The Cure is Worse Than the Disease: Can We Afford a Build Out?

Sharon January 29th, 2008

I’m sure people are getting sick of me responding to Stuart Staniford all the time - “Does she read anything else?!?” you all must be thinking, but if you’ll bear with me one more time, the reason I do it is because even when Staniford annoys me, he’s usually a little bit right, or at least pointing in an interesting direction. In this case, Staniford has offered me a tool to try and analyze something that I’ve intuitively suspected was true for a long time. In Staniford’s latest post, he tries to come up with a unified energy plan for how to fix the world’s environmental problems. My own take on the post is that his postulates, including unending growth as the earth is depleted, simply don’t hold up. But that’s not what interests me.

What I’ve been wondering for a while is whether, in fact, we actually can build out renewable energies and create other large scale industrial solutions, without tipping the planet over into a climate disaster. That is, one of the questions that has been bugging is this - do those who postulate our going on based on a massive build out of our infrastructure risk destroying more than they create? Is, in fact, relocalization the only remaining viable option?

Now I’m biased in favor of relocalizing, as we all know. That is, my bias stems from the sense that I believe for a host of moral as well as empirical reasons, that relocalization would improve our society. But it is hard for me to determine whether my bias is a chicken or an egg thing - that is, I have long believed, without doing the math carefully, that the odds were good that another layer of complexity and build out is not feasible and would be destructive. That is, I believe relocalization is a good thing, but part of the reason I believe it is because I believe it may be the only choice that prevents a climate disaster.

These are, I think, important questions to ask. Joseph Tainter, in _The Collapse of Complex Societies_ observes that collapses come precisely because we keep layering on new, more complex, more energy and resource intensive solutions to the problems that our old solutions created. At some point, the sheer weight overturns the edifice, and things come tumbling dow. Staniford’s post, with its proposition of a global energy grid - or really any other worldwide techno-fix, is a heavy weight of complexity. If it worked, if it actually reduced emissions and gave us nearly unlimited, cheap energy that could be equally distributed, that would be great. The problem, of course, is that that’s unlikely, and ahistorical. That is, most of the problems we have now are *caused* by our technological solutions to other problems - and the problems we’re creating are generally worse than the things they were fixing. Trying to forsee whether any solution is actually going to create a greater problem than it fixes is, I think a basic necessity to avoid making more of the same mistakes.

Now to figure this out, we need some kind of metric, and Staniford has thoughtfully provided me with one in his article #node/3540#more. Most importantly, he’s provided me with useful parameters - a model for a global transition off of fossil fuels, the cost of doing so, and the time frame. While I personally find the likelihood of global solar grid very, very tiny, this is a useful set of parameters for the purposes of this discussion. We will imagine things go just as Staniford describes in his highly optimized scenario - although it is worth noting that Staniford’s scenario is probably most valuable because it isn’t totally out of scale with other proposed scenarios, including world wide nuclear, or Monbiot’s retrofit described in _Heat_ to which he does not seem to give a monetary cost figure.

First the time frame - Staniford imagines that a global renewable grid could be online by 2025. The nature of a global grid means that renewables and nuclear grow reasonably quickly, but most of the major gains are seen at the end of the project in the 2020s as the project comes online. Now I grew up around the Big Dig in Boston, which came in years and billions over budget, so I admit to some skepticism on this point, as well as on the technical feasibility, the economics, the political will and just about every other point, but again, for the sake of argument, we’ll put the global solar electric grid online 2025, and able to meet all our energy needs worldwide.

