Can Renewable Energy Sustain Consumer Societies?

Ted Trainer has just published a new report with the Simplicity Institute, which explores the question of whether renewable energy could ever sustain consumer societies.  My summary of Trainer’s report (see below) has just appeared on the Post Carbon Institute’s Energy Bulletin, which is available here. The full 22-page report is available here

A new report has just been published which ought to provoke a Copernican revolution in dominant conceptions of renewable energy and of sustainability more generally. The message may not be one that environmentalists want to hear, but it is one that we must all take very seriously, or risk having our good intentions dedicated to goals that cannot actually solve the very real environmental crises that we face.

Most people, including many environmentalists, seem to believe that Western-style consumer lifestyles can be sustained and even globalised, provided the world transitions to systems of renewable energy and produces goods more cleanly and efficiently. This assumption is reflected especially clearly in political discussion on environmental issues, which consistently pushes the message that we can grow our economies while reducing ecological impact. This view relies heavily on the expectation that renewable energy sources can be substituted for fossil fuels, but very little attention is given to the question of whether that expectation is realistic. Environmentalists want to believe it, but of course merely wanting something does not affect the laws of physics.  

With little recognition, Dr. Ted Trainer has spent the best part of a decade tirelessly surveying the best available data on renewable energy and other technologies, and he has recently published the culmination of his efforts with the Simplicity Institute. Contradicting widely held assumptions, Trainer presents a formidable case that renewable energy and other ‘tech-fixes’ will be unable to sustain growth-based and energy-intensive consumer societies, with implications that are as profound as they will be unwelcome.

Trainer’s general point on technology is that the extent of ecological overshoot is already so great that technology alone will never be able to solve the ecological crises of our age, certainly not in a world based on economic growth and with a growing global population. The best-known advocate of technological solutions to ecological problems is probably Amory Lovins, most famous for his ‘factor four’ thesis. He argues that if we exploit technology we could have four times the economic output without increasing environmental impact (or maintain current economic output and reduce environmental impact by a factor of four).

In response Trainer points out that if the rich economies grow at 3% until 2070, and by that stage the poorest nations have attained similarly high living standards – which seems to be the aim of the global development agenda – total world economic output and impact could be 60 times larger than it is today. If we assume that sustainability requires that fossil fuel use and other resource consumption must be half of what they are today (and the greenhouse problem would probably require a far larger reduction than this), then what is needed is something like a factor 120 reduction in the per unit impact of GDP, not merely a factor 4 reduction.

Even allowing for some uncertainty in these calculations, the claim that technological solutions can solve the ecological crises and sustain limitless economic growth is simply not credible. Trainer has shown that the necessary reductions in ecological impact that are just beyond what is remotely possible. The final nail in the coffin of techno-optimists is the fact that despite decades of extraordinary technological advance, the overall ecological impact of the global economy is still increasing, making even a factor four reduction through technological advance seem wildly optimistic.       

Trainer has also levelled a narrower critique of technological solutions, which focuses on renewable energy. This is not the place to review in detail Trainer’s arguments and research, which would be a laborious task given the meticulous and necessarily dry nature of his analysis of the evidence. For the facts and figures, readers are referred to Trainer’s latest essay. But the critical findings of his technical research can be easily summarised. After examining the evidence on varieties of solar, wind, biomass, hydrogen, etc., as well as energy storage systems, Trainer concludes that the figures just do not support what almost everyone assumes; that is to say, they do not support the argument that renewable energy can sustain consumer societies. This is because the enormous quantities of electricity and oil required by consumer societies today simply cannot be converted to any mixture of renewable energy sources, each of which suffer from various limitations arising out of such things as intermittency of supply, storage problems, resource limitations (e.g. rare metals, land for biomass competing with food production, etc.), and inefficiency issues. Ultimately, however, the cost is the fundamental issue at play here. Trainer provides evidence showing that existing attempts to price the transition to systems of renewable energy are wildly understated.

This challenging conclusion, however, only defines the magnitude of the present problem. If we were to commit ourselves to providing nine or ten billion people with the energy resources currently demanded by those in the richest parts of the world, then the problems and costs become greater by orders of magnitude. The challenges are exacerbated further by the existence of the “rebound effect,” a phenomenon that often negates the expected energy use reductions of efficiency improvements. At times efficiency improvements can even be the catalyst for increased energy consumption, a phenomenon known as the “Jevons” paradox. Going directly against the grain of mainstream thinking on these issues, Trainer is led to conclude that renewable energy and efficiency improvements will never be able to sustain growth-based, consumer societies, primarily because it would be quite unaffordable to do so.     

It is of the utmost importance to emphasise that this is not an argument against renewable energy; nor is it an argument more broadly against the use of appropriate technologies to achieve efficiency improvements. Trainer argues without reservation that the world must transition to full dependence on systems of renewable energy without delay and exploit appropriate technology wherever possible. We cannot afford not to! But given the limitations and expense of renewable energy systems, any transition to a just and sustainable world requires a vastly reduced demand for energy compared to what is common in the developed regions of the world today, and this necessitates giving up growth-based, consumer societies and the energy-intensive lifestyles they support and promote.

The implications of this can hardly be exaggerated. It means that the global consumer class must learn how to live ‘simpler lives’ of reduced resource and energy consumption, as well as build new economic systems based on notions of sufficiency rather than excess. But as I have argued elsewhere, this does not need to sound so depressing. A growing number of people are seeing the hollowness of consumer culture and are finding a new abundance in oppositional lifestyles of voluntary simplicity. The necessary cultural shift obviously requires a radical change in worldview, and it is difficult to be optimistic that the necessary changes will ever arrive. But as Lao Tzu once said: ‘Those who know they have enough are rich,’ which also suggests that those who have enough, but who do not know it, are poor.

