Renewables – can we ever get there – when energy and climate clash

Hydrolakes in Aotearoa/New Zealand have had many years of low rainfall, but it is now happening more frequently. In dry years we revert to coal generation, making the transition to renewables harder.

When New Zealand hydroelectric power stations ran low last summer, we beefed up electricity generation with another coal fired unit in Huntly. Environmentalists were shocked. How was New Zealand going to meet its climate targets now?

Genesis Energy had planned to close Huntly station in 2018 but is still using it. Greenpeace has wanted it shut for years. The Huntly power station was commissioned in 1982 to run on gas and coal. As Māui gas supplies began to run out in the early 2000s, coal increasingly became the major fuel. RNZ reported that more coal was burned in the 2021 March quarter than each of the years 2016, 2017, and 2018.

The Huntly power station was commissioned in 1982 to run The Huntly power station was commissioned in 1982 to run on gas and coal. As Māui gas supplies began to run out in the early 2000s, coal increasingly became the major fuel.

Aotearoa/ New Zealand is hooked on coal, importing more than one million tonnes of low-grade coal from Indonesia last year. The fuel was burnt at the Huntly to keep the lights on, as hydro and gas failed to meet demand.

Due to rising greenhouse gas emissions we are experiencing warmer winters and drier summers.

So will we painlessly transition to renewables as we had hoped? As we face our climate predicament, we have to realise that over 80% of the world’s energy use still comes from fossil fuels. Let that sink in. It’s big. So it’s going to be really hard to wean ourselves off them.

Of course, the low rainfall for our hydropower dams was not new. But climate change is going to make matters worse decade by decade.

Perhaps many thought then we were the only country having to revert back to fossil fuels.

Far from it. And it is often happening because an extreme weather event cut hydropower generation.

Due to rising coal prices and power rationing, there are power cuts in China, leaving families in the dark

It is happening elsewhere but sometimes it is accompanied by geopolitical tensions as well. Southern China for instance, when its hydropower capacity ran low after droughts, reverted to coal. And this happened at the same time as China, angry at Australia’s support for an enquiry in the Wuhan Covid origins, stopped importing Australian coal.

In Europe there has been a big move towards renewables, with wind and solar beefing up. But solar and wind are intermittent and less reliable. Wind comprised 27% of Germany’s generation mix in 2020. But this all changed in 2021 when the winds died down and the percentage of the total generation dropped to 22%. So they had to revert to natural gas. A great deal of their gas came from Russia. Over the last decade the EU has imported more and more gas from Russia as their own gas ran out. Gas prices have skyrocketed along with electricity prices.

The apparent reluctance of Russia to release gas at the onset of winter has been attributed by many commentators to its desire to put pressure on the remaining EU countries to approve the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. Nord Stream 2 is a twin pipeline under the Baltic Sea. It had already cost US$11 billion and was ready to go. Eastern European Countries like Ukraine and Poland and the Baltic States withheld approval for two reasons. 1) Because Russia had annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 leaving 14,000 dead over seven bitter years and 2)because they feared it would give Russia too much leverage over EU and Putin too much power.

As the price of natural gas rises, so does electricity. The TV agency WION reports (28 Sept 2021) that electricity prices are spiralling out of control in France (up 149%), Spain (up 250%, UK 298%, Germany (up 119%) and the situation will get worse as winter closes in. Governments are already warning of blackouts and factories will be forced to shut down. Inflation has already arrived.

They finish by saying, “European countries are going to learn just how much their economies are reliant on natural gas.”

Brazil has also had to ramp up its gas fired generation after a bad drought.

Energy and Climate Clash in China

There is also the move from high energy coals to lower energy coals. In Northern China where coal mines were flooded in an extreme weather event in May 2021, they had to move quickly to find other coal sources for electricity. In early October 2021 a heavy downpour in China shut down 27 coal mines. So Chinese officials have ordered more than 70 mines in Inner Mongolia to ramp up coal production.

At the other extreme there is growing demand for air conditioning. CNBC said Japan, China and South Korea had extremely hot weather so the demand for power rose.

As if all this weren’t enough as the global mega-economy gets more and more complex, we just need more and more electricity.  Despite a slight drop during Covid, by July 2021 a headline reported the International Energy Agency saying, “Global electricity demand is growing faster than renewables, driving strong increase in generation from fossil fuels.”

Oh yes that’s because we have to have economic growth at all costs. More, more, more as comedian John Clarke says. Everything flows from growth as he says.

Smooth transitioning to renewables is looking a great deal more difficult than we ever imagined.

