Why proposing a high-tech solution is no longer gambling but suicide 

 

The fear that new technology (= T) will rather inflame the state of mankind (via skewed growth, excessive growth, rebound) than prevent or delay the destruction of essential environmental conditions, has already been put into words by the Meadows team at the presentation in 1973 of the first quantitative world model (Limits to Growth). They therefore preferred a social value shift (i.e. a moral fix) over a technical operation (i.e. a techno-fix) as answer to the rock-hard growth limits they had calculated

These doubts were later expressed more clearly in some schools of thought within the sustainability field. Heinberg described the purely technical answer to the climate problem as hopeless: "A gargantuan investment in technology (whether next-generation nuclear power or solar radiation geo-engineering) is being billed as our last hope. But in reality it’s no hope at all". However, in other sustainability schools (e.g. eko-modernism), the techno-fix is embraced precisely out of hope. "Their justification for doing so is that people want a vision of the future that’s cheery and that doesn’t require sacrifice", says Heinberg.

The seducing glow of hope on the surface of the techno-fix really shouldn't be compensating the uncertain nature of this way out, especially not in situations where manoeuvering along the edge of extermination is required, but it does. The assumption that a constantly ongoing technological restructuring will enable us to have enough zero-emission energy in time, to continue undisturbed our entire worldwide exchange circus, is a core belief under the existing human decision-making processes at any level. It is alive, strong and tough because those who want to maintain at all costs the current rules of the economic game - i.e. the private, mutual, and institutional owners of movable and immovable assets - are financing like madmen this answer to the climate issue. Both right and left. The Green deal plans are also examples of techno-fix. They are packages of technology change (= dT).

In the current climate situation, however, the insight is awakening (see the criticised film of Gibbs and Moore, or scientific articles such as this, or this one very recent) that new technology alone can't sufficiently attenuate emissions in time. But, if you don't apply that insight before the future makes it true, it doesn't help you. The climate movement and most sustainability think tanks are doubting around this issue far too long. One doesn't really think decidedly, keeps spinning and lingering and longing for easy solutions, is of course like everyone else quite energy addicted (the comfort of the cities and the high-carbon lifestyle).

The question of whether dT can save us, is far too indefinite to be answered. You can keep sucking on that question for years to come and let the dream continue. But more concretely posed that question does have a clear answer. If you put it this way: "Can dT save us from climate collapse when we maintain the laws and rules that regulate and limit today's socio-economic manners of producing, trading and transporting?", the answer is pertinently negative. The only thing that can save us is that within three to five years we will quit completely the use of fossil fuels. A total emergency stop. And no dT can do that.

Why not?
Take a good look at the most recent high-tech proposal, namely the large-scale development of hydrogen technology to power long-distance transport flows and heavy-duty mobile machinery. This star has been sparkling as a jewel in the sky for decades, but the resulting basic conclusion as it was in 2006: 

"The large amount of energy required to isolate hydrogen from natural compounds (water, natural gas, biomass), package the light gas by compression or liquefaction, transfer the energy carrier to the user, plus the energy lost when it is converted to useful electricity with fuel cells, leaves around 25% for practical use."

remains valid to this day (see for example this 2019 video by Real Engineering).
Face it: You need two to four times as much energy infrastructure behind hydrogen energy (for extraction, compression, storage, transport/distribution, and conversion) as in case you would make that (electrical) energy directly productive. Okay, the advantage of concentrated local power that hydrogen provides is substantial. Could be handy on a small scale, but when one envisages, as recently many governments do, running all the gigantic transport flows of our current global exchange circus on hydrogen, that's a lunatic plan. Even if you produce that H2 with the most sustainable energy, then that additional energy infrastructure will boost your emissions steeply skyhigh because there is no sustainable energy that is emission-free. The production of infrastructure plus the maintenance will give every form of renewable energy (including hydropower, also wind) a fairly heavy emission burden.
In short: The dream of making all heavy long distance transport flows emission-free with the help of hydrogen technology is a soap bubble. For a mega energy transition or mega-CO2 capture infrastructure to be realized in the current socioeconomic set-up will certainly require for decades the whole breadth and depth of the global interaction circus − with all its mining, its long distance long-chain production methods and the necessary global transport flows. And all that mining, processing, and transport will run on fossil fuels for the next five years, because we've got nothing else at this moment (apart of less than 15% renewables). So?

From this perspective, the monster error of the sustainability and climate movement right now is that they don't speak out in time against the technology way-out within the current economic rules of play. Everybody knows that such a techno-fix (= dT) without a decades-long very deep dive into the fossil fuel reserves (and with it strong decline in the CO2 absorption capacity of the biosphere) is absolutely unrealizable. So you're just completely implausible if you demand an acute emergency stop on fossil fuel use without rejecting that dT. What's more, the climate movement's call for sufficiency and limitation of life styles (and pursuing social justice at the same time) won't hold water because of the previous contradiction, because you don't attack the basic economic rules in such a way that transformed it could make both sufficiency and social equality realizable. The achievement of those two conditions fall outside the bandwith of behaviour trrajectories of the current national and international economic race. Her pistons are driven purely by expansion and inequality, i.e. the opposite of what you call for..

But beware, with a plate full of incompatible wishes you're classified as a spoiled child who can't choose and so continues to demand everything at the same time. Such talking doesn't arouse the walking. Nobody will follow you. The only path that is consistent with both the call for sufficiency-based lifestyles and the emergency stop on fossile fuel use, is an acute low-tech rural-oriented solution, in which T is regulated from local needs and circumstances.

Those who know that, and that's a fairly significant pragmatic part of mankind, want to fight for that because that path is difficult but acutely life-saving and consistent. So start that tune. Then you'll get fanatical backing with which you can tackle opposition. You want to lead, don't you? You can't hang back at a time like this. We're faltering on the edge of extinction, as you say yourself. We need to drop high tech now, and turn against it. We need to get out of the game in which she plays the leading role.

j. nijssen, 2020