Could an economic collapse be in our near future?

Climate scientists and others have in the past few years issued a steady stream of analyses showing that without immediate remedial actions, a disastrous future is headed our way. But is it a four-decade-old study that will prove prescient?

That study, issued in the 1972 book The Limits to Growth, forecast that industrial output would decline early in the 21st century, followed quickly by a rise in death rates due to reduced provision of services and food that would lead to a dramatic decline in world population. To be specific, per capita industrial output was forecast to decline “precipitously” starting in about 2015.

Well, here we are. Despite years of stagnation following the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, things have not gotten that bad. At least not yet. Although the original authors of The Limits to Growth, led by Donella Meadows, caution against tying their predictions too tightly to a specific year, the actual trends of the past four decades are not far off from the what was predicted by the study’s models. A recent paper examining the original 1972 study goes so far as to say that the study’s predictions are well on course to being borne out.

Sunset at a cement factory (photo by Stefan Wernli)

Sunset at a cement factory (photo by Stefan Wernli)

That research paper, prepared by a University of Melbourne scientist, Graham Turner, is unambiguously titled “Is Global Collapse Imminent?” As you might guess from the title, Dr. Turner is not terribly optimistic.

He is merely the latest researcher to sound alarm bells. Just last month, a revised paper by 19 climate scientists led by James Hansen demonstrates that continued greenhouse-gas emissions will lead to a sea-level rise of several meters in as few as 50 years, increasingly powerful storms and rapid cooling in Europe. Two other recent papers calculate that humanity has already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level and a separate group of 18 scientists demonstrated in their study that Earth is crossing multiple points of no return. All the while, governments cling to the idea that “green capitalism” will magically pull humanity out of the frying pan.

Four decades of ‘business as usual’

At least global warming is acknowledged today, even if the world’s governments prescriptions thus far are woefully inadequate. In 1972, the message of The Limits to Growth was far from welcome and widely ridiculed. Adjusting parameters to test various possibilities, the authors ran a dozen scenarios in a global model of the environment and economy, and found that “overshoot and collapse” was inevitable with continued “business as usual”; that is, without significant changes to economic activity. Needless to say, such changes have not occurred.

In the “business as usual” model, the capital needed to extract harder-to-reach resources becomes sufficiently high that other needs for investment are starved at the same time that resources begin to become depleted. Industrial output would begin to decline about 2015, but pollution would continue to increase and fewer inputs would be available for agriculture, resulting in declining food production. Coupled with declines in services such as health and education due to insufficient capital, the death rate begins to rise in 2020 and world population declines at a rate of about half a billion per decade from 2030. According to Dr. Turner:

“The World3 model simulated a stock of non-renewable as well as renewable resources. The function of renewable resources in World3, such as agricultural land and the trees, could erode as a result of economic activity, but they could also recover their function if deliberate action was taken or harmful activity reduced. The rate of recovery relative to rates of degradation affects when thresholds or limits are exceeded as well as the magnitude of any potential collapse.”

The World3 computer model simulated interactions within and between population, industrial capital, pollution, agricultural systems and non-renewable resources, set up to capture positive and negative feedback loops. Dr. Turner writes that changing parameters merely delays collapse. The current boom in fracking natural gas and the extraction of petroleum products from tar sands weren’t anticipated in the 1970s, but the expansion of new technologies to exploit resources pushes back the collapse “one to two decades” but “when it occurs the speed of decline is even greater.”

Turner collapse chartSo how much stock should we put in a study more than 40 years old? Dr. Turner asserts that actual environmental, economic and population measurements in the intervening years “aligns strongly” to what the Limits to Growth model expected from its “business as usual” run. He writes:

“[T]he observed industrial output per capita illustrates a slowing rate of growth that is consistent with the [business as usual scenario] reaching a peak. In this scenario, the industrial output per capita begins a substantial reversal and decline at about 2015. Observed food per capita is broadly in keeping with the [Limits to Growth business as usual scenario], with food supply increasing only marginally faster than population. Literacy rates show a saturating growth trend, while electricity generation per capita … grows more rapidly and in better agreement with the [Limits to Growth] model.”

Peak oil and difficult economics

Rising energy costs following global peak oil will make much of the remaining stock uneconomical to exploit. This is a critical forcing point in the collapse scenario. And as more energy is required to extract resources that are more difficult to exploit, the net energy from production continues to fall. John Michael Greer, a writer on peak oil, observes that, just as it takes more energy to produce a steel product than it did a century ago due to the lower quality of iron ore today, more energy is required to produce energy today.

Net energy from oil production has vastly shrunken over the years, Mr. Greer writes:

“[T]the sort of shallow wells that built the US oil industry has a net energy of anything up to 200 to 1: in other words, less than a quart out of each 42-gallon barrel of oil goes to paying off the energy cost of extraction, and the rest is pure profit. … As you slide down the grades of hydrocarbon goo, though, that pleasant equation gets replaced by figures considerably less genial. Your average barrel of oil from a conventional US oilfield today has a net energy around 30 to 1. … The surge of new petroleum that hit the oil market just in time to help drive the current crash of oil prices, though, didn’t come from 30-to-1 conventional oil wells. … What produced the surge this time was a mix of tar sands and hydrofractured shales, which are a very, very long way down the goo curve. …

“The real difficulty with the goo you get from tar sands and hydrofractured shales is that you have to put a lot more energy into getting each [barrel of oil equivalent] of energy out of the ground and into usable condition than you do with conventional crude oil. The exact figures are a matter of dispute, and factoring in every energy input is a fiendishly difficult process, but it’s certainly much less than 30 to 1—and credible estimates put the net energy of tar sands and hydrofractured shales well down into single digits. Now ask yourself this: where is the energy that has to be put into the extraction process coming from? The answer, of course, is that it’s coming out of the same global energy supply to which tar sands and hydrofractured shales are supposedly contributing.”

It is that declining energy availability and greater expense that is the tipping point, Dr. Turner argues:

“Contemporary research into the energy required to extract and supply a unit of energy from oil shows that the inputs have increased by almost an order of magnitude. It does not matter how big the resource stock is if it cannot be extracted fast enough or other scarce inputs needed elsewhere in the economy are consumed in the extraction. Oil and gas optimists note that extracting unconventional fuels is only economic above an oil price somewhere in the vicinity of US$70 per barrel. They readily acknowledge that the age of cheap oil is over, without apparently realising that expensive fuels are a sign of constraints on extraction rates and inputs needed. It is these constraints which lead to the collapse in the [Limits to Growth] modelling of the [business as usual] scenario.”

New oil is dirty oil

The current plunge in oil and gas prices will not be permanent. Speculation on why Saudi Arabia, by far the world’s biggest oil exporter, continues to furiously pump out oil as fast as it can despite the collapse in pricing frequently centers on speculation that the Saudis’ pumping costs are lower than elsewhere and thus can sustain low prices while driving out competitors who must operate in the red at such prices.

If this scenario pans out, a shortage of oil will eventually materialize, driving the price up again. But the difficult economics will not have disappeared; all the easy sources of petroleum have long since been tapped. And the sources for the recent boom — tar sands and fracking — are heavy contributors to global warming, another looming danger. The case for catastrophic climate disruption due to global warming is far better understood today than it was in 1972 — and we are already experiencing its effects.

Dr. Turner, noting with understatement that these gigantic global problems “have been met with considerable resistance from powerful societal forces,” concludes:

“A challenging lesson from the [Limits to Growth] scenarios is that global environmental issues are typically intertwined and should not be treated as isolated problems. Another lesson is the importance of taking pre-emptive action well ahead of problems becoming entrenched. Regrettably, the alignment of data trends with the [Limits to Growth] dynamics indicates that the early stages of collapse could occur within a decade, or might even be underway. This suggests, from a rational risk-based perspective, that we have squandered the past decades, and that preparing for a collapsing global system could be even more important than trying to avoid collapse.”

Sobering indeed. Left unsaid (and, as always, there is no criticism intended in noting a research paper not going outside its parameters) is why so little has been done to head off a looming global catastrophe. Free of constraints, it is not difficult to quantify those “powerful societal forces” as the biggest industrialists and financiers in the world capitalist system. As long as we have an economic system that allows private capital to accumulate without limit on a finite planet, and externalize the costs, in a system that requires endless growth, there is no real prospect of making the drastic changes necessary to head off a very painful future.

Just because a study was conducted decades in the past does not mean we can’t learn from it, even with a measure of skepticism toward peak-oil fast-collapse scenarios. If we reach still further back in time, Rosa Luxemburg’s words haunt us still: Socialism or barbarism.

Fossil fuel subsidies total trillions of dollars per year

Most of the cost of fossil fuels is hidden because environmental harms such as pollution and global warming are kept outside ordinary economic calculation. Energy companies externalize these costs (among others) — that is, they don’t pay them. The public does.