At a time when climate induced droughts, extreme precipitation and heat waves are disrupting hydropower generation and storage all over the world, governments are reverting to some form of fossil fuel to generate their electricity. And this all comes at a time when electricity from air conditioning and gas or power to heat homes is under pressure. Even if Europe and UK insist they want to meet their climate targets at COP26, politicians will be faced with the alternative of leaving their families in the dark without cooking facilities – or effective climate action.

Politicians want to get re-elected. That’s why my bet is that they will choose to care for their citizens and to try to ensure its factories don’t close down through lack of electricity. China has already stated its power rationing is in order to keep its climate targets and doesn’t seem to have a renewable alternative.

And all this is without ever discussing the physics or the geology of it all. For a start fossil fuels are used in the production of solar and wind power. Secondly the energy return on energy invested for solar and wind is much less than with oil, coal, diesel or gas leaving less for the economy. Thirdly there is matter of the metals required.

Are there enough metals to transition to renewables?

Professor Simon Michaux of the Geological Survey of Finland has done a remarkable study of the probable  metals  required for all the batteries for all the vehicles involved worldwide and his answer in the case of cobalt, nickel, graphite and lithium is a loud NO. He says,

“The current system was built with the support of the highest calorifically dense source of energy the world has ever known (oil), in cheap abundant quantities, with easily available credit, and seemingly unlimited mineral resources. The replacement needs to be done at a time when there is comparatively very expensive energy, a fragile finance system saturated in debt, not enough minerals, and an unprecedented world population, embedded in a deteriorating natural environment. Most challenging of all, this has to be done within a few decades. “

The zen riddle for our Government is will they recognise the predicament we are in or will they opt for Business As Usual, thereby disappointing millions of climate activists once again? In my view COP26, like 25 other COPs before it, will fail once again and to a few it will be no surprise. But they might just entertain a fleeting thought…”If only….”

 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Our Climate Shituation

Despite the alarming global environmental emergency, I am so looking forward to pohutukawas in full bloom in New Zealand

The problem with reading too much world news is that you notice so many freak weather events. As I write this, for instance, there are landslides in China, and the drought in Syria is getting desperate. The recent floods in Germany, says the Guardian, were nine times more likely to be caused by climate change than just by chance. The fires in California continue and there has been rain instead of snow at the top of a two-mile-high mountain in Greenland for the first time ever. Floods in Tennessee have caused deaths of twins lost from their mother’s arms and the death toll was rising. There is a flash flood warning in New Mexico. There are fires in Greece again. And in Siberia, Algeria, Lebanon, France, Turkey, Paraguay. The 14,000 foot Mount Shasta of Northern California was just photographed without snow for the first time ever.

Of course that’s when you only have one crisis. Afghanistan is facing three – conflict, drought and pandemic. Haiti has an earthquake, an assassination and a pandemic let alone dire poverty. The Danish Refugee Council says, “Water crisis and drought threaten more than 12 million in Syria and Iraq”. The crop failure in Zimbabwe from the drought in 2017/18 is still affecting food supply and the Red Cross there says, “There are an estimated 5.5 million rural Zimbabweans to be food insecure as a consequence, with 3.8 million people in need of food assistance.”

Stop! It is clear that we are in a pickle. Or as comedian Steve Bhaerman describes our predicament, we worry about “our climate shituation”. Anyway, that might be enough doom-scrolling for now and congratulation to those who have read this far.

Even in these times of uncertainty, the beauty of nature is there for us to marvel at

Climate and the growth imperative

I guess my new journey started this year when I worked on my submission to the Climate Commission. They were predicting virtually the same GDP in 2050 while emissions had dropped. I thought about the material throughput and all the “chewing up the beauty and spitting out money” (as Charles Eisenstein would say) and I concluded you couldn’t tackle just one environmental problem at a time because the others persist. I argued their brief should be expanded to the whole future so that we had a Futures Commission again.

The  Climate Commission’s assumption of continued GDP growth in rich countries seemed nonsense to me. At the end of her book, “This Changes Everything” Naomi Klein wrote, “the economy is at war with the climate”. But GDP growth results in species extinction too.  What about food insecurity from loss of pollinators? Bronwyn Hayward of the University of Canterbury in 2018 commented, “Having heard the new Secretary-General of the United Nations say at the opening of COP that nothing in these reports, of maintaining it at 1.5C, will affect economic growth, I think we are still living in magical thinking.”)

Will green growth solve our climate shituation?

Over the last few months I have been to Extinction Rebellion websites and learnt about Degrowth. I read Jason Hickel’s Less is More and started a Degrowth column on my Tweetdeck. Would I try to start a Degrowth pressure group in New Zealand? Possible. Then during a Zoom meeting of the Living Economies Educational Trust Nicole Foss convinced me it wasn’t going to happen because it was wishful thinking that any politicians will advocate for this and expect to be elected.

