaper at scale than chemical batterie. CSP is on a learning curve of it’s own now it’s starting to get deployed (but still <1% of all solar generation installed worldwide). But it's an important part of the 'dispatch' requirement to balance variability in solar and wind generation.


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