We’re living in a fool’s paradise, right here, right now

As the threat from an unstable climate looms larger than ever, at long last Australian business and governments are on the same page, stepping up a transition to clean energy. New schemes and ideas for a clean energy future are in the news daily. 

But some awkward questions remain unanswered. We are getting hints about these in the glitches happening in the rollout of power transmission lines, as private property owners baulk at having them on their land without significantly higher compensation.

Geologist and engineer Simon Michaux worked in Australian mining before an industry downturn led him to see what Europe could offer him. He is now an associate professor at the Geological Survey of Finland, where his research includes minerals for use in batteries. 

Michaux’s work is getting attention, including as guest in a recent Zoom seminar, “Rethinking Sustainability and Green Transition”, led by University of Tasmania geographer Kate Booth. What he told participants about energy in our carbon-constrained future is, to say the least, thought-provoking.

His question is this. Given finite mineral and other resources and a shrinking timescale to end carbon pollution and avoid a climate that’s completely haywire, what exactly will be needed to fully replace fossil fuel energy, globally? 

He searched in vain for a comprehensive global analysis, so he did his own calculations taking in electrical and other energy needs, land, sea and air transport, manufacturing, fertiliser production, and the mining and processing of metals. 

He finds that to achieve the global goal of net zero carbon emissions by mid-century while sustaining current living standards, current energy transition plans need to be orders of magnitude larger to meet the International Energy Agency’s forecast demands.

Wind turbines, solar panels and power storage batteries are all made from metals – currently at a small fraction of the scale needed for full global renewable rollout. An expanded renewable fleet will have expanded replacement costs, given an average life-cycle of about 20 years. 

Metals are the new oil, and the shopping list needed for renewables is as long as your arm: chromium, cobalt, copper, germanium, graphite, lithium, manganese, nickel, molybdenum, vanadium, zinc – and rare-earth elements few of us have ever heard of, like neodymium, lanthanum, praseodymium, dysprosium, terbium and samarium. 

Michaux calculates that current resources – actual minerals, production capacity, supply chains and manufacturing energy – cannot deliver what’s needed. To go on living in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed, we should have started the transition decades ago.

He concludes that the global goal of net zero carbon emissions by mid-century will not be achieved without a significant contraction in demand for all resources, of all kinds. This calls for a new social contract and stronger, radically different governance systems.

Michaux’s recommendations include lowering economic expectations for key social and industrial needs and values, and retooling existing power grids into networks of microgrids, each supporting vital activities, that can cope with variable power supply and continue to function if part of the grid is down.

He argues for an economy built around periodic “hibernating” of industrial capacity so that it can be shut down and started up without damage. As supply fails, such an economy must be able to substitute products and adjust to different industrial outcomes, quickly.

Which brings us to the conundrum that political leaders and practically everyone else have tried desperately to avoid talking about throughout the many years that we’ve known about human-induced climate change: an expanding global economy on a finite planet.

In adding renewables to our power grid at an unprecedented rate, we are assuming that business as usual – doing what we used to consider normal – is now past history. But our behaviour says otherwise.

We remain under the illusion that an expanding clean energy sector means everything else in our lives can stay the same. We continue to shop till we drop, buy that shiny new car (or gas-guzzling SUV), crank up the air-con, eat out-of-season food from the other hemisphere and fly there to avoid winter. 

While claiming green credentials, leaders at all levels, everywhere, encourage those habits by constantly talking up growing economies, aware that a discontented population is deadly. And because growth means more money, we acquiesce. We may want to do the right thing, but our hearts aren’t in it.

But if Simon Michaux is right – and no-one has produced the numbers to contradict him – growing the economy is the exact opposite of what must happen if we’re to avert climate catastrophe. If ever there was a fool’s paradise, we’re in it, right here, right now.

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