Will Technology Save Us?

“We can choose to keep shooting up the curve of exponential growth, bringing us ever closer to irreversible tipping points in ecological collapse, and hope that technology will save us. But if for some reason it doesn’t work, then we’re in trouble.” (Jason Hickel)

This post belongs to a reading series of Less is More by Jason Hickel. For quick access to all chapters, please click here.

Disclaimer: This chapter summary is personal work and an invitation to read the book itself for a detailed view of all the author’s ideas.

Gambling in Paris

“Here’s how the [2015] Paris Agreement works. Each country submits a pledge on how much they will reduce their annual emissions. The pledges – known as Nationally Determined Contributions – are supposed to be set in line with the goal of keeping warming to 1.5°C. But if you add up all the pledges that have been made by signatory nations as of 2020, you’ll notice something rather strange: they don’t come anywhere close to keeping us under 1.5°C. In fact, they don’t even keep us under 2°C. Even if all the countries in the world fulfil their pledges – which are voluntary and non-binding, so there’s certainly no guarantee of this – global emissions will keep rising. We’ll still be hurtling towards 3.3°C of global warming by the end of the century. In other words, even with the Paris Agreement in place, we’re on track for catastrophe.”

Conclusion of COP21 in 2015.

Here is the explanation. In the early 2000s, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC modelers realized that it would be impossible to keep climate change to 1.5°C by operating a complete transition to renewable energies if our energy needs keep increasing at the rate they do. In the growth-as-usual scenario, fossil fuels have to remain in the mix. And since growth is embedded in our economic system, the Paris agreement could only be about something other than growth trade-offs. It then relied on “negative emissions.”

In 2001, an Austrian Academic named Michael Obersteimer published a paper explaining how to achieve negative emissions at the planetary level. The idea is to dedicate vast tracts of land to grow biomass, recycle that biomass for energy production, and sequester underground the CO2 it initially pulled out of the atmosphere. This technology is known as BECCS: Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage. BECCS was endorsed by the IPCC in its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), the document the Paris agreement is built upon. As a consequence, “BECCS sits right at the centre of our big plan to save the world, even though most people have never even heard of it.”

Jumping off a cliff

Climate scientists have long had objections to the BECCS.1 First, it has never been proven to be scalable. The CSS system would have to suck up 15 billion tons of CO2 annually, making it one of the biggest structural feats ever attempted in human history. Moreover, “It will only become viable if governments around the world agree to put a price on carbon at least ten times higher than it is presently priced in the European Union.”

Even if the technical and economic obstacles were overcome, the biomass to be created would require “to create biofuel plantations covering an area two to three times the size of India, gobbling up about two-thirds of the planet’s arable land.” A problem when trying to feed a population that will be at least 9 billion by the middle of this century.

The ecological consequences would be of enormous proportions too. “Vast tracts of forest would have to be destroyed, slashing global forest cover by 10% from its already-precarious levels. This would drive an additional 7% loss in biodiversity, further exacerbating mass extinction.2 Besides, the use of chemical fertilisers for monoculture on such an unprecedented scale would decimate insect populations, pollute water systems, exacerbate soil depletion and worsen coastal dead zones.3 In addition, BECCS plantations would require twice as much water as we already use for farming, placing communities and ecosystems around the world under significant stress.”4

Last but not least, giving ourselves license to overshoot the carbon budget thanks to the supposed retroactive virtue of BECCS “means triggering possible tipping points and feedback loops that could push temperatures completely out of our control. And if that happens, the whole [BECCS] exercise would have been in vain.”

In 2018, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council published a report condemning the reliance on BECCS and other negative emission technologies.5 The latest scientific assessments show that the safe use of BECCS will reduce global emissions by at most 1%. Better than nothing but a far cry from the savior technology that the Paris agreement hoped it to be and which, to be fair, Michael Obersteimer himself never pretended it could.

Green growth?

