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Last month’s Public Goods Post addressed the choices to be made about how our energy future will unfold. We wrote about a dilemma some systems ecologists have described -- one which we will soon face. Climate change and the declining viability of fossil fuels will drive a competition for resources (money, talent, energy). It will be a competition between the need for mitigation of climate change and its impacts, and transformation to a new energy future.
 
These are two paths. They are not really alternatives; both challenges will have to be taken up to one extent or another. The real question is about the relative amounts of money, talent, effort and energy to put into each.
 
Demands for mitigation and calls for transformation will escalate as the impacts of climate change become more dramatic and as fossil fuel extraction becomes more expensive and untenable. The costs will run into the trillions. Relocations that could be required due to sea level rise alone have been estimated at
$14 trillion. (For comparison, U.S. GDP in 2017 was $19.7 trillion, and $16 trillion is the amount the US Federal Reserve used to bail out banks and corporations due to the 2008 financial meltdown.)    
 
Where will the money come from?  Much of the money will come from “government” – which is us. Wall Street financiers, technology companies and multinational corporations are already signaling that they can come up with “market solutions” but that government – we  – will have to pay for them.
 
This is a public goods issue: public goods are the products, services, benefits and standards that governments produce. And – in a democracy – governments produce what voters vote for. We choose the people who then make the choices in the chambers of Congress, state houses and city halls.
 
Here are some of the questions with which
the government – we – will be confronted:

How is it possible to wean ourselves – consumers, corporations, Big Tech, Big Ag – away from fossil fuels when fossil fuel interests are entrenched in the American energy industry and in government? This is a well-known issue. But there is another huge problem in making the energy transition: one that is technical and that gets little notice outside of scientific journals and conferences.  

This problem is that it takes energy to produce energy, and renewables like solar, wind and biofuels have a low EROI – “Energy Return on Investment.”  EROI is a way of measuring and expressing the amount of energy delivered by a process as compared to the amount of energy required to produce it. Fossil fuels have a very high EROI, generally more than 20 to 1. For every unit of energy it takes to extract oil, for example, you get 20 units in return.  Renewables, so far, have a low EROI. Solar, for example, has been assessed to have an EROI of about 3 to 1, though one study showed 10 to 1. And in some cases, like biofuels, the production of renewables has had negative EROI; the energy delivered was less than the energy it took to get it.  

Someone – government – we – will have to decide how much of our national wealth to devote to innovations that will improve the EROI of renewables. That’s a public goods decision: what products do we want? And which do we not want?
 


What about “de-carbonization” – taking carbon out of the atmosphere? There seems to be scientific agreement that we can’t reach even the current, modest goal of holding global temperature rise to 2° Celsius unless some carbon is removed from the atmosphere. Corporate interests are already proposing technology-based “solutions” like technological and mechanical carbon capture and storage. And they are already suggesting that the government – we – should subsidize their experimentation, for their private profit. But there are other methods of decarbonization, like regenerative agriculture that naturally sequester CO2  from the atmosphere. 

Someone – government – we – will have to decide how much of our public resources to put into profit-sector, high-tech solutions versus less disruptive regenerative solutions. That, too, is a choice about public goods.

 

How can we ensure that in the future energy will be reliably produced AND universally affordable? Will energy be provided and controlled by giant corporations, like today’s private utilities in the United States, or will we use our collective resources, our public purse, to develop “distributed energy” generation, like household solar generation or local, community generation and “mini-grids?” 

California has just taken a giant step forward on renewable energy: a
recent law will require that all new homes be equipped for solar power. Will other U.S. states follow?  Voters will decide.
 
Profit Sector or Public Sector?
There are many energy struggles ahead, beyond those outlined above. And there is absolutely no doubt that governments will be called upon to confront choices, and pay for solutions. But who will decide what our tax dollars will be used for?  Should our energy future be controlled by the profit sector or by the polity?  Should decisions be  market-driven or need-driven?  Voters must examine candidates’ stances on energy questions, and then decide for whom to vote.
 
It will be a struggle to support both courses of action: mitigation and transition.  Profit-driven leadership will likely focus on near-term mitigation; that’s much easier to do, and mitigation responds to “in-your-face” problems.  Moreover, entrenched fossil fuel interests will work hard to preserve their current business model and products. But people – families and communities – too, will be focused on the near-term when coastal cities flood and increasingly devastating fires destroy homes and businesses. And individuals in the rich world, as consumers, don’t want to give up the comforts and conveniences they have come to expect.
 
Yet, the only proven way to meet common needs and to solve complex technological-societal problems is through collective action, a long-term outlook and investment without regard to profit. For a discussion about this, you can read my article: 
Missing from the Mainstream: The biophysical basis of production and the public economy.
 
In Europe and East Asia headway is being made on the coming energy challenges. The United States lags behind. That’s problematic not only for environmental reasons, but our delinquency also overlooks an upside that has not been much discussed: the enormous potential for creating millions of solid, living-wage jobs, including jobs for people without college degrees, to do the work that is needed.
 
The systems ecologists who wrote about the dilemma in the
Energy Pillars of Society concluded that the energy quandary is “the grand challenge of the present century, and we believe that this challenge will decide the fate of our planet and humanity for generations to come.”
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The Public Goods Post has been created by June Sekera, 
Founder and Director of the Public Goods Institute; and Research Fellow at the 
Global Development And Environment Institute, Tufts University.

The Public Goods Post is produced by Daniel Agostino.

To contact us: Editors@publicgoodspost.org

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