Next, Staniford helpfully provides a cost. He estimates 400 trillion dollars. Again, I restrain my skepticism on the economy required to make this possible and the likelihood that the cost would come in so low, and accept his terms. This cost estimate makes it possible to figure out the carbon implications of such a project. Professor Charles Hall, of Syracuse University calculates that every dollar spent produces about 1/2 lb of carbon. Now this is an older study, and the Union of Concerned Scientists has actually estimated this higher, saying that a dollar produces more carbon than that, but in the interest of giving Staniford the benefit of the doubt, I’m going to choose the more conservative figure. Which means that Staniford’s project is going to produce 100 billon tonnes of carbon over a bit under years. I think if anything, I’m estimating low - remember, this is an average, consolidating numbers of low carbon activities like spending a dollar on a book and high emission ones. The process of building a global grid, including the mining of materials, placement of underground lines, etc… is likely to run on the high side of the emissions spectrum, but again, we’ll give Staniford the benefit of the doubt.

So 100 billion tons over 17 years - oh, let’s call it 20 and imagine that Staniford manages to completely absorb the last couple of years of production energy into his solar grid before it is finalized. Again, let’s make it easy for Staniford. That means an average production of 5 billion tonnes of carbon per year. That’s on top of (at first at least, this will ge a little more complicated shortly) the 8 billion tons of carbon we are expected to emit this year. So this project will nearly double worldwide emissions, until the grid comes online. And while we’ll see some benefits initially, the nature of a worldwide grid is that most of the power gets tranmitted to far away places, and to make it work on a world scale, the whole project has to be up and running. You could imagine this working a number of ways, with local regions connected first, so we’ll need to figure out a way to amortize the rising value of renewables over time, but I think it is reasonable to say that most of the reduction in carbon production will happen at the very end of the project.

Staniford imagines that until 2015, fossil fuel use will remain more or less flat. That is, growth in renewables and economic troubles will keep us from producing any more fossil fuels than we do now. Now Staniford knows this is inadequate to deal with global warming, but presumably believes that getting to a world in which we have all the energy we want with no carbon is worth it. I’m actually going to back up and reduce Staniford’s parameters here, and argue that we cut 25% of worldwide emissions - the maximum I think any of us can imagine happening while maintaining an economy that could support the capital needs of such a mammoth project. Again, one of the parameters is that we have to assume this is feasible, that economic constraints, war, etc… are not factors.

But again, I’m going to give Staniford an additional 25% of leeway, claiming that we cut our emissions back to 6 billion tons of carbon each year. *And* I’m going to give him a 25% across the board cut in emissions for the amortized benefit of the big renewable system as it comes online - that is, I’m going to say that over the years between 2015 and 2025, the growing solar grid is able to take on 1/4 of the total emissions produced by the world right now, before it gets them all. This is not quite accurate - a better model would be a percentage growth, but when I set that, it comes out to roughly the same thing. And I’m going to buy Staniford’s assumption that when the grid comes on, we’ll have all the energy we want, and won’t use fossil fuels for anything or make any more greenhouse gasses, other than the occasional animal fart ;-). Again, that’s ridiculous, but we’ll accept the claim, because I want to show how problematic this is even under the best of scenarios.

So until 2015, we produce 6 billion tons of carbon ourselves per year, and another 5 billion building out the new system - that is, we nearly double our emissions. And from 2015 to 2025, when all our emissions magically disappear in the new system, we produce 5 billion in new infrastructure production and 4 billion, because the new system is picking up a significant percentage. So from now to 2015, we average 11 billion tons of carbon in the atmosphere, and until 2025, we average 9 billion. After that, human emissions magically disappear, and the atmosphere begins to right itself.

How does that correspond with the science about what we need to do. After all, we talk a lot about critical numbers - 50% or 80% of emissions by 2050 or some other date. What does the science suggest?

Well, some of the most cutting edge science suggests that we need to make cuts of more than 90% *within this decade* - that is, James Hansen, for example, suggests a 90% cut within 10 years, and argues that our increasing knowledge of climate sensitivity requires us to keep emissions at the carbon equivalent level of 350ppm - that is, a level we passed somewhere in the 1980s. The present carbon equivalent levels are at 469, according to the latest IPCC report. That is, we’re already way past our limits, and we have to make dramatic cuts to get back within them as fast as possible. But although this is my own view, and seems to be reinforced by data coming in about sea level rise and arctic melt, perhaps we’re being unfair to Staniford.

