Climate mitigation and adaptation will require incremental energy from renewables

As part of a discussion about energy and social justice, DAVID SCHWARTZMAN responds to points made by Larry Lohmann in his article The class struggle inside energy, also published today. And you can read the whole discussion, which started on People & Nature last year, in a free pamphlet, Roads to an Energy Commons, downloadable here.

On the use of metaphor, I said in my post Thermodynamics: a metaphor or a science?, that Larry is now responding to:

While entropy as a metaphor has its positive value, in Lohmann’s case highlighting the destruction accompanying the creation of renewable energy supplies, and likewise for Robert Biel’s The Entropy of Capitalism (2011), not going beyond this metaphor with an analysis relying on the science of thermodynamics will not make clear the critical implications of the second law to a renewable energy transition.

Metals recycling is part of the answer

Yes, of course I recognize the essential role of metaphors in the generation of scientific theories, as well as their use in more general discourse (for another example see the section “Other Uses of Entropy”  in my 2009 paper “Ecosocialism or Ecocatastrophe?”).  

I am puzzled by Larry’s claim that I defended by implication an unrestrained capital-driven renewable energy transition.  I clearly advocated that this energy transition should be informed by an ecosocialist agenda, not relying on “green” capital to deliver a just process, rather strongly supporting the goals of decommodification and a global solar commons.

My article “A Critique of Degrowth” goes into more depth on confronting the critically important challenge of extractivism in this transition. Here is a quote from this article:

Extractivism is a very real challenge that must be confronted in a wind/solar transition terminating fossil fuels, to create a truly just process which protects the rights and health of indigenous people around the world, along with the workforce and communities affected. There are significant future opportunities to limit mining in this transition, namely recycling the huge supplies of metals now embedded in the fossil fuel and military infrastructures, substituting common elements for rare ones (e.g., batteries using NaS [sodium/sulfur], Fe/air [iron/air], etc.), enhancing public transit instead of relying on manufacturing hundreds of millions of electric cars. There are now significant energy savings in recycling metals instead of mining their ores.

I take “reversing the flattening of entropy slopes” in the context that Larry put it, his claim that a renewable energy transition would necessarily entail the creation of sacrifice zones of extractive industries, thereby flattening of entropy slopes.  I fail to see how my (2) and (3) claims cited in Larry’s response contradict the Second Law of Thermodynamics. As far as my (3) and (4) claims, what Larry did not address in his response is the relevant aspect of the second law to the energy transition that I stressed:

The production of energy from burning fossil fuels, as well as nuclear fission, generates an incremental heat flux from the Earth’s surface, unlike – to a good first approximation – the tapping of solar radiation to do work. The latter outcome is non-incremental because the interaction of low entropy visible light with the low albedo relatively dark Earth’s surface generates a corresponding flux of high entropy heat (infrared radiation) whether work is done for human civilization or not, with this heat flux escaping to space.  

This entropy flux will not be eliminated in a wind/solar energy transition coupled with the phase out of extractivism. As I said: “Hence, global solar power will then pay its “entropic debt” to space as non-incremental waste heat, without driving us to tipping points towards even more catastrophic climate change than has happened over the past few decades.”

Further, Larry’s response to my post gives me this opportunity to further elaborate on this transition informed by an ecosocialist agenda, which will inherit the legacy of anthropogenic changes in the Earth’s atmosphere (increase in greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide)  and surface albedo such as deforestation and creation of urban heat islands. The latter will surely grow in intensity even if the 1.5 deg C warming target is not exceeded. We addressed this subject in our posted article “Urban Ecovillages”:

The challenge of extreme heat in these urban areas can be confronted in the transformation to green cities with more trees as in the case of Karachi …, making dark surfaces white, and of course air conditioning powered by renewable energy. In addition, a promising new technology, polymer film applied to building that radiates heat through the atmosphere to outer space, can potentially result in dramatically cooler conditions than its surroundings [references given in article].

Further, in regard to recognizing the profound anthropogenic changes in surface albedo already mentioned I point out:

Rapid restoration of natural ecosystems and shift to agroecologies/regenerative agriculture are imperative and will contribute to climate mitigation but will be limited by future warming up to the 1.5 deg C target because of reduction in the capacity and saturation of the soil carbon pool. Hence, Direct Air Capture of carbon dioxide and permanent storage in the crust will be likely needed to meet this warming goal.

In addition to eliminating energy poverty, and bringing global life expectancies to the highest achievable level, climate mitigation and adaptation will require incremental energy supplies derived from wind and solar power over the present level. This level corresponds to 19 trillion watts, that will need to increase the global renewable energy supply to no more than 1.5 times the present level (More detail in this article.) 

□ Simon Pirani adds: I thank David for this further contribution to our discussion. I do not think we have exhausted the subject matter. But Larry Lohmann, David and I have all said plenty to start with, and we are now at a natural break in our conversation. I for one am going to think some more about the issues raised. To read the whole discussion so far, please download the free pamphlet, Roads to an Energy Commons, here. If anybody else has something to add, that is very welcome: you can email comments to peoplenature[at]

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