mfioretti: peak carbon*

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  1. The transition could begin with more oversight over business practices and setting labor protections and compensation standards that guarantee workers’ rights and equity. Cheap assembly-line jobs could be converted to less energy-intensive, technology-driven manufacturing work, not in mega-factories but in smaller-scale, cooperative environments. Such a process is “circular,” but it’s also humane, and recognizes the need for sustainable jobs as well as sustainable products, to truly “close the loop” of production—by returning wealth to communities while recycling the resources that form the fruit both of their loom and their labor.

    A circularity movement requires circular thinking not just within corporations, but across society: exchanging dialogue with impacted communities in workplaces, farms, or unions—and engaging people who understand that grassroots circularity means consuming consciously, in balance with nature, and reinvesting in holistic community development. For the glamorous designers rethinking their brands, making a circular economy work means sharing that lofty vision with those whose lives most depend on it.
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  2. Con l’avvento di Francesco Starace alla guida di Enel (maggio 2014), la politica dell’ex monopolista elettrico ha subito una decisa sterzata. Il nuovo amministratore delegato, in una audizione al Senato nell’ottobre dello stesso anno (l’audizione si tenne il 15 ottobre, v. Quotidiano Energia del 15 ottobre 2014) spiegò che in uno scenario così rivoluzionato, come quello della generazione elettrica, Enel doveva chiudere senza esitazioni ben 25 mila MW di centrali termoelettriche divenute ormai una zavorra difficile da sostenere. Eccesso di offerta di elettricità, calo dei consumi, aumento della generazione rinnovabile sono all’origine di questa colossale iniziativa di chiusura di centrali che hanno fatto la storia del nostro Paese. Interessante notare che il suo predecessore, Fulvio Conti, in una audizione in Senato, solo due mesi prima (il 26 marzo 2014), non aveva fatto alcun accenno a future dismissioni.

    Interessante però non è solo che con Starace l’Enel abbia deciso di non costruire più impianti alimentati da fonti fossili (eccetto il gas all’estero), e che abbia quindi imboccato una strada verso la tanto citata decarbonizzazione, ma che abbia impostato un processo di dismissioni che prevede il confronto con tutti i soggetti presenti sui territori interessati.

    A questo scopo la società ha creato anche un sito internet specifico, dove sono attualmente in vetrina 22 impianti ormai chiusi (manca il ventitreesimo: Assemini)

    asta guardare i dati del 2012 per comprendere come la scelta di Enel fosse la sola intelligente da affrontare senza esitazioni. Quell’anno si resero visibili gli effetti dell’inaspettata crescita del fotovoltaico nel 2011 che, combinati col calo dei consumi, avevano ridotto drasticamente il numero di ore di funzionamento delle centrali a gas (minandone la sostenibilità economica) – rispetto alle 4.120 ore di funzionamento del 2007 se era passati a sole 2.633 nel 2011, meno di un impianto idro – e messo KO quelle ad olio combustibile. Un secondo effetto che ha messo in ginocchio la generazione termoelettrica, sempre causato dalle rinnovabili è stato il calo del prezzo dell’energia all’ingrosso. Infatti la generazione fotovoltaica nelle ore di punta ha contribuito al calo del PUN (Prezzo Unico nazionale) nelle ore di picco; negli ultimi due anni il calo del prezzo del gas metano, ha ulteriormente spinto il prezzo dell’elettricità all’ingrosso ai suoi minimi storici.

    Quello che stupisce è la reazione dei sindacati di categoria, che hanno fatto sapere di essere intenzionate a contrastare le iniziative di dismissione delle centrali non più remunerative annunciate dall’amministratore delegato. La nostra sensazione è che neppure i sindacati negli anni recenti abbiano compreso la rivoluzione in atto nel campo elettrico e che si siano spesso limitati e difendere posti di lavoro nella generazione convenzionale non valutando a pieno le potenzialità occupazionali di un modello alternativo. In quanto alla politica silenzio assoluto. Non c’è che da augurarsi che dopo la Cop 21, i moniti della Laudato Sì e gli allarmanti dati sul cambiamento climatico, si trovi tra le forze sociali e i movimenti sul territorio l’intelligenza e le capacità per sfruttare positivamente un’occasione storica
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  3. my core prediction for 2016 is that all the things that got worse in 2015 will keep on getting worse over the year to come. The ongoing depletion of fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources will keep squeezing the global economy, as the real (i.e., nonfinancial) costs of resource extraction eat up more and more of the world’s total economic output, and this will drive drastic swings in the price of energy and commodities—currently those are still headed down, but they’ll soar again in a few years as demand destruction completes its work. The empty words in Paris a few weeks ago will do nothing to slow the rate at which greenhouse gases are dumped into the atmosphere, raising the economic and human cost of climate-related disasters above 2015’s ghastly totals—and once again, the hard fact that leaving carbon in the ground means giving up the lifestyles that depend on digging it up and burning it is not something that more than a few people will be willing to face.