The choice is ours, if only we choose it. 


8 Responses to “Can Renewable Energy Sustain Consumer Societies?”

  1. Damien says:

    Having not read Mr Trainer’s paper am I commenting prematurely, however, if I have understood the synopsis above that renewables cannot provide our current and near future energy demands, then Ted may have exaggerated. BZE with Melbourne University released a comprehensive report ( a few years ago detailing how Australia’s energy supply could be met using large centralised renewable solar,wind and biomass. Given the land area these powerplants consume there is no reason we couldn’t meet our energy growth demand for decades to come. This does not even consider decentralised solar and technological improvements.

    As far as meeting the rest of the worlds demand with renewables though I’m less certain. Providing the entire world with Australia’s per capita energy consumption may require some creative solutions.

    Chin Up

  2. SJ says:

    It doesn’t take much cranial fire power to work out that limitless economic growth is total folly. (Doesn’t say much for all our political and business leaders) Clearly the consumer culture must end but of coarse that wont be easy due to the current addiction. But David Suzuki did the sums and says that the planet can support 2 billion people long term with a quality standard of living. It doesn’t take much cranial fire power to work out that limitless population growth is total folly either. So a global treaty on population control is as urgent as a shift in culture away from the consumer culture. For more on the cultural aspect, google John F Schumaker.

  3. Michael says:

    and the key point from this is that in a finite world (ours) no technology can support the growth paradigm that we have had for the last 200 years. Renewable or fossil.

  4. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Damien, thanks for your comment.

    Ted is obviously well aware of the (BZE) Beyond Zero Emission’s report, which, as you say, is a major study attempting to show that Australia can be run on renewable energy. Ted’s work casts doubt on some of the assumptions of that report (e.g. see also here and here) and his analysis leads to different conclusions.

    I find it interesting that you defend the BZE report before reading Ted’s critique. This seems to support the suggestion that people tend to assume the validity of the BZE-style argument even before the evidence has been reviewed. Admittedly, I once subscribed to that assumption too. But Ted’s review of the evidence made me rethink it.

    New data is coming out everyday, so this debate is not over. BZE and other groups deserve credit for arguing one side of it. But Ted is asking questions – important questions – that nobody seems to want to hear. This isn’t making him popular, but critical thinkers aren’t in the business of making friends.

    You note your uncertainty about the rest of the world being sustained by renewable energy. This is a serious point that should inform your / our views on Australia. We should hesitate before saying that we are entitled to a level of energy consumption that the rest of the world cannot have. That position is very hard, and probably impossible, to defend coherently.

    Your final comment, “Chin up,” seems to imply that my chin was down. Not so. I try to examine at the evidence and then look for the best path forward, given the evidence. While the evidence may not be good news, gloom is a useless emotion.

    “Pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.” – Gramsci

  5. Tosh says:

    Hi Sam, great review. Thanks for sharing it.

    You may know him, but google a guy called Jeremy Grantham and throw in peak everything to your search (or see He is a big-time fund manager in the US ($100b+) that has called peak everything and suggested the only sensible medium to long-term investment is arable land, and that the most important innovation available is no-till farming. In essence, he highlights the folly of chasing compound growth and uses a nice story about what happens to 1m3 of stuff if it grows at 4.5%pa.

    I’ve done the same maths at 3%pa and compound growth simply swamps technological progress in the long-run. It doesn’t take long till your consuming planets by the thousands…

    The BZE debate is an interesting one. My take is that the BZE work is great for reframing the discussion about what’s possible. But it isn’t helpful in the debate about what we should be doing. From memory, their plan was priced at $400b. Regardless of the exact figure, that budget spent overseas would deliver far greater environmental and social benefits, far far greater than if spent domestically.

    You could easily argue it would be morally bankrupt to even attempt such an energy transition in Australia given the state so many billions of people live in around the world.

    I feel debating the technicalities of whether the plan is achievable or not, or even the cost, is somewhat redundant. The plan is obviously achievable if we applied the resources necessary. And by applying the resources necessary, the costs would drastically change. Our focus should really be on the more philosophical question – what should we do?

    Anyway, enough rambling. Go well, Tosh

  6. Lee says:

    Samuel, thank you for your summary, and also thank you to Mr. Trainer for writing the report. I agree with Mr. Trainer. I read other writings that agree with this perspective over the last couple of years with the most recent book being TechNO-Fix.

    Even with all of this evidence I still sometimes find myself wondering if technology will be able to preserve middle class lifestyles (even though I dislike much about said lifestyle). I suppose that I should read analysis like this more regularly to shield myself from the mainstream propaganda.

  7. Samuel Alexander says:

    Thanks for raising these issues Tosh. I’ve given a couple of lectures recently on the problem of sustainability in a world where so much poverty remains. You’ve prompted me to turn it into a post…. Watch this space.

    Thanks others for comments too. Much appreciated.

  8. […] A blog piece from the Dr Samuel Alexander and his look at renewable energy being able to service the energy needs of the world (and many other great articles): […]

  9. johnny rutherford says:

    Just a little comment for Tosh. I think the debate Ted has sparked is hugely important. You say the BZE report is good in ‘reframing the debate and showing what is possible’…but that’s exactly what Ted is questioning i.e is it possible to run this energy intensive society on renewables? If Ted is right, and it is not possible (mainly cause its too expensive), it would be difficult to overstate the implications. For starters it would mean those of us concerned about global warming (amongst other things) may have to give up on the hope that this economy/society can solve it (because it needs growth and lots of energy)…and start there very difficult process of thinking/discussing/building the alternative. So yeah, this is really really important!

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