Timothée Parrique, a leader in the degrowth movement has wryly tweeted, “The cool thing about working on degrowth is that everyone loves you. It’s overwhelming really. The idea sells like hot cakes, especially among economists who just cannot get enough of it.” Then he attached a list of examples of how they describe degrowthers – dogmatists, religious fanatics, anti-modern, misguided, wrongheaded, immature. Just imagine the derision that would follow from media and big business interests –and politicians of all stripes are very sensitive to the views of big business.

People asked me if I was writing a book and yes I have collected a lot of material. But I haven’t advanced it recently. I keep reading and thinking. I have understood the myth of green growth, about the declining return on energy invested (EROI) and how that makes the mining of oil and minerals more problematic, both environmentally and economically.

Looking for Components to make Electric Car Batteries. From Foreign Control Watchdog August 2021

After digesting a great article about the limits to mining of metals for renewable energy from a prominent geologist Simon Michaux I can no longer enthuse about electric cars or solar energy or wind energy. Moreover Transitional Engineering Professor Susan Krumdieck has rubbished the idea of hydrogen as a renewable energy.

Will rationing energy do the trick?

On the other hand I have enthused about David Fleming’s great invention Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) and advocated for them on twitter. That would prevent instability as GDP declined. And like many of us I have been on Zoom calls where experts talk about climate change and urge various actions, and they almost always finish with the reassurance that if we do a, b or c or all three we will turn it around. COP26 in Glasgow will do it.  Been there, done that.

Many alternatives to GDP have been proposed (OECD etc) but the GDP ‘mindset’ suits the ‘business as usual’ focus on economic expansion of goods and services, i.e. growth, over wellbeing. In fact New Zealand is cited as an example of a country which has wellbeing indicators, but there is no regular reporting of them in the media. In contrast business reporters regularly celebrate the growth of the economy.

Or protesting on climate?

By chance then I watched a talk by the delightful researcher Brenè Brown who had interviewed many courageous people. She asked them if the main thing they had to overcome was fear. No, they said, it was the armour you put round yourself to justify and explain your lack of action that stopped you acting. Fear was with you all the time.

So I reflected on the armour I put on. It goes like this: I say to myself, no I am not going to do this or that because I am a researcher/writer and that doesn’t fit with my self-image. So I decided to abandon the armour and get into protest mode. Having never been a big protestor except during the Springbok Tour and a joining a big climate change protest, at the time I was suddenly incensed that the All Blacks had signed a deal with INEOS, the oil company. I bought materials to make placards and made contact with others. A date was set. I practised my sign-writing.

Then lockdown came.

I was recently at a meeting where, after a conversation about the inaction of local and national government on climate, a person I respect said, “Don’t go down that rabbit hole I would never come out.” It set me thinking.

The Limits to Growth

In 1975 I was a candidate for the Values Party, three years after the landmark report The Limits to Growth which concluded that if global society kept pursuing economic growth it would experience  a decline in food production, industrial output and ultimately  population within this century. The Values Party had the nerve to question whether GDP was always progress. Twenty years later I was to learn the role of the money system in creating this growth imperative. Forty years later Wise Response, a group of environmental academics based in Dunedin, has been making submissions pointing out the limits to growth to government for years.

Then came Gaya Herrington’s article. She works at the accounting firm KPMG and holds a master’s degree in Sustainability Studies from Harvard University. Her July 2021 report appeared to show  that controversial 1972 study predicting the collapse of civilisation was – apparently – right on time. Both of the most closely aligned scenarios  with the data (“Business and Usual” and “Comprehensive Technology”) indicate that business as usual, pursuing continuous growth, “is not possible,” even when paired “with unprecedented technological development.” Such scenarios “would inevitably lead to declines in industrial capital, agricultural output, and welfare levels within this century.” In an article for the Club of Rome she says, ” The strongest conclusion that can be drawn from my research therefore, is that humanity is on a path to having limits to growth imposed on itself rather than consciously choosing its own.”

When I  watched an hour long talk by ecological economist William Rees called “Climate change isn’t the problem, so what is?” I was struck by the graph of steadily rising emissions  in the atmosphere with several landmark climate conferences placed in it. He said there were 34 international climate conferences held over 50 years and half a dozen major agreements.. “and they don’t produce a dimple on this rising curve of carbon dioxide emissions.” I couldn’t help wondering what makes us so optimistic and that the trend will suddenly stop. What on earth is this conclusion? Are we an intelligent species or not? That version of optimism is more like wishful thinking, which decides what works and tried to force that idea to work, even if it doesn’t.

