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Earth4All Deep Dive Paper #8 and the RethinkX Vision of Sustainability

The Earth4All Project was announced at the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change back in November 2020. Led by teams at the Club of Rome, the Norwegian Business School and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, its activities includes the monthly series of “Deep Dive” papers, the August 2022 edition of which (“The Clean Energy Transformation: A New Paradigm for Social Progress Within Planetary Boundaries”) comes from the RethinkX think tank’s Director of Global Research Communications, Nafeez Ahmed.

Those who are already acquainted with RethinkX’s work, and particularly its Rethinking Humanity report, will recognize much in the Deep Dive paper as familiar from that earlier publication. Once again this paper presents the think tank’s argument that the world is going through a historic transition as the cost and material throughput of five essentials for human living — information, energy, transport, food and materials — drop by an order of magnitude or more, which will potentially be as radical as the rise of human civilization itself (shifting us from the exploitation-based “Age of Extraction” with which civilization has been synonymous to, one may hope, an “Age of Freedom”). Where energy in particular is concerned RethinkX’s argument goes that the sharp decline in cost of solar, wind and battery storage relative to the alternatives (which has already left trillions of dollars’ worth of recent investment in fossil fuel apparatus “stranded”) holds out the possibility not only of a successful transition to a post-fossil fuels, carbon-neutral (or even carbon-negative) energy base, but by way of a deliberate construction of “excess” capacity along the lines they characterize as “ Clean Energy Super Power,” “green” abundance that will make the economics of energy look like what the economics of information have become in the age of the Internet.

All of that having been presented before the question is what is new in this specific report. What impressed me on that level was its treatment of two issues relevant to this energy transition, namely the Energy Return On Investment (EROI) that renewables yield, and the material throughput required to build a renewable energy base on a global scale — both points of particular interest because renewables-bashers have made so much of these issues. As Ahmed shows here, EROI is not the obstacle some make it out to be — the more in as he now finds that the EROI for fossil fuels has consistently been overestimated, while that for renewables has consistently been underestimated. That the EROI for fossil fuels tends to be “measured right at the well-head rather than the most relevant point, which is where the energy enters the economy as electricity or petrol” in itself leaves fossil fuels with a lower EROI than the estimates of renewables’ EROI that Ahmed considers to be unfairly low. As he argues, estimates for the useful life of photovoltaics tend to lowball the figure (estimating twenty to thirty years when more realistically they may be good for forty to fifty years), and to treat batteries as a deduction from renewables’ EROI when they can easily boost it (one empirical examination showing they “actually increased EROI by making available energy that would otherwise be lost to curtailment”), even before one gets into such “phase-changing” possibilities as he anticipates from a shift to renewables on a really large scale (epitomized by the Clean Energy Super Power concept). Where material throughput is concerned he observes that the construction of the requisite base would be coming not on top of, but instead of, the resource demands of sustaining and extending the existing fossil fuel base, the existing (and increasingly uneconomical) apparatus of which can be regarded as a “vast global repository” of materials for use (the steel in old offshore oil rigs, for example, convertible into raw material for new windmill towers), all while the recycling of the requisite materials would be quite ample to close the supply gaps — the bottlenecks here, again, wildly exaggerated by those euphemistically called “skeptics” of the transition.

The result is that Ahmed’s case bolsters further still what has for a long time been the strongest aspect of the RethinkX analysis — the trend in the energy market, and the increasing technical feasibility of a world of “green” yet abundant energy. However, it seems worth acknowledging that it does not bolster what may have most needed bolstering, namely the think tank’s treatment of other dimensions of the matter, not least the transportation and food sectors, whose interaction with the energy transition is crucial to their vision of sustainability, to say nothing of a new civilization. Transportation, after all, is a major user of energy, and the shift from human-driven, gasoline-burning cars generally operated on an individual basis to self-driving electric cars (Electric-Autonomous Vehicles, or E-AVs) that make possible “Transportation as a Service” (TAAS) is crucial to their vision of making transport cheaply and conveniently available to all. The RethinkX analysts also look to cellular agriculture to sharply cut greenhouse gas emissions from that quarter and open up vast amounts of land to climate change-offsetting reforestation. Where all that is concerned RethinkX’s prior reports rigorously work out just what could be expected to happen were safe, reliable, affordable E-AVs and cost-competitive cellular agriculture to hit the market. However, that arrival in the market is another matter. Their expectations in the area of transport are based not on the kind of robust analysis of easily observable (and increasingly widely acknowledged) price trends on which RethinkX’s claims regarding energy have been based, but comparatively opaque expert pronouncements that have already proved overoptimistic. (In RethinkX’s 2017 report 2021 was supposed to be the year of the great disruption in which TAAS began the displacement of our current transport model. Alas, it has not been so — with many expecting no such displacement for a good long while to come.) If somewhat more data-based their predictions regarding food may similarly prove overoptimistic. (Their 2019 report on the matter had the first cellular meat products hitting the market in 2022 — while as of July 2022 not only had no such thing happened, but it remained uncertain when it actually would.)

Rather than reassessment of the earlier analysis on that score what RethinkX offers here are the same essential predictions, albeit with a greater vagueness about the time frame (inclining to reference to significant movements over the broader 10–15 year time frame they predicted for the more general transformation, rather than predicting more specific developments at points throughout it). Additionally the report has nothing to add about that area RethinkX has had least to say about, materials (uncovered by a report of its own). Nevertheless, if “The Clean Energy Transformation” document falls short of a completion and update of the broad RethinkX vision, it remains a useful summation of that vision, and well warrants attention from those who would like an accessible introduction to it, as well as those interested in the think tank’s most recent word on the progress of renewable energy that is the document’s principal concern.

Originally published at https://naderelhefnawy.blogspot.com.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy

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Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.