Energy and economic activity are linked. That’s one of the big reasons that humans find it so difficult to share energy resources and the obligations that come with them. It’s unlikely that citizens of the rich world will willingly part with their high standards of living. It’s even less likely that the world’s poor will cease the push to increase their own.

- Ozzie Zehner, Author of Green Illusions

Department of Climate Change Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor David MacKay FRS on how the laws of physics constrain sustainable energy options

Dr. Guy McPherson talks about the real impact of Global Warming from Fossil Fuel Emissions


Presently, humanity depends heavily on carbon-based fuels but burning these simultaneously creates 2 major problems:

  1. Rapidly diminishing supplies of a finite resource
  2. Rapidly increasing levels of global warming

It is clear that these two issues are intertwined; they exist at either end of a linear-based, non-circular resource supply chain. We are mining energy-rich carbon resources from the geosphere and burning them to directly inject their carbon byproducts into the atmosphere, creating an imbalance in the pre-anthropogenic carbon cycle. Our modern society runs on cheap fossil fuel energy. While both supply and pollution effects of the current fossil fuel technologies and processes were not issues when global population was small, they become major issues when they become the foundation for fueling a global economy. As a civilization, we have not had the foresight to properly plan for the exponential growth of population. The scale effects of fossil fuel pollution could not be predicted in spite of centuries of work by brilliant scientists, engineers, economists or policy-makers, creating the anthropogenic global warming problem today – possibly the greatest progress trap of human civilization. If allowed to get out of hand, either of these alone can topple our highly vulnerable industrialized and globally interconnected civilization; if both occur together, the challenge may overwhelm our ability to effectively respond. While practical solutions must address both the supply and the usage issues, currently the side effect of the usage issues pose the greatest threat to humanity.

The Scale of Civilization’s Energy Usage

The EIA and IEA are two respected energy associations that annually predict global energy consumption. Both predict that fossil fuels will still be the dominant energy source by 2040. The EIA 2013 International Energy Outlook report reveals that:

  • Renewable energy and nuclear power are the world’s fastest-growing energy sources, each increasing by 2.5 percent per year
  • Fossil fuels continue to supply almost 80 percent of world energy use through 2040
  • Coal is projected to grow faster than petroleum consumption until after 2030, mostly due to increases in China’s consumption of coal, and slow growth in oil demand in OECD member countries.
  • Given Business-As-Usual (BAU) policies and regulations, worldwide energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are projected to increase 46 percent by 2040, reaching 45 billion metric tons in 2040

 Figure 1: IEA energy roadmap: 2009

 Figure 2: IEA energy roadmap: 2050

According to calculations performed by professor Nathan Lewis, Human Civilization currently requires about 13.5 Terrawatts of power per year to run our civilization (2001 figures from Powering the planet: Chemical challenges in solar energy utilization). A more recent Sankey Flow diagram shows the picture expressed in units specific to each segment of society.


Figure 3A: 1971-2010 Mtoe fossil fuel consumption (Source: IEA)

Figure  3B: 1971-2010 MtCO2-eq emissions  (Source: IEA )

Figure 4:  2011 Global fossil fuel GtCO2-eq emissions by fuel type (left) and sector (right) (Source: IEA: Redrawing the Energy Climate Map)

 FIgure 5:  EIA projections of global  CO2 emissions 1990 to 2035 (Source: EIA Emissions of Greenhouse Gases)

EIA emission projections in the graph above are based upon a business-as-usual scenario. The IEA projections of required emission cuts to meet the  2 °C target are shown in one of the graphs below entitled: CO2 Reductions required for 2, 4 and 6 degree scenarios. To achieve the target, enormous changes will need to be made. Our carbon emissions must essentially be halved by 2035. Renewables may be the fastest growing area but fossil fuel will still make up 80% of all energy sources.

Figure 6A: Global energy growth (Source: EIA International Energy Outlook, July 2013)

Figure 6B: Global energy CO2 emissions by fuel type (Source: EIA International Energy Outlook, July 2013)

Solar energy is touted as ubiquitous; one hour of global solar insolation is enough to supply humanities energy needs for an entire year. Tapping into this potential is the reason why research in solar energy is well funded. Yet there are many factors that currently dilute the usable energy and in reality, both these and the limitations of manufacturable technology mean that the vast potential of solar energy remains largely untapped. The figure below gives an informal idea of the scale of solar energy use vs existing fossil fuel.