The Paradox of Post Doom 

Recently I have been reading the book edited by Jem Bendell and Rupert Read Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos and then my YouTube threw up a talk by a fellow I had never heard of. At first I thought he was a fraud. He was talking about writers I had never heard of. Then as we went further into his extraordinary presentation, I paid more attention. He said the decline was already happening and eco-anxiety was normal and healthy. He is Rev Michael Dowd and has a website http://postdoom.com. In his podcast section he lists his interviews with people like Shaun Chamberlin, Jem Bendell, Rupert Read, Richard Heinberg, Gail Tverberg, Steve Keen, Joanna Macy, Matt Slater, Steve Bhaerman, Paul Ehrlich and many, many others, asking them the same set of questions about the future.

I have now listened to several of these interviews. Rupert Read, who often uses the sentence, “This civilisation is over” gave a very thoughtful interview. He related the story of how in 2018 he wrote a piece and sent it on email to several colleagues, asking them not to send it on. They replied saying it was worth publishing but he was too apprehensive so published it under a pseudonym. Once again a good response. He said he had a huge surge of energy to live a good life of service to others after he went through the door of gloom and grieving. Michael Dowd and he agreed on this. It’s a huge paradox. You don’t have to get stuck in a state of despair or cynicism, you don’t need to get paralysed. Once you stop fighting the denial, once you resist falling into the trap of compulsory optimism and hope, relief sets in and you emerge energised. The unnamed unease is gone. It’s a relief to face reality and the energy you spent in denial or false optimism is now available to use.

Similarly Jem Bendell was reluctant to put his thoughts out there in public for a start and got a fair bit of flak from his 2018 article Deep Adaptation.

So what is the alternative now? Face the coming decline of our civilisation and live a good life on this wonderful planet.

Politicians will chose economic growth not climate action

My observation is that the demand for economic growth will always trump meaningful action to halt the decline of the ecosystem on which we depend. It happens within Council’s departments and in Government departments and in Cabinet. It happens when global fossil fuel corporations, fixated on quarterly reports and profits, rationalise their way to ever greater extraction of oil and gas and coal. It happens because of our systems of government seem powerless to stop them.  It happens after every international climate conference.

Why? Many years ago I did some quick research on the interlocking directorships of the major companies in New Zealand – banks, utilities, energy, transport, alcohol companies and so on and I came reluctantly to the conclusion that these few men were more powerful in many ways than the government.

The societal demand for compulsory optimism

Insisting on optimism in the face of so much evidence is maladaptive.

Just because our species has messed with the planet’s climate doesn’t mean there isn’t joy in gazing at beauty.

I am not sure where this will all take me. All I know is that during lockdown I am standing in awe at the miracle of spring, of emerging life. Just because I have somewhat given up hope that all my work and the work of countless others over the last decade or two on climate change will come to anything it doesn’t mean I will stop working. There is life on the other side of contraction and collapse. There are plenty of victories that can be won. There is community to build, there is my garden to tend to, there are people to care for and who care for me. There are things in our culture to save.  All civilisations eventually die and homo colossus will not be spared. But what will rise from our mistakes? What lessons will be learned? How many groups will emerge and where? Will they be more humble, ecologically sustainable and equitable?

I am no more pessimistic today than I was last year. I smile as much. I cook just as many tasty meals. I laugh and sing still. It’s just that I believe it is time to face the fact that we are spoiling our home and it is probably irretrievable. Our civilisation is dying and the die-off will not be equal or fair. It’s time to grieve and emerge from the grief stronger and more loving.

As Ronald Wright observed in The Short History of Progress, civilisations like Easter Island and the Maya civilisation often fail because of some combination of overpopulation, environmental degradation, warfare, shifting trade routes and long drought. He argues that all successful cultures eventually fall victim to “progress traps” – technological adaptations which all allow excessive collection of resource wealth leading first to luxury, and then inevitable collapse. These cultures, before they collapsed, showed evidence of the development of social elites who contributed to the environmental abuses – another example of how our human species is so fragile. But whereas in all of these cases the collapse was local this time it involves the whole planet.

Now if you will excuse me there is new growth on my tamarillo tree to marvel at.

 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Sustainability and Money

Sustainability and money Deirdre Kent Nov 2020

A few months ago I gave this presentation to a climate change group. Hope you enjoy it. Well it’s not actually enjoyable to know that energy use and economic growth are so closely linked. As Naomi Klein said “The economy is at war with the climate”. We are going to need all our collective intelligence to downshift without chaos. Can we manage an energy descent without it being haphazard and dangerous socially?

That is why I got to be studying Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) which set the scene for a well managed transition to a low energy economy.  I even wrote a blog on it recently.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) – Rationing that works

Some years ago I read about Tradable Energy Quotas as a method of ensuring everyone has access by right to their fair share of what fossil fuels are left and high energy users could buy units from low energy users. Then, being aware that our country, and indeed the whole world, was not make the necessary cuts to emissions in time to have a liveable climate, I thought to revisit the idea.

