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Can Civilization Survive? These Studies Might Tell Us

Can Civilization Survive? These Studies Might Tell Us thumbnail

The world’s shift away from its current reliance on fossil fuels will be the biggest, most expensive, and most complex technical project ever attempted by humans. If it fails, that might mean the end of industrial civilization. For it to succeed, enormous amounts of investment and effort, along with some shared sacrifice, will be required. These are the conclusions of key recent studies attempting to model the global energy transition.

Energy is essential; it’s what enables us to do literally anything and everything we do. Fossil fuels, with their ability to store and deliver enormous amounts of energy, underpin the modern industrial world. But since fossil fuels are finite and polluting, it’s imperative that we plan a shift to renewable energy systems that can be sustained over the long term.

A transition away from fossil fuels is not optional; in some form or other, it is inevitable. However, there are serious questions about how much it will cost in terms of money, energy, and emissions; how fast we can accomplish it; and what kind of society can be supported by the alternative energy sources we adopt—presumably, a suite of sources dominated by solar and wind power.

These questions have political and economic dimensions. But relying on politics or economics to guide the transition would be foolish, without first analyzing the options and their physical-world implications. Otherwise, politicians and economists will just try to maintain our current industrial system as much as possible, even though this system is inherently unsustainable (due to the fact that it depends overwhelmingly on depleting fossil fuels) and is generating cascading crises via climate change.

Trained analysts are using computer-based models to gauge what the energy transition will mean, and how it can best be accomplished. But, so far, transition modeling has received remarkably little attention from policy makers or the general public.

What We Need to Know

The first efforts toward energy transition modeling mostly estimated how many solar panels and wind turbines would be needed to replace the energy we currently derive from fossil fuels, and how much all of that technology would cost. But the energy transition will be a far more complex task than just building new energy generators. Because solar and wind power are intermittent, energy storage will be required, along with more redundancy in generating capacity. Because most of the new energy sources will produce electricity, while most current energy usage infrastructure is designed for storable fuels, we’ll have to electrify a great deal of energy-using technology (electric cars are just the start). At the same time, we’ll need a whole new industry to make low-carbon fuels for technologies that will be hard to electrify—like cement kilns and airplanes.

The field of system dynamics is ideally suited to energy transition analysis, since its practitioners aim to model changing complex systems. System dynamics studies often produce several possible scenarios, with each scenario based on the adjustment of a key variable.

With regard to the energy transition, we need system dynamics scenario studies that can answer the following questions:

  • How much will the transition cost monetarily—not just for panels and turbines, but for the system as a whole, including all the new electrified infrastructure, along with infrastructure needed for energy storage and the production of low-carbon fuels?
  • How much energy will it take? Building all this new infrastructure will take energy. In the early phases of the transition, most of that energy will come from fossil fuels, which supply over 80 percent of global energy currently.
  • What about carbon emissions? During the energy transition, society will be emitting more greenhouse gases than it would otherwise (due to ramped-up industrial processes needed to build new energy infrastructure). How much more?
  • How will the transition affect economic growth, and vice versa? If the global economy continues to grow, that might make the transition harder, as more energy would be required for non-transition purposes. But deliberately contracting the economy in order to direct more energy toward the transition might erode financial (and political) support for the project.
  • How will the transition impact society’s return on the energy it invests in getting more energy (energy return on investment, or EROI)? It is the high energy profit ratios of fossil fuels that have enabled humanity to construct complex industrial societies in which the great majority of people spend their days using energy rather than producing it. EROI for fossil fuels is generally declining due to the depletion of high-quality stocks of oil, gas, and coal, while EROI for renewables is generally increasing due to technology improvements. But the situation is complicated: during the transition, energy costs will come earlier than the energy paybacks, thereby possibly lowering the EROI for society as a whole, at least temporarily. And EROI for renewables could decline due to the depletion of mineral and metal ores needed to build these technologies at scale (since it takes more energy to mine and refine lower-grade ores).
  • How will the transition be impacted by materials scarcity? The construction of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and other renewable energy technologies at scale will require enormous amounts of metals and minerals, some of which are already scarce.
  • What are the costs and benefits if the transition goes faster or slower? The speed of the transition could have varying impacts on the economy, on energy availability, on societal EROI, and on greenhouse emissions.

Clearly, there’s a lot that we need to know. And, adding further to the complexity, we can’t just address each of these questions independently, because all of the parts of the energy system, and the industrial system it powers, will be constantly interacting. That’s why we need scenarios based on dynamic systems modeling.

