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Virtually any scenario for the future that is at all realistic envisages a drastic drop in energy consumption from fossil fuels – compared to affluent consumer societies today. It little matters whether you work out what has to be done to reduce greenhouse gases or you come to similar conclusions by noting the inevitable end of cheap oil. I will be considering the writings of three authors who begin with this premise to lay the groundwork for their plans for future cities – Ted Trainer, David Holmgren and Folke Gunther. All three also add two other premises. The first is that there is no kind of alternative energy available that is remotely as cheap or abundant as fossil fuels have been for us so far. This is partly a matter of cost – the more energy costs the less you can have of it. But it is partly a matter of absolute capacity – for example there is a limit to the amount of good sites for wind energy. Their final premise follows from this one. Given a reduced energy budget and an absolute cap on energy expansion there is no possibility of a capitalist growth economy. Nevertheless there are a range of other possible social structures that could operate within these energy constraints. While I will lay out some of these options, an interesting aspect of this debate is that plans for a future city are about the constraints of energy use and are valid whatever social option we end up with.
Given all these premises the aim of their plans for future cities is to consider how we could live well in a low energy future. Clearly the premises which form the basis of this approach are not uncontested. In the final part of this chapter I will consider two recent books on climate change that suggest that some version of an affluent growth economy is possible without a fossil fuel subsidy – David Spratt and Philip Sutton’s Climate Code Red, and Gwynne Dyer’s Climate Wars. We could call this school of thought the technological optimist school.
My current thinking on how much we need to cut fossil fuels to prevent catastrophe has been influenced to a great extent by “Climate Code Red”. This short book has been put out by Friends of the Earth and is written by David Spratt and Philip Sutton (2008).
A key argument of their book is that even the 0.5-degree increase that we have had so far was enough to start the melting of the polar ice, the disintegration of the Greenland ice cap and the melting of much Antarctic ice. Likely consequences of the current melting are a disastrous rise in sea levels.
They draw this conclusion from looking at the palaeoclimate data – data which shows what the earth was like in the distant past, with different amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What we are looking at now is an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 280 parts per million in pre-industrial times to 380 parts per million now, gradually pushing the climate up. Palaeoclimate data from 130,000 years ago shows that when concentrations of CO2 were the same as today, seas were 5 metres higher. Three million years ago when carbon dioxide was at 350 – 450 ppm, seas were 25 metres higher. This would be a fairly disastrous outcome.
These figures for sea level rise are much higher than the modelling of the IPCC – one to two metres by 2100. The explanation for this discrepancy is to note that the IPCC modelling avoids inclusions of what have been called “slow feedbacks” – because they are very hard to model with confidence. However the palaeoclimate data gives us good reasons to think they are quite important. The theory is that extra carbon in the atmosphere can create a feedback loop. For example, the initial increase in carbon levels raises the temperature sufficiently to melt some of the global ice cap. As the ice melts, dark oceans and bare black soils do not reflect sunlight in the way that white ice does. Up goes the temperature again.
While the figures above give the palaeoclimate comparisons for ppm that we may reach quite easily by our own efforts this century, feedback loops could also drive carbon dioxide up to 900 ppm. A possible feedback is thawing of the arctic tunrda, releasing the carbon now locked into frozen soils – an amount that dwarfs global oil reserves. A possible scenario is a rise of six degrees or more – wiping 90% of species off the earth, as happened 55 million years ago. With most continents turned to deserts, everyone would have to move south of Melbourne or north of London to survive.
So a prudent policy would be to restore the ice caps by going back to less than a 0.5 degree rise. Such a temperature would be possible if carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was at 320 parts per million; a point passed some decades ago. To attempt to go back to a 0.5-degree rise we would need policies to replace all fossil fuel energy as quickly as possible, reducing CO2 to a level more likely to be safe (320 parts per million). Preferably before some of the more nasty consequences have kicked in (see also Dyer 2008 for a very similar and detailed argument).
Clearly this drastic reduction is not what has been seen as politically viable. The IPCC recommendations which have formed the basis of policy assume that 450 ppm is a reasonable goal, which will give us a chance of avoiding anything more than a 2 degree Celsius rise – according to their modelling. This supposedly requires a global reduction of 80% on 1990 levels by 2050. A lot more usual politically is a call for a cap of 550 parts per million; with an admitted 50:50 chance of going above 3 degrees, and a necessity to reduce fossil fuel use globally by 60% by 2050.
