Science in Society Archive

Power to the People, 100% Renewables by 2050

Being 100 percent renewable and green is good, regardless of whether you believe in climate change. It solves our energy problem, puts people back in control, and gives us a cleaner, safer, healthier environment Dr. Mae-Wan Ho.

Launch of Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050 [1], 25 November 2009, Jubilee Room, House of Commons, Westminster, London, UK.

The presentation can be downloaded here (PDF of the powerpoint)

Power to the people in all senses of the word

We are thrilled to have such strong recommendations for our report. Alan Simpson MP, special advisor to UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate calls it [2] “a road map for survival” and “the get out of jail” card for Britain and many other countries for avoiding “climate chaos”. Chee Yokeling, Director of Third World Network, says [3] “it is just what world governments need to renew their commitment to the UN Convention on Climate Change.” That alone tells us there is nothing to divide the peoples of the developed and developing world as far as renewable energies and saving the climate is concerned.

What we need is to restore power to the people in all senses of the word ‘power’, through a commitment to 100 percent renewable energies by 2050. This is realistic, much more so than the non-renewable options favoured by the UK and other governments, and much more affordable.

Renewable energy is inexhaustible energy that does not run out. Moreover, it is free; once you install your own equipment to capture it, no one can meter it, if you don’t want them to, or cut off your supply. It is in principle available to all, so there is no need to fight over it. We, the people, are in control.

Being renewable is not enough. It has to be green, which means also being environmentally friendly, healthy, safe, non-polluting, and sustainable. Sustainable needs more comment as it has been hi-jacked too often to mean just the opposite.

Being sustainable is to endure for hundreds or thousands of years like natural ecosystems, thanks to a circular economy of reciprocity and cooperation that renews and regenerates the whole [4] (The Rainbow And The Worm, ISIS publication). It is just the opposite of the dominant neo-liberal economy driven by competition and exploitation that has brought the planet and its inhabitants to the brink of irreversible catastrophe, not to mention the actual financial collapse [5] (see Financing Poverty, SiS 40).

Therefore it is important to modify Bruntland’s definition of sustainability as follows: to use natural resources responsibly and equitably, to meet the needs of all in the present without compromising the needs of future generation. This makes sense, as truly green and renewable energies are freely available to all in any case.

Unfortunately, our political leaders are overwhelmingly blind to these simple facts. They are committed to the neo-liberal paradigm, and held to ransom by big business. Truly green renewable energies that give power to the people do not leave enough profit to satisfy greedy big business!

That‘s why the Copenhagen summit is collapsing before it begins. Big business and big governments are fighting people to prevent them taking power, and fighting one another to get a larger slice of the power pie.

Being renewable and green is good whether you believe in climate change

The debate between climate scientists [6] has just blown up over some hacked e-mails. Let me say this now: global warming is real and human activities have a lot to do with it [7]. That’s the best explanation of all the observations, past and present.

It is important to realise that being renewable and green is good, regardless of whether you believe in climate change. It solves our energy problem, puts people back in control, and gives us a cleaner, safer, healthier environment.

The coal and oil industries are desperate for any excuse to carry on business as usual. So please don’t give them that. People are falling for all kinds of conspiracy theories except the most obvious one that big business is out for big profit, and they will exploit all avenues to get it.  It they can’t have business as usual on the basis that human activities are not responsible for climate change, then they’ll get bogus carbon-credits for saving the climate.

Trading carbon-credits does not give power to the people because it allows big polluters to shift the burden of reducing CO2 to developing countries least able to cope, and already suffering the brunt of climate disasters. It also financialises the problem, preventing real solutions while plundering the public coffers. The collapse of the economy should serve as a lesson, as it is caused by an unregulated financial market that creates ‘wealth’ out of nothing, which is ruinous to the real economy of goods and services [5].

Global warming is real and human induced

The best rebuttal to the climate deniers and sceptics is a paper written by Jim Hansen and colleagues [8]. Hansen is a NASA scientist and not at all popular with the oil or coal industry or the US government. Hansen and colleagues are critical of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, because the climate models used are not good enough, failing to even predict the summer polar ice melts that have been making headlines for several years now.

Hansen and colleagues’ paper explains convincingly why the IPCC model is too conservative and at the same time answers the sceptics.

