Junk Science Week: Net-Zero Edition — John Constable & Debra Lieberman: The energy of nations and the creation of wealth

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Faltering or falling energy consumption, particularly electricity, is not an indication of a healthy economy

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Since 2007, something historically unprecedented has been happening in most Western economies — energy consumption is in a nosedive.

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U.K. energy use has fallen by 30 per cent to quantities not seen since the 1950s, while the rest of Europe has regressed 30 years to 1990s levels. The U.S. is following suit. Whereas total energy consumption had been flatlining, it is now falling, down 13 per cent and also approaching levels not seen since the mid-1990s. This downward spiral also holds for electricity usage, the very index of a modern society, with the U.K. dropping over the past decade to levels last seen in the 1970s. The Canadian case is less dramatic but still concerning: both total energy and electricity consumption have flatlined over this period, and since 2018 have begun to decline.

Faltering or falling energy consumption, particularly electricity, is not an indication of a healthy economy. You might think otherwise — it’s evidence of increased efficiency, right? For some individual consumers, in the short run, potentially, yes. For society as a whole, in the longer run, emphatically not. As a rule, gains in efficiency will increase demand for the now cheaper goods or services, or save energy for another purpose, so total consumption rises. Savings from LEDs, for example, will first be translated into more lighting. (Who knew a lit driveway looked so pretty?) And when that demand becomes satisfied it will be spent on vacations, better health care, and education, and further out in the economic system on roads or defence. Like cash, energy is never left on the table, and given its availability, there is no limit to possible improvements in human well-being. Put simply, efficiency fuels welfare-enhancing consumption.

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Energy demand is falling because of environmental policies, including subsidies to modern renewables such as wind and solar. As distasteful as this might sound, it is nonetheless true. So far, both the U.S. and Canada are relatively minor players, the U.S. having spent a mere US$125 billion between 2008-2018, and while Canadian national totals are lower, the province of Ontario alone is reported to have spent about US$30 billion in the period 2006 to 2014. But the EU, where the biggest energy collapse is observed, has spent a staggering US$800 billion since 2008, a total that has been increasing at $US70 billion a year. And the U.K., a country of 65 million people, is shelling out well over US$10 billion every year.

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The intention of these subsidies was to reduce costs, but the gamble has not paid off — nor will it so long as Mother Nature and her laws of physics are at the table. Wind and solar remain stubbornly expensive for consumers in spite of a blizzard of misinformation and propaganda claiming otherwise.

How did we get here? The answer lies in our intuitive understanding of “energy” itself. The human mind contains programs enabling us to reason about survival-dependent concepts — mating, food, co-operation. The “physics of energy” is not such a concept. Without science we lack the lens to focus effectively on energy, leaving us more or less “energy-blind.” Energy is a strange concept — in the strict scientific sense it isn’t a substance, such as coal or oil, but instead an abstract property of all substances, namely the capacity to cause change in the world, to do work.

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Moreover, energy varies in quality, not just quantity. To support complex society a fuel must be of high quality, that is, structured so that it has the potential to do a lot of work. In thermodynamics, this is referred to as a fuel’s degree of “disorder” or “entropy.” Greater disorder equals greater entropy equals less work. But our “energy-blindness,” the inability to easily grasp thermodynamic principles, means that we must rely on physics to see — and what it reveals is that fossil fuels and uranium are highly ordered and rich in their potential to do work, making them cheap, while wind and solar are the reverse.

In fact, to render wind and solar functional requires much additional work and resources, both often supplied by fossils. Transforming renewables into useable grid electricity relies on turbines and photovoltaic panels, themselves complex and expensive states of matter, to say nothing of the management costs of buffering the electricity system against their variability.

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The sunshine and wind might be free, but their extraction, conversion, and delivery to market are not. If you are concerned about carbon dioxide emissions, as we are, then it is critical to acknowledge our energy-blindness and follow the physics: fossil fuels are the necessary bridge to a nuclear-based, low-carbon future. The optics of wind and solar are superficially attractive but their promise of a green, low-carbon nirvana is empty. But don’t blame us, blame Mother Nature.


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At stake are the creation and maintenance of wealth. The availability of high-quality energy created the tools and technologies that make human lives healthier, longer, and more fulfilling. Mortality rates, particularly for children, are extraordinarily low by historical standards. Many people in the world today, not just the richest, have temperature control in their homes, low levels of pathogens in their food supplies, transport essentially at will, phones, and access to vast information-storage systems. These highly improbable states exist only by virtue of the work done by energy-dense fuels such as fossils and nuclear.

By spending heavily on wind and solar, world leaders are degrading the quality and productivity of national energy supplies, causing rising costs and falling consumption. The causal linkage is on display across the West. This will damage not just the ability to create new wealth, but also to maintain a complex, pleasant and secure environment in which to live and raise our families, and this damage is already happening.

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Before you dismiss us as Chicken Littles screaming that the sky is falling (though we are and it is), we grant that the world currently looks far from dystopian. Countries where energy consumption is plummeting don’t feel much pain … yet. And there is a good reason for that. One country is increasing its energy use, propping up Western consumption with exports and giving us a false sense of well-being. That country is, of course, China.

Since the West began its energy starvation diet, Chinese energy consumption has increased by over 50 per cent and its electricity consumption has increased by 200 per cent, overtaking the U.S. by a large margin. China, unlike the EU, U.K. and U.S., is still 90 per cent reliant on fossil fuels and nuclear. What’s more, only some of the immense wealth these fuels are generating is being exported. What is China doing with the rest? Time will tell.

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But right now, as a matter of urgency, we must reverse the decline in Western energy quality and consumption by ending impoverishing renewable subsidies and clearing the path for fossil fuels and nuclear. Toying with low-density, thermodynamically incompetent renewables is an indulgence we cannot afford. With the Chinese economy on an energetically sound footing and those in the West not, the world has turned upside down. The economic consequences of this reversal are serious, the security implications terrifying. Our energy blindness is both costly and dangerous.

John Constable is energy director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London and author of its forthcoming study Europe’s Green Experiment: A costly failure in unilateral climate policy. Debra Lieberman is a professor of psychology at the University of Miami and author of Objection: Disgust, Morality, and the Law (OUP, 2018).

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