Six More Rationales for Supporting a Renewable Energy Revolution

David P. Turner / May 12, 2022

The threat of global climate change points to the dire need for a renewable energy revolution in which energy from combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) is rapidly displaced by energy from renewable sources (wind, solar, geothermal, hydro).  Research by engineers and economists attests to the feasibility of building a global energy infrastructure that runs on renewable energy.  However, forward looking policies must be designed and strong political will must be generated.

In a heavily politicized environment such as Washington D.C., policies are much more likely to get implemented when they are supported for more than one reason.  The underlying mechanism is that with powerful forces aligned for and against any given policy proposal, several constituencies  ̶  each supporting a desired policy for a different reason  ̶  must coalesce to overcome opposition.

Clearly, the strongest rationale for a global renewable energy revolution is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change.  But here are six additional rationales that should motivate leaders and legislators to support renewable energy policies.

1. Geopolitical strategy.  The Russian invasion of Ukraine has thrown a spotlight on the vulnerability of nations to energy blackmail.  Domestic production of renewable energy reduces dependency on imported fossil fuels and gives a nation greater flexibility in foreign policy.  Many countries in the European Union are now ramping up renewable energy production in the face of threatened cut-off of fossil fuels from Russia. 

2.  The cost of renewable energy is decreasing.  Renewable energy is already cheaper than fossil fuel energy in some cases, and technological advances in generation, storage, and distribution will continue to drive down costs.  Each time a component of the global fossil fuel infrastructure ages to the point of needing replacement, a decision must be made to continue burning fossil fuel or switch to renewables.  From a purely economic perspective, the better decision may be to go with renewable energy.

3.  The cost of fossil fuels is increasing.  Currently, much of the environmental and social costs of fossil fuels are externalized, but as those costs begin to be covered by more stringent regulation and carbon taxes, the overall costs of fossil fuels will be pushed up.

4.  Public health.  Combustion of fossil fuels results in emissions of nitrogen compounds and hydrocarbons that participate in the formation of harmful ground-level ozone and particulates (Figure 1).  A long history of research and monitoring by environmental agencies supports the conclusion that ground-level ozone is detrimental to human and crop health.  The non-climate related economic benefits of reducing fossil fuel combustion (e.g. reduced sickness and death from air pollution) exceed the climate-related benefits in the early decades of greenhouse gas mitigation scenarios.

smog at sunset
Figure 1. Impacts of air pollution on human health and vegetation drive support for a global renewable energy revolution. Image Credit: jplenio from Pixabay

5.  Nitrogen deposition.  The nitrogen compounds associated with fossil fuel combustion eventually fall out of the atmosphere in precipitation or as dry deposition. This excess nitrogen is deposited to terrestrial, aquatic, and marine ecosystems and drives eutrophication and soil acidification.

6.  Job creation.  Building and maintaining an expansive renewable energy infrastructure will create on the order of seven times more jobs than will be lost from the fossil fuel and nuclear industries as they recede.  The issue of job creation will become increasingly important in the coming decades as computer-driven artificial intelligence displaces human beings.

The multiple rationales noted here for policies that support a renewable energy expansion will hopefully, in aggregate, move the needle away from further investments in the fossil fuel infrastructure.  Policies that stimulate renewable energy technology include subsidies on electric vehicles and residential solar power installation, whereas carbon taxes and regulation of drilling rights on public land can serve to limit fossil fuel development.

Of immediate concern is that a desire to reduce consumption of Russian fossil fuels will be used as a justification for increasing fossil fuel production in the U.S. and elsewhere.  Considering the long turnover time of fossil fuel infrastructure (e.g. 50 years for a coal burning power plant) and the ample opportunities for expanding renewable energy, great caution should be taken with investments that prolong the era of fossil fuels.

What Technosphere Response to Covid-19 Says About Earth System Dynamics

David P. Turner / November 8, 2020

In the discipline of Earth System Science, a useful analytic approach to sorting out parts and wholes is by reference to the earthly spheres.  The pre-human Earth system included the geosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere.  With the biological and cultural evolution of humans came the technosphere.  In a very aggregated way of thinking, these spheres interact.