One main argument of the sceptics is that CO2 can’t be responsible for global warming, because in the past history of the earth, changes in atmospheric CO2 concentration lag behind temperature by some 800 years [9].

However, the current situation is just the opposite: although temperature has increased, CO2 has risen much faster than temperature. So what’s the explanation?

The main findings from Hansen and colleagues are that [10] (see 350ppm CO2 the Target, SiS 44):

  1. The present is a non-equilibrium state when greenhouse gases (GHGs) from human activities are rising much faster than the system can respond, and is not the same as the equilibrium state in the past history of the earth
  2. IPCC models only take account of fast feedback processes whereas slow feedback from GHG (and vegetation) changes need time to work through the system, in particular the oceans
  3. Including the slow feedback processes produces a much better fit of the temperature changes in the past history of the earth to CO2 levels.
  4. In fact, CO2 has twice the effect on temperature than the IPCC attributed. And this led to the conclusion that 350 ppm is the target to aim for, not 450 ppm as indicated by the IPPC.

The head of IPPC has agreed with the new target.

That means we must reduce the present levels of 385 ppm back down to 350 and soon. Hansen and colleagues said it can be done by ceasing to burn coal, unless efficient carbon capture and storage (CCS) can be developed.

False solutions must be abandoned

CCS is not available until 30 years from now at the earliest, it is much too expensive, very likely to be ineffective and unsafe (see Chapter 9 of [1]).

What about nuclear? Nuclear is not a renewable energy. The so called nuclear renaissance is unravelling because nuclear is well recognized as highly unsafe, uneconomical and unsustainable (see Chapters 3-7 of [1]). The nuclear industry in the US has been unable to overturn a single state ban so far, and Obama has put a freeze on Yucca Mountain as a long-term nuclear waste storage site. UK and France may well be in the minority in Europe to commit themselves to nuclear energy.

Another trap to avoid is the so-called ‘International Biochar Initiative’ (Chapter 8 of [1]) that turns bioenergy crops into charcoal to be buried in the ground. This supposedly allows both harvesting energy from biomass and sequestering lots of carbon in the soil to improve soil fertility, because charcoal remains stable for hundreds if not thousands of years while increasing crop yields.

It turns out that charcoal does degrade, sometimes quite rapidly, and the effect on crop yields is erratic. Most of all, the proposal to plant energy crops on hundreds of millions of hectares of illusory ‘spare land’ was precisely the same as for biofuels five years earlier, which has already resulted in land grab, acceleration of deforestation, and a dangerous exacerbation of the atmospheric oxygen down-trend. 

New research shows that while CO2 has been rising, oxygen has been depleting from the atmosphere faster than can be accounted for by the increase in CO2 [11] (O2 Dropping Faster than CO2 Rising, SiS 44). Furthermore, this downtrend has accelerated since 2003, coinciding with the biofuels boom. So climate policies that focus exclusively on carbon sequestration could be disastrous for all oxygen-breathing organisms including humans.

We must abandon the false solutions and go for the truly green energies that are already available in abundance (see Chapters 11-26 of [1]).

Huge potentials for green energies

Wind turbines on all available land surfaces that are not forests, cities, or covered with ice, and assuming they operate only at 20 percent of their rated capacity, would supply 40 times the world’s electricity or five times its energy needs. Solar power at a modest 10 percent efficiency can provide all the world’s energy needs with just 0.1 percent of the world’s land surface. And methane from anaerobic digestion of organic wastes, which can be used for cooking, heating, generating electricity and running vehicles and farm machinery, saves over 50 percent of the world’s energy consumption.

In addition, depending on local resources, microhydroelectric, geothermal, tidal reef, deep water conditioning, etc. are also available.

Green energies are widely available, affordable, efficient, flexible, readily upgraded, and especially if you keep it small, they are unobtrusive, even beautiful, if artists and designers get to work on them. The key is to take advantage of the most readily available local resources. Organic wastes must be the most universally available energy resource in the world, and don’t forget, you also get good fertilizer from the digested residue.

Green energies for energy autonomy

Green energies are especially amenable to distributed, decentralised generation that gives people energy autonomy from the big energy industry. That’s the key to their success.

