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The Lateness of the Hour

Looking at the Ecofys 2050 plan

One question I wrestle with--and I think a lot of people wrestle with it without necessarily talking about it--is whether it's too late. Too late to deal with peak oil in a way that doesn't involve wrenching changes, too late to stop societal collapse caused by global climate change. On the one hand, it's easy to draw some straight-line projections that make it seem just too late. Game over, relax and accept it, you're off the hook. On the other hand, things will change as conditions on the ground change, and change may just make the difference. Then again, telling ourselves that change will arrive when it's needed and before it's too late may very well be just the sort of wishful thinking that encourages us to sit on our hands till it's too late. I wrestle.

Bottom line for me is that I don't want to give up on the long-term prospects for civilization without putting up a serious fight. To mount that effort, though, there has to be some reasonable plan for getting to the desired results. And the desired results? For lack of a better word: sustainability.

My initial thought was simply to take the "pre-fossil fuel" level of per-capita energy consumption, make some corrections for a larger population (but not one that's growing at the current rate--I don't see how that can ever be sustainable), and see just how horrible that seemed.

And I'll probably still do that, but in the meanwhile I came across a study by the World Wildlife Fund and a think-tank called Ecofys. The Energy Report is a plan for "100% Renewable Energy by 2050." First off, the timeline seems about right to me. We'll be pretty far down the downward slope of post-peak oil declines in fossil fuel supply by that time. So that's good -- it's not a plan that starts from an untenable assumption along the lines of having a hundred years to sort things out.

It's a long read. I won't claim to have digested it yet. But the impression I get is that it's both overly optimistic (it doesn't appear to fully account for the fact that oil is a lot more suited for many of its current uses than any supposed replacements are--jet fuel is all about oil, for intance) and, just as importantly, not a bad place to start as a tweakable model for creating a plan one can believe in.

It's not crazily upbeat, to its credit. It notes, for example, that "if everyone consumed as much energy as the average singaporean and U.S. resident, the world's oil reserves would be depleted in 9 years." Of course, the world is currently trying very hard to accomplish exactly that fatal parity. And its starting premise is that by 2050, we will have to reduce energy demand by 15% from 2005 levels in order to make the plan work.

Still plenty of parsing of the report to do, but one initial reaction is that it is completely glossing over the fact that you can't reduce worldwide consumption by 15%, project continued population growth (which this study does), keep talking about the energy and resources have to be shared equitably, and still make the claim that "moving to a renewable energy future doesn't mean sacrificing our quality of life."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Richardson is the principle nomad here at the Mode.
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