Figure 7: Informal diagram of  fossil fuel vs renewable energy in the US  in 2011 – dots are renewables (Source Ozzie Zehner, lecture:  Solar Cells and other Fairytales)

In the above diagram, we can see that while solar energy may have vast potential, currently, it is not cost effective enough to scale up to be a viable alternative to cheap fossil fuel. More thorough analysis can be seen here.

  1. Bucket represents 2011 US total energy consumption, equal to 100 Quads per Annum (1 Quad = 1 Quadrillion BTU’s)
  2. Small dot = 2011 US total solar capacity
  3. Large dot 1 = 100x current US solar capacity (the cost would bankrupt the US government according to Ozzie Zehner)
  4. Large dot 2 = 100x current US wind capacity

It is almost certain that with time, renewables can ultimately replace all polluting fossil fuel energy sources. However, with the planet fast approaching the absolute maximum limit of 2 °C / 450 ppm and without mature renewable energy technologies, the window for action is closing fast. With 1,200 new coal plants planned to be built, the record speaks for itself and without mature clean coal or CCS technology, the IEA says that the world cannot meet the projections of staying under the 2 °C  / 450 ppm target.

IEA Tracking clean energy 2013

The 2 deg C / 450 ppm Target

There is broad international consensus that stabilizing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases at below 450 ppm of carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO2-eq):

  1. is consistent witha near 50% chance of achieving the 2 °C target
  2. would help avoid the worst impacts of climate change

More recent studies, however, reveal that the risks associated with a  2 °C rise is larger than what had been previously published:

  1. Risks previously believed to be associated with an increase of 4 °C in global temperatures are now associated with a rise of a little over 2 °C
  2. Risks previously associated with 2 °C are now thought to occur with only a 1 °C rise (Smith, et al., 2009)
  3. 2 °C warming represents a threshold for some climate feedbacks that could significantly add to global warming (Lenton, et al., 2008)

This is explained by the conservative nature of scientific projections. Scientists working with extremely complex models and a large number of unknown variables typically underestimates the magnitude of the impact. As symptoms of AGW begin appearing such as extreme weather, drought and wildfires, biodiversity loss, nature is demonstrating that even the 2 °C / 450 ppm target is already posing an unacceptably high risk. In June 2013, the planet passed the 400 ppm milestone. The graph below shows how near humanity is to reaching the critical 450 ppm threshold.

Figure 8: Approach of the critical 450 ppm threshold (Source: IEA, NASA)

The IEA 450 Scenario, which shows what is needed to set the global energy sector on a course compatible with a near 50% chance of limiting the long-term increase in average global temperature to 2 °C, suggests one pathway. Achieving the target will require determined political commitment to fundamental change in our approach to producing and consuming energy. All facets of the energy sector, particularly power generation, will need to transform their carbon performance. Moreover, energy demand must be moderated through improved energy efficiency in vehicles, appliances, homes and industry. Deployment of new technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, will be essential. It shows that, to stay on an economically feasible pathway, the rise in emissions from the energy sector needs to halted and reversed by 2020. Action at national level needs to anticipate implementation of a new international agreement from 2020. Achieving a 2 °C target in the absence of such action, while technically feasible, would entail the widespread adoption of expensive negative emissions technologies, which extract more CO2 from the atmosphere than they add to it. By the end of the century, energy-related CO2 emissions in the 450 Scenario need to decrease to around 5 Gt CO2 per year, i.e. less than one-sixth today’s levels.

