Recently, two different articles, James Taylor's Forbes blog post, "The Black Death, Longing for the Good Old Days" and Michael Klare's piece for TomDispatch.com "The New 30 Years' War," which invokes the medieval war of the same name, each trotted out a bit of history from the dark ages that each claims can inform our current global climate and energy situation. Each does so in a completely different way, to be sure, and each from, I suspect, a different ideological orientation. But they're wrong. They're both so wrong.
Let's dispense with the craziest first. Taylor, in "The Black Death, Longing for the Good Old Days," seriously tries to get us to believe that global warming "has been a welcome respite from a long and deadly Little Ice Age," and asks "Why are Mitt Romney and global warming zealots yearning for a return to the conditions of the Little Ice Age and the Black Death?" No, really, he does. Please click on the link above if you think I'm kidding or trying out for a job at The Onion. Taylor begins the piece with a long description of the horrors of the plague and goes on to cite some unrelated stats about summer versus winter mortality rates in modern times. Never mind that the Black Death peaked in Europe during its horrible first wave between 1347 and 1350 and that climatologists define the Little Ice Age as the cold period between 1550 and 1850 (in fact there's research suggesting the opposite of Taylor's claim; the Black Death may have actually helped precipitate the Little Ice Age). Never mind his assertion that "a thousand years ago, Europe was experiencing a golden age." (Informal poll: Raise your hand if you wish you lived in 1011.)
Taylor seems to diverge from topic not only in throwing Mitt Romney under the bus, but also in making an aside plea to reinstate the deadly pesticide DDT as a panacea to the spread of malaria, paradoxically ignoring research that malaria's spread may have been aided by warming. Mosquitoes and many other disease vectors, in fact, threaten to increase their geographical ranges as the planet warms. So it's only appropriate that in attempting to make us fear a world without massive carbon emissions, Taylor concludes with a final image of disease: "As Poe concluded [in] The Masque of the Red Death, 'And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.'" Pretty much dismissible as ideologically motivated fear mongering. Enough said.
How then to divine the motivations of Michael Klare's "The New 30 Years' War?" Now I generally agree with Klare's green energy positions and his support for next-economy tech overall. But I want to focus on what, for me, is his central claim: By 2041, after a sometimes bloody war for energy dominance, wind and solar combined will be supplying merely four percent of world energy. This would represent a quadrupling of the two sources' current combined one percent, which might sound like a big increase, but Klare's not talking about 2015 or 2020, but 2041. If we haven't achieved far higher levels than four percent of true renewables -- and, no, I don't mean natural gas -- by 30 years hence, it will spell climate disaster.
The greatest scope for increasing the use of renewables in absolute terms lies in the power sector. In the New Policies Scenario, renewables-based generation triples between 2008 and 2035 and the share of renewables in global electricity generation increases from 19% in 2008 to almost one-third (catching up with coal). The increase comes primarily from wind and hydropower, though hydropower remains dominant over the Outlook period. Electricity produced from solar photovoltaics increases very rapidly, though its share of global generation reaches only around 2% in 2035. The share of modern renewables in heat production in industry and buildings increases from 10% to 16%. The use of biofuels grows more than four-fold over the Outlook period, meeting 8% of road transport fuel demand by the end (up from 3% now).
Solar PV is represented at two percent, and wind isn't given a quantitative amount but is considered more primary than solar PV, so one might assume that it'll be more than two percent in this scenario, but perhaps not, so, four percent, total.
But this is the assumption made under only one of IEA's possible future energy scenarios, the New Policies Scenario, which assumes a very cautious, slow approach to a transition to renewables. Many IEA ministers plan to push hard for the world to take a better path, outlined in IEA's more aggressive 450 Scenario, saying:At the IEA Ministerial meeting, a large majority of Ministers showed their intention to take the lead, organise themselves and commit to the challenge to reach the 450 Scenario - the energy path of Green Growth. Only by mitigation action in all sectors and regions can we turn the 450 Scenario into reality," stressed Mr. Tanaka. Energy efficiency is the largest contributor, accounting for over half of total abatement by 2030. Low-carbon energy technologies also play a crucial role: around 60% of global electricity production comes from renewables (37%), nuclear (18%) and plants fitted with carbon capture and storage (5%) in 2030. Furthermore, a dramatic shift in car sales occurs, with hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles representing almost 60% of sales in 2030, from around 1% today.The 37 percent renewables figure does not break out wind and solar, but with hydro electric providing 9.5 percent and other sources essentially negligible, these two renewables must account for far more than four percent for the 450 Scenario to be achieved. Why Klare has chosen to discuss only the grimmest scenario is a mystery to me.
Finally, Klare sets us to worrying that wind and solar may be too technologically immature to ever provide much power:For these two alternative energy sources to claim a significantly larger share of the energy pie, as so many climate-change activists desire, real breakthroughs will be necessary, including major improvements in the design of wind turbines and solar collectors, improved energy storage (so that power collected during sunny or windy periods can be better used at night or in calm weather), and a far more efficient and expansive electrical grid (so that energy from areas favored by sun and wind can be effectively distributed elsewhere). China, Germany, and Spain have been making the sorts of investments in wind and solar energy that might give them an advantage in the new Thirty Years' War -- but only if the technological breakthroughs actually come.Meanwhile, a remarkably thorough report commissioned by the European Renewable Energy Council and Greenpeace claims that we can obtain 95 percent of our global energy requirements from renewables, largely with existing technologies, by 2050, just nine years after the conclusion of Klare's new 30 Years' War.
Undoubtedly the future will unravel to reveal something between Klare's dark vision and Greenpeace's rosy one. The point is that the true renewables of wind and solar will grow fast and inversely to the risk of dramatic, civilization-threatening climate change. The faster solar and wind grow, the safer we'll be. As portfolio managers, we believe folks will become more aware of this reality, and whatever numbers the prognosticators try to pin on renewable growth will ultimately not matter as popular awareness advances.
Unfortunately, much as I might object, purveyors of disinformation are doing their job. While scientists have never been more certain about the fact of human-caused global warming, public belief (in the United States anyway) has for the moment declined. Thus is the era of fossil fuel over-dependence extended a few more years, and, proportionally with the length of delay of transition to renewables, so grow the risks to our economy and environment. Stop discussing the Middle Ages. We're worried about the future.
Garvin Jabusch is the cofounder of Green Alpha Advisors, LLC and manages The Sierra Club Green Alpha Portfolio -- a unique blend of Green Alpha Advisors' Next Economy universe and the Sierra Club's proprietary green-investment guidelines.