And we do, to a remarkable extent. When we think of corporate subsidies, we naturally think of taxes not paid, real estate giveaways and other ways of taking money from the public and shoveling it into corporate coffers. Then there are the environmental costs, something prominent if we are talking about fossil fuels. These, too, should be thought of as subsidies since these constitute costs paid by the public. A first attempt at seriously quantifying the magnitude of the totality of subsidies given to fossil fuels leads to a conclusion that the total for 2014 was US$5.6 trillion, a total expected to be matched in 2015.

Yes, you read that correctly: 5.6 trillion dollars. As in 5.6 million million. Or, to put it another way, more than seven percent of gross world product.

A lot of money.

These calculations are, interestingly, the product of an International Monetary Fund working paper, “How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies?” The paper, prepared by economists David Coady, Ian Parry, Louis Sears and Baoping Shang, sought to provide a fuller accounting of the costs of the environmental damages caused by fossil fuels, and found that those costs greatly exceed direct corporate subsidies and below-cost consumer pricing. The authors foresee huge benefits should all fossil-fuel subsidies be eliminated. They write:

“Eliminating post-tax subsidies in 2015 could raise government revenue by $2.9 trillion (3.6 percent of global GDP), cut global CO₂ emissions by more than 20 percent, and cut pre-mature air pollution deaths by more than half. After allowing for the higher energy costs faced by consumers, this action would raise global economic welfare by $1.8 trillion (2.2 percent of global GDP).” [page 7]

Grangemouth oil refinery at sunset (photo by Steve Garvie, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland)

Grangemouth oil refinery at sunset (photo by Steve Garvie, Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland)

As dramatic as the preceding paragraph is, the International Monetary Fund is not suddenly questioning capitalism. The paper carries the caveat that it is “research in progress” and does not represent the views of the IMF. Nor does the paper devote so much as a single word questioning the economic system that has produced such astounding distortions, not to mention the hideous social effects of massive inequality and power imbalances. Nonetheless, it does present an implicit challenge to business as usual and helps conceptualize the massive costs of profligate energy usage. The paper lays out in plain language the environmental, fiscal, economic and social consequences of energy subsidies, stating that energy subsidies [page 5]:

  • Damage the environment, causing more premature deaths through local air pollution, exacerbating congestion and other adverse side effects of vehicle use, and increasing atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations.
  • Impose large fiscal costs, which need to be financed by some combination of higher public debt, higher tax burdens and crowding out potentially productive public spending (for example, on health, education and infrastructure).
  • Discourage needed investments in energy efficiency, renewables and energy infrastructure, and increase the vulnerability of countries to volatile international energy prices.
  • Are a highly inefficient way to provide support to low-income households since most of the benefits from energy subsidies are typically captured by rich households.

Paying for air pollution and global warming

The biggest subsidized cost is air pollution, which the paper’s authors estimate accounts for 46 percent of fossil fuel subsidies. Global warming is the next biggest subsidy, at 22 percent, with corporate and consumer subsidies, foregone taxes and other items accounting for smaller amounts. From this calculation, the authors argue that local benefits from ending subsidies are high enough that doing so should be done in the absence of action in other countries. They write:

“An important point, therefore, is that most (over three-fourths) of the underpricing of energy is due to domestic distortions — pre-tax subsidies and domestic externalities — rather than to global distortions (climate change). The crucial implication of this is that energy pricing reform is largely in countries’ own domestic interest and therefore is beneficial even in the absence of globally coordinated action.” [page 21]

When the costs are broken down by forms of energy, it is no surprise that coal is the most subsidized form. Coal subsidies alone total almost four percent of global GDP, according to the paper, with “no country … impos[ing] meaningful taxes on coal use from an environmental perspective.” Petroleum is also heavily subsidized.

If we could at a stroke eliminate all forms of fossil fuel subsidies, the gains would be significant. The authors believe that global revenue gains would be $2.9 trillion for 2015, a total less than the current cost of subsidies because it accounts for a reduction in energy usage from higher prices and an assumption that some tax money would be used for emission-control technologies. The authors also calculate a $1.8 trillion net gain in social welfare, a gain that could be increased were this gain used to invest in education, health and other public benefits.

So if so much good can come from rationalizing the fossil fuel industry, why does this sound like an impossible dream? Unfortunately, in real world of capitalism, there is very little to prevent corporations from externalizing their costs.

With increased corporate globalization, capital can pick up and move at will, inducing political office holders to hand out subsidies, waive taxes and refuse to enforce safety and environmental laws. They do this because the alternative is for corporations to move elsewhere in a never-ending search for the lowest wages and weakest regulations with an accompanying disappearance of jobs. And this globalization, fueled by “free trade” agreements that arise from relentless competition, aggravates global warming as components are shipped around the world for assembly into finished products that are shipped back, greatly adding to the environmental damage imposed by transportation.

Environment doesn’t count in orthodox economics

Not only is the environment an externality that corporations do not have to account for, thereby dumping the costs on to the public, but orthodox economics doesn’t account for the environment, other than as a source of resources to exploit. The same capitalist market that is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest and most powerful industrialists and financiers is supposed to “solve” environmental problems. A Monthly Review article by sociologists Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism in Wonderland,” puts this contradiction in stark perspective:

“Mainstream economists are trained in the promotion of private profits as the singular ‘bottom line’ of society, even at the expense of larger issues of human welfare and the environment. The market rules over all, even nature. For Milton Friedman the environment was not a problem since the answer was simple and straightforward. As he put it: ‘ecological values can find their natural space in the market, like any other consumer demand.’ ” [May 2009, page 4]

From that perspective, it follows that present-day environmental damage is of minimal concern to capital and future damage of no concern. The industrialists and financiers who reap billions today won’t necessarily be around when the environmental price becomes too high to avoid. The “Capitalism in Wonderland” authors write:

“[T]he ideology embedded in orthodox neoclassical economics [is] a field which regularly presents itself as using objective, even naturalistic, methods for modeling the economy. However, past all of the equations and technical jargon, the dominant economic paradigm is built on a value system that prizes capital accumulation in the short-term, while de-valuing everything else in the present and everything altogether in the future. …

[H]uman life in effect is worth only what each person contributes to the economy as measured in monetary terms. So, if global warming increases mortality in Bangladesh, which it appears likely that it will, this is only reflected in economic models to the extent that the deaths of Bengalis hurt the economy. Since Bangladesh is very poor, [orthodox] economic models … would not estimate it to be worthwhile to prevent deaths there since these losses would show up as minuscule in the measurements. … [E]thical concerns about the intrinsic value of human life and of the lives of other creatures are completely invisible in standard economic models. Increasing human mortality and accelerating the rate of extinctions are to most economists only problems if they undermine the ‘bottom line.’ In other respects they are invisible: as is the natural world as a whole.” [pages 9-10]

Tinkering versus analyzing the structure

The International Monetary Fund paper does offer a brief discussion of social disruptions should fossil-fuel subsidies be removed, suggesting a need for “transitory” programs such as worker retraining and protection of vulnerable groups. [page 31] But their proposed program centers on environmental taxes as a way to align fossil fuels with their costs to make energy prices “efficient.” Certainly, polluters and causers of global warming should be required to absorb those costs. But given that market forces tilt overwhelmingly in favor of large polluters, the fact of massive imbalances in power, and that governments have handcuffed themselves in terms of confronting capital (a trend itself a product of market forces), it is unrealistic to believe such a program is currently politically feasible.

The disruptions to a capitalist economy with a forced large reduction in energy usage are also significant. It is not only that a capitalist economy can’t function without growing (and a growing economy uses more, not less, energy, especially because of ever more complex machinery and lengthening supply chains), but that a capitalist economy doesn’t offer millions of workers who lose their jobs new work in new industries. Every incentive under capitalism is for more energy usage; thus “the market” will object to dramatically higher energy prices, no matter how rational those higher prices.

Ultimately, the authors of the IMF paper are trapped in the same inability to imagine anything outside the present capitalist system, similar to those who claim that stopping global warming will be virtually cost-free. Their paper has done a necessary service by providing the first real quantification of the gigantic costs of fossil fuels and the massive subsidies they receive. Subsidies for renewable energy, in comparison, are minuscule. The massive subsidies for nuclear energy, which is a complete failure on any rational economic basis before we even get to the physical dangers, demonstrate that nuclear is no solution, either. These should also be eliminated.

The size of the social movement that would be necessary to eliminate all these subsidies would be enormous. Why should such a movement ask for mere reforms that fall well short of what is necessary, worthy as they would be. Energy is too important not to be put in public hands. The trillions of dollars of fossil fuel subsidies are the logical product of allowing private interests to control critical resources for private profit and leaving “the market” to dictate outcomes.