The IPCC has been paying attention to these critiques. In 2018, it released a special report outlining that since negative emissions technologies are not the answer for keeping global warming below 1.5°C, we need to cut global emissions in half by 2030 and get to zero by 2050. For their part, scientists at the Stockholm Environment Institute calculated that to comply with the scale of historical contributions to climate breakdown, rich countries need to reach zero carbon emissions before 2030!6 Not only do we need to pump public investment into building renewable energy infrastructure at a historically unprecedented rate, but if we want to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, the energy demand cannot keep growing exponentially year after year.7

Another challenge is that the transition to renewables “is going to require a dramatic increase in the extraction of metals and rare-earth minerals, with real ecological and social costs.” For instance, the lithium boom for the production of batteries has just started and is already an ecological catastrophe.8 It is not difficult to imagine that the scramble for renewables might become as violent as the hunt for gold or land in the colonization era. This is why, says the author, “if we want the transition to be technically feasible, ecologically coherent and socially just, we need to disabuse ourselves of the fantasy that we can carry on growing aggregate energy demand at existing rates. We must take a different approach.”

Green growth proponents used to argue that this can be mitigated by decoupling GDP growth from resource use as the world becomes technologically more sophisticated. Based on the idea that rich countries are lowering their production of material goods, that reasoning simply forgets the material footprint of those they consume. “Indeed, while high-income nations have the highest share of services in terms of contribution to GDP, they also have the highest per capita material footprints. By far. The same is true on a global scale. Services have grown from 63% of GDP in 1997 to 69% in 2015, according to World Bank data. Yet during this same period global material use has accelerated.”

Couldn’t green growth be perpetuated through promoting best practices, notably by taxing resource extraction and investing in efficiency improvements? In late 2017, “the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) – an institution that once eagerly promoted green growth theory – weighed in on the debate.9 It tested a scenario with carbon priced at a whopping $573 per ton, slapped on a resource extraction tax, and assumed rapid technological innovation spurred by strong government support. The results? Resource use still goes up, nearly doubling by the middle of the century. As these results trickled out, UNEP had no choice but to change its position, admitting that green growth was a pipe dream: absolute decoupling of GDP and material use is simply not possible on a global scale.”

This is because “When we innovate more efficient ways to use energy and resources, total consumption may briefly drop, but it quickly rebounds to an even higher rate. Why? Because companies use the savings to reinvest in ramping up more production.10 . . . Lashed to the growth imperative, technology is used not to do the same amount of stuff in less time, but rather to do more stuff in the same amount of time.” Consequently, it is always more of nature that will be extracted, not less.11

What about recycling? Though indispensable, internalizing the cost of materials by recycling them contradicts the growth imperative. “Growth tends to require an ‘outside’: an external source from which to extract value for free, or as close to free as possible.” Recycling costs money, and the pinch becomes tighter over time: materials degrade each time they are recycled, thus requiring ever more energy and technology input to maintain their quality. This reluctance to internalize costs is the exact reason why governments have failed for so long to get a decent price on carbon.

Technological innovation is essential in the fight for a greener economy, but the problem we face doesn’t have to do with technology. It has to do with growth. In a post-growth economy, efficiency improvements will indeed reduce our impact on the planet, and, liberated from the growth imperative, we will be free to focus on innovations designed to improve human and ecological welfare rather than to speed up the rate of extraction and production.

The dystopia of green growth

“For decades, ecological economists have proposed that we can put an end to the debate once and for all with a simple and elegant intervention: impose a cap on annual resource use and waste, and tighten that cap year-on-year until we are back within planetary boundaries. If green growthers really believe GDP will keep growing, for ever, despite rapid reductions in material use, then this shouldn’t worry them one bit.” However, green growth proponents themselves have never seriously worked on the proposal. Probably because they understand that limiting material extraction and waste runs counter to plundering value for free, as required by the growth imperative.

Allegory of “Green” growth: U.S. dollar notes at the god of wealth’s effigy, Plutus (from Gustave Doré’s illustration of the 4th circle of hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy).

For argument’s sake, let’s say that a cap is put on natural resources use and waste but that the aim of keeping GDP growing at a 3% yearly rate remains. The next asset to exploit is human labor. But if an international minimum wage of some kind is put in place to match the cap on material exploitation, then “capital will be under enormous pressure to find new frontiers for surplus accumulation. It will need to find a ‘fix’ somewhere – new resources for appropriation, new outlets for investment, and new markets for sales. If surplus can’t be extracted for free from nature (because of the resource cap), and can’t be extracted for free from humans (because of the wage floor), then where will it come from?”