I discovered that not only had the idea lasted, but that there was a UK  organisation called the Fleming Policy Centre which promoted it. This was named after the visionary green economist Dr David Fleming whose ideas on de-growth for a post fossil fuel economy are well worth reading. He died in 2010 but his friend Shaun Chamberlin carried on his work, finishing his two books Surviving the Future and Lean Economy.

Rationing had always appealed to me.  As a child I remember taking ration coupons to the shop to buy sugar, clothing, butter and tea along with our money. Naturally our parents managed the petrol coupons.

Petrol was rationed from 1940 to 1950. During the last three years of the war the restrictions were severe. New Zealand also rationed clothing, footwear and nylon stockings.

Then in the 1970s there were oil shocks. When carless days were introduced in 1979 they were unpopular and largely ineffective because a black market arose in exemption stickers given to car owners in essential industries. Petrol rationing was threatened but never imposed.

The fact is that black markets will always appear when there is no trading allowed in ration coupons. And if you ration per month with no trading allowed, then people will buy all the petrol they can and store it in all sorts of containers like “califonts, kegs, kettles, demijohns, vinegar and whisky bottles, tins of all descriptions” as one account says. The government then made this illegal, which really encouraged a black market.

TEQs are ration coupons but they will come in digital form these days like Airpoints or Flybuys. The difference is that you can’t use them alone when you cash them. You will have to surrender them along with your cash when you buy petrol or gas or any fossil fuel.

Fleming worked it out that only 40% of petrol users were private individuals and the rest were business, governments and other organisations. Each year there is a set number of TEQs allowed. 40% are given to individuals in a weekly allowance. The business and governments have to get theirs through buying them at a weekly tender and this sets the price in NZ dollars when people come to trade them. Through a market, heavy users will be able to buy TEQs from low users. Buying and selling is as easy as topping up a mobile phone or Snapper  or HOP card for bus trips.

Fleming argues that this method puts the onus on the users to find the best ways of reducing their fossil fuel use. (More about this later). In WW2 people used horse and cart or just walked.

And of course TEQs units also be denominated in emissions rather than energy. In fact it makes more sense these days to do that now that we know how many categories there are for emissions. That’s worth doing instead probably. But you can understand that this was invented in 1996 before so much was known about our NZ emissions. We certainly didn’t know agriculture contributed nearly half our emissions in those days and we have quantified emissions from waste much better too.

A great deal more information on TEQs are at https://www.flemingpolicycentre.org.uk/faqs. This will take a long time for you to get through. Skim it and come back and back. I recommend reading the 2011 All Party Parliamentary report.

If you are a New Zealander and interested in following through as an idea, please get in touch with me at deirdre.kent@gmail.com as we are trying to start a movement to promote TEQs.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut Economics” is a great starting point for new thinkers

Kate Raworth is an author who can’t be ignored. Google her book “Doughnut Economics” and you get 155,000 results. In September 2020 Goodreads had 549 reviews and Amazon 469 ratings. Her book is lucid and accessible and I love her chapter headings. She has an extraordinarily comprehensive list of references.(Some chapters have 90-100)

This is a comprehensive review of orthodox economics over a few centuries. Her “doughnut” metaphor describes the realm of a living habitat for humans as being only in the doughnut. We have to be lifted out of poverty to reach a certain minimum standard of living, yet not consume so much of the earth’s resources so that we are breaching planetary boundaries. Her doughnut is unforgettable and will go into future economics textbooks. She describes a social floor for wellbeing and an ecological ceiling. 

To illustrate her strong call to rethink economics she packs her chapters with a dense and interesting mix of facts and trends within economics thinking. The strength of this book is that because of Raworth’s deep understanding of the history of economic thinking she is acutely aware she is just but one thinker in a chain, and that there will be another generation of thinkers beyond her. She regularly invites her readers to think our way out of this mess and tempts us with numerous leads. She is an advocate of drawing diagrams. 

However naturally there are omissions and blind spots. 

Naturally when reading a new book on new economics (I have written two) I go straight to their bibliography and there I find a good list on the topic of money and an excellent one on tax –Gaffney and Harrison, Henry George, Michael Hudson, JS Mill, Ricardo, Josh Ryan-Collins and Peter Barnes. I also find Michjaninel Bauwens on the commons and Janine Benyus on biomimicry.

So here is what I think a list of what the next generation of thinkers could productively focus on:- 

First Omission – asking what is the root cause of the growth imperative?