    Healthy companies in a normal economy usually have P/E ratios between 10 and 20; that is, their total stock value is between ten and twenty times their annual earnings. Care to guess what the P/E ratio is for Amazon as of last Friday’s close? A jawdropping 985.

    At that, Amazon is in better shape than some other big-name tech firms these days, as it actually has earnings. Twitter, for example, has never gotten around to making a profit at all, and so its P/E ratio is its current absurd stock value divided by zero. Valuations this detached from reality haven’t been seen since immediately before the “Tech Wreck” of 2000, and the reason is exactly the same: vast amounts of easy money have flooded into the tech sector, and that torrent of cash has propped up an assortment of schemes and scams that make no economic sense at all. Sooner or later, as a function of the same hard math that brings every bubble to an end, Tech Wreck II is going to hit, vast amounts of money are going to evaporate, and a lot of currently famous tech companies are going to go the way of

    my best guess at this point is that photovoltaic (PV) solar energy is going to be the next big energy bubble.

    Solar PV is a good deal less environmentally benign than its promoters like to claim—like so many so-called “green” technologies, the environmental damage it causes happens mostly in the trajectory from mining the raw materials to manufacture and deployment, not in day-to-day operation—and the economics of grid-tied solar power are so dubious that in practice, grid-tied PV is a subsidy dumpster rather than a serious energy source. Nonetheless, I expect to see such points brushed aside, airily or angrily as the case may be, as the solar lobby and its wholly-owned subsidiaries in the green movement make an all-out push to sell solar PV as the next big thing.
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  4. Myth 4: The world can decouple economic growth from the use of fossil fuels.

    As ideal as decoupling would be, this is unattainable without radical new technology or nuclear energy (which is usually off the table). How are we supposed to provide electricity for the billions of people who still lack access to reliable energy -- a basic right -- without using carbon? The International Energy Agency predicts that over 75 percent of the world's energy in 2040 will still be provided by fossil fuels. A radical shift to renewables is not feasible in the short-term, given that the rate of renewable energy production per unit of area is significantly smaller than with fossil fuels.

    The one sure way to realistically "decarbonize" the economy is to set policies that directly reduce emissions and take carbon out of the atmosphere. These will impinge on the types of economic growth we take for granted, and also lead to hard policy questions: What should governments support in spite of their use of carbon, and what consumption must be restricted to help "pay" for that? Is it more important to produce electricity for millions of poor, or to allow private car ownership with cheap gasoline?

    So long as we understand economic growth as our only indicator of prosperity, the world will never have a specific plan to reduce emissions. Creating a different indicator -- one that is not reliant on a free ride on carbon -- is the challenge that the developing world must meet. The answer is not in promised but often under-delivered handouts from richer countries.
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  5. The Pope plans on delivering an encyclical on climate change this summer, and it has American conservatives freaking out. The Heartland Institute, a leading anti-environmental "think tank," has even dispatched a crack team of deniers to Rome to dissuade His Holiness.

    Why the agita from the right? After all, similar statements of climate concern have been issued by virtually every major government, international development organization, and national science council in the world. It's not like the Pope is spilling the beans on a well-kept secret.

    But as Heartland clearly recognizes, the Pope's statement carries unique significance for the simple reason that he has unquestioned moral authority for millions of people. He threatens to situate the fight against climate change as a deeply moral issue, a matter of God's work on earth. Once it is so situated, it will slowly and inexorably drag culture and politics along in its wake.

    The right, which is entirely comfortable deploying moral arguments, understands this better than the mainstream, center-left environmental establishment. Large swaths of the center-left establishment (especially among the foundations that fund things) are besotted with dreams of technocracy and bipartisan civility — so much so that in 2009 Matt Yglesias pleaded with greens to "put the plodding moralism back in."

    Especially among young greens, that technocratic attitude is on the wane.

    Climate activists have woken to the need for intensity. Thus divestment, a direct and explicit effort to define the actions of fossil fuel companies as immoral — so immoral, in fact, that to invest in them is to take part in that immorality. What's revealing is not that divestment is drawing criticism from the right, which is predictable enough, but that it is causing discomfort and dissonance on the center left.

    It makes the center-left elite uncomfortable to think of climate change and fossil fuels this way. Have a look at this post from Harvard environmental policy professor Robert Stavins, supporting Faust's decision. He says:

    The problem ... is that climate change is fundamentally a scientific, economic, and political challenge. Viewing it as a moral crusade, I fear, will only play into and exacerbate the terrible political polarization that is already paralyzing Washington ...