That said, however, the speed at which we do this is undoubtably an important element of our calculations. For example, the British Meteorological Office estimates that by 2030, the earth’s ability to absorb carbon will drop by 1/3. Right now, the biosphere can absorb about 4 billion tons of carbon and caronb equivalents annually. By 2030, the warming planet and feedback loops will drop this to 2.7 billion, and the drop continues as long as the world warms, the ocean acidifies, etc… So the longer we wait to make dramatic carbon reductions, the greater those reductions would have to be. A recent study in _Geophysical Research Letters_ showed that in fact, even with a 90% reduction by 2050, the 2 degree threshold was broken - the only scenario in which the tipping point was not reached was with a 100% reduction in industrial emissions. (Andrew J. Weaver et al, 6th October 2007. “Long term climate implications of 2050 emission reduction targets.” Geophysical Research Letters).

So what’s a more conservative approach? Well, the IPCC is fairly conservative. So let’s take their figures, even though the 2007 IPCC report has been shown repeatedly to have badly underestimated the severity of global warming - for example, the arctic ice melt is 70 years ahead of its estimates. But let’s use the IPCC numbers, in the interest of accomodating Staniford, despite the growing consensus (including the self-assessment of IPCC members) that the IPCC figures are too conservative:

A recent IPCC table
show different temperatures linked to different emissions levels. It shows that avoiding the critical 2 degree threshold (which actually is by no means a certain avoidance of disaster) requires us to limit total emissions by 2030 to 15% of 2000 levels. With a growing population, that means a 93% cut for the US, an 85% cut for Europe, etc… But in a footnote to the same paragraph, the IPCC notes that it has not taken into account the reduced ability of the planet to absorb carbon as the planet warms, or any of the feedback cycles mentioned above. So this is very likely too low a number. One paper recently argued that 18% of all warming at present is attributable to feedback loops, and that that number is rising rapidly. But what does that mean in tons of carbon?

Regardless, in Staniford’s scenario, we finally hit targets around the middle of the 2020s, having put an addition 100 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, while making fairly significant inroads (again, inroads I postulate, Staniford does not) into carbon emissions in general. Is that enough to fix the planet? As Fred Pearce notes in _With Speed and Violence_, the critical point in billions of tons of atmospheric carbon seems to be about 935 billion tons, equaivalent to 450 ppm. That means 55 billion tons of carbon are left to us. We put 8 billion into the atmosphere each year, and 40% is now absorbed, although that number is declining annually. But with the growth created by a massive build out, we reach that number well before 2020 - pushing us past the 2 degree threshold, and holding us there long enough for it to be really scary.

So here we have a puzzle - what happens if you raise global emissions levels radically with the goal of eventually essentially eliminating them - that is, can we do that - do a massive build out and then let the earth heal itself? Do we have time for just one more carbon binge?

This is a hard question to answer, but the odds are excellent that the answer is no. For example, Australian scientist Wenju Cai estimates that if we stopped making emissions right now, it would take 600 years to get the planet back to where it once was. Once the feedback loop cycle gets ahold of us (and it is not clear that it hasn’t already), we can stop it simply by reducing emissions. Because the warming we do now is something we’ll pay the price for for centuries, we have to be more careful, sooner.

But the returns are so great, some would argue? Even if we push past 2 degrees, into a tipping point, we’ll still get no carbon emissions in the future and all the free energy we want. We can fix all the problems then, or at least mitigate them, keep economic growth going steadily. Wouldn’t that be worth it?

Well, it depends on what price you are willing to pay. Here are the consequences we’re dealing with. In the Sahel, food production will drop by half by 2020, while population doubles. Rice production, the staple grain of 2/3 of the world begins to fall as temperatures rise, reaching a 40% decline by the middle of the century, as population rises to 9 billion. That means half the population ends up under water stress:, and the amount of irrigated farmland (which presently produces almost 1/3 of the world’s grain) that can no longer be irrigated is likely drop from 17% to 2%, according to Monbiot’s _Heat_.