It is the cumulative build-up of greenhouse gases, including CO2, in the atmosphere that counts, because of the long lifetime of some of those gases in the atmosphere. Analysis has shown that, in order to have a 50% probability of keeping global warming to no more than 2 °C, total emissions from fossil fuels and land-use change in the first half of the century need to be kept below 1 440 Gt (Meinshausen, et al., 2009). Of this “carbon budget”, 420 Gt CO2 has already been emitted between 2000 and 2011 (Oliver, Janssens-Maenhout and Peters, 2012) and the World Energy Outlook 2012 (WEO-2012) estimated that another 136 Gt CO2 will be emitted from non-energy related sources in the period up to 2050. This means that the energy sector can emit a maximum of 884 Gt CO2 by 2050 without exceeding its residual  budget. then mapping potential emissions trajectories against such a carbon budget, it becomes clear that the longer action to reduce global emissions is delayed, the more rapid reductions will need to be in the future to compensate. Some models estimate that the maximum feasible rate of such emissions reduction is around 5% per year (Elnjen, Meinshausen and suuren, 2007). – from the IEA June 2013 Special Report: Redrawing the Energy Climate Map

International Energy Agency (IEA) Outlines Emergency Steps in June 2013 Report

The burning of fossil fuels is the single greatest contributor to anthropogenic global warming and the energy sector accounts for 2/3 of all global emissions. The IEA is the leading global agency on energy and in its special 2013 Redrawing the Energy Climate Map, the IEA recommends that “to keep open a realistic chance of meeting the 2 °C target, intensive action is required before 2020, the date by which a new international climate agreement is due to come into force.” It begins the report by saying “The world is not on track to meet the target agreed by governments to limit the longterm rise in the average global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (°C).”

There is not yet a global consensus of where the solution  lies – significant reduction of investments in fossil-fuel-based technology? reduction in energy usage? severely constraining economic growth? investing heavily in renewable technology? While we may need to work on all of these solutions at once, the risk of not having an exact evidence-based, consensus-backed plan runs the risk of watering down the right solution at a time when focus is desperately needed. Clearly, major changes are required both on the supply and the demand side.

The Critical Role of Mitigating Emissions from Coal-fired Thermo-electric Plants

The IEA 2050 projections for energy usage show that even though renewable energy will play a significant role in the future energy mix, it is still banking heavily on fossil fuel, especially coal. With more than 1 600 GW of installed generation capacity in 2010, global coal power-plant installations account for almost 9 GtCO2 of the total 31 GtCO2 emissions each year. Currently, there is no other form of energy that can compete with the mature technology, economics and energy density offered by coal.

The IEA is not making unjustified claims or biased for the fossil fuel industry. The World Resource Institute’s global risk assessment paper 2012 on coal plants confirms this as fact. The study concludes that up to 1,199 new coal-fired plants, with a total installed capacity of 1,401,278 megawatts (MW), are being proposed globally. These  projects are spread across 59 countries but two countries. China and India together account for 76 percent of the proposed  new coal power capacities. If a quarter of these 1,199 proposed plants were built, that would be the same thing as doubling the coal capacity of the United States. China is building coal plants at an extraordinary rate. From 2012 to 2016, China is expected to add about 160 new coal-fired plants to the 620 operating now and India another 46 plants. Together, that’s 206 plants in 4 years, or a rate of 1 per week. In total, India is planning another 455 plants while China, another 363. China is slowing down it’s pace of coal-fired plant investment because it has already built a large number in the past decade.

Figure 9: Interactive map of July 2012 proposed coal-fired plants to be built by installed capacity (MWatts) (Source: World Resource Institute)

The IEA Energy Sector Carbon Intensity Index (ESCII) tracks how many tonnes of CO2 are emitted for each unit of energy supplied. It shows the global aggregate impact of changes in supply technologies over the past few decades. Under the ESCII, 100 represents CO2 intensity in 2010, providing a base to measure progress. It is sobering to see that from 1990 to 2010, there has essentially been zero change in the global carbon intensity…even with raised awareness of global warming and acceleration in renewable energy development. This raises the gloomy prospect that human civilization is faced with a scale of change that it may not be prepared to commit to. And if we cannot commit to the extraordinary level of change required, it probably faces either collapse or even near term extinction.

Figure 10: IEA ESCII measurement from 1990 to 2020 for 2 degree, 4 degree and 6 degree scenario (Source: IEA)

How much Mitigation is Required to Stay Safe?

In order to meet the  2 °C target, deep emission cuts are necessary.