Some economists say it will come from better products sold at a higher price. This means that “all products will have to be on average 3% ‘better’ per year, or 1,000 better by 2200.” All that betterness does not make much sense. It could perhaps be applied to cancer treatment, but hardly to the majority of products for our basic needs. Besides, if products are “better” because they are longer lasting or more efficient, that will reduce turnover and thus be inimical to growth. And if the betterness comes from labour investment, let’s say by having hand-made products rather than mass-produced ones, the problem is to get people to eventually work 1,000 longer than before. “Finally, in order for ‘better’ to translate into higher cost, the betterness has to be commodified (or enclosed). That might be OK in some cases, but in other cases we may want the opposite. For instance, if we develop better cancer treatments or other life-saving medicines, we may not want to charge people 1,000 times more to access them.”

Besides, and most importantly, capital’s need for expansion is not focused on quality but on finding fixes. “When capital has bumped up against limits to profit-growth in the past, it has found fixes in things like colonisation, structural adjustment programmes, wars, restrictive patent laws, nefarious debt instruments, land grabs, privatisation, and enclosing commons like water and seeds. Why would it be any different this time?” When capital faces resource constraints, it turns to grabbing existing value wherever it can.12

The unquestioned assumption

Jason Hickel points, then, at the different approach he was alluding to earlier and which will make the book’s second part. We live on the core premise that we must keep expanding the economy. But what if this assumption is wrong? “What if high-income countries don’t need growth? What if we can improve human well-being without having to expand the economy at all? What if we can generate all the innovations we need for a rapid transition to renewable energy without a single dollar of additional GDP? What if instead of trying so desperately to decouple GDP from resources and energy use, we could decouple human progress from GDP instead? What if we could find a way to release our civilisation, and our planet, from the constraints of the growth imperative?”

Do you find this post interesting? Share it and let others benefit too!
(Scroll to the bottom of the screen on smartphones)
Share your thoughts, as well, in the comment section below. 🙂

An affiliate link may be used for some of the books referenced in the footnotes. This is at no extra cost to you and with free delivery worldwide.

Footnotes

  1. Sabine Fuss et al., Betting on negative emissions, Nature Climate Change 4(10), 2014, pp. 850–853. Pete Smith et al., Biophysical and economic limits to negative CO2 emissions, Nature Climate Change 6(1), 2016, pp. 42–50. 6 Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters, The trouble with negative emissions, Science 354(6309), 2016, pp. 182–183.
  2. Vera Heck, Biomass-based negative emissions difficult to reconcile with planetary boundaries, Nature Climate Change 8(2), 2018, pp. 151–155.
  3. Pete Smith et al., Biophysical and economic limits to negative CO2 emissions, Nature Climate Change 6(1), 2016, pp. 42–50.
  4. Six problems with BECCS, FERN briefing, 2018.
  5. Negative emission technologies: What role in meeting Paris Agreement targets? See also, “Look before you Leap”: European Science Academies Caution against Subsidies for Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS); Daisy Dunne, Geo-engineering carries ‘large risks’ for the natural world, studies show, Carbon Brief, 2018.
  6. See the Climate Equity Reference Calculator.
  7. The IPCC’s 2018 report has only one scenario for staying under 1.5°C without using BECCS. It works by relying on a significant reduction of energy and material use. The underlying paper is Grubler et al., A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5 °C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies. See Hickel and Kallis, Is green growth possible? for a discussion.
  8. Amit Katwala, The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction, WIRED, 2018.
  9. International Resource Panel, Assessing Global Resource Use (UN Environment Programme).
  10. Tim Santarius, Green Growth Unravelled: How Rebound Effects Baffle Sustainability Targets When the Economy Keeps Growing (Heinrich Boll Stiftung, 2012).
  11. Led by the scientist James Ward, a team in Australia has studied this exact question in detail: Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible?
  12. Beth Stratford, The threat of rent extraction in a resource-constrained future, Ecological Economics 169, 2020.
Stay in the loop
Notify me of
guest

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
×
You have free Book Club post(s) remaining. Become a member and enjoy unlimited access + one-week-long Q&A sessions with guest experts!