We can’t make what is unsustainable sustainable through a better tax policy. That the enormous scale of reform proposed by the IMF paper still falls far short of what is actually necessary to create a sustainable economy demonstrates the severity of the crises we are only beginning to face.

Renewable energy isn’t a shortcut to reversing global warming

Denmark has distinguished itself as the country moving the fastest toward the eventual replacement of fossil fuels. Its goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 is laudable, but the assumption that this path will reverse global warming while otherwise continuing business as usual, is unrealistic.

At first glance, Denmark has made remarkable strides. The country’s intention to totally eliminate fossil fuels by the midpoint of the 21st century appears to be realistic. Already, Denmark is the world leader in wind energy and it intends to also exclude all use of nuclear power. At the start of 2015, the country’s energy agency, Energistyrelsen, said renewable energy sources account for 25 percent of Denmark’s total energy consumption, and more than 40 percent of its electricity comes from renewable sources.

Danish countryside (photo by "Old Dane")

Danish countryside (photo by “Old Dane”)

The Danish government acknowledges that continuing consumption patterns based on “cheap and easy access to coal, oil and natural gas” is a “road [that] is not an option.” True enough. But the switch to renewable energy is promoted as cost-free. The Danish government says:

“Business … stands a great chance to move into the heavy league of successful super green companies. For instance, the energy efficiency measures a company makes are often paid back within [a] few years. Onwards, the savings on the energy bill can be unleashed to strengthen the core business of the company. Likewise, there is an enormous global market for green technology, services and systems. This market is only going to grow once more governments follow in the carbon-light footsteps of Denmark.

But of course such a strategy would come at a great cost to Danish society? The answer is a resounding no. … [T]he transition is relatively cheap, and business competitiveness not harmed. The government’s estimates are a price tag of approximately 10 euro pr. household pr. month at the highest (2020), a price tag that will only slowly increase to this level. In the opinion of the Danish government this is a reasonable insurance policy against unexpected increases in fossil fuel costs and a solid investment in Denmark’s future energy security.”

Enthusiasm for renewable commitment

An expected rising efficiency of renewable energy sources will ultimately lead to lower costs, more than offsetting the investments in renewable-energy infrastructure and reversing the present-day higher costs, the government says. So no change in consumption patterns after all. This enthusiasm is shared by environmental institutions that have become large nongovernmental organizations. Greenpeace, for example, issued a brief paper in October 2014 that reads like a press release. In this paper, “Denmark’s commitment to 100% renewable energy,” Greenpeace agreed that no changes in consumption will be required. It wrote:

“Denmark’s emissions reductions have not affected the economy negatively. The decoupling of economic growth from energy consumption is partially due to Danish companies being subsidised for using renewable energy and increasing energy efficiency, which in turn increases their creativity and prompts energy savings. Job creation is an explicit objective of the Danish Climate Plan, and because Denmark has invested heavily in research and promotion of renewable energy, energy-efficient technologies and renewable heat supply systems, the climate and energy system has already created thousands of jobs. The full transition to 100 per cent renewable energy is expected to generate at least 30[,000] to 40,000 new jobs in a country of 5.5 million people.”

Moreover, this will come easy, Greenpeace says:

“Although Denmark’s roadmap to fossil fuel independence and 100 per cent renewable energy is specific to the Danish context, many of the recommendations are relevant and applicable to other nations around the world. One finding may be of particular interest: The costs of phasing out fossil fuels are expected to be almost equivalent to or only marginally more expensive than a ‘business as usual’ scenario.”

Too good to be true? Unfortunately, yes. That global warming and the accelerating damage to the global environment can be reversed without cost — and without any alteration to the high-impact consumerism of the global North’s advanced capitalist countries — echoes the unrealistic conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report issued last year. The IPCC concluded the annual reduction in “consumption growth” on a global basis would be only 0.06 percent during the course of the 21st century. Nothing more than a statistical blip!

In actuality, the IPCC assertion that we can remain on the path of endless growth is a fantasy argument that we can have our cake and not only eat it but make more cakes and eat them, too.

Bioenergy not necessarily a savings on greenhouse gases

When we look past the cheerleading for a bright renewable future, two problems immediately pop up: Renewable energy is not necessarily clean nor without contributions to global warming, and the limits that living on a finite planet with finite resources presents are all the more acute in an economic system that requires endless growth.

Denmark’s phaseout of oil, gas and coal is dependent on wind power and biomass, and to a lesser degree on solar energy. But just because energy from biomass is classified as renewable, that doesn’t make it sustainable or environmentally friendly. Denmark is the biggest per capita user of bioenergy, with Germany and Britain significant users as well. But the primary source of bioenergy is wood, and much of this wood must be imported. British plans for expanding bioenergy, if brought to fruition, could consume nine times more wood than can be supplied internally. Denmark is already a heavy importer of wood pellets.

Increased logging is surely not a route to reducing global warming. A paper by the British watchdog group Biofuelwatch reports:

“Increased demand for bioenergy is already resulting in the more intensive logging including very destructive whole tree harvesting or brash removal and replacement of forest and other ecosystems with monocultures. Expansion of industrial tree plantations for bioenergy is expected to lead to further land grabbing and land conflicts. At the same time, communities affected by biomass power stations are exposed to increased air pollution (particulates, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, dioxins etc.) and thus public health risks. Meanwhile, a growing number of scientific studies show that burning wood for energy commonly results in a carbon debt of decades or even centuries compared with fossil fuels that might otherwise have been burnt.”

A Partnership for Policy Integrity study published in April 2014 found that biomass electricity generation, which relies primarily on the burning of wood, is “more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 [U.S.] states.” The partnership’s director, Mary Booth, wrote:

“The biomass power industry portrays their facilities as ‘clean.’ But we found that even the newest biomass plants are allowed to pollute more than modern coal- and gas-fired plants, and that pollution from bioenergy is increasingly unregulated.”

Even the wind (energy) has toxicity

Wind energy has its environmental issues as well. The turbines used to produce electricity from wind increasingly are built with the “rare earth” element neodymium, which requires a highly toxic process to produce. Turbine magnets using neodymium are more expensive than those using ceramic, but are also more efficient. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that an additional 380 metric tons of neodymium would be necessary if the United States is to generate 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030. That’s just one country.

Most rare earths are mined in China because the mines are so environmentally destructive they had been shut down elsewhere. Production has been re-started in other countries, lessening demand on Chinese exports, but increasing rare earth mining means more pollution and toxic waste. Renee Cho, a blogger for Columbia University’s Earth Institute, provides a sobering picture of this:

“All rare earth metals contain radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium, which can contaminate air, water, soil and groundwater. Metals such as arsenic, barium, copper, aluminum, lead and beryllium may be released during mining into the air or water, and can be toxic to human health. Moreover, the refinement process for rare earth metals uses toxic acids and results in polluted wastewater that must be properly disposed of. The Chinese Society of Rare Earths estimated that the refinement of one ton of rare earth metals results in 75 cubic meters of acidic wastewater and one ton of radioactive residue.”

Just because it’s renewable, doesn’t mean its environmentally friendly. As Almuth Ernsting, a founder of Biofuelwatch, summarized in a Truthout article:

“Defining methane-spewing mega-dams, biofuels, which are accelerating deforestation and other ecosystem destruction, or logging forests for bioenergy as ‘renewable’ helps policy makers boost renewables statistics, while helping to further destabilize planetary support systems. As long as energy sources that are as carbon-intensive and destructive as fossil fuels are classed as ‘renewable,’ boosting renewable energy around the world risks doing more harm than good.”

Increased efficiency in energy usage hasn’t resulted in decreases in greenhouse-gas emissions. A study by 10 scientists led by Josep G. Canadell found that the growth rate of atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing. The growth rate in anthropogenic carbon dioxide was higher in the 2000s than in the 1990s. Not only has economic growth contributed to this rate increase, but the carbon intensity of gross world product began to increase during the decade of the 2000s. Adding to this sobering picture, the efficiency of natural carbon sinks (such as forests and oceans that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) is declining.

The study said a growing global economy, an increase in the carbon emissions required to produce each unit of economic activity, and a decreasing efficiency of carbon sinks on land and in oceans have combined to produce unprecedented increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Beyond renewables, fundamental change is necessary

The conclusion necessary to be drawn isn’t that we shouldn’t switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources as quickly as reasonably possible. Of course that should be done. But it is a delusion to believe that doing so in itself is a magic wand to wish away the growing crises of global warming, environmental degradation and resource depletion. There is no alternative to drastically reducing consumption of energy and material goods, an impossibility under capitalism, and bringing into existence a sustainable economic system.