The point made by Spratt and Sutton, Dyer, the NASA scientist Hansen and others is that slow feedback loops could in fact lead to a six-degree rise in this 550 ppm scenario. The IPCC makes it quite explicit that it is not taking these slow feedback loops into account. It is the palaeoclimate data that gives us a sense of what these consequences might be. We are also warned by the very rapid disintegration of polar ice. The fact that the pace of this exceeds the modelling lends weight to those who argue for more drastic outcomes being likely.
While this debate is very real politically, it is in fact a bit beside the point if we are considering what we would have to do to attain either the more drastic or the less drastic moderation of CO2 emissions. The least drastic one is the IPCC-based aim for 550 ppm by cutting global emissions by 60% by 2050. The hidden sting in the tail of this scenario is that rich countries which now produce 70% of emissions (with 20% of global population) would have to reduce their per capita emissions by a lot more than 60% to make it remotely likely that poor countries will join them in cutting carbon emissions. In other words it is a political necessity that rich countries cut carbon emissions by close to 90% by 2050, whether we follow the science based on the palaeoclimate data or the science based on the IPCC modelling.
Trainer indicates these constraints with the following logic, based on the IPCC modelling (Trainer 2007: 2). To get the concentration of greenhouse gases below 450 ppm we would have to cut emissions to 1 Gt/y (one gigatonne per year) by 2100. Our present emissions are 6 Gt/yr. If we assume a world population of 9 billion at this time and also assume that everyone is getting an equal share of fossil fuel use, the per capita fossil fuel use would be a mere 2 to 3 per cent of our current use in rich countries.
Even if we went for the more politically typical use of the IPCC data and set our goal at 550 pm we would have to cut emissions to 2.4 Gt/y by 2050. So by 2050, the per capita use of fossil fuels (if everyone had a fair share) would only be 7.5% of our current rich world energy use. Meaning that the one billion who now use most of global energy could not have more than 7.5% of their present use of fossil fuels unless the rest of the world had less than that (the other 8 billion).
Clearly it does not really matter how you massage these figures, the implications are that to retain rich world affluence, either a select few (Trainer estimates 170 million people) remain at this level by using fossil fuels – and everyone else dies or stops making demands – or we work out some new way to produce masses of energy cheaply without using fossil fuels. Very quickly!
The Oil Peak
If all this were not bad enough, it seems very likely that we will be running out of oil in the not too distant future, with fairly drastic implications for transport and food production and distribution – reliant upon oil driven farm machinery, oil fuelled transport to consumers and oil or gas based fertilisers and pesticides.
The world’s “oil peak’ is almost certainly in the next 20 years, if it has not already happened. The peak of oil discovery was in the sixties. Since then in every year, less and less has been discovered. By now, discovery is virtually at a standstill so we have a fair idea of how much oil there is altogether. At the same time as discovery declines, consumption of oil continues to grow. By 2000 we had used up all the oil discovered up until 1960 (half the known reserves). As oil wells reach the middle of their productive life (half of the oil has been removed) they become harder and harder to drain. This means that the oil we do have left will become more expensive to extract. The competition for diminishing supplies of oil on the world market will drive up prices. This is already starting to happen. The only thing that could stop prices from going up would be something equally cheap to produce and just as useful as oil. The cost of alternatives to oil sets the top price for oil (Campbell 1997; Gunther 2004; Heinberg 2003).
At present, oil is used all over the world to generate electricity. Replacing these plants with other kinds of generators would in itself cost a fortune and create a shock to the global economy. But much worse is the fact that we use oil for almost all our transport needs – the transport that makes a global economy possible. This global transport will be cut back drastically if the cost rises.
The Limits of Sustainable Energy
All the authors who devise city plans for a low energy future assume that we cannot replace this fossil fuel energy with anything remotely as cheap and that in many cases there is an absolute cap on the possibility of extracting alternative energy. Trainer provides the most detailed coverage of this argument in his book Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society (2007). I will just summarize a few key arguments to give a sense of this position.
Wind is the cheapest renewable energy but there is no cheap way of storing or transporting the energy produced by wind. If we think of using excess wind power to create hydrogen as storage, the costs would go through the roof – the capital cost could be about 11 times that of a coal-fired power plant plus fuel (Trainer 2007 : 34). We do not even have enough good wind sites. For example, if Australia was to supply half its energy from wind via a hydrogen system that used 4 units of electricity to store one unit for later, we would need 200 times the area we have in NSW and Victoria with wind speeds sufficient to drive the turbines (Trainer 2007: 35). Then there is wind variability. Wind speeds are below what is needed for power generation a good part of the year, even if we source electricity across whole continents. We would have to have back up generation in coal or some other source, with a duplication of expenses. To meet anything like present energy demands we would be using a lot of coal-fired power plant to back up the system when winds are down – much too much to meet global warming targets.
