Bill Rees: A note on climate change and cultural denial

Was COP26 a big waste of time? Population ecologist and PM Expert Advisor Prof William Rees weighs in on the major UN climate conference and points out humanity’s collective failure to acknowledge and address the root cause of environmental problems: we are consuming more than the Earth can provide.

It is a great irony, if not tragedy, that so many well-intentioned people, especially climate-focused non-government organisations and ordinary citizens wasted so much time and effort at COP26 in Glasgow. It’s not that the official negotiators achieved so little, but rather that climate change is not the real existential threat, OVERSHOOT is.

Overshoot occurs when people use energy and biological resources faster than ecosystems can regenerate and pollute beyond nature’s assimilative capacity. It’s a meta-problem, the cause of most so-called ‘environmental problems’ including climate change. Overshoot means that we modern humans are consuming, polluting and destroying the biophysical basis of our own existence. 

It follows that overshoot is ultimately a fatal condition. Nevertheless, the COP delegates in Glasgow didn’t even acknowledge overshoot or its consequences and implications. One has to wonder whether this is out of ignorance (it’s hard to imagine that so many government scientists and advisors are unaware of overshoot) or deliberate deception – ‘climate-change-as-distraction’ to ensure the public remain unaware of the real threat.

Climate change/global warming is merely one important symptom of overshoot. (Climate change is a massive waste management problem – carbon dioxide is the largest entropic waste by weight of industrial economies.)

We cannot solve climate change or other major symptoms of overshoot – biodiversity loss, tropical deforestation, overfishing, land and soil degradation, pollution of everything, the possibility of pandemics, etc., in isolation from the others. However, if we reverse overshoot, all its symptoms would be alleviated simultaneously.

Proposed solutions and mainstream attempts to solve climate change, including the Green New Deal, require massive investment in high-tech non-solutions including so-called renewable electricity and unproved carbon capture and storage technologies. This approach will not reverse global warming and will worsen overshoot. Modern so-called renewable energy (RE) carriers – mostly wind turbine and solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity, but also now hydrogen – face major technical difficulties including possible materials scarcity; require massive increases in mining and refining involving fossil fuels, toxic wastes and slave/child labour; are ecologically and socially harmful; must overcome major distribution bottlenecks; occupy more space than many countries have available; and are impossible to scale up in a climate-relevant time-frame. REs are also not actually renewable, merely replaceable (15-20 year working life-span for wind turbines; 20-30 for solar panels). 

Grid-scale solar PV in more northern latitudes like Canada, much of Europe and Russia is incapable of generating sufficient energy to run society. A major limitation is that capacity factors – energy actually delivered compared to name-plate capacity – are often less than 10% and the life-cycle energy return on energy invested is less than three to one). Wind is similarly unreliable in many locations – solar and wind together cannot quantitatively replace fossil fuels (FF).

In addition, wind turbines, solar panels and related infrastructure as well as electric vehicles (EVs) and all other machinery and equipment that would have to be electrified and replaced, are still manufactured using mainly fossil fuels. Even if it were viable, we cannot make the transition to carbon-free energy without FF, and this alone would soak up much of any remaining carbon budget (and some climate scientists say there is none). 

Proponents should do some math. To replace 50% of global FF use with electricity by 2030 would require that the world construct approximately 1.2 times the entire present cumulative global stock of wind farms and solar panels every year for the next nine years, and this assumes one unit of electricity is equivalent to 2.7 units of fossil energy, that hard-to-electrify applications will become easy to electrify and that there will be no growth in demand or mineral supply problems. All this in a world expecting two billion more people and a 50% increase in demand for energy by 2050. This scenario cannot happen; it is an impossibility theorem, which is a good thing because if industrial humans do acquire another abundant cheap source of energy, they will use it to continue consuming, polluting and wrecking the planet. 

While such unpleasantries could be avoided, on our present course, chaotic collapse is inevitable.

To begin solving this problem, we must acknowledge that the human ecological footprint, including the overshoot portion, is the product of average material consumption x population. For success, policies must address these factors directly. As long as we remain in overshoot, sustainable production and consumption means less production and consumption and reduced human populations.

This implies the need to negotiate: a) major changes in consumer lifestyles involving a 40% reduction globally in energy/material consumption per person (80% per capita in high-income countries); b) more equitable sharing of global bio-capacity and economic output; c) a global population strategy to enable a smooth, socially just descent to the one to two billion people that could live comfortably indefinitely without destroying the ecosphere. The overall goal needs to be a smaller, steady-state global economy/society of fewer people living more equitably and securely within the biophysical means of nature.

Unfortunately, lifestyle changes and population policies remain taboo subjects. And this explains why the official COP delegates in Glasgow didn’t acknowledge overshoot, its consequences or implications, and why the human predicament can only worsen in years ahead.

William Rees is a population ecologist, ecological economist, Professor Emeritus and former Director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning. He is a founding member and former President of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics; a founding Director of the One Earth Initiative; and a Fellow of the Post-Carbon Institute. Prof Rees’ research focuses on the biophysical requirements for sustainability and the policy implications of global ecological trends. He is perhaps best known as the originator and co-developer with his graduate students, of ‘ecological footprint analysis’. EFA shows that the human enterprise is already in ecological ‘overshoot’ and that we would need 4.4 Earth-like planets to support just the present world population at Canadian material standards. Such findings led to a special focus on cities as particularly vulnerable components of the human ecosystem and on psycho-cognitive barriers to ecologically rational behaviour and policy. Prof Rees has authored hundreds of peer-reviewed and popular articles on these and related topics.

The views expressed in guest blog posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions and position of Population Matters.


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