All incentives in capitalism are for endless growth; it can’t function without it. Because of this expansionary imperative, that production is for private profit rather than human need and that enterprises are able to externalize environmental costs, decreases in energy prices are an incentive to increase energy usage, which is what has been happening. An economy that must expand will do so — introducing efficiencies can slow down the increase in energy consumption and resource depletion, but an ever expanding economy will ultimately use more energy, more resources.

A former White House Council of Economic Advisers chair, Christina Romer, says that economic growth of 2.5 percent is necessary to maintain the unemployment rate where it is and “substantially stronger growth than that” is necessary for a rapid decrease. In addition, energy usage due to transportation is increased from the movement of production to countries around the globe. Raw materials and component parts are shipped from all over the world to an assembly point, then the finished products are transported back.

This enormous contribution to global warming is another product of capitalism, specifically the dynamic of relentless competition that induces corporations to move production to the places with the lowest wages and weakest regulation, and to stretch supply lines around the world. These competitive “innovations” must be copied by competitors, thus increasing this tendency. (And are a catalyst for “free trade” agreements that incentivize the expansion of trans-national rootlessness.) As the depletion of natural resources accelerates, an inevitable byproduct of competitive pressures and the never-ending scramble for bigger profits, more energy and capital will be required to extract resources more difficult to exploit.

Carrying on with business as usual, with changes to the mix of energy production, is an illusion that “green capitalism” will save the world. Liberals and social democrats, in their own way, can be as unrealistic as conservatives. Conservatives correctly see that measures to combat global warming will come with a cost, so they screech that global warming doesn’t exist, despite the enormity of the evidence all around us. Liberals and social democrats readily acknowledge the real danger of global warming but, no more willing to tamper with the machinery of capitalism than conservatives, promise that the changes will be cost-free.

The changes won’t be. But the cost of doing nothing, of letting a runaway global warming take hold — the very path humanity is treading — will be much higher. The limits of the planet, of nature, will assert themselves. Yielding to natural limits now will come with much disruption, but having limits imposed on us in the future will surely be much worse.

We cannot shop our way out of environmental crisis, ‘green’ or not

Eight weeks ago, I wrote about the delusions of “green capitalism,” that there is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy. That led to a vigorous discussion, and I thank all of you who contributed to it.

This week, I’d like to return to this theme, in the form of discussing an interesting paper that I could then only quote briefly. The paper, “Green capitalism: the god that failed,” by Richard Smith of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London, packs a powerful argument into its 33 pages. The paper was published in issue No. 56 (March 2011) of Real-World Economics Review. (That a publication for non-orthodox practitioners needs to take such a name speaks volumes of the field as a whole.) The author’s basic theses are:

  • “Green capitalism” is “doomed from the start” because maximizing profit and environmentalism are broadly in conflict; the occasional time when they might be in harmony are rare exceptions and temporary. This is because the managers of corporations are answerable to private owners and shareholders, not to society. Profit maximization trumps all else under capitalism and thereby sets the limits to ecological reform.
  • No capitalist government can impose “green taxes” that would force out of business the coal industry or any other because the result would be recession and mass unemployment. Without carbon or other “green” taxes, the “entire green capitalist project collapses.”
  • Green-capitalism proponents vastly underestimate the speed with which environmental collapse is coming. No amount of tinkering can alter the course of environmental destruction under the present system. Humanity, therefore, must replace capitalism with a post-capitalist ecologically sustainable economy.
  • Resource extraction is inherently polluting but can’t be shut without chaos. It is not possible to “dematerialize” much of the economy as green-capitalism proponents believe possible. The only way to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is to “enforce a drastic contraction of production in the industrialized countries.” Such a thing is not possible in capitalism because the affected industries would be committing suicide to agree to this and nobody would promise jobs to those displaced; this could only be carried out through a socialization of industry and a redeployment of labor to sectors that need to be developed for social good.
  • Consumerism and over-consumption are not “cultural” or the result of personal characteristics — they are a natural consequence of capitalism and built into the system. Problems like global warming and other aspects of the world environmental crisis can only be solved on a global level through democratic control of the economy, not by individual consumer choices or by national governments.

Cap-and-trade equals profits by polluting

European attempts to implement “cap and trade” schemes to limit greenhouse-gas emissions were countered from the start by industry lobbyists asking for exceptions because, they argued, they would lose competitiveness, and some threatened to move elsewhere, taking jobs with them. Governments gave in. Polluters and traders took in windfall profits, with no real effect on emissions. Dr. Smith wrote:

“German electricity companies were supposed to receive 3 percent fewer permits than they needed to cover their total emissions between 2005 and 2007, which would have obliged them to cut emissions by that amount, instead the companies got 3 percent more than they needed — a windfall worth about $374 billion at that time.” [page 119]

A proposal to directly tax carbon in France, proposed by the administration of Nicolas Sarkozy, was ruled unconstitutional because most of France’s major polluters would have been let off the hook entirely while households would have assumed the burden. Dr. Smith put the farce of this failed proposal in perspective:

“The court said that more than 1,000 of France’s biggest polluters could have been exempted from the charges, and that 93 percent of industrial emissions would not have been taxed at all. But even if Sarkozy had successfully imposed his carbon tax, this tax would have raised the price of gasoline by just 25 US cents per gallon. Given that the French already pay nearly $9 per gallon for gasoline, it’s hard to see how an additional 25 cents would seriously discourage consumption let alone ‘save the human race.’ ” [page 120]

A part of Moofushi's bleached coral reef (Alifu Dhaalu Atoll, Maldives), damaged by warming sea temperatures.  (Photo by Bruno de Giusti)

A part of Moofushi’s bleached coral reef (Alifu Dhaalu Atoll, Maldives), damaged by warming sea temperatures.
(Photo by Bruno de Giusti)

Some advocates of cap-and-trade or carbon taxes in the United States try to get around industry pushback by advocating they be made “revenue-neutral.” But if “carbon tax offsets are revenue neutral, then they are also ‘impact neutral,’ ” Dr. Smith writes. That brings us back to the reality that imposing drastic cuts would be the only way to effect the significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions necessary to prevent catastrophic global warming in coming decades. That, in turn, can’t be done without massive dislocation.

Yet reductions are not only necessary, but will be required by physical limits — the world’s population is using the resources at the rate of 1.5 Earths and the United Nations predicts we’ll be using two Earths by 2030. Moreover, if all the world’s peoples used resources at the rate that the United States does, “we would need 5.3 planets to support all this.” Needless to say, we have only one Earth available.

More efficiency leads to move consumption

One of the pillars on which green capitalists rest their advocacy is increased efficiency of energy usage, achieved through technological innovation. But energy usage has been increasing, not decreasing, despite greater efficiencies wrung out of a range of products. Gains in efficiency can, and frequently are, used to expand production; given that capitalist incentives reward expansion, that is what is done. Moreover, “green” industries are not necessarily green. The “god that failed” paper points out:

“Even when it’s theoretically possible to shift to greener production, given capitalism, as often as not, ‘green’ industries just replace old problems with new problems: So burning down tracts of the Amazon rainforest in order to plant sugarcane to produce organic sugar for Whole Foods or ethanol to feed cars instead of people, is not so green after all. Neither is burning down Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests to plant palm-oil plantations so Britons can tool around London in their obese Landrovers.” [page 128]

Making motor vehicles more fuel-efficient, although a goal that should be pursued, nonetheless falls far short of a solution. Fuel usage from the increasing number of vehicles and longer distances traveled are greater than all the savings from fuel efficiency. And focusing on only when the vehicle is being driven leaves untouched most of the pollution caused by them, Dr. Smith writes:

“Most of the pollution any car will ever cause is generated in the production process before the car even arrives at the showroom — in the production off all the steel, aluminum, copper and other metals, glass, rubber, plastic, paint and other raw materials and inputs that go into every automobile, and in the manufacturing process itself. Cars produce 56 percent of all the pollution they will ever produce before they ever hit the road. … [S]o long as [automakers] are free to produce automobiles without limit more cars will just mean more pollution, even if the cars are hybrids or plug-in electric cars.” [page 131]

Those electric vehicles are only as “clean” as the source of electricity used to power them. Many plug-in electric vehicles are coal-powered vehicles because coal is a common source of electricity. Looking at it holistically, such an electric vehicle would be more polluting than a gasoline-fueled vehicle; and the majority of the pollution from the manufacturing (for the vehicle itself) would be there just the same. Then there is the pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions of the electric-car battery. Nickel is a primary input; the Russian city that is the site of the world’s largest source of nickel, Norilsk, is one of the world’s most polluted places.

