Is the Emphasis on “Green Technology” Misplaced?

Surviving Earth

Directed by Peter Charles Downey (2014)

Film Review

This Australian documentary on climate change, like Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans places heavy emphasis on “stabilizing” global population. The methods it advocates include free contraception for all women who need it and increased education about the benefits of family planning.

The film also dispels the myth that renewable energy (ie a well-integrated combination of concentrated solar thermal, wind, PV solar, and bioenergy) is too intermittent to cover periods of peak energy demand. Now that renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels, this is also the main argument fossil fuel lobbyists use against 100% conversion to renewables.

Downey also calls for a significant reduction in energy consumption by the industrial North – for two main reasons. The first relates to the extreme resource intensity required for some green technologies, such as electric vehicles (EVs). As of 2014, there were one billions cars globally. There isn’t enough lithium on the planet for one billion EV batteries, to say nothing of the massive fossil fuel expenditure involved in the manufacture of EVs.

His second argument relates to the declining energy return on investment (EROI) with renewables (and unconventional fossil fuel sources such as fracked gas and oil and tar sands). EROI is defined as the amount of energy you produce for each unit of energy you expending in mining and production. Modern EROIs have steadily declined since a high in 1900 of 100 units per each unit expended (for oil).

Current EROIs summarized below

  • Wind 1:25
  • Saudi oil 1:12
  • Fracked gas 1:10
  • Fracked oil 1:5
  • PV solar 1:5
  • Coal 1:5
  • Tar sands 1:2
  • Biofuel 1:1

According to Downey, a more realistic approach to reducing carbon emissions combines 1) intelligent urban design that moves services closer to residents homes, enabling them to meet most of their needs by bicycle or on foot and 2) free and convenient public transport for long trips.

He blames the steady decline in EROI for the failure of global growth to recover after the 2008 economic collapse. The Club of Rome’s 1973 Limits to Growth predicted economic growth would totally collapse around 2019-2020. A totally new phenomenon in civilized society, economic growth began around 1800 with intensive fossil fuel use. Growth will continue to decline as the EROI of available fuels declines. Eventually it will reach 1:1, and we will resume our reliance on human and animal muscle power.

Downey predicts the growing cost of energy (resulting from declining EROI) will drastically increase the cost of food – to the point local communities will again be forced to be food self-sufficient