Interest in energy transition modeling is fairly recent, but the academic literature is growing quickly. Dozens of relevant research papers have been published in the past decade, though most attempt to answer just one or two of the questions listed above (for example, a report by McKinsey consultants estimated that the global transition will cost $275 trillion over 30 years; that report was criticized here). A full discussion of all these publications would be unwieldy, especially since many do not employ system dynamics methodology. Instead, let’s survey just two recent system dynamics studies that address many of the questions I’ve posed. One study’s conclusions are more gloomy, the other’s less so.

“Dynamic Energy Return”

The first study is “Dynamic Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROI) and Material Requirements in Scenarios of Global Transition to Renewable Energies” by Iñigo Capellán-Pérez, Carlos de Castro, and Luis Javier Miguel González, published in Energy Strategy Reviews in November, 2019. Below, I’ll refer to this study simply as “Dynamic Energy Return.”

The “Dynamic Energy Return” team of scientists focused on EROI, because they believe it will be the key to the outcome of the energy transition. If societal EROI is high during and after the transition, that means energy will be easier to obtain. And with more plentiful and cheaper energy, other problems will be easier to solve. For example, cheap energy could enable the processing of lower-grade mineral and metal ores in larger quantities, thereby making it cheaper to manufacture renewable energy components and install infrastructure. However, if societal EROI declines, most industrial and economic problems become harder to solve—whether they involve manufacturing or resource acquisition.

This study’s findings are worrisome. Currently, according to the authors, the world gains 12 units of energy for every unit of energy invested in producing energy (via drilling oil wells, mining coal, building nuclear power plants, manufacturing and installing solar panels, and so on). A nearly full transition of the global energy system by 2060 would reduce that payback to between 3 and 5 units. The authors note that previous research suggests that an energy profit ratio in the range of 3:1 to 5:1 could not sustain the operation of modern industrial societies.

Societal EROI would decline partly because of the increased need for energy to build new energy infrastructure. Even though the new energy generators would be producing more energy over their lifetimes than would be expended in building them, energy investment would come first while energy payback would be achieved over years or decades. Therefore, a fast transition means that the EROI of the energy system as a whole would decline, at least until after the transition is mostly finished. Moreover, “the production of energy would need to increase by 35% in order to supply the same level of net energy to society during the transition.”

The “Dynamic Energy Return” study also found that greater requirement for raw materials could drive “a substantial re-materialization of the economy.” The authors estimate that cumulative demand would surpass current mineral reserves for tellurium, indium, tin, silver, and gallium.

The implications of the study are startling. If society pursues a fast transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy alternatives while attempting to maintain current levels of energy usage for other purposes (agriculture, manufacturing, building heating and cooling, road and building construction, and transportation), energy systems will be strained, possibly to the breaking point. Indeed, under conditions of declining EROI and resource scarcity, the transition might fail and industrial societies might find it difficult to stave off collapse.

“Energy Requirements”

The second study, “Energy Requirements and Carbon Emissions for a Low-Carbon Energy Transition,” by Aljoša Slameršak, Giorgos Kallis, and Daniel W. O’ Neill, was published in Nature Communications in November, 2022. I’ll refer to this study as “Energy Requirements.”

Partly confirming the “Dynamic Energy Return” results, the authors of “Energy Requirements” found that “the initial push for a transition is likely to cause a 10–34% decline in net energy available to society.”

Again, these authors found societal EROI to be a key metric in modeling the transition. Indeed, this study was structured around three scenarios—high, medium, and low EROI. The energy transition’s cost and difficulty increased significantly as the assumed EROI declined.

“Energy Requirements” also investigated the cumulative carbon emissions associated with the transition to a low-carbon energy system, and found that they will likely be substantial, ranging from 70 to almost 400 billion tons of CO2, depending on the scenario. For comparison, today’s global carbon emissions clock in at about 50 billion tons per year.

By 2050, if society pursues a rapid transition, activities associated with building, operating, and replacing energy generators will produce over two-and-a-half times the percentage share of society’s overall carbon emissions as compared with today’s fossil-dominated energy system. That seems counterintuitive; however, for the current energy system the authors are counting mainly emissions from drilling and mining—not the burning of the fuels that are produced, as those emissions are associated with other economic sectors (agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, etc.). This finding means that, if society’s overall emissions are to stay within the budget permissible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, the rest of society (i.e., sectors other than the energy industry) will have to reduce emissions, perhaps effectively to zero. How this could be accomplished for sectors such as aviation and the steel and cement industries is barely imaginable. Unless we figure out how to reinvent many key industrial processes, they’ll simply have to be significantly downsized.