One of the more irksome features of her discussion is that she never really asks what causes the growth imperative. She doesn’t appear to stress that it is built into the system. While she cites many who write on money creation including Benes and Kumhof, Charles Eisenstein, Michael Hudson, Steve Keen and Bernard Lietaer but never seems to use the phrase “interest-bearing debt” or explore the consequences of issuing money this way. She dabbles but pulls back when it comes to probing important leads. I urge thinkers to read Chapter 2 of economist Richard Douthwaite’s book The Growth Illusion, where after a discussion about the consequences of issuing money as interest bearing debt, he concludes. “In our present economic system, the choice is between growth and collapse, not growth and stability…The alternative is slums, dangerous roads, old factories, cramped schools and stunted lives.” Douthwaite, like Raworth, was a development economist who spent years on overseas aid work,  and in the process he had to spend time relearning and unlearning economics. 

Second Omission – the role of power

When I was a  full time advocate in the smokefree campaign in the 1980s, I watched public opinion change over a decade of debate and conflict. I was high profile in the media for a decade. On non-smokers’ rights I was a controversial figure in many households, workplaces and clubs. The health lobby, equipped with all the scientific facts, gradually and painfully learnt the reality of political power. We started to understand the subtle influence of the tobacco industry, and came to realise that the frustrating reluctance of politicians to move was because they were waiting for public opinion to change. So I always notice when an academic advocates for change and appear to imply it happens without pain and struggle. The famous quote of Mahatma Gandhi, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” is relevant here. So even a passing reference to the role of power and the agony of the political struggle would have been helpful here.

Third Omission – the importance of currency design 

Kate Raworth leads us to the insightful author Silvio Gesell, summarises his argument for a demurrage currency, chooses the best quotes from him, and then pulls back. I urge the next generation of thinkers to follow through this clue, because the design of money changes everything, from purchasing behaviour to investment patterns. If Keynes called Gesell ‘an unduly neglected prophet’ we should really pay attention. She has a whole chapter called ‘Design to Distribute’, but completely omits the critical nature of currency design. 

She has read Bernard Lietaer, or at least one of his books, but the next thinkers should read the more of Lietaer and think deeply about his argument that the design of money affects human economic behaviour and that there are good examples in history of a dynamic, successful societies where dual currencies contribute to this result.

Fourth Omission – Energy Decline

I am not sure I do it justice either, but those who understand that because of peak oil the net energy in the industrial system must decline, also know that we have to live with progressively less net energy. That is a big concept because economic growth has for decades been closely correlated with energy growth. 

When it comes to discussing the regenerative circular economy,  where the essential concept is to ensure we can unmake everything we make. I am not sure how this fits with the Second Law of Thermodynamics says that processes that involve the transfer or conversion of heat energy are irreversible. … It  also states that there is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state. As energy is transferred or transformed, more and more of it is wasted. So the circular economy is not that simple.

I am rather inclined to agree with a University of Otago scientist Craig Anderson who recently wrote on an email discussion, “Concepts like Doughnut Economics will not achieve what we need – they sound lovely and the heart is definitely in the right place – but these concepts are still not yet grounded in the realities of the remaining resource base and energy constraints.”

Fifth Omission – Land Tax reform

She has spent a few pages on Henry George who would replace income tax with land value tax and on the origins of the board game Monopoly. This occurs under the chapter heading Design to Distribute. But she doesn’t really convey that land tax is the most powerful way to distribute wealth. Those wanting to take this topic further should learn about the value of inner city land, not just rural land and learn from Georgist organisations like Progress in Australia for more information. A discussion of the relative merits of capital gains tax, land value tax, death duties, wealth taxes, estate taxes would have been useful.

This book is a must read for any critic of orthodox economics. Raworth concludes, “We are all economists now”. So if we are to survive, we can’t avoid this discipline. Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

To get the next economic system we need to find the assumptions of this one

Banks Peninsula fires after drought Feb 2017

Many are asking if we have to sit around waiting for the current system to collapse. If we have only 3 years to turn around the emissions pattern as the UN has said, we had better get on with designing the next system.

The current system assumes:

  1. There will be only one currency for a country.
  2. The majority of the country’s money will be created and controlled by private banks.
  3. The money will be created as interest-bearing debt.
  4. All land, all natural resources and natural monopolies can be privately owned, and this means people can profit from buying and selling it.
  5. All major decisions will be made by national or international governments or agencies.

This all adds up to a system with a growth imperative built in.(For years I thought it was just the money system but I believe now after a conversation with Steve Keen it is a combination of that and the land tenure system) The consequences are regular booms and busts, regular monetary crises, banking crises and sovereign debt crises and ever widening wealth inequality.

Edgecumbe floods 2017

The growth imperative also means that it is inevitable that we consume our natural and social capital.  Perpetual growth is not natural. There is no entity in nature which is designed to grow forever, unless, as Margrit Kennedy pointed out, you count cancer. And now we are paying for our blindness with floods, droughts, coastal erosion and food shortages.