The biosphere is the sum of all living organisms on Earth; it is mostly powered by solar radiation and it drives the biogeochemical cycling of elements like carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus.

The technosphere is the sum of the human enterprise on Earth, including all of our physical constructions and institutions; it is mostly powered by fossil fuels and it has a large throughput of energy and materials.

Over the last couple of centuries, the technosphere has expanded massively.  It is altering the biosphere (the sixth mass extinction) and the global biogeochemical cycles (e.g. the CO2 emissions that drive climate change).

The interaction of the technosphere and the biosphere is evident at places like wildlife markets where captured wild animals are sold for human consumption.  Virologists believe that such an environment is favorable to the transfer of viruses from non-human animals to humans.  The SARS-CoV-2 virus likely jumped from another species, possibly wild-caught bats, to humans in a market environment.  Covid-19 (the pandemic) has now spread globally and killed over one million people.

The human part of the technosphere has attempted to stop SARS-CoV-2 transmission by restricting physical interactions among people.  The summed effect of these self-defense policies has been a slowing of technosphere metabolism.  Notably, Covid-19 inspired slowdowns and shutdowns have driven a reduction in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and a decrease in the demand for oil.  This change is of course quite relevant to another interaction within the Earth system − namely technosphere impacts on the global climate.

The reduction in CO2 emissions in response to Covid-19. Image Credit: Global Carbon Project.

There are important lessons to be learned from technosphere response to Covid-19 about relationships among the Earthly spheres.

One lesson regards the degree to which the technosphere is autonomous.

If we view the technosphere as a natural product of cosmic evolution, then the increase in order that the technosphere brings to the Earth system has a momentum somewhat independent of human volition.  The technosphere thrives on energy throughput, and humans are compelled to maintain or increase energy flow.  It is debatable if we control the technosphere or it controls us.

In an alternative view, tracing back to Russian biogeochemist Vladimir Vernadsky in the 1920s, humanity controls the technosphere and can shape it to manage the Earth system.  This view received a recent update with a vision of Gaia 2.0 in which the human component manages the technosphere to be sustainably integrated with the rest of the Earth system.

The fact that humanity did, in effect, reduce technosphere metabolism in response to Covid-19 supports this alternative view. 

Admittedly, the intention in fighting Covid-19 was not to address the global climate change issue.  And the modest drop in global carbon emissions will have only a small impact on the increasing CO2 concentration, which is what actually controls global warming.  Nevertheless, the result shows that it is possible for human will to affect the whole Earth system relatively quickly.  The Montreal Protocol to protect stratospheric ozone is more directly germane. 

A globally coordinated effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is clearly possible.  It could conceivably be accomplished without the painful job losses associated with Covid-19 suppression if done by way of a renewable energy revolution that creates millions of infrastructure jobs.

A second lesson from technosphere reaction to Covid-19 is that a technosphere slowdown was accomplished as the summation of policies and decisions made at the national scale or lower (e.g. slowdowns/shutdowns by states and cities, and voluntary homestay by individuals).  The current approach to addressing global climate change is the Paris Agreement, which similarly functions by way of summation.  Each nation voluntarily defines its own contribution to emissions reduction, and follow-up policies to support those commitments are made at multiple levels of governance.  This bottom-up approach may prove more effective than the top-down approach in the unsuccessful Kyoto Protocol. 

A third lesson from technosphere response to Covid-19 regards the coming immunization campaign to combat it.  Many, if not most, people around the planet will need to get vaccinated to achieve widespread herd immunity.  Success in addressing the climate change issue by controlling greenhouse gas emissions will likewise depend on near universal support at the scale of individuals. Education at all levels and media attention are helping generate support for climate change mitigation.  Increasing numbers of people are personally experiencing extreme weather events and associated disturbances like wildfire and floods, which also opens minds.  The political will to address climate change is in its ascendency. 

The response of the technosphere to biosphere pushback in the form of Covid-19 shows that the technosphere has some capacity to self-regulate (i.e. to be tamed from within).  Optimally, that capability can be applied to ramp up a renewable energy revolution and slow Earth system momentum towards a Hothouse World.