Solar thermal energy is the cheapest solar power. Short-term storage of heat energy in molten salt is the most probable means of dealing with night-time use and occasional cloudy days. Looking at a reasonably good site – outback Australia – we can get the following idea of how much capacity we would need to install to equate to a coal-fired plant. Building the storage system for a 1000 megawatt power station to store heat for three days of cloudy weather would cost 2.5 times as much as the cost of building a coal-fired plant (Trainer 2007: 47). A solar plant could not produce peak capacity most of the year, given winter, night times and cloudy days. So you would have to build more plant capacity to produce the same amount of energy in a year as would come from a coal-fired plant. It would cost 7.5 times as much money to match the capacity of a coal-fired power plant to deliver energy over a whole year (Trainer 2007: 45). Yet, this is an annual total. In winter, sun angles are low, and ambient temperatures are cold so that solar systems do not produce their best output. In fact, to be able to supply the same amount of power in winter as that produced in summer, the capacity of the plant would have to be five times that required in summer. As a result of all these factors (winter sun angles, nights, cloudy days, costs of storage), costs in winter to supply an equivalent amount of power could easily be more than 15 times the costs of the coal-fired plant (Trainer 2007: 47). Solar thermal systems are only practicable closer than 34 degrees to the equator. So, they are not much use in the northern regions where population is concentrated. To move power from the Sahara to Europe, losses would be great, both in transporting the electricity and in the expense necessary to construct this infrastructure (Trainer 2007: 56).
Biomass is a sad joke to replace oil and gas. To meet current demand in the United States we would have to harvest biomass from 1,162 million hectares – nine times all US cropland and 8 times all presently forested land in the US (Trainer 2007: 87). Hydrogen is not a practicable alternative – the difficulties in storing hydrogen add massively to the weight necessary to transport it. To supply an auto station with hydrogen would take 15 times more tankers than required to supply the same amount of energy as petrol (Trainer 2007: 94). Fuel cells to run cars would deliver energy at more than 10 times the cost of energy delivered by a petrol engine (Trainer 2007: 99).
Capitalism is not an option but other possibilities are various
All three authors agree that the current capitalist economy is incompatible with life on the planet and will either self destruct with a catastrophic loss of life – or be replaced by something more sustainable. There are a number of arguments, but the following is probably the most important.
The very structure of the capitalist economy makes growth inevitable. This is because firms compete to make profits. Less profitable firms are dumped by shareholders. This competition means that it makes sense to invest in technology which allows the firm to produce more with a lower cost in labour. So the same number of workers is producing more goods and services. The only way for firms to sell all these extra goods is to increase their markets. This is growth. ‘This cycle, in which an increased productivity on the part of labor requires increased consumption of the rest of nature, repeats itself again and again’ (McLaughlin 1993, p. 41).
If growth continues it is very hard to prevent increasing environmental damage. For example, Trainer points out that if we had a 3% per annum increase in growth, by 2070 we would be producing eight times as much as we are now; and what we are doing now is causing massive environmental damage (Trainer 1998). It is the difficulty of coping with such a magnitude of growth over time which makes it impossible to prevent increasing environmental damage. Growth in the economy means more use of resources, more pollution. These authors do not believe that there can be growth without environmental consequences – growth in ‘service’ industries like entertainment, education and tourism is also connected to new buildings, more transport use and so on (Trainer 1995).
While all three of the low energy future authors share this understanding, they are a bit less explicit about what kind of social future they envisage. I will look at this in more detail as I go into their city plans, but suffice it to say that I take all three as developing a version of the “mixed economy” model. This is one of three models that are often presented as options for a sustainable future. I will describe these briefly, without presenting any critique or discussion (See Coates & Leahy 2005 for this).
The mixed economy model
In the mixed economy model, the virtues of three different kinds of economic structure are mixed in equal parts to create the economic and political climate for a sustainable society; capitalism in the private sector, socialism in the public sector and anarchism in a large community sector. This arrangement is supervised by a strong, but democratically controlled government, that regulates the private sector and provides energy and transport infrastructure and public services like education and medicine. To provide resources for the voluntary community sector two broad arrangements are envisaged.
- Government funds community work. People who are not employed in the other two sectors are provided with a guaranteed adequate income.