“I would not be surprised if the most ecological cars on the planet today are not those Toyota Priuses or even the Chevy Volts with their estimated [seven- to 10-year] lifespan, but those ancient Fords, Chevrolets, and Oldsmobiles cruising round the streets of Havana. For even if their gas mileage is lower than auto-producer fleet averages today, they were still produced only once, whereas American ‘consumers’ have gone through an average of seven generations of cars since 1960 (when the U.S. embargo ended car imports to Cuba), with all the manufacturing and disposal pollution that entailed.” [page 133]

Consumerism props up capitalist economies

Planned obsolescence is part of the problem, across the spectrum of manufactured products. Capitalist manufacturers don’t want products that last a long time; repeatedly selling new products is far more profitable. But it would be overly simplistic to lay full blame for this on greed, however much greed is rewarded by a capitalist economy. Household consumption — all the things that people buy for personal use from toothbrushes to automobiles — accounts for 60 to 70 percent of gross domestic product in almost all advanced capitalist countries. If people aren’t buying things, the economy struggles.

Proponents of green capitalism fail to grasp the structural causes of over-consumption. However much better for the environment, and the world’s future, drastic reductions in consumerism would be, moral exhortations can’t be effective. Trapped in an idealist mirage that capitalism can be “tamed” or “repurposed,” green capitalists, through seeking individual solutions to structural and systemic problems, not only miss the forest for the trees but leave the economic structure responsible untouched. People in the global North should consume less, but to place the blame on individual behavior lets the manufacturers of useless products off the hook and is blind to the economic realities should the system be left in place intact.

Once again, we can not shop our way out of economic and environmental problems. Even not shopping would bring its own set of problems, Dr. Smith writes:

“[H]ow can we ‘reject consumerism’ when we live in a capitalist economy where, in the case of the United States, more than two-thirds of market sales, and therefore most jobs, depend on direct sales to consumers while most of the rest of the economy, including the infrastructure and not least, the military, is dedicated to propping up this super consumerist ‘American way of life?’ Indeed, most jobs in industrialized countries critically depend not just on consumerism but on ever-increasing overconsumption. We ‘need’ this ever-increasing consumption and waste production because, without growth, capitalist economies collapse and unemployment soars. …

[I]t’s not the culture that drives the economy so much as, overwhelmingly, the economy that drives the culture: It’s the insatiable demands of shareholders that drive corporate producers to maximize sales, therefore to constantly seek out new sales and sources in every corner of the planet, to endlessly invent [new needs]. … ‘[C]onsumerism’ is not just a ‘cultural pattern,’ it’s not just ‘commercial brainwashing’ or an ‘infantile regression.’ … Insatiable consumerism is an everyday requirement of capitalist reproduction, and this drives capitalist invention and imperial expansion. No overconsumption, no growth, no jobs. And no voluntarist ‘cultural transformation’ is going to overcome this fundamental imperative so long as the economic system depends on overconsumption for its day-to-day survival.” [pages 141-142]

There is no way out other than replacing capitalism with a steady-state economy based on meeting human needs, and that could only be attained through bottom-up, democratic control. No one promises new jobs to those who would be displaced under capitalism; logically, then, those who jobs and ability to earn a living is dependent on polluting or wasteful industries resist environmental initiatives. The wholesale changes that are necessary to prevent a global environmental catastrophe can’t be accomplished under the present economic system; it would require a different system with the flexibility to re-deploy labor in large numbers when industries are reduced or eliminated, and one that would have no need to grow. Inequality would have to be eliminated for any kind of global democratic economy to be able to function.

Richard Smith pronounces this “a tall order to be sure.” That it is. But with many world cities, and entire countries, at risk of becoming inhabitable due to rising sea levels, more erratic weather and an accelerated timetable to deplete the world’s resources, what choice do we have? Green capitalism is not only not green, it is worse than illusion because of the false hope it dangles in front of our eyes.

Staying in the environmental frying pan only gets us hotter

Green capitalism is destined to fail: You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. We can’t shop our way out of global warming nor are there technological magic wands that will save us. There is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy and consumption patterns.

Such a change will not come without costs — but the costs of doing nothing, of allowing global warming to precede is far greater. Therefore it is healthy to approach with a dose of skepticism the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that concludes the annual reduction in “consumption growth” on a global basis would be only 0.06 percent during the course of the 21st century. Almost nothing!

Wahiba Sands, Oman (Photo by Andries Oudshoorn)

Wahiba Sands, Oman (Photo by Andries Oudshoorn)

The “Summary for Policymakers” supplement of the IPCC’s Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change report, a dense 33-page document, estimates that the annualized reduction in consumption growth would be 0.04 to 0.16 percent, with the median value of various models at 0.06 percent. This estimate is based on projected global annual growth of 1.6 to 3.0 percent per year during the full course of the 21st century. [page 15]

This estimated cost is what the IPCC believes is what would be required to hold the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide equivalent to 450 parts per million, the level at which the IPCC believes total global warming would be 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100, which in turn is seen as the maximum temperature rise to avoid catastrophic damage to Earth.

Let’s unpack those last two paragraphs. In sum, what the IPCC panel is asserting is that the cost of bringing global warming under control will be negligible, no more than a blip noticed only by statisticians. And, best of all, there need be no fundamental change to the world’s economic structures — we can remain on the path of endless growth. We can have our cake and not only eat it but make more cakes and eat them, too.

Alas, there are no free lunches nor limitless cakes.

On the current path, you’ll need scuba gear to get around

Hundreds of climate scientists from around the world (collectively, the “IPCC Working Group III”) contributed to the report, but it does appear to have been watered down to some extent for political reasons. Indeed, the Mitigation 2014 web site’s front page says the Summary for Policymakers “has been approved line by line by member governments.” Since most of the world’s governments are reluctant to do very little more than talk about global warming, a note of caution is surely warranted.

Nonetheless, the summary does acknowledge that greenhouse-gas emissions accelerated during the 2000-2010 decade as compared to the 1970-2000 period. It declares, with “high confidence,” that half of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions since 1750 (the dawn of the Industrial Revolution) have been discharged in the past 40 years. Worse, population and economic growth has outstripped gains in efficiency, thus greenhouse-gas emissions have increased despite increased efficiency in, and conservation of, energy usage. Continuing on this trajectory will have potentially catastrophic consequences, the summary says:

“Without additional efforts to reduce [greenhouse-gas] emissions beyond those in place today, emissions growth is expected to persist driven by growth in global population and economic activities. Baseline scenarios, those without additional mitigation, result in global mean surface temperature increases in 2100 from 3.7 °C to 4.8 °C compared to pre-industrial levels (median values; the range is 2.5 °C to 7.8 °C when including climate uncertainty) (high confidence).” [page 9]

Many of the world’s cities would be underwater, or well on their way to being underwater, should such heating occur. The temperature range of the preceding paragraph represents atmospheric concentrations of 750 to 1,300 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent. To instead hold that concentration to 450 parts per million will require a monumental undertaking — the concentration is already 400 ppm. The IPCC thus concludes that the level of greenhouse-gas gases will actually rise above the 450 mark, then brought down to that level under its scenario for capping the concentration at 450 ppm in 2100.

To achieve a goal of 450 ppm in 2100 would require that greenhouse-gas emissions be “40 to 70 percent lower globally” in 2050 than in 2010 and “near zero” in 2100. How to achieve this? The report makes these recommendations:

  • Further rapid improvements of energy efficiency.
  • Reduce the carbon intensity of electricity generation.
  • Increase the use of renewable energy technologies, which would require subsidies.
  • Increased use of nuclear energy.
  • The development of carbon dioxide capture and storage technology, in particular “bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage” (BECCS) by the year 2050.

The last of these, in particular BECCS, is the key to the IPCC’s belief that techno-fixes are the way to save the day. But there is ample reason to throw cold water on this optimism.

Bioenergy likely to increase global warming

BECCS is defined as the capture and sequestration of the carbon produced by bioenergy processes. The carbon dioxide would be “captured” before it escapes into the atmosphere and “permanently” stored underground or underwater, thereby removing it from the air and negating its greenhouse effects. One problem with BECCS is that the technology is not yet viable. Another is that the very idea that BECCS would lead to reduced atmospheric carbon dioxide is a false premise.