In 2008, more renewable energies capacity was added than conventional for the first time. Germany has become the world’s first major renewable-energy economy. Renewable energy accounts for 9.5 percent of total energy consumed supplying 15.1 percent of electricity. Wind power tops the renewable energies at 25 GW and accounts for 7 percent of electricity. The rest are: hydroelectric and almost equal second, biomass, solar, and geothermal. In 2007 alone, its new renewable capacity grew by the equivalent of two nuclear power plants. The country has been exceeding its successive goals since 2000, and its renewable industry is very optimistic about being 100 percent renewable by 2050. The key to its success are appropriate government legislation and subsidies, especially feed-in tariffs to stimulate the internal market.

There are wonderful things over the rainbow that you can feast your imagination on: artificial photosynthesis to harvest and store sunlight, thermoelectric devices that can turn waste heat into electricity, and best of all, we can clean up toxic and radioactive nuclear wastes with low energy nuclear reactions, the notorious cold nuclear fusions that actually works!

So, in conclusion, the world can be 100% renewable by 2050

· A variety of truly green and affordable options already exist, and more innovations are on the way.

· Policies that promote innovations and stimulate internal market for decentralised distributed generation are key

· Global cooperation is crucial, developed nations have an international obligation to support developing nations to fight global warming with renewable energies.

Article first published 30/11/09



References

  1. Ho MW, Cherry B, Burcher S and Saunders PT. Green Energies, 100% Renewables by 2050, ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2009.
  2. Simpson A. Foreword to Green Energies, 100% Renewables by 2050, ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2009.
  3. Chee Y. Foreword to Green Energies, 100% Renewables by 2050, ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2009.
  4. Ho MW. The Rainbow and the Worm, the Physics of Organisms, 3rd ed., World Scientific, Singapore & London, 2008.
  5. Ho MW and Saunders PT. Financing poverty, editorial, Science in Society 40, 2-3, 2008.
  6. “Hackers leak e-mails, stoke climate debate”, David Stringer, Associated Press, 20 November 2009, http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20091121/ap_on_sc/eu_climate_hacked_e_mails
  7. “Statisticians cool down the climate controversy”, Lynne Peeples, 28 October 2009, http://www.scienceline.org/2009/10/28/blog_peeples_global-cooling-controvers/
  8. Hansen J, Sato M, Kharecha P, Beerling D, Berner R, Masson-Delmotte V, Pagani M, Raymo M, Royer DL and Zachos JC. Target atmospheric CO2: where should humanity aim? 2008, http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0804/0804.1126.pdf
  9. CO2 lags temperature, therefore it CAUSES temperature? Carbon Climate, Debating the Global Warming Issue, 20 September 2009, http://www.carbonclimate.info/2009/09/co2-lags-tempererature-thereofre-it.html
  10. Ho MW. 350 ppm CO2 the target. Science in Society 44, 4-7, 2009.
  11. Ho MW. O2 dropping faster than CO2 rising. Science in Society 44, 8-10, 2009.

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There are 6 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Mae-Wan Ho Comment left 17th December 2009 22:10:13
Craig Sams, please don't say you've been ignored. Your letter to me was published almost in full in Letter to the Editor of the current issue 44 of Science in Society. And i have personally replied to your letter, also in the same forum.

Julian Rose Comment left 30th November 2009 17:05:21
An excellent report. But, sadly, even Britain's Green Party has dropped the batton placed in its hand by Fritz Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful. There is a widespread failure by such institutions to promote the vital decentralised 'people owned' mostly small scale solutions that produce the socio-cultural revolution that matches the renewable energy equation. Instead we hear about 'massive investment' being needed to promote 'a new industrial revolution' that will 'stimulate jobs and the national economy' etc. If we can get beyond such histrionics and see localised, human scale, independent renewable energy schemes, freed from corporate ownership and the big profit motive - as the road to the future, then we will have a veritable renaissance on our hands. Lets try to get this message widely disseminated at this crucial time.