The conclusions of “Energy Requirements” are relatively optimistic: in its “high EROI” scenario, the reduction in societal EROI during the transition is modest, and the jump in emissions is relatively small. Moreover, the authors conclude:

“A good life could be achieved at lower per capita energy use by improving the efficiency of energy using technologies (e.g. by replacing gasoline-powered cars with electric cars), by shifting from consumption choices with higher energy intensities to choices with lower energy intensities (e.g. from cars to bicycles), and by avoiding the most inefficient alternatives altogether (e.g. flying).”

Comparing Two Studies: What Can We Learn?

Controversy within the community of energy transition modelers largely boils down to differing assumptions about current and future EROI figures for renewable energy sources. In the research literature, some studies suggest that the overall energy return for renewables is far lower than that for fossil fuels, while other studies find the energy return for solar and wind to be somewhat higher than for oil currently. These differences in EROI estimates stem largely from design differences of the studies. Some studies count only the most essential energy inputs to the building and operation of renewable energy generators; these studies tend to find a higher EROI. Other studies draw a wider boundary that includes additional factors, such as energy storage, which yields a lower energy profit ratio.

Renewable-energy EROI pessimists argue that, when modeling a global energy transition, the widest possible boundaries should be used. Indeed, EROI pessimists would likely consider even the “low EROI” scenario of the “Energy Requirements” study to be unrealistic, because it assumes rising EROI figures for renewable energy technologies. Would the EROI figures for renewables really improve, as the depletion of high-grade deposits of minerals and metals forces manufacturers of low-carbon infrastructure to expend more energy in mining and refining?

On the other hand, renewable-energy EROI optimists point to the recent history of falling costs for most of the technologies associated with renewables, and argue that further efficiency improvements are inevitable, especially if resource constraints can be kept in check by substituting common minerals for ones that are growing scarce.

The two studies do agree on some general points:

  • The energy transition will require a significant expenditure of energy. This will have implications for the overall economy. In general, energy will tend to be more expensive during the transition (though how much is unclear).
  • The energy transition will generate extra carbon emissions (how much is unclear).
  • The faster the transition, the more wrenching it is likely to be for society. Therefore, starting sooner is better. That’s because, as the EROI of fossil fuels inevitably declines, everything we do that depends on fossil fuels will get harder and more expensive—including the construction of renewable energy infrastructure. Ideally, we should have started the energy transition decades ago, when energy usage was lower, and we had both higher-EROI fossil fuels and a larger carbon budget. Those who seek to delay the transition (as the fossil fuel industry has done) are making matters much worse for society.
  • Higher energy usage for non-transition purposes makes the transition more difficult. Because the energy transition will itself require a great deal of energy, both society’s total energy demand and its carbon emissions will increase during parts of the transition—unless energy usage for “normal” operations (transportation, manufacturing, etc.) can be curtailed.

In the best-case scenario, the energy transition is certainly possible, if problematic. But well-meaning organizations promoting the notion of “green growth” may be encouraging unrealistic expectations, given the costs and constraints outlined above.

In the worst-case scenario, the pathway to the maintenance of industrial civilization narrows considerably. Indeed, if the conclusions of “Dynamic Energy Return” are correct, a successful transition will probably require fundamental changes not just in industries, but in our economic system as well. And the latter would have significant political implications (the Yellow Vests Movement and the Canada Truckers Protests offer only faint hints of what could be in store).

In all scenarios, some degree of shared effort and sacrifice will be needed throughout society during the transition.

Although reducing energy consumption for “normal” societal operations appears to be a key to the success of the transition, there is still relatively little discussion along those lines among national and global policy makers. That’s understandable, given that economic growth requires more energy, and politicians have learned that pro-growth policies are the key to winning elections. This is why climate discussions among political leaders quickly turn away from the subject of limiting consumption and toward carbon offsets and emissions reduction targets that are merely aspirational and that have failed to rein in fossil fuel dependency and global warming. It’s also why climate activist Greta Thunberg characterizes most global climate policy discussion as “blah, blah, blah.”

Energy transition modeling is complicated and imperfect. But its conclusions so far should be an urgent wake-up call for policy makers everywhere. Hello Washington, Geneva, and Beijing: is anyone listening?