A Biofuelwatch study prepared by Rachel Smolker and Almuth Ernsting reports that there are significant costs associated with carbon-capture technologies. They write:

“High costs are associated with capturing … compressing and transporting [carbon] (including building new CO2 pipelines) and pumping it underground, and major technical challenges are associated with the majority of [carbon dioxide capture and storage] proposals. Storing CO2 below ground requires access to underground spaces, beneath both ocean and land areas. Current mapping of geological formations, with the expectation that these spaces will be accessed, is setting the stage for a new form of ‘underground’ land grab. Resistance has already begun with communities opposing the injection of CO2 into the ground beneath them.” [page 2]

The Biofuelwatch study reports that the IPCC, among others, counts flooding oil reservoirs with carbon dioxide, to extract otherwise inaccessible oil out of the ground, as BECCS. Hardly “carbon neutral”! The authors write:

“Crucially, the promotion of [carbon dioxide capture and storage], including BECCS for climate change mitigation and geo-engineering, coincides with the oil industry’s fast-growing demand for cheap continuous supplies of CO2. … [F]looding oil reservoirs with CO2 allows for the recovery of a far higher proportion of oil than would be possible with conventional means.” [page 2]

In a separate report, Ms. Smolker, writing in Truthout, challenges the science behind assumptions that BECCS projects will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions:

“Virtually nobody still contends that corn ethanol is ‘carbon neutral.’ Yet the premier BECCS project that is often referred to is an ADM corn ethanol refinery in Decatur, Illinois. In fact, when emissions from indirect impacts are included in analyses, along with a complete assessment of the impacts from growing, harvesting, fertilizer and chemical use etc., most bioenergy processes actually cause more emissions even than the fossil fuels they are meant to replace. … [W]e know already from the current scale of biofuel and biomass demand — just look at the current corn ethanol debacle — that it is driving loss of biodiversity, higher food prices, land grabs and other damages. Scaling up bioenergy to the extent that would be required to supposedly reduce global CO2 levels would be a disastrous backfire.”

A Partnership for Policy Integrity study found that biomass electricity generation, which relies primarily on the burning of wood, is “more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 states.” The partnership’s director, Mary Booth, wrote:

“The biomass power industry portrays their facilities as ‘clean.’ But we found that even the newest biomass plants are allowed to pollute more than modern coal- and gas-fired plants, and that pollution from bioenergy is increasingly unregulated.”

The problem here is far deeper than wishful thinking. Optimistic scenarios such as the IPCC report rest on assumptions that the world can reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions, cut pollution and enjoy another century of consumer-fueled economic growth while business as usual goes on. But that is not possible.

Short-term scramble for survival trumps the long term

The capitalist system requires continual growth, which means expansion of production. Its internal logic also means that its incentives are to use more energy and inputs when more efficiency is achieved — the paradox that more energy is consumed instead of less when the cost drops. Because production is for private profit, growth is necessary to maintain profitability — and continually increasing profitability is the actual goal. If a corporation doesn’t expand, its competitor will and put it out of business.

Because of the built-in pressure to maintain profits in the face of relentless competition, corporations continually must reduce costs, employee wages not excepted. Production is moved to low-wage countries with fewer regulations, enabling not only more pollution but driving up energy and carbon-dioxide costs with the need for transportation across greater distances. Economic growth of 2.5 percent is necessary simply to maintain the unemployment rate where it is and “substantially stronger growth than that” is necessary for a rapid decrease, according to a former White House Council of Economic Advisers chair, Christina Romer.

Under capitalism, all the incentives are to continue business as usual, no matter the dire future that business as usual is leading humanity. Richard Smith, in a tour de force paper published in the Real-World Economics Review, “Green capitalism: the god that failed,” summed up the dilemma:

“[T]he problem is not just special interests, lobbyists and corruption. … [Under] capitalism, it is, perversely, in the general interest, in everyone’s immediate interests to do all we can to maximize growth right now, therefore, unavoidably, to maximize fossil fuel consumption right now — because practically every job in the country is, in one way or another, dependent upon fossil fuel consumption. … There is no way to cut CO2 emissions by anything like 80 percent without imposing drastic cuts across the board in industrial production. But since we live under capitalism, not socialism, no one is promising new jobs to all those … whose jobs would be at risk if fossil fuel use were really seriously curtailed. … Given capitalism, they have little choice but to focus on the short-term, to prioritize saving their jobs in the here and now to feed their kids today — and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.” [page 121, March 2011]

“Green” enterprises will not be granted an exemption. They, too, will be pushed by market forces the same as any other enterprise. Dr. Smith writes:

“Biofuels, windpower and organic crops — all might be environmentally rational here or there, but not necessarily in every case or forever. But once investments are sunk, green industries have no choice but to seek to maximize profits and grow forever regardless of social need and scientific rationality, just like any other for-profit business.” [page 142]

All the more is that so for the capitalist system as a whole. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, in their book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, write:

“ ‘Green capitalism,’ even if products are produced using the utmost environmental care and designed for easy reuse, offers no way out of a system that must expand exponentially and thus continue to ratchet up its use of natural resources, its chemical pollution, its contaminated sewage sludge, its garbage, and its many other toxic substances. Some of these ‘fixes’ will probably slow down the rate of environmental destruction, but the magnitude of the needed changes dwarfs these approaches.” [page 120]

A duty to shareholders, not humanity

The structural necessity of continual expansion is expressed in the mandate of corporations with stock traded on exchanges to maximize profits on behalf of their shareholders above all other considerations. There are well-meaning people who wag their fingers at “excesses” of corporate plunder and claim that the focus on shareholders is not necessary, but in reply one need only observe how swiftly financiers punish companies that fail to meet expectations and the frequency with which “enhancing shareholder value” is listed by corporations as their reason for existence.

None other than the high priest of orthodox economics, Milton Friedman, put it plainly in an interview with Joel Bakan recounted in the latter’s book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. John Browne, then the chief executive officer of BP, launched a public-relations offensive claiming that environmental stewardship would now be a primary goal for BP. Setting aside the nonsense of this, given BP’s dreadful record even by the standards of oil majors, Mr. Friedman had this to say, according to the author:

“Not surprisingly, Milton Friedman said ‘no’ when I asked him how far John Browne could go with his green convictions. … ‘He can do it with his own money. If he pursues those environmental interests in such a way as to run the corporation less effectively for its stockholders, then I think he’s being immoral. He’s an employee of the stockholders, however elevated his position may appear to be. As such, he has a very strong moral responsibility to them.’ ”

Putting the environment first in a capitalist economy is not realistic, and doing so anyway would be very costly due to capitalist dynamics. The IPCC is taking a head-in-the-sand approach with its claim that reversing global warming will be nearly cost-free. The more honest approach would be to acknowledge the high cost of saving the planet — and that the cost of not doing so, of continuing business as usual, will be far greater.

The European Commission estimates the cost of global warming in Europe could reach four percent of gross domestic product and estimates that almost 350,000 people per year will be displaced by flooding by mid-century. The National Resources Defense Council estimated that the U.S. government spent about $100 billion cleaning up natural disasters in 2012 — one-sixth of the federal budget’s non-defense discretionary spending and three times what private insurers paid out. Fifty billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent is being thrown into the atmosphere yearly, and a U.S. government working group estimates each ton will cause $37 in future harms in today’s dollars.

And what would the cost be of abandoning many of the world’s cities if the ice caps melt? Of the world’s bread baskets turning into deserts? Of dead oceans? Such costs are not calculated by the IPCC.

The IPCC’s flawed approach does not derive from whatever political pressures have been exerted on it. The fundamental issue is that it can’t imagine a world without capitalism. It has much company in that. But a future in which we live in harmony with nature, rather than destroying nature for profit, can only be a very different world.

Nuclear energy dangerous to your wallet, not only the environment

The ongoing environmental disaster at Fukushima is a grim enough reminder of the dangers of nuclear power, but nuclear does not make sense economically, either. The entire industry would not exist without massive government subsidies.

Quite an insult: Subsidies prop up an industry that points a dagger at the heart of the communities where ever it operates. The building of nuclear power plants drastically slowed after the disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, so it is at a minimum reckless that the latest attempt to resuscitate nuclear power pushes forward heedless of Fukushima’s continuing discharge of radioactive materials into the air, soil and ocean.

Gösgen Nuclear Power Plant, Switzerland (photo by Roland Zumbühl)

Gösgen Nuclear Power Plant, Switzerland (photo by Roland Zumbühl)

There are no definitive statistics on the amount of subsidies enjoyed by nuclear power providers — in part because there so many different types of subsidies — but it amounts to a figure, whether we calculate in dollars, euros or pounds, in the hundreds of billions. Quite a result for an industry whose boosters, at its dawn a half-century ago, declared that it would provide energy “too cheap to meter.”