Craig Sams Comment left 17th December 2009 22:10:13
How strange that you could effusively quote Jim Hansen without mentioning his total support for biochar as an agricultural amendment. Is it really that difficult for a scientist to differentiate between burning charcoal and burying it in the ground? One increses CO2 emissions, the other reduces CO2 levels in the atmosphere and continues to do so in the soil, reducing nitrous oxide emissions. Look at the evidence, not the speculation. Everywhere that biochar is used in agriculture it is bringing benefits. I have written to Mae Wan Ho asking for a rational discussion on this and have been ignored. This is not the rational debate that this issue requires. You do yourself a disservice by oversimplification and misrepresentation. You insult your listeners if you think they can't tell the difference between biofuels and biochar. Biochar is not biofuels. Biofuels are burned. Biochar is not. The fact that our governments reward burning biofuels (and therefore charcoal) for energy with double ROCs (Subsidies equal to double the cost of electricity) is madness. But don't throw out the biochar, throw out the ludicrous and misguided government policies that encourage climate damaging behaviour and misallocation of resources. I have been using biochar on my farm, on fruit trees and on vegetable crops and the results are great. Don't knock it if you haven't tried it Craig Sams

Mae-Wan Ho Comment left 30th November 2009 22:10:10
Julian, you are spot on. Please look out for brilliant speeches to follow from Alan Simpson, Siegfried Brenke, Michael Meacher and others from the launch; all speaking for small is beautiful in different tones. it was a truly inspiring event, sorry you weren't here. The room was filled to overflowing with extra chairs, many standing at the back and sitting on side tables. This is the turning point

Erich J. Knight Comment left 1st December 2009 10:10:29
All political persuasions agree, building soil carbon is GOOD.... To Hard bitten Farmers, wary of carbon regulations that only increase their costs, Building soil carbon is a savory bone, to do well while doing good.... Biochar provides the tool powerful enough to cover Farming's carbon foot print while lowering cost simultaneously.... Another significant aspect of bichar is removal of BC aerosols by low cost ($3) Biomass cook stoves that produce char but no respiratory disease emissions. At Scale, replacing "Three Stone" stoves the health benefits would equal eradication of Malaria.... http://terrapretapot.org/ and village level systems http://biocharfund.org/ The Congo Basin Forest Fund (CBFF).recently funded The Biochar Fund $300K for these systems citing these priorities; (1) Hunger amongst the world's poorest people, the subsistence farmers of Sub-Saharan Africa, (2) Deforestation resulting from a reliance on slash-and-burn farming, (3) Energy poverty and a lack of access to clean, renewable energy, and (4) Climate change..... The Biochar Fund : Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon The broad smiles of 1500 subsistence farmers say it all ( that , and the size of the Biochar corn root balls )..... http://biocharfund.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=55&Itemid=75 Mark my words; Given the potential for Laurens Rademaker's programs to grow exponentialy, only a short time lies between This man's nomination for a Noble Prize..... This authoritative PNAS article should cause the recent Royal Society Report to rethink their criticism of Biochar systems of Soil carbon sequestration; Reducing abrupt climate change risk using the Montreal Protocol and other regulatory actions to complement cuts in CO2 emissions http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/10/09/0902568106.full.pdf+html There are dozens soil researchers on the subject now at USDA-ARS. and many studies at The up coming ASA-CSSA-SSSA joint meeting; http://a-c-s.confex.com/crops/2009am/webprogram/Session5675.html Congressional Research Service report (by analyst Kelsi Bracmort) is the best short summary I have seen so far - both technical and policy oriented. http://assets.opencrs.com/rpts/R40186_20090203.pdf . United Nations Environment Programme, Climate Change Science Compendium 2009 http://www.unep.org/compendium2009/ Al Gore got the CO2 absorption thing wrong, ( at NABC Vilsack did same), but his focus on Soil Carbon is right on; http://www.newsweek.com/id/220552/page/3 Research: The future of biochar - Project Rainbow Bee Eater http://www.sciencealert.com.au/features/20090211-20142.html Japan Biochar Association ; http://www.geocities.jp/yasizato/pioneer.htm Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it. Cheers, Erich

James Makepeace Comment left 1st December 2009 19:07:28
I have little doubt that this comment will be "moderated" out, but that is not a reason for failing to make it... This article is based on half-wit philosophy. If we plan and actually attempt to survive entirely on renewables by 2050, either the world's population will have been halved at least (and probably by war among other things) OR half the world will be living in conditions resembling those of a couple of thousand years ago... because the lights will have started going out by then. Renewables are good to maximize, but let's stop dreaming that they can do it all... as a species we are far to addicted to energy for that to be a realistic possibility. If we don't maximize our efforts to harness nuclear fusion (very different from fission in that it is an entirely natural process)we really will be in serious trouble as a species, and nature will start working on us under the never-changing rules of "survival of the fittest". That prospect looks really VERY unpleasant for our great grandchildren... so let's wake up to the hard realities while there is still just about enough time !"

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