- People’s work in government or the private sector funds voluntary community work.
At any rate, with a zero growth economy and reduced energy consumption, much time is available outside of paid work to engage in community action (Porritt 1990; Tokar 1987; Trainer 1995; Trainer 1996; Trainer 2007).
Clearly one of the problems for capitalism in moving to a zero growth economy is that productivity increases would lead to increasing unemployment and a political crisis as the unemployed became a majority of the population. The mixed economy model is intended to deal with that by creating a shorter working week, government jobs in environmental infrastructure and a guaranteed adequate income for unemployed people.
The socialism with democracy model
The socialism with democracy model is like the former Soviet system in that all major property in the means of production (factories, farms, mines etc.) is owned by the state. The idea is that a democratically controlled state ensures that all production fits with environmental guidelines. At the same time what is envisaged as different from the Soviet economies is that political life is organised democratically – through electoral processes at a community, national and international level. While government decisions regulate production as a whole, workplace consultation gives people a voice in daily life at work. Money is still the medium of exchange and people have to be paid by the state to get access to consumer goods (Baer 2008; Kovel 2007; Pepper 1993; Resistance 1999).
The environmental logic behind this model is that a democratic government keeps a reign on production to ensure that it is sustainable. It also prevents political problems coming out of zero growth by making sure all people have access to consumer goods through some kind of paid work, however few hours this actually amounts to – housework and community work could also be paid in this model.
The anarchist gift economy model
In the anarchist gift economy model all production of goods and services is voluntary. Clubs and associations produce goods and services – and give them to the community. Or they produce for their own needs. In either case, the tools and instruments of production are also gifts from other clubs of producers. People's access to goods and services does not come through monetary payment but as a result of gifts. “Compacts”, which are formalized promises to provide services or products, coordinate production (Nelson 2008). There is no money or paid work and no government. This version of anarchism does not favour small self sufficient communes but instead envisages networks of local, country wide and global cooperation organized around different productive tasks (Allaby & Bunyard 1980; Bookchin 1971; Leahy 2004; Nelson 2008; Purchase 1994).
Why work in this economy? People work partly in order to maintain the social order as a whole – they do what they can see needs to be done and specialize in activities that they find personally meaningful. Unpleasant work that no one wants to do is attached to a community or production group that requires the service – and rotated by roster. People volunteer to engage with others in work they find interesting or enjoyable. They receive status as the producers of useful gifts for other groups or the community at large. The means of production (in the Marxist sense) are owned by a patchwork of clubs, societies and federated hobby groups. However no ownership is un-contestable and there is no state to enforce ownership.
The environmental logic of this model is that people do not do any work that seems pointless and do not produce vast amounts which no one really needs – they do not voluntarily work themselves to death. Wealth does not come about through producing more stuff and being paid more to work harder – employment is not paid and the products are given away. Wealth comes from what other groups of producers have decided to offer you as gifts. In complete control at each point of production, collectives are not so stupid as to foul their own nests with environmental degradation that no one in their community appreciates. Status goes with gifts that are known to be produced in a sustainable way.
The three models reviewed
These three models can be regarded as “ideal types” and it is not always clear what kinds of social institutions might fit in a model. For example, a “local money” or LETS exchange of products and services might be construed as a part of a mixed economy model and acting under an umbrella state to coordinate paid work in the community context through a system of local money – or alternatively it could function as a kind of agreement or “compact” within an anarchist gift economy.
The technological constraints of a low energy future mean that plans for a city might be roughly the same whichever of these social models was actually adopted. So, while the authors I am about to consider tend to favour the mixed economy model, the cityscapes they envisage are just as relevant for proponents of the other two models.
These models are desired futures. Just like plans for low energy cities, they are attempts to work out how we could live well, given the constraints of global warming and the oil peak. Authors in this tradition are not naively optimistic about our chances of reaching these goals and also present a number of scenarios of societal collapse – or of authoritarian dictatorships that attempt to resolve environmental problems coercively and without success (Holmgren 2008; Trainer 2007).
I have painted all three of these versions of utopia as including large scale long distance cooperation. Partly this is to make the point that low energy futures do not necessarily imply small scale self sufficiency and to note that any kind of high tech production requires some long distance cooperation. Nevertheless, as we shall see, all three authors envisage a drastic reduction in trade and exchange over distance. To accommodate a low energy future, most goods and services are created locally.
What these models share is an attempt to envisage a societal structure that does not produce growth as an inevitable outcome of its economic structure.