    Put aside the head-smackingly naive notion that climate advocates can defuse polarization by retreating from moral language. What would it even mean for something to be a "scientific, economic, and political challenge" but not a moral issue? What science we heed, what kind of economy we want, what policies we pass — are these not moral decisions? The distinction makes no sense at all if read literally. It is best read, instead, as expressing a deeper instinct, the impulse among Very Serious People to stay inside the bounds of normal politics, to cling to rationalism in the face of passion and power.

    Technocracy hasn't worked on climate change

    The attempt to address climate change through normal politics has been going on for 30 years now. The issue was first brought to public consciousness by scientists, who assumed that the best way to address a threat like this was to bring it to the attention of legislators. (Oh, scientists.)

    And for years, the issue was mostly the province of scientists, academics, think tankers, and Washington insiders, all of whom tend to be left-brained wonks, all of whom preferred to approach climate as a technical policy problem. Get the models right, determine the "social cost of carbon," apply the appropriate carbon taxes and border adjustments, and lo, the machine would right itself.

    Again and again this idealistic, apolitical wonkery has been chewed to pieces by the political process, where climate change is not viewed as a technical problem, much less a crisis, but rather as a conventional matter of incentives. Fossil fuels and their allies are loud and spend lots of money. Scientists and wonks are poor and quiet. Fossil fuels are at the heart of the US conservative tribal worldview, whereas climate is seen by most of the middle and left as an "environmental issue." Most of the incentives point the same way.
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  6. Whatever individual initiatives one Republican figure or another may be pushing, as a group they fervently believe in the desirability of boosting the consumption of fossil fuels and the absolute need to defeat any measures designed to slow climate change through restraints on such consumption. For many of them, this is both an economic issue, aimed at boosting the profits of U.S. energy firms, and bedrock ideology, part of a quasi-mystical belief in the national-power-enhancing nature of petroleum. Top Republicans argue, for instance, that the best way to counter Russian inroads in Ukraine (or elsewhere in Europe) is to accelerate the fracking of U.S. shale gas reserves and ship the added output to that continent in the form of liquefied natural gas. This, they are convinced, will break Russia’s hold on the continent’s energy supplies. “The ability to turn the tables and put the Russian leader in check,” House Speaker John Boehner wrote in March, “lies right beneath our feet, in the form of vast supplies of natural energy.”

    Central to the political ethos of many Republicans, including the likely candidates for president in 2016, is a belief in the restorative abilities of oil and gas when it comes to waning national power and prestige.

    At a time when more and more people around the world are coming to recognize the need for tough restraints on fossil fuel combustion, the Republicans are about to march forcefully in the opposite direction. Theirs will be a powerful vote for a fossil-fuels-forever planet.

    The consequences of such a commitment are chilling. While virtually all scientists and many world leaders have concluded that the heating of the planet must be kept to an average increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the pro-carbon agenda being pursued by the Republicans would guarantee a planet heated by 4 to 6 or more degrees Celsius or 6 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. That large an increase is almost certain to render significant portions of the planet virtually uninhabitable, and so threaten human civilization as we know it.

    As the U.N.’s prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted in its recent summary report, “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”
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  7. One way or another, the economy (and here we are talking mostly about the economies of industrial nations) must shrink until it subsists on what Earth can provide long-term.

    Saying “one way or another” implies that this process can occur either advertently or inadvertently: that is, if we do not shrink the economy deliberately, it will contract of its own accord after reaching non-negotiable limits. As I explained in my book The End of Growth, there are reasons to think that such limits are already starting to bite. Indeed, most industrial economies are either slowing or finding it difficult to grow at rates customary during the second half of the last century. Modern economies have been constructed to require growth, so that shrinkage causes defaults and layoffs; mere lack of growth is perceived as a serious problem requiring immediate application of economic stimulus. If nothing is done deliberately to reverse growth or pre-adapt to inevitable economic stagnation and contraction, the likely result will be an episodic, protracted, and chaotic process of collapse continuing for many decades or perhaps centuries, with innumerable human and non-human casualties. This may in fact be the most likely path forward.

    Is it possible, at least in principle, to manage the process of economic contraction so as to avert chaotic collapse? Such a course of action would face daunting obstacles. Business, labor, and government all want more growth in order to expand tax revenues, create more jobs, and provide returns on investments. There is no significant constituency within society advocating a deliberate, policy-led process of degrowth, while there are powerful interests seeking to maintain growth and to deny evidence that expansion is no longer feasible.