The Stern review estimates half a billion permanent refugees, including residents of major US coastal cities. But UN estimates have suggested that up to 1.5 billion refugees could be an outcome. And, of course, a whole host of wars. The present conflict in the Sudan is already connnected to climate change - a whole host of additional wars are a likely consequence. All of this has an enormous effect, not only on the misery level of the world, but on its economic activity. Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on the costs of climate change estimates that the total cost of unchecked global warming to be greater than the combined costs of all 20th century wars and the Great Depression combined, a literally unprecedented economic burden. How much of that would be mitigated by a late-term reduction in emissions is not clear, however, all evidence is that the climate is more, rather than less sensitive than we expect.

So would it be worth it? All the energy we want, but war, drought, thirst, hunger, refugeeism, and the destruction of much of the world (I have not included the loss of biodiversity or anything related to it, although that has costs, and many of them for us), all to get the energy we want, so we can keep lifestyles roughly the same in the west.

But what are our choices? Well, this option would probably be better than any business as usual scenario, in which we face peak oil by converting to coal. So if we postulate, as people often do (Monbiot does this too) that the only choices are “blow the limits” or “do nothing” - that radical change in our way of life is impossible, that people will “never” agree to lower their standard of living, this probably looks comparatively good.

But, of course, assertions about what the populace will tolerate are always offered in the absence of the real choices. That is, it is very unlikely that our general populace will ever choose voluntary self-limitation instead of, say, going on happily as usual. But if Staniford can imagine that he gets to be emporer of the world, we can also imagine a group of political leaders who are compelled by the evidence and by grassroots people pointing out their lies, to offer up the real choices - that is either we cut emissions radically and fast, or we accept that we lose Miami and most of the Southwest, the one to sea level rises and the other to drought, that we can expect to spend an endless depression, because we will have to spend an increasing quantity of our GDP to mitigate costs. That is, people can be asked to choose between real options, not hypotheticals.

And that is when relocalization rears its head again. Here is where carbon rationing leads us back to a mixed local and agrarian society, more or less inevitably. Because everyone trying to live in this society, as we have it, without a massive energy build out is in for hell. On the other hand, a smaller scale, heavily adapted society with lower energy requirements, and a number of cultural returns, including “rituals of non-consumption” described by historian Timothy Breen, small scale agricultural, more meaningful work and stronger social ties does offer something in return.

Now it is perhaps unfair of me to not do a similar calculation of the energy costs of relocalization. This is a difficult exercise, because it is a highly fungible exercise. That is, a relocalized, low energy strategy for dealing with the cold can be the reinsulation of a whole house in a cosmetically pleasing way, complete with new windows and passive solar energy, at extremely high cost, or it can be the moving of a woodstove into one room of a cold house, the practice of hauling water from outside rather than using indoor pipes which would then freeze, and everyone dressing warmly and hanging out by the stove. That said, however, I’ll attempt to do so in a later post - and to demonstrate that we could still feed, clothe and shelter the population. I’ll also at some point try and figure out what amount of energy we probably can produce from renewables without causing a disaster - because relocalization does not necessarily mean us all going back to living in mud huts, as we know.

More soon,


9 Responses to “The Cure is Worse Than the Disease: Can We Afford a Build Out?”

  1. Philon 29 Jan 2023 at 9:07 pm

    Relocalisation Cuban-style;

    Monty Don reported on Cuba’s gardening tonight on BBC2.

    It’s available on the BBC’s iPlayer here for the next 5 days:

    The Cuban piece starts around 39 minutes in. Well worth a watch.

  2. green with a gunon 30 Jan 2023 at 4:34 am

    But Sharon, how can we take you seriously if you don’t have any graphs? :p

    I don’t really see how you can equate dollars spent with carbon emissions; after all, if you look at different countries and areas, you’ll see some have quite a lot of emissions for each dollar of GDP, and others not so much. See here for some rough figures.