Richard Heinberg

18 Comments on "Can Civilization Survive? These Studies Might Tell Us"

  1. makati1 on Wed, 28th Dec 2022 11:00 pm 

    “…some sacrifice will be needed…”

    I agree. The 1st world will have to lower its lifestyle at least to that of the “developing” world. “Civilization” will go on, but in a different form and not the dream “eat bugs” future of the WEF or unicorn fart power of the “Renewable” dreamers.

  2. Ower Shelf on Wed, 28th Dec 2022 11:19 pm 

    I appreciate you taking the time to write this post, which is really helpful and engaging because of the content.

  3. Ower Shelf on Wed, 28th Dec 2022 11:19 pm 

    Thank you for the excellent post! It covers all bases. Some of the stuff I already knew, but I also learnt a lot. This is content that should absolutely be shared.

  4. Bill Simpson on Wed, 28th Dec 2022 11:32 pm 

    Way before 2050 a lack of liquid fuel made from increasingly scarce oil will force the transportation system to shrink. That will force the economy to shrink, which will probably collapse the financial system from an excessive amount of unpaid debts. It nearly happened in 2008 from a trivial unpaid debt problem, compared to a global fuel shortage.

  5. makati1 on Thu, 29th Dec 2022 4:11 am 

    Bill, it is going to happen in the US long before even 2030. Perhaps next year. The Fed is doing everything possible to collapse the US economy.

    The West is committing suicide in so many ways, it has to succeed. My hope is that it goes down before it can start a kinetic WW3. We shall see.

  6. Theedrich on Thu, 29th Dec 2022 3:33 pm 

    Current U.S. civilization will not survive. The Washington, D.C. crime syndicate is deliberately importing lethal drugs like fentanyl to kill American teenagers and even gradeschoolers.  The masses keep voting for the same killers every time, who are allowing like-minded narcotics death squads to invade the country in large numbers.  The grotesque, obvious lies spouted by the Democrat (and partially Republican) mouthpieces are swallowed whole by the herd.  And it will continue to do so until physics takes over and the entire Ponzi scheme collapses.

    𝖁𝖊𝖗𝖎𝖙𝖆𝖘 𝖑𝖎𝖇𝖊𝖗𝖆𝖇𝖎𝖙 𝖛𝖔𝖘.

  7. makati1 on Thu, 29th Dec 2022 3:58 pm 

    I might add to your drug thoughts, Theedrich. The gutter slime in DC also pushed the GMO-JABs on everyone who could not think for themselves. If even half of what I have been reading is correct, deaths from Covid mRNA “vaccines” are no more than a “Russian Roulette” death choice. Suicide by stupidity.

  8. FamousDrScanlon on Thu, 29th Dec 2022 8:15 pm 

    Theedrich, do you have any evidence that this Washington, D.C. crime syndicate [names] is deliberately importing lethal drugs like fentanyl to kill American teenagers and even gradeschoolers?

    The great American historian Alfred McCoy showed that the US had no problems with drugs & helped smuggle heroin when they though it helped their agenda in SE Asia during the Vietnam war. Apparently the same CIA criminal operation was used in Afghanistan & may still be happening, but fentanyl from China would be competing. Perhaps the CIA said fuck it & now mixes chink fentanyl with Muzzy Mountain milk of poppy.

    The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade

    “The first book to prove CIA and U.S. government complicity in global drug trafficking, The Politics of Heroin includes meticulous documentation of dishonesty and dirty dealings at the highest levels from the Cold War until today. Maintaining a global perspective, this groundbreaking study details the mechanics of drug trafficking in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Central America. New chapters detail U.S. involvement in the narcotics trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan before and after the fall of the Taliban, and how U.S. drug policy in Central America and Colombia has increased the global supply of illicit drugs.”


    Here is the thing – 8 billion chimps competing in the midst of unprecedented Overshoot, AND catastrophic runaway climate change AND an ever worsening biological holocaust (mass extinction) which most don’t see or feel sever consequences from YET because we are still protected by the semi visible techno industrial shield wall managed & maintained by millions of humans & powered by loads & loads of fossil fuels.

