The forgotten link in the climate debate

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Even well-meaning efforts to tackle environmental crisis often ignore a basic reality: the profound two-way relationship between economics and ecology.

As the smog in the air thickens, the scientific insights become ever clearer: humanity is on an unsustainable path to mass destruction and neither business as usual nor patches and bandaids will save the day.

While millions of climate activists took to the streets to demand immediate and far-reaching action to protect our environment and advance social justice, world leaders and government officials have been attending a series of summits at the United Nations.

These include a summit to discuss climate action and another to find ways to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and move towards a “fair globalisation,” in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

A number of child and youth activists were invited inside the UN’s hallowed halls, including Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swede who spearheads the global Fridays for Future movement, which started just a year ago as a one-girl protest outside the Swedish parliament.

Scientific

“People are suffering; people are dying; entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” Thunberg told governments at the climate summit. “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line.”

As if to underline her seriousness, Thunberg and 15 other children and minors filed a groundbreaking complaint to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in which they describe national governments’ inaction on global warming constitutes a violation of their rights as children.

Although some patchy progress has been made, Thunberg is right when she says that current commitments are woefully inadequate to face up to the challenge, especially with the notable absence of some of the world’s worst polluters, such as the United States and China.

“For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight," Thunberg said at the Climate Summit.

Indeed, the science has been clear for a long time. And as the smog in the air thickens, the scientific insights become ever clearer: humanity is on an unsustainable path to mass destruction and neither business as usual nor patches and bandaids will save the day. Only holistic policies that take account of the ecological, economic and social crisis can tackle the mammoth challenges facing us.

Carbon capture

The United Nations understands the magnitude of the climate crisis facing humanity. “Science tells us that on our current path, we face at least 3°C of global heating by the end of the century,” António Guterres said on the occasion the climate summit. “The climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win.”

And, with the right changes and policies, it most certainly is a race we can win. Some promising initiatives were floated at the climate and sustainability summits, including the commitments taken by 30 countries to “power past” coal, the drive to conserve 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030. However, a lot of this is too little, too late.

More troublingly, some of the proposed solutions smack of ‘business as usual’ or exhibit too much optimism in the anticipated gains future technologies can deliver.

The industrial transition track propose at the climate action summit still talks about “growth plans” and appears to rely heavily on private-public partnerships to implement low-carbon technologies. However, as a number of recent studies have suggested, ‘green growth’ and its promise of decoupling resource use from economic growth is simply not delivering the goods, or not fast enough to meet the magnitude of the challenge ahead. In the long term, there is one thing that is also crystal clear: sooner or later our economies will have to stop growing, since we do not live on a limitless world and there is no such a thing as human activities with zero energy use and zero ecosystem impacts.

The energy transition track lists carbon capture and storage as one area of interest, despite the fact that CCS technology uses an extraordinary amount of fuel to transport emissions for storage, has delivered disappointing results and is being used as a fig leaf by the coal industry to claim that it can become “green”.

Evolve

Improving storage technologies for renewable energies is also a focus of these transitions. However, it is unclear whether, for example, the minerals required to build high-density batteries will be available for more than a generation of electric cars if we continue throwing away rare and valuable elements, such as lithium, cobalt or manganese, with almost zero recycling.

Then, there is the environmental impact of the mining of minerals required to produce batteries and we should not forget that the batteries we have today store almost 100 times less energy per unit of mass than petrol. Moreover, we do not know if their technical features will ever evolve enough to rival presentday fuels.

We have built a society based on fossil fuels with amazing technical features. All the renewable alternatives, though better for the environment, are a lot less efficient and versatile. The transition to a world with lower-quality renewable energy sources which seeks to protect our overexploited ecosystems will be especially difficult if we continue to try growing our economies.

One major challenge is that many solutions rely on models that do not represent the entire reality of the situation, thereby assessing the sustainability and feasibility of future scenarios inaccurately. This is because most economic models are blind to or do not take adequate account of the natural limits and limitations of the biosphere, and assume that there is no feedback relationships between the monetary world of the economy and physical and biological ecosystems.

This implies that the Integrated Assessment Models (IAM) used by institutions and policymakers need to evolve and be adapted. This is precisely what our project LOCOMOTION is working on.

Malaise

We are developing IAMs that make allowance for the finite nature of mineral and fossil fuel reserves and, above all, the natural limitations of ecosystems. LOCOMOTION seeks to address the reality that our economic activities profoundly damage ecosystems, but also the fact that the future shortage of energy and the damage done to the biosphere, have the potential to hurt the economy as well, in a kind of vicious cycle, unless we find ways to cushion the transition.

Integrating all the economic, technological and biological factors at play, and the complex interactions between them, is crucial to empower policymakers and civil society to assess the relative merits of the various technological and policy options on offer, and to choose the right one. To ensure that LOCOMOTION’s models meet the needs of stakeholders we will involve them in defining some of our models and we will develop a user-friendly interface to allow them to customise our models to their specific purposes.

Informed decisions based on sound science and data are vital if we want to avoid being lured by excessive techno-optimism down a path to further destruction. We can only find solutions in those technologies that are themselves sustainable, i.e. they meet the three basic requirements of sustainability: they recycle close to 100% of the minerals used; they use 100% renewable energy; and they limit their flows of waste residues and their extraction of natural resources to the regenerative capacities of the biosphere.

Like when fever strikes, global warming is a symptom of a deeper malaise. Climate change is telling us loud and clear that our growth-based economy is unsustainable, and that we must correct the underlying structural problems, rather than simply administer temporary painkillers.

This Author

Margarita Mediavilla has a PhD in physical sciences from the University of Valladolid (Spain) and is an associate professor of systems engineering and automation at the School of Industrial Engineering. She is also a very active in awareness raising about the limits of economic growth, participating in all kinds of publications and conferences in the Spanish-speaking world. Her personal blog is Habas Contadas. With additional reporting by Khaled Diab.

 

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