    I’m also confused as to why a global electricity grid will cause more emissions in being built than we’ve caused with the grids we’ve already built.

    So I think that because of those two things, you’ve over-estimated the emissions such a project is likely to cause in building.

    That said, your critique is worthwhile, since it was a topic that Staniford (characteristically) ignored. Like his assumption that economic growth continues forever, it’s one he makes where he ignores the reality in favour of formulae and graphs; characteristic of people who have never had to grow their own food, or done other practical work.

    Things are much neater in labs.

  3. jewishfarmeron 30 Jan 2023 at 1:50 pm

    Kyle, I’m not sure I understand your critique. That is, why am I saying that building a giant new grid made up of huge solar panels and cables that have to run from the world’s deserts entirely around the planet will create new emissions ;-)? I’m clearly misunderstanding your question. The problem is that we’ll essentially be replacing the old grid.

    As for the costs, Staniford is estimating them in USD, and I think Hall’s estimate is a fairly good metric - even if we buy some of this in other currencies, the production of a world-wide grid is unlikely to be as low energy as, say, buying a bag of millet in Ghana - its emissions levels are likely to be much more on the order of spending USD.

    If anything, I think the 1/2lb *underestimates* things - remember, even in the US that figure includes all transactions, lower and higher energy. The building of a global electric grid is likely to be a very, very energy intensive project - the mining of silicone, the digging of conductor cables with heavy equipment, etc…


  4. green with a gunon 31 Jan 2023 at 2:00 am

    My critique is that you’ve very likely vastly over-estimated the level of emissions.

    That building something causes emissions is not in question; that it’ll cause a particular level is in question.

    And the exact level is important to your argument, that the “cure” may be worse than the “disease”.

    I’ve already provided a link showing that some spending is more or less greenhouse gas intensive than your 1/2lb per dollar.

    For more detailed examples, Net Energy Payback and CO Emissions from. Wind-Generated Electricity in the Midwest tells us that for three different wind farms in the US Midwest, the life-cycle emissions - mining the material, building the thing, maintaining it, then pulling it apart at the end of its life - were 9-20t CO2e per GWh, or 0.009-0.020kg CO2e/kWh. The delivered retail cost is around 20c/kWhr. That’s 0.0018-0.004kg per dollar spent, or around a tenth of an ounce per dollar.

    This compares with coal at around 2kg CO2e/kWh, and a delivered retail cost of about 12c/kWh. That’s about 17kg CO2e per dollar, or 38lbs.

    So, coal produces ten thousand times more emissions per dollar spent than wind.

    Thus neither you nor Staniford can blandly assert that building a worldwide network is good or bad; we have to know the details. How much of this or that, using what materials?

    A difference of a factor of ten thousand would certainly determine whether the cure is worse or better than the disease.

    I don’t claim to know whether it is or not. I’m looking at this in my Ecotechnia series, at what’s physically possible in terms of electrical power. It’s a complex problem, and can’t be reduced to something as simple as “1/2lb per dollar, times $400 trillion.”

    You have not even an order of magnitude guess of the cost in dollars or emissions, so that your analysis fails to prove its point, that the cure is worse than the disease.

    Nonetheless, as I said, you are at least considering the emissions, which Staniford from the comfort of his office did not.

  5. jewishfarmeron 31 Jan 2023 at 5:07 pm

    Kyle, I don’t deny it would be useful to be more precise. The link you gave doesn’t work, so I can’t look at the actual analysis you provide. It sounds to me though, you’re running this by payback, which wouldn’t be relevant - my argument is that the payback doesn’t come fast enough. But perhaps I’m misunderstanding you. I’d be interested to see what is included and excluded in the full lifecycle analysis.

    That said, however, we don’t mind silicone with wind power, or transport workers around the globe with solar powered plains, so it seems pretty reasonable to me to place the estimate of energy required to be consistent with energy intensive activities and rich world dollars.