Figure 11A: CO2 Reductions required for 2, 4 and 6 degree scenarios (Source: IEA)  

Figure 11B: Carbon Intensity (ESCII) reductions required for 2, 4 and 6 degree scenarios (Source: IEA)

There is one disturbing problem with all the current crop of climate models, both the IEA and other climate models from IPCC; none of them take into account melting Arctic permafrost.

Due to the competitive economics of coal-fired plants, their growth has far outpaced any non-fossil fuel energy technology. The IEA found that they grew at an astounding 45% rate while renewable energy technologies grew at a 28% rate in the period from 2000 to 2010.  Just between 2011 and 2013, it grew again by 6% and is projected to grow by another astounding 17% by 2017. If these 1200 coal plants are built to the same standards they are today, the IEA projects that this growth will even exceed the 6 degree trajectory, most likely dooming human civilization as we know it.

This continued reliance on fossil fuels and its consequences explains the IEA’s persistent worries about the slow rate of R+D on clean coal and Carbon Capture and Storage. With our already proven reliance of coal plants and no change in growth trajectories in sight, the IEA paints a gloomy picture. A number of environmental organizations that have criticized clean carbon and CCS in the past have come to this realization and have recently had a change of heart. Engo is an umbrella organization which represents a number of environmental organizations which now recognize clean coal and CCS as a critical technology for rapid CO2 mitigation.

The IEA has also produced a vulnerability map for the energy industry to show the risk the industry faces to its global assets if global warming gets out of hand.

Figure 12: Global impacts of climate change on the energy sector (Source: IEA special report – Redrawing the Energy Climate Map)

Because urgent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are needed to prevent dangerous climate change, a variety of innovative solutions is necessary.While sustainable solutions – such as energy efficiency and renewable energy – should also be considered, CCS can complement a climate change solutions portfolio under the right regulatory framework. Given the world’s current and projected reliance on fossil fuels, carbon capture & storage should be considered a critical mitigation technology that will provide faster and deeper emission reductions. 

The mission of the ENGO Network on CCS (aka Environmental NGO Network on Carbon Capture & Storage), is to pursue domestic and international policies, regulations and initiatives that enable CCS to deliver on its emissions reduction potential safely and effectively.  – ENGO Network

While IEA studies show great strides are being made in renewables, they are not mature enough to replace fossil fuels. By 2050, the IEA still projects:

  • Coal, natural gas and oil to have significant market shares (over 300 exajoules)
  • Biomass and waste-to-energy is projected to grow to become the dominant single form of energy
  • Nuclear to grow significantly (although this is uncertain in the face of the Fukishima accident)

The combination of hydro-electric, wind, solar (in green) and all other forms of renewable energy  is projected to play a a significant but still minority role in global energy supply. These renewables are represented in the graph as green rectangles. So even though renewables are the fastest growing energy sector today, they are not projected to dominate the energy landscape.

This underscores the vital urgency of clean coal and CCS technology. To keep under the 2 Deg C target, the IEA projects 120 large scale CCS projects are required BEFORE 2020. Currently, there are only a few small scale projects .

Four Emergency Recommendations from the IEA Redrawing the Energy Climate Map Report

The 2013 IEA Redrawing the Energy Climate Map report recommends the aggressive adoption of four strategic measures for aggressively staying under the 2 Deg C target. These measures do not rely upon new technologies but rather upon much easier-to-make changes to already existing infrastructure and policies:

1. Adopting speciĮc energy efficiency measures (49% of the emissions savings)

Targeted energy efficiency measures would reduce global energy-related emissions by 1.5 Gt in 2020 a level close to that of Russia today. These policies include: energy performance standards in buildings for lighting, new appliances, and for new heating and cooling equipment in industry for motor systems and, in transport for road vehicles. Around 60% of the global savings in emissions are from the buildings sector. In countries where these efficiency policies already exist, such as the European Union, Japan, the United States and China, they need to be strengthened or extended. Other countries need to introduce such policies. All countries will need to take supporting actions to overcome the barriers to effective implementation. The additional global investment required would reach $200 billion in 2020, but would be more than offset by reduced spending on fuel bills.