Taxpayers are not finished footing the bill for the industry, however. There is the matter of disposing radioactive waste (often borne by governments rather than energy companies) and fresh subsidies being granted for new nuclear power plants. None of this is unprecedented — government handouts have the been the industry’s rule from its inception. A paper written by Mark Cooper, a senior economic analyst for the Vermont Law School Institute for Energy and the Environment, notes the lack of economic viability then:

“In the late 1950s the vendors of nuclear reactors knew that their technology was untested and that nuclear safety issues had not been resolved, so they made it clear to policymakers in Washington that they would not build reactors if the Federal government did not shield them from the full liability of accidents.” [page iv]

Nor have the economics of nuclear energy become rational today. A Union of Concerned Scientists paper, Nuclear Power: Still Not Viable Without Subsidies, states:

“Despite the profoundly poor investment experience with taxpayer subsidies to nuclear plants over the past 50 years, the objectives of these new subsidies are precisely the same as the earlier subsidies: to reduce the private cost of capital for new nuclear reactors and to shift the long-term, often multi-generational risks of the nuclear fuel cycle away from investors. And once again, these subsidies to new reactors—whether publicly or privately owned—could end up exceeding the value of the power produced.” [page 3]

The many ways of counting subsidies

Among the goodies routinely given away, according to the Concerned Scientists, are:

  • Subsidies at inception, reducing capital costs and operating costs.
  • Accounting rules allowing companies to write down capital costs after cost overruns, cancelations and plant abandonments, reducing capital-recovery requirements.
  • Recovery of “stranded costs” (costs to a utility’s assets because of new regulations or a deregulated market) passed on to rate payers.

Yes, you read that last item correctly. Even when the energy industry receives its wish to be rid of regulation, it is entitled to extra money because of the resulting rigors of market pressures.

John Amos Power Plant in West Virginia (photo by Harry Schaefer/National Archives)

John Amos Power Plant, West Virginia (photo by Harry Schaefer/National Archives)

The amount of government subsidies for nuclear (and for oil and gas) is far greater than that for solar energy, despite Right-wing attempts to exploit the Obama administration’s generous loan guarantees to failed California solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra. A primary source for Right-wing disinformation campaigns against renewable energy appears to be a report by the U.S. Energy Information Agency that lists direct federal government subsidies to renewables as significantly larger than for nuclear or for natural gas and petroleum liquids for fiscal years 2007 and 2010.

The report, prepared at the behest of three hard-line Republican members of the House of Representatives, was narrowly focused, and notes that it “do[es] exclude some subsidies.” And, as a snapshot, the decades of previous handouts to nuclear, oil and gas companies are not accounted for. Nor does the Energy Information Agency report account for legacy costs — solar and wind power, for example, do not leave behind tons of radioactive waste as does nuclear energy.

Numerous research papers paint a fuller picture. A Congressional Research Service report found that nuclear power had received $74 billion for research and development by the U.S. government for the period 1948 to 1998, more than all such money given for fossil fuels, renewables and energy efficiency combined.

A report by the venture-capital firm DBL Investors, Ask Saint Onofrio, reports that nuclear energy cumulatively has received four times more subsidies than solar energy in California, and that nuclear subsidies were higher than solar in 2011 and all previous years. Nuclear has received $8.2 billion in subsidies in California, while providing the state with three percent of its power in 2012.

The uneconomical state of nuclear power is a global phenomenon, not limited to any one place. A comprehensive study prepared for the Green Party of Germany’s Heinrich Böll Stiftung, The Economics of Nuclear Power: An Update, reports:

“Up to now, nuclear power plants have been funded by massive public subsidies. For Germany the calculations roughly add up to over 100 billion Euros and this preferential treatment is still going on today. As a result the billions set aside for the disposal of nuclear waste and the dismantling of nuclear power plants represent a tax-free manoeuvre for the companies. In addition the liability of the operators is limited to 2.5 billion Euros — a tiny proportion of the costs that would result from a medium-sized nuclear accident.” [page 5]

The paper later says:

“Successive studies by the British government in 1989, 1995, and 2002 came to the conclusion that in a liberalised electricity market, electric utilities would not build nuclear power plants without government subsidies and government guarantees that cap costs. In most countries where the monopoly status of the generating companies has been removed, similar considerations would apply.” [page 51]

New plants are being built, with new subsidies

Significant cost overruns are the norm in building nuclear power plants, and it isn’t investors who are on the hook for them.

Three nuclear projects are under construction in the United States and two in Western Europe, a group that features an assortment of cost overruns and generous guarantees:

• The two new Vogtle reactors in Georgia are already $900 million over budget although their completion date is four years away. The largest owner, Southern Company, has received $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees. Overruns at this plant are not unprecedented; the two existing reactors cost $8.7 billion instead of the promised $600 million, resulting in higher electricity rates.

• The Watts Bar 2 nuclear reactor in Tennessee has seen its cost rise to $4.5 billion from $2.5 billion. (This is technically a restart of a unit on which construction was suspended in 1985.) The existing reactor at this site has a history of safety problems.

• The Summer 2 and 3 reactors being built in South Carolina have already caused rate payers there to endure a series of rate increases.

• In October 2013, British authorities approved a new nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point, England, that features subsidies designed to give the owner, Électricité de France, a guaranteed 10 percent rate of return on the project. Power from the plant will be sold at a fixed price, indexed to the consumer inflation rate. In other words, The Independent reports, “should the market price fall below that [agreed-upon] level the Government would make up the difference.” The agreed-upon fixed price is currently double the wholesale price for electricity.

• Olkiluoto-3 in Finland was supposed to have cost €3 billion, but by August 2009 its price had risen to €5.3 billion.

High costs despite high subsidies

There would at least be a small silver lining in this dark picture if the electricity produced were cheap. But that’s not the case. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, the cost of producing electricity from nuclear power in France tripled and in the United States the cost increased fivefold, according to the Vermont Law School paper [page 46].

Then there are the costs of nuclear that are not imposed by any other energy source: What to do with all the radioactive waste? Regardless of who ultimately shoulders these costs, the environmental dangers will last for tens of thousands of years. In the United States, there is the fiasco of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada. The U.S. government has collected $35 billion from energy companies to finance the dump, which is the subject of fierce local opposition and appears to have no chance of being built.

Presumably, the energy companies have passed on these costs to their consumers but nonetheless are demanding the government take the radioactive waste they are storing at their plants or compensate them. As part of this deal, the U.S. government made itself legally responsible for finding a permanent nuclear-waste storage facility.

And, eventually, plants come to the end of their lives and must be decommissioned, another big expense that energy companies would like to be borne by someone else. The Heinrich Böll Stiftung study says:

“[T]here is a significant mismatch between the interests of commercial concerns and society in general. Huge costs that will only be incurred far in the future have little weight in commercial decisions because such costs are ‘discounted.’ This means that waste disposal costs and decommissioning costs, which are at present no more than ill-supported guesses, are of little interest to commercial companies. From a moral point of view, the current generation should be extremely wary of leaving such an uncertain, expensive, and potentially dangerous legacy to a future generation to deal with when there are no ways of reliably ensuring that the current generation can bequeath the funds to deal with them, much less bear the physical risk. Similarly, the accident risk also plays no part in decision-making because the companies are absolved of this risk by international treaties that shift the risk to taxpayers.” [page 17]

The British government, for instance, currently foots more than three-quarters of the bill for radioactive waste management and decommissioning, and for nuclear legacy sites. A report prepared for Parliament estimates that total public liability to date just for this program is around £50 billion, with tens of billions more to come.

Liability caps for accidents are also routine. In the U.S., the Price-Anderson Act, in force since 1957, caps the total liability of nuclear operators in the event of a serious accident or attack to $10.5 billion. If the total is higher, as it surely would be, taxpayers would be on the hook for the rest. As a further sweetener, the Bush II/Cheney administration, in 2005, signed into law new nuclear subsidies and tax breaks worth $13 billion. The Obama administration, attempting its own nuclear push, has offered an additional $36 billion in federal loan guarantees to underwrite new reactor construction, again putting the risk on taxpayers, not investors.

The Vermont Law School paper aptly sums up this picture with this conclusion:

“If the owners and operators of nuclear reactors had to face the full liability of a nuclear accident and meet the alternatives in competition that is unfettered by subsidies, no one would have built a nuclear reactor in the past, no one would build a reactor today, and anyone who owned one would exit the nuclear business as quickly as they could.” [page 69]

If we had a rational economic system, they surely would.

They frack because clear air and water aren’t profitable

The true costs of resource extraction are never borne by energy and mining companies because they can dump the costs onto society. Those engaged in fracking are not going to act any differently, and can’t be expected to act any differently.

Having government in their pockets means they do it because they can, but the reasons go well beyond that. Pleading for them to act responsibility is of no use as capitalism requires them to act in socially irresponsible ways. Companies with stock traded on exchanges are legally required to earn the biggest possible profit on behalf of their shareholders, regardless of any other considerations. The rigors of competition also mandate this: If a company doesn’t grow, its competitors will and put it out of business.

Photo by Marc St. Gil

Photo by Marc St. Gil

One route to increasing profits is to shed as much cost and liability as possible. Indeed, a company would be shirking its legally mandated fiduciary responsibility were it to accept its responsibilities. For an energy company, these are considerable. Massive oil spills, contamination of water, degradation of soil, destruction of forests, mountaintop removal (with the debris dumped into valley streams), greenhouse-gas emissions — the list is long. But although the profits from these problems accrue to the corporations responsible, the costs aren’t charged to their bottom lines. Citizens pay for this, in many ways.

Hydraulic fracturing — the natural gas extraction process commonly known as “fracking” — promises more of the same. Fracking may prove to be profitable to the energy companies doing it, but what about the cost of ruined water supplies, soil contamination and other problems sure to follow? What is the price of clean air and water?

It doesn’t count as pollution if we say it doesn’t

Fracking is a technique in which hydraulic fluids — a mixture of water, chemicals and sand — are forced into wells to create pressure that cracks the rocks, allowing the gas to escape and flow out of the wells. Although the energy industry claims this technique has been used “safely” for decades, today’s fracking, intended to extract natural gas that until now had been uneconomical to tap, is different than previous techniques. A Food & Water Watch report on fracking says:

“[T]his next generation of horizontal fracking into hard rock is significantly different from traditional vertical well fracking. It is far more powerful — and more dangerous — than drilling methods used in the past. … Economically releasing gas from these tighter hard rock deposits requires more force, new techniques and a potentially toxic brew of chemicals to access the gas. … [D]rillers inject a mixture of water, sand and chemicals (often toxic ones) known as ‘slickwater’ fracking fluid to suspend the sand and prop open the fractures, as well as lubricants to speed the fluid into the well. In 2011, the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] estimated that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water are pumped into 35,000 fracking wells annually.” [citations omitted]

Although newly developed fracking techniques represent an intensification, they are largely exempt from oversight. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempts fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. This exemption, sometimes referred to as the “Halliburton loophole” and shepherded through Congress by on behalf of his former company by Dick Cheney during the Bush II/Cheney administration, amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to “exclude … the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel fuels) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities.’’

Graphic by geologist Mike Norton

Graphic by geologist Mike Norton

The Halliburton loophole also changes the definition of a “pollutant” under the Clean Water Act so that, according to the text of the Energy Policy Act, “this term does not mean … water, gas, or other material which is injected into a well to facilitate production of oil or gas.”

Energy companies have gotten what they have paid for. A study by Common Cause reports that, from 2001 to 2011, companies engaged in fracking spent $726 million on lobbying and another $21 million in campaign contributions to members of Congress. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the corporate lobbying organization that writes “model bills” for state legislatures, has its hand in this process as well, Common Cause reports:

“Prominent financial backers of ALEC’s activities include the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, and Koch Industries, owner of the largest network of natural gas-transmitting pipelines in the country.”

Health and environmental damage from fracking

The health costs of fracking are considerable. A report by Environment America details some of the costs of ongoing fracking operations and potential costs of proposed fracking. Among them:

  • Contamination of drinking water in Colorado and Pennsylvania has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to mitigate for a handful of homes.
  • If fracking were to degrade the New York City watershed with sediment or other pollution, construction of a filtration plant would cost approximately $6 billion.
  • The inhalation of dust kicked up from silica sand, which is used in fracking, causes long-term health problems, including lung cancer. Dust-induced occupational ailments, including silicosis, imposed $50 million in medical care costs in the United States in 2007.
  • Air pollution from gas drilling in Arkansas’ Fayetteville Shale region imposed estimated public health costs of more than $10 million in 2008.

The environmental group Catskill Mountainkeeper, in a report noting the threat of contamination from floods overwhelming wells — New York state’s Catskills mountains have been hit hard by a series of floods in recent years — said a range of serious illnesses could take root from fracking:

“Fracking wastewater not only contains the toxic and hazardous chemicals used in fracking fluid but also contains contaminants that it picks up from deep within the earth, most notably salty brine and radioactive materials. The documented health consequences of exposure to these toxins include increased rates of asthma, infertility, ADHD, autism, diabetes, thyroid disorders, brain disorders and many types of cancer.”

Then there are the environmental costs. Some of these, Environment America reports, are:

  • The clearance of forest land in Pennsylvania for fracking could lead to increased delivery of nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, which already suffers from a vast nutrient-generated dead zone. The cost of reducing the same amount of pollution as could be generated by fracking would be approximately $1.5 million to $4 million per year.
  • Emissions of methane during well completion from each uncontrolled fracking well impose approximately $130,000 in social costs related to global warming.
  • The truck traffic needed to deliver water to a single fracking well causes as much damage to local roads as nearly 3.5 million car trips. Pennsylvania estimated in 2010 that $265 million would be needed to repair damaged roads in the Marcellus Shale region.
  • The five Pennsylvania counties with the heaviest Marcellus Shale drilling activity saw an 18.5 percent reduction in milk production between 2007 and 2010.

The Star-Telegram newspaper of Fort Worth, Texas, reported in 2012 that the Texas Department of Transportation estimates that repairing roads damaged by truck traffic related to oil and gas drilling would cost $2 billion, money it does not have.

But good luck getting the polluters to pay

Across the United States, federal and state requirements for financial guarantees to cover potential damages are inadequate to protect the public, according to Environment Texas. In most jurisdictions, drillers must provide guarantees to cover the cost of plugging a well but but require nothing toward any environmental damage. An Environment Texas report says:

“Bonding levels are much too low — only eight states require drillers to post bonds of $50,000 or more per well for plugging and reclamation at well depths commonly reached by fracking, despite documented instances in which fracking wells have cost $700,000 or more to plug. In addition, most states have “blanket bonding” options that further reduce the amount of financial assurance a driller must provide — in some cases to less than $100 per well.”

Although the full list of chemicals used by drillers is secret, those most commonly used are known. Dozens of them are listed on FracFocus, the national hydraulic fracturing chemical registry managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, organizations formed by state regulatory agencies. Hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol (a poison used as an antifreeze), petroleum distillate (which attack the respiratory and central nervous systems), naphthalene (causes liver and neurological damage) and ethanol (a gasoline additive) are among the chemicals commonly used in fracking.

The economics don’t make sense, either

A remarkable level of potential long-term damage — for what? Proponents of fracking argue that short-term financial gains and the release into the market of new natural gas supplies will both be beneficial. But Deborah Rogers, executive director of Energy Policy Forum, in testimony she gave to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, said there is not necessarily a gusher of gas waiting to be tapped:

“Shale wells deplete alarmingly. Overall field declines are running at the troubling rate of 30%-50% per annum. It will take approximately 7,000 new wells every year at a staggering cost of about $42 billion simply to maintain a flat production profile. Moreover, every shale gas play in the U.S., with the exception of the Marcellus, has already peaked and is in decline. Some have gone through almost a complete life cycle in a matter of a mere five years or so, negating entirely the notion of plentiful supply for 30, 40 or even 50 years. Even the Marcellus is showing signs of late middle age.

Financially, shale gas companies are struggling. The popular notion that these companies intend to provide a cheap and abundant product out of the goodness of their hearts to effect a manufacturing renaissance is nonsensical. Companies are in business to make a profit, not provide cheap inputs to the detriment of their own bottom line.”

The economics of natural gas are not robust. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration reports that the July wholesale price of natural gas (the latest for which it has data) is US$5.54 per thousand cubic feet, while import and export prices are both less than $4 per thousand cubic feet. But the cost of producing gas via fracking is considerably higher. A commentary in The Financial Times says the full cost of finding, developing and operating shale gas wells, paying an average return on capital to investors, requires a spot gas price of $7.50 to $8 per thousand cubic foot.

In other words, to make fracking profitable, natural gas prices will have to rise significantly, thereby canceling the alleged consumer price benefits of producing more gas by any means available.

The good news is that resistance to fracking is steadily increasing. France and Bulgaria have national bans on fracking, grassroots protests are frequent occurrences in Britain, and Germany is considering a ban in certain regions under pressure from brewers. The Czech Republic in 2012 passed a temporary ban, while various local and regional bans are in place in Argentina, Ireland, Switzerland and the United States.

Opponents of fracking face an uphill swim because “market forces” are arrayed against them. Markets are nothing but the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers, and multi-national energy companies hungrily looking for new profits are certainly among them. To them, pollution, environmental destruction and health damage are “external” to their bottom line and they need not, and will not, consider them. Those costs are borne by those affected by their operations, while the profits accrue privately.

Such is the logic of capitalism — of allowing the “market” to decide ever more social questions. Fracking is a continuation of the taking of the commons, the process of privatizing nature and public spaces for private profit. As the proverb says, you can’t eat money when there is no more useable air and water but putting that idea into practice will require a more rational system.