    A useful analysis would be the comparison of a major infrastructure building project, not simply the construction of a single turbine. The only example I’ve been able to find is cited in Chalmers Johnson’s _Nemesis_ and goes over the energy costs of Military Base construction - but those come out rather higher than the 1/2 lb per doller, at about .83lbs per dollar. If you’ve got a better model, let me know, but I think that otherwise, rough averages are probably a reasonable starting point.


  6. green with a gunon 01 Feb 2023 at 1:16 am

    There’s precision and then there’s precision. If you can’t even get within a few orders of magnitude, your analysis that “the cure is worse than the disease” is in trouble.

    The link I gave is to a pdf, put your cursor over the link, right-click, save as, then open from your own desktop.

    The life-cycle analysis talks about total CO2 emissions. Commonly people think of wind turbines as causing no emissions, but of course their construction, maintenance and decommissioning does. The biggest chunk is in the concrete bases - concrete is made with cement, which is made by roasting limestone and that lets off CO2. Basically, each tonne of concrete gives you a tonne of CO2. Still a hell of a lot better than coal, but not “zero carbon.”

    In a power system for a state or country, you have basically only four things: the generators, the transformers, the power lines and the offices for the people working on it all.

    The transformers, the power lines and the offices for a power system in the West already exist. Building them over the past century did not produce more CO2 than everthing else, so building a few more won’t, either. So the only extra CO2 emissions we get are from building the power generators themselves. That’s why that lifecycle analysis is relevant.

    Military bases have an enormous CO2 emission per dollar spent because they use a lot of concrete, and the machines they use to build it, and around it while it’s working, they get really crappy gas mileage. An Abrams tank, for example, gets 0.6mpg. In general, cost and emissions are never an issue for the military. The public will pick up the tab. So a military base is definitely going to be on the high end of the emissions per dollar.

    You’ve taken a made-up figure that could be off by orders of magnitude, and tossed in your own made-up figures. All those “about so-and-so, more or less” multiply out to “way out of the ballpark, maybe in the next state, or the other one, but we’re not sure in what direction.”

    Just stick to your point that Staniford hadn’t considered the emissions of such a grand project. And you could also point out that if getting everyone to do everything locally is unrealistic, well then building a global energy grid sure as hell is, too. Staniford suddenly forgets his “market forces which will dominate forever” when it comes to Big Shiny Toys.

  7. jewishfarmeron 02 Feb 2023 at 7:28 pm

    Kyle, I think it is easy to underestimate the sheer infrastructure energy costs of a giant project like this, particularly if you haven’t spent a lot of time around one. But part of what is being discussed here is building *massive* energy infrastructure, over a decade or more, in places, like major deserts, where there is no existing support infrastructure.

    So in order to do this, you have to import skilled workers by the thousands, and fly them to the nearest airport, and transport them. And while they are working on these huge projects, the workers need places to sleep and eat, and ways to run water into where they work. They need light and power sources for heavy equipment and for precisely electrical work. In some cases, if they are going to be there for years, their families will come and live with them - requiring all the support services that go with that. Or it will work like the Alaskan North Slope, where you fly people in for two weeks and then fly them home to Europe or India every couple of weeks.

    This will involve getting legal rights of lay cable in very desolate, and very populous areas, and building all the infrastructure to go with that.

    This is much more like building military bases - a bunch of them - than it is like building a windmill in places that already have all the industrial infrastructure in place, and a skilled labor pool in place. So again, I’m going to say that the point holds.


  8. bellringeron 17 Mar 2023 at 8:00 am

    …and Happy St. Paddy’s day to you two, too.

    As a virgin blogger & general late-comer to the medium, I am moved to observe that your topic and exchange with Kyle is incredibly valuable. Thank you for exemplifying respectful discord carried on with clear language, concepts and references.


  9. Oil and apples Pt. 3 « A Day Closer to Fateon 24 Mar 2023 at 10:55 pm

    […] what will happen in X years when it all starts breaking down? Sharon explains this much better right here. Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m all for some miracle solution that involves lots of […]

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply