The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Your Friday Update: How Much Energy Is Enough?

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This is less an update and more a concern.

Much of the conversation about renewable energy revolves around the assumption that our energy needs as a society are somehow fixed. Critics claim that renewables cannot mobilize enough energy to replace fossil fuels–at least not any time soon–as though there is some minimal level that wind and solar et al must achieve before we can switch over. There is no such level. We don’t have to use this much energy. We could just turn the machines off. Maybe we won’t have to–maybe we’ll be able to support something very like our accustomed lifestyle with renewable energy. But the high-energy lifestyle is optional. Continuing to use fossil fuels forever is not an optional.

Supporters, meanwhile, insist that renewables can produce all the energy to meet demand–as though renewables and fossil fuels together comprise a zero-sum game, were every joule of energy produced by solar is a joule not produced by burning coal, or whatever else. And that’s not true, either. What is to prevent demand from simply growing, so that we use just as much fossil fuel as we ever have (as long as it lasts, anyway) and then we use renewables also?

History suggests that we humans seldom if ever feel that we have enough of anything. No matter how much money, time, or collectible knickknacks we have, most of us will happily take more if it’s available.

I’m not saying it’s bad to increase renewable power generation. I’m saying that doing so is not itself going to be enough. Alternatives are not enough. We also need economic structures and legal policies that specifically discourage the use of fossil fuels–one or another model of carbon pricing might do nicely.

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Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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