    As far as our techno industrial shield wall goes it matters not which tribal monkey is in the white house nor do the words puked from it’s communication hole matter. All that matters is the energy & other needed inputs continue to flow to our shield wall. This is how the world really works. Terrorists could slaughter 100000 politicians & the system will keep shielding & feeding us. The politicians/leaders/daddies are not critical. Seriously damage or reduce our industrial nitrogen fixation process (Haber-Bosch) and billions could die. A million Bidens or Trumps are worthless compared to the Haber-Bosch process. In fact anyone who cannot describe what the Haber-Bosch process is & does – they don’t know how the world works. Any major break in our wall is big trouble & some could act like dominoes.

    I saw a US power company had to beg & plead their customers to not use power at such & such time. Real 21st century global super stars y’all Americans are. Countries that were 3rd world last century have more reliable grids than the US fucking bailing wire & electrical tape are holding it together. That’s Reagan’s privation. Why the fuck you people continually put your faith in actors is beyond me. I don’t get how the retard brain works. I’m high noww

  9. FamousDrScanlon on Thu, 29th Dec 2022 8:19 pm 

    The History Channel Is Finally Telling the Stunning Secret Story of the War on Drugs

    For decades the U.S. government has engaged in a shifting series of alliances of convenience with the world’s largest drug cartels.
    Jon Schwarz

    “Not only is it an important contribution to recent American history, it’s also the first time U.S. television has ever told the core truth about one of the most important issues of the past 50 years.

    That core truth is: The war on drugs has always been a pointless sham. For decades the federal government has engaged in a shifting series of alliances of convenience with some of the world’s largest drug cartels. So while the U.S. incarceration rate has quintupled since President Richard Nixon first declared the war on drugs in 1971, top narcotics dealers have simultaneously enjoyed protection at the highest levels of power in America.”

  10. Theedrich on Thu, 29th Dec 2022 9:45 pm 

    Pelosi & her queer hubby hate cis-male Americans. That is why she invents so many anti-American measures to destroy traditional culture.  Her Latino-friendly motto:  “Kill with fentanyl.”  Biden, Schumer and the Deep State (Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex, etc.) agree:  conquer the world using murder by any means.  The stooge electorate will never know or care, just so long as we treat them as the mushrooms they are.  Down with the Constitution.  It was made by a gang of racist White non-LGBTQ-etc. men, and needs to be thrown on the dust heap of history, replaced with vengeful and parasitic Coloreds of all types.  Pelosi and comrades will Build Back Better.

    𝖁𝖊𝖗𝖎𝖙𝖆𝖘 𝖑𝖎𝖇𝖊𝖗𝖆𝖇𝖎𝖙 𝖛𝖔𝖘.

  11. Cloggie on Fri, 30th Dec 2022 3:58 pm 

    Peak oil is so overrated. Here the fantastic video of a guy who travelled from Vancouver to the southern tip of South-America… by bike:

  12. suxs on Fri, 30th Dec 2022 6:17 pm 

    Theedrich, who is your audience? The more conspiratorial crap you throw out, the worst the results for your side as evidenced by the Midterm election results. The Dems outperformed the Repugs so convincingly that you have to go back to 1936 to find more favorable results.

  13. Hello on Fri, 30th Dec 2022 7:42 pm 

    >>> The Dems outperformed the Repugs

    My words suxs. You nailed it. Since the majority of the US is now retarded niggs/ragheads/spice and other assorted 3rd world imports, no doubt that’s reflected in the polls. Retarded niggs tend to vote for retarded dems. No surprise there.

  14. makati1 on Fri, 30th Dec 2022 9:41 pm 

    suxs and Hello live in their own little uneducated, narrow minded world, not reality.Any form of education is painful and to be avoided. All they can do is try to put down their betters. Children are more mature and intelligent.

    So, from the above comments:

    suxs is a Dumbocrat
    Hello is a Repuglican
    Both are thoroughly brainwashed and uneducated.

  15. Ye Jew Boo on Sat, 31st Dec 2022 6:40 pm 

    Only thing that allows civilization and human life to exist is THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF YAHWEH. Everything else is Satan’s bloody shit.

  16. Test on Sat, 31st Dec 2022 6:42 pm 


  17. makati1 on Sat, 31st Dec 2022 8:54 pm 

    The West no longer follows the 10 suggestions, Ye. No do they believe in a god other than power and $$$. Their demise is imminent and not soon enough.

  18. Cloggie on Tue, 3rd Jan 2023 2:22 am 

    The first victim of developments as described by Heinberg will be the private car and mass flying. And it will begin in Europe, thanks to US imperial adventures in Ukraine.

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