    Nevertheless, managed contraction would almost certainly yield better outcomes than chaotic collapse—for everyone, elites included. If there is a theoretical pathway to a significantly smaller economy that does not pass through the harrowing wasteland of conflict, decay, and dissolution, we should try to identify it. The following modest ten-point plan is an attempt to do so.
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  8. The majority of First World citizens are able to separate themselves, both spatially and temporally, from the consequences of their way of life. The gilded cages they live in, both shield them from consequences and imprison their minds. Warnings of impending destruction being discussed beyond the bars of the cage can only be perceived as faint echoes which may cause a fleeting pause, but cannot successfully penetrate the vast majority of minds within. Through projecting the consequences of their actions to others, both in the present and the future, the richer countries have been able to construct incredibly complex — and totally unsustainable — societies. The wealthier citizens can create their own cages within a cage, to separate themselves from the lesser ranks as they enjoy a new gilded age fuelled by the looting of the earth and the dispossession of others. Just likes taxes, it is only the little people that feel the heavy consequences ii » .

    As Kempf puts it, “the lifestyle of the rich prevents them from sensing what surrounds them. In developed countries, the majority of the population lives in cities, cut off from the environment where the fissures in the biosphere are beginning to show. Moreover, the majority of the population is largely protected from those fissures by the structures of collective management developed in the past; these succeed in dampening the shocks … when they are not too violent … The ruling classes, which model opinion, are even further cut off from the social and natural environment: they travel only in cars, live in air-conditioned spaces, and use transportation circuits – airports, business neighbourhoods, residential areas – that shelter them from contact with society.

    When people in one of the richer countries fill up their cars with gasoline, do they think of the people of the Niger delta who have had their lands poisoned and their leaders murdered to keep the oil flowing xiv » ; the Iranians who had democracy taken away from them due to the impudence of a leader who wanted to use the country’s fossil fuel wealth for its own citizens’ benefit xv » ; or the South American lands which were poisoned to reduce the cost of oil production xvi » ; or the native communities that are being poisoned by the Alberta Tar Sands xvii » ; or the rural areas of the United States despoiled by “fracking” xviii » xix » ? Of course not; the consequences of modern society’s need for prodigious amounts of cheap fossil-fuel energy are hidden far from view. Out of sight, out of mind.

    What about crops that are grown in water-stressed areas, irrigated by sucking up the waters of ancient aquifers which will take millennia to replenish xx » ? Their depletion of those aquifers is hidden from view until the last usable drop is gone, with more and more powerful pumps and deeper bore holes being used to make sure no usable water is left xxi » . Of course, that will be in the future and thus will not affect those currently doing the pumping. At least, the people involved find it comforting to believe that.

    In Toronto, the downtown airport is pushing for expansion so that they can grow their business, and the large suburban airport has already grown significantly in the past few years. With the profitability of most airlines paper-thin, and that profitability gravely threatened by any increases in fuel prices, or carbon-related aviation taxes, the longer-term folly of such massive investments should be obvious to all. Instead, the rich and developing societies double down on the exponential growth driven by cheap fossil fuels, leaving the consequences for others and other times.

    On average, airlines don’t even make enough money to cover their cost of capital; the entire aviation supply chain made annual economic losses of between US$16 billion and US$18 billion from 2004 to 2011 xxv » . During that period, jet-fuel costs rose from 17% to 30% of airline operating costs, as higher prices swamped efficiency gains. The incredibly slim operating margins for airlines are shown in the 2014 International Air Transport Association’s forecast, indicating a profit per departing passenger of US$5.65! xxvi » . No wonder the industry is fighting to forestall against taking responsibility for the full consequences of their operations in the form of transport carbon taxes xxvii » . Here is an industry subsidized by investors and the taxpayers in the present, while it helps destroy our collective future. On both business and ecological grounds it should be facing consolidation, shrinkage, and much higher prices. The impact throughout the economy would be significant as airports, airplane manufacturers, and myriad other suppliers share the airline companies’ painful shrinkage.

    The sheer magnitude of the energy infrastructure that will be invalidated and require replacement, together with the critical pieces that will have to be rebuilt after being destroyed, put to bed any assumptions of a smooth transfer to low-carbon energy sources.
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Our goal is not to get rid of the oil industry tomorrow. Nor is it to set a date for when the last oil worker will be out of a job. On the contrary, we want to keep the industry going for generations, but at a significantly lower level than we see today. To achieve this in a way that does not lead to mass unemployment (an estimated 250,000 people - or one in twenty Norwegians - are involved in the fossil fuel industry) we need a plan that combines both environmental policy and the oil workers' interests. That was the starting point when labour unions and environmental NGOs sat down to draft a plan on how we might realistically deflate Norway's inflated oil industry in a way that also retains the interests of the industry's employees.
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  10. not only are we heading for a “tremendously chaotic” climate, but if we dig up and burn Canadian tar sands, the climate crisis will be rendered “unsolvable.”
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