„ 2. Limiting the construction and use of the least-efficient coal-fired power plants (21%)

Ensuring that new subcritical coal-fired plants are no longer built and limiting the use of the least efficient existing ones would reduce emissions by 640 Mt in 2020 and also help efforts to curb local air pollution. Globally, the use of such plants would be one-quarter lower than would otherwise be expected in 2020. The share of power generation from renewables increases (from around 20% today to 27% in 2020), as does that from natural gas. Policies to reduce the role of inefficient coal power plants, such as emissions and air pollution standards and carbon prices, already exist in many countries. In our 4-for-2 °C Scenario, the largest emissions savings occur in China, the United States and India, all of which have a large coal-powered fleet.

„ 3. Minimising methane (CH4) emissions from upstream oil and gas production (18%)

Methane releases into the atmosphere from the upstream oil and gas industry would be almost halved in 2020 compared with levels otherwise expected. Around 1.1 Gt CO2-eq of methane, a potent greenhouse-gas, was released in 2010 by the upstream oil and gas industry. These releases, through venting and flaring, are equivalent to twice the total natural gas production of Nigeria. Reducing such releases into the atmosphere represents an effective complementary strategy to the reduction of CO2 emissions. The necessary technologies are readily available, at relatively low cost, and policies are being adopted in some countries, such as the performance standards in the United States. The largest reductions achieved in the 4-for-2 °C Scenario are in Russia, the Middle East, the United States and Africa.

„ 4. Accelerating the (partial) phase-out of subsidies to fossil-fuel consumption (12%)

Fossil-fuel subsidies amounted to $523 billion in 2011, around six times the level of support to renewable energy. Currently, 15% of global CO2 emissions receive an incentive of $110 per tonne in the form of fossil-fuel subsidies while only 8% are subject to a carbon price. Growing budget pressures strengthen the case for fossil-fuel subsidy reform in many importing and exporting countries and political support has been building in recent years. G20 and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) member countries have committed to phase out inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies and many are moving ahead with implementation

Other Factors

It is becoming increasingly clear that a lot of energy fuels a needlessly overmaterialistic society which consumes empty goods and services that come at great environmental cost. One way to reduce the demand side of energy consumption is to reassess our value system. It is possible that lower energy usage can result by finding ways to resolve our fundamental crisis in values.

A great deal of research is being invested in renewable energy but there is still considerable debate as to whether renewables can scale quickly enough to replace fossil fuel in the short time scales required. Projects such as Desertec claim it is possible while the IEA’s projections still rely heavily on fossil fuels, albeit with clean technology to mitigate emissions. In reality, there are a number of possible future pathways explored below.

Finally, there is one further economic risk. Because so much of our future energy needs have been tied to carbon-based energy, our entire economy is facing a huge risk of a carbon bubble, one which will dwarf the financial crisis. When investors begin to realize the dilemma of unburnable carbon, fossil fuel companies will be left with the problem of stranded assets to contend with.

It is clear that we face a complex problem with energy, economic, environmental and social dimensions and a viable solution must address them all at the same time.

To investigate Peak Oil or Global Warming further, go to these links:

Two Different Future Energy Pathways

There are two different schools of thought of how we can meet the future energy needs of our civilization:

1. Significant Per Capita Reduction in Energy Usage, Consumption & Ecological Footprint

The first school advocates a significant reduction of our consumption of energy, especially in developed countries which have the largest ecological footprint. One significant side effect is that this may result in zero economic growth – which some such as professor Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity without Growth argue is a good thing. What  is equally problematic, however is that even if developed countries all agree to zero economic growth,  the world’s two fastest growing economies are in the developing world; China and India. Will they and the rest of the developing world join the developed world to strive towards significant reductions in consumption or will they instead demand their turn to enjoy the same unsustainable levels of consumption that developed countries have enjoyed for decades?  

2. Continue our Path of Economic Growth but Replace Current  Carbon-based Energy with Non-polluting Energy Sources

The second strategy is to try to find technological solutions that will allow us to continue on a path of unquestioned economic growth following historical trends. This calls for massive retrofits of existing carbon infrastructure or scaleup of alternative clean energy sources.  It is clear, however, that this path is filled with much uncertainty as the entire premise of continuous growth is itself problematic. Technology alone cannot solve a problem which has variables that fundamentally lay outside of technology. The Limits to Growth study, first released in the early 1970’s and attacked by early climate and ecocide deniers has been vindicated by 30 years of data and it shows that we are still stubbornly adhering to a business-as-usual trajectory that is going to end in a crash of human civilization within a few decades.

The premise of continuous economic growth for everyone on the planet is a questionable one because sooner or later we begin to exceed our ecological carrying capacity and hit resource limits and planetary boundaries. The Global Footprint Network’s calculations show that we are already consuming 1.5 planets worth of resources and well on our way to consuming 2. But the problem of continuous economic growth itself arises out of the modus operandi of a flawed debt-based economic system, This system requires continuous economic growth because new debt must be created to pay for older unpaid debt. Continuous economic growth is therefore programmed into the DNA of  the current faulty economic paradigm. It is clear that without economic reform, it may be impossible to stop continuous economic growth until it reaches its own self-extinguishing limit.

With the release of the IPCC fifth assessment report, at least one economist, Paul Kruger, is confidant that there is a feasible way to maintain some semblance of growth while stopping emissions. Kruger writes in a April 17, 2014 New York Times Op Ed Salvation Gets Cheap:

People on both the left and the right often fail to understand this point. (I hate it when pundits try to make every issue into a case of “both sides are wrong,” but, in this case, it happens to be true.) On the left, you sometimes find environmentalists asserting that to save the planet we must give up on the idea of an ever-growing economy; on the right, you often find assertions that any attempt to limit pollution will have devastating impacts on growth. But there’s no reason we can’t become richer while reducing our impact on the environment.

Humanity’s Options

 It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.

- William Stanley Jevons

William Stanley Jevons was the English economist who first described the paradox now named in his honor. In his 1865 book The Coal Question, Jevons observed that England’s consumption of coal increased dramatically after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine. Watt’s invention greatly improved upon  the efficiency of Thomas Newcomen’s earlier design. Watt’s innovations eventually made coal a more cost-effective power source and lead to the increased use of the steam engine in a wide range of industries. This had the result of increasing the total coal consumption, even as the amount of coal required for any particular application fell. Jevons rightly argued that improvements in fuel efficiency tend to increase, rather than decrease, fuel use. The conclusion we can draw from this is that technological solutions often end up making the consumption problem worse, not better. While technocrats argue for the improvement of efficiencies, if we ignore histories lessons of increased demand that the efficiencies bring about, we can still end up with dramatic increases in consumption.

It is not clear that a course of economic growth similiar to the last 5 decades would be sustainable. Many environmental scientists feel that the ecological cost for doing so would jeapordize not only humanity but the collapse of the biosphere as we know it.

In his book Green Illusions, author and Sustainable Energy researcher Ozzie Zehner says we don’t have an energy crisis, we have a consumption crisis.  The rich want to keep their spoils and the poor cannot stop striving towards them. Both these trends are responsible for increasing demand on dwindling fossil fuels and resources as well as pollution.

The mainstream media tows the line of centralized industrialists and continues to report growth as a positive quality and lack of growth (recession) as a negative social quality. What they fail to say is that what is good for the short term is disastrous for the long term because when the economy is growing, people are:

  1. spending more,
  2. consuming more,
  3. using more energy (to travel to work and in the embodied energy of the goods and services they consume)
  4. unsustainably depleting more
  5. and polluting more

From this perspective, economic growth can be seen as a genocidal make-work program which keeps people fed in the short term but at the expense of destroying the environment that sustains us in the long term. These sentiments are being echoed by global business figures such as investment advisor Jeremy Grantham whose references to selling short our grandchildren is the same message climate scientist James Hansen delivers in his book Storms of my Grandchildren. We must stop and look at our basic assumptions: is this strategy of economic growth really prudent? Is it truly sustainable? Economic growth puts people between a rock and a hard place; we are damned if we work and damned if we don’t. It’s fundamentally  flawed and out of touch with reality because profit does not account for environmental stewardship.

Even if we win major support for alternative energy, we must still think carefully. The Boomerang Effect has demonstrated that making more clean energy available may simply increase our appetite for more energy, sustainable or not. As we now consider how the future of humanity will be powered, it is more important than ever before to apply a complete Life Cycle Assessment and a Cradle-to-Cradle approach to ensure that our future energy supply is truly sustainable.

The real solution will not be one or the other but a mixture of the two:

  1. dramatically reduced consumption in developed countries and sustainable development in developing countries
  2. clean, renewable technologies and significant efficiency improvements

Tim Jackson’ research with the UK government (Prosperity without Growth) argues for a major reduction of consumption in developed nations while Kate Raworth of Oxfam advocates sustainable economic development in A Safe and Just Place for Humanity. What is most important is to know what the right mix will be so that we can develop a concrete and achievable strategy for the future of humanity.

Tools to Help Determine our Future  Energy Supply

We can see from a number of projections that we face many issues trying to find an adequate energy supply to meet humanity’s future needs. Our energy demands are constrained by a number of competing factors including:

  • global warming
  • dwindling resource (peak oil)
Society is faced with tough questions. Do we dramatically reduce or is it feasible to find a nonpolluting source that can keep up with increasing demand? To answer this question, we must first determine the theoretical limits of available energy and which ones are polluting. The Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) at Stanford University was convened determine how to supply energy to meet the changing needs of a growing world population in a way that protects the environment.
The GCEP has produced the following results that summarize the theoretical limits of energy and which ones are polluting:

David Holmgren’s Model of Potential Future Energy Pathways

There appears to be two opposite pathways which humanity can take for our energy future:

  1. Continue consuming unsustainably high levels of energy
  2. Dramatically reduce our energy demands

As a framework for the future possibilities, we use permaculturist David Holgren’s model put forth in his groundbreaking 2003 book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Holmgren, one of the founders of Permaculture states unequivocally that the illusion that we can continue with a business-as-usual scenario “appears only to have substance because generations of the world’s more affluent urbanites have been disconnected from nature”.

Holmgren’s book is similiar to the Limits to Growth Study in that it looks a various scenarios for our future and examines which one our society will likely follow. In Holmgren’s case, there are 4 options:

  1. “Techno-Fantasy” – the Business-as-usual technology model – unrealistic energy consumption (from fantasy sources) continuing to rise steeply from here into the future.
  2. “Green-tech Stability” – the mainstream environmentalist model – A plateau at our current rate of energy consumption. Man-made machines and contraptions would be the saving grace – hydrogen cars, solar panels, etc. Holmgren described this as “least likely”. Realize that this scenario attempts to merely substitute “green” tech for our conventional, with the ultimate goal being to perpetuate our current (extreme) level of consumption
  3. “Massive Crash” – survivalist model – Begins with the techno fantasy, then descends into chaos, with very little salvaged out of global civilization
  4. “Earth Stewardship.” – the permaculture model – The future well-being of people will depend upon a renewable resource base (water, soil), with less and less energy required as we move into future generations. Permaculture would be the “technology” for this descent culture – a gentle decline “like a balloon.” The symbol of this solar age would be a tree (Permaculture) rather than a solar panel (green stability version)


Figure 13: Future Energy Possibilities from a Permaculture Perspective (Source: Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren)

With persuasive argument, Holmgren eliminates the first three from the sphere of possibilities and provides a pathway for the fourth, Earth Stewardship that will provide a graceful descent from our current unsustainable energy society. This section provides readers with information to make his/her own conclusions.

Holmgren has little faith that scientific breakthrough can come fast enough to save us from peak oil. For example, according to Holmgren, PV panels are a waste of time in any situation other than off the grid tropics, citing the amount of energy to produce them makes them an unrealistic option for a reduced energy future. Holmgren’s conclusion, reached many years ago is finding support from researchers such as Ozzie Zehner, researcher and author of the book Green Illusions.  Holmgren contends that trees are mother nature’s own astounding technology and the world’s most efficient solar collectors, having developed over millions of years to transform solar energy into usable energy, for fuel and so on, far more effectively than any solar panel we could ever make. Holmgren advocates solutions that work in harmony with the planet’s oldest technologies.

  • To explore the possible paths further, visit Options for the Future.
  • To explore if Renewable Energy can be the solution visit Renewable Energy
  • To explore why the 2 Deg C limit may be too high to avoid triggering irreversible tipping points, visit the Cryosphere page