Therefore the phrases ‘doughnut economy’, ‘stable state economy’, ‘no-growth economy’, ‘regenerative or resilient economy’ are good descriptive words, but they don’t change the current economy’s DNA. We have been inventing more and more names for this since the publication of The Limits to Growth and arrival of the NZ Values Party in the seventies. They all sound good but we can’t go on and on pretending there isn’t a growth imperative built into the design of our mono-currency economy.

It is like saying I would like this rose to be white and scented but in fact it is red and unscented. The redness and unscented is built into its DNA and no amount of nice new language or great new writing will alter it. We just can’t go on creating more and more names for a good economy.

The Growth Imperative is in the DNZ

I am sure economists like Kate Raworth are contributing to raising awareness but honestly, give or take a few years of dormancy, people in the advanced economies have been at it since the 1970s. The Greens talked about it for a few years but dropped it like a hot cake quite a while ago.

Now I don’t expect too much new thinking will come out of universities. It is tricky for a university economist to breach the parameters of what they can say without losing their salary. Professor Steve Keen is having to crowdfund his salary now.

It is now time to acknowledge that we need to leave the new system alone and invent an entirely new model. We can’t solve climate change within the current model.  Within the old system you can’t put on a hefty carbon tax and expect a different political result from Australia. (Yes you can plant trees and do other things, sure.)

Supposing therefore we allow:

  1. There to be more than one currency
  2. It must be publicly created and controlled for inflation.
  3. The currency will be spent into existence not lent into existence.
  4. The currency will be designed to decay (Silvio Gesell’s quote is “Only money that goes out of date like a newspaper, rots like potatoes, rusts like iron and evaporates like ether can be capable of standing the test as an instrument for the exchange of newspapers, potatoes, iron and ether.”)
  5. The commons must be publicly owned and rent for their monopoly use must replace income tax and sales tax.

I realise that these are all huge jumps in thinking and the last point means there have to be very strong leasehold contracts to protect the occupier of the property together with no rent on land used for conservation or historic purposes.

Naomi Klein has spelt out this challenge for a new economic system in her book This Changes Everything.

Though The Next System Project is grappling with the challenge of finding it in Washington DC it would be great to have a special platform somewhere in NZ to work on it ourselves.

Oh, and by the way, my book The Big Shift – Reinventing Money, Tax, Welfare and Governance for the Next Economic System is available from Living Economies bookshop. It is the result of a four-year think tank of what was the New Economics Party and is the source of the above ideas. We may be right we don’t know, but we tried.

 Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The price of petrol and climate action

Climate change groups were noticeably absent from the recent public discussion about the rising price of petrol. Nobody was saying publicly that if we are to turn emissions around, we have to make it more expensive to drive. Not the Greens, not Generation Zero or 350.0rg. Nobody. It had been a unanimous outcry of pain against high petrol prices. Why? Surely lower petrol prices would clog up our roads, get people off public transport and adversely impact our emissions?

Here was a discussion about how the margins had increased in Wellington and the South Island yet nobody had said we should drive less so use petrol and reduce our carbon footprint. Nobody came out with a comment that the oil companies have a growing debt burden because it is getting more and more uneconomic to get oil out of the ground, so it is not surprising. They have been binging on debt and are struggling to pay dividends and find new barrels. The big four doubled their net debt between 2014-2016.

The public debate was started by Judith Collins the Minister of Energy and Resources after a report came out, and Labour’s Stuart Nash praised her for ordering the report. Labour’s Stuart Nash praised her for ordering the report.

So how important is petrol to us? The average Kiwi family spends $42.30 a week on petrol – only $8 less than their average weekly spend on meat, fruit and veggies. That is mighty close. It won’t take much for petrol to be a bigger part of the budget than food. And to complicate it, when petrol costs rise food costs mostly get passed on to us.

But then I thought of the implications. The gross profit margin on fuel at the pump had doubled to about 30 cents a litre in Wellington and the South Island over the past four years and gone up by 5c a litre elsewhere. It has something to do with Gull only selling petrol north of Levin, but it is more than that.

The petrol retailers Z Energy, BP, Mobil, Caltex and Gull all defended their positions. Maybe the companies are suffering from their growing debt burden so increasing their margins are the only way to stay solvent.

Ten years ago when many environmentalists were involved with peak oil we would argue that the price of oil will one day be over $100 a barrel. It hasn’t turned out that way because we didn’t factor in debt or falling interest rates. As actuary Gail Tverberg says, the economy was far more complex than the original model assumes. “When interest rates fall, this tends to allow oil prices to rise, and thus allows increased production. This postpones the Peak Oil crisis, but makes the ultimate crisis worse.”

We all remember that the economy slowed right down when the price of oil spiked in 2008. That showed us how critical the price of oil is. High prices on energy products ripple through the economy is many different ways. Just thinking about the price of petrol gives a misleading impression. Tverberg says, “Because interest rates, debt, wages, and oil prices (and, in fact, commodity prices of all kinds) are linked, the system is much more complex than what most early modellers assumed was the case.”

Not all of us can get a handle on the huge complexity of it all and I am no exception. But I know Tverberg believes the price of oil will not rise beyond about $50 a barrel because consumers can’t afford it.

Environmental commentators are faced with several problems. First they are unlikely to have an understanding of the complexity of the peak oil problem and secondly because they know that saying petrol prices should rise (through increased taxes) will be unpopular. The petrol price components vary.

What should happen of course for climate change purposes is for the Government to increase taxes on petrol, diesel etc. The fact that the oil companies have been the villain has excused the government for inaction. Now we can cry together that the oil companies are a greedy, conniving cartel. I am not sure that does much to reverse climate change trends.

Back in 2015 the IMF issued a warning that permanently low fossil fuels are choking off investment in renewable sources of energy and hindering the fight against climate change. A year later after a big study, the World Bank chimed in.

 Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Sarah vs the Govt – thoughts after first day in court on climate targets

Sarah Thomson poses for media outside Wellington High Court. She is taking the Government to court on their climate change targets

On approaching the High Court yesterday I was first struck by the sign outside that said “System Change not Climate Change” held up by a pressure group. Why didn’t I call my book this? It’s a damn good slogan. Crowds soon gathered and the media arrived to interview Sarah Thomson, the law student taking the case on climate targets.

When a 24 year old takes the Government to court it has got to be newsworthy and important. When her lawyer Davie Salmon started up, the years of preparation showed and a very long friendly conversation between Salmon and the judge began. Huge piles of documents were behind the young woman judge and I couldn’t help thinking this judge has the power to rule that the government revisit its emission targets and she looks five foot nothing. We have to stand up when she leaves the court.

Sarah Thomson with supporters. From left Deirdre Kent, James Renwick behind, Sarah, Paul Bruce, Tim Jones (behind) Diana Shand RNZ photo

The argument that New Zealand is small therefore we don’t need to do much was thoroughly demolished, especially with Salmon’s suggestion that if the boat is sinking everybody bails, no matter how small their bucket.

He took us through the difference between the target of 1.5 degrees vs 2 degrees of warming. Reality strikes when you realise that, although he said he wouldn’t exaggerate, he used the word ‘catastrophic’. Yes beyond two degrees it is catastrophic and James Renwick had reminded us outside that it is only five years till we get to 1.5 degrees. David Salmon persuasively argued that you shouldn’t rely on technologies that don’t exist yet to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. He said it was like telling someone to keep smoking in the hope someone would invent a cure for lung cancer. One cannot predict inventions. Therefore no real weight can be put on that hope.

System Change not Climate Change

He impressed on the judge the comprehensiveness of the AR5 summary of climate change knowledge worldwide. The sheer size and scale of the work was noted and the fact that it is always out of date before it is published. He said, “I don’t want to make you read it all Your Honour, is scary reading about floods and famines, mass migrations and conflicts and some of it is dry and detailed”. She replied, “I’ll be happy to read it”. He said,”Maybe not happy by the time you finish.”

Sarah and her boyfriend were sitting in front of me in the gallery. Occasionally she would lay her head on his shoulder. When later she put her arm around him I wondered if that couple would ever have children and what sort of world will it be for them. Will their mothers grieve for the grandchildren they wish they had? But I do know they should be immensely proud of their children and of themselves for bringing them up to have such a huge sense of responsibility.

My thoughts, as always, went to economics. Where were the economists in this court? I couldn’t see a soul.  What would they say if they were here? Yes, Salmon talked about Business-as-Usual scenario and I thought that even Helen Clark’s government did nothing to stop the intensification of dairy because it feared the economy wouldn’t grow enough and they would be out of government. And so we get agricultural emissions rising.

Sarah Thomson and Prof James Renwick outside Wellington High Court Monday 26 June 2017

And Naomi Klein realised the economy was at war with the climate.

So I thought what would it really take to change the economic system from growth dependent to a healthy one? How many really want to face up to the money system and that the land tenure system (and therefore the tax system) simply have to change. It’s a big shift for people’s mindsets. What causes the growth imperative? It is the combination of privately owned land system with an interest-bearing debt money system controlled by private banks. A match made in hell. Maybe we have to get to hell before we wake up.

We have the choice of catastrophic climate change or economic collapse. Both are horrible. Please, someone, focus on changing the political economy before it is too damn late!!

I kicked myself that I hadn’t written a flyer for my book and taken it with me.

 Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail