By Matt Owens August 21, 2013
In an article yesterday, "Radical rationing," I presented a model simulation of what a 10% cut in energy use per year would look like, with those cuts continuing each year until renewable energy met 100% of global energy use. Those rates of cuts would bring global emissions to zero by mid-century, along the lines of what Mark Jacobson and others have outlined as within reason for conversion to a carbon-free global energy system by 2050 (for example, see "We can go carbon-free. Now!"). There would be a 20 year period of heavy global sacrifice, as discussed in yesterday's article.
But heavy global sacrifice is putting it mildly. The fact is that energy consumption would be cut sharply, and even with optimistic assumptions about renewable energy production, the amount of energy produced would fall far below the amount in demand for many years. That would translate to a dramatic contraction of economic activity.
There is a similar proposal that includes rationing, called the "One Degree War Plan," a 2010 proposal by Jorgan Randers and Paul Gilding. It aims at keeping global warming below 1 degree warming. I don't think the One Degree Plan as it stands now has a chance of succeeding, and would more likely lead to a global economic collapse and war. If it was successful at holding global warming steady, it's hard to see how it wouldn't accomplish the feat without causing serious problems.
The central problem with rationing energy, is that it would be destructive to nearly every industry. There is however, an obvious countermeasure: not having to ration energy at all because the rate of renewable energy growth accelerates sufficiently fast.
In model simulations I've run with multiple pathways that compare rationing vs. no-rationing, the impact of rationing is dwarfed in comparison to a relatively modest one-time boost in the production of renewable energy.
The One Degree War Plan would by most definitions, destroy the economy. It's true that the rapid rate of building renewable energy would employ a lot of people, as would various other measures for increasing energy efficiency. But people wouldn't be able to buy much with their earnings. The culture of today uses purchased items as ways of communicating and socializing - an integral part of human life - so cutting consumption very sharply can only happen with a very strong system of cultural replacement - otherwise the friction from declining human social dynamics will become like a seized gear and bring the plan to a grinding halt.
Below is a comparison of what would be the actual demand for energy without mandated cuts (light red bars) and what an optimistic ramp-up of new renewable energy production would look like (green bars). Actual energy consumption (blue bars) falls by 1/6 from 2018 to the start of 2023 according to the One Degree proposal and then holds steady until renewable energy catches up to demand:
But we can see that the amount of energy cuts (rationing) into natural demand would grow more severe each year until 2031 and finally reach normal levels again by 2040. This does not take into account energy savings measures, but the chart below does, with a 20% cut in global energy use through efficiency over 3 years:
In both cases, the growth rate of solar plus wind energy production growth that I've used is based on the chart and table below. And obviously, if a higher rate of growth could be achieved, less rationing would be needed (also, I've used a growth rate for natural demand of energy of 2.7% per year). This rate of growth would have wind and solar meet total global energy needs, including transportation (the whole nine yards), by 2038. Such a roll-out of new energy would likely employ more than 5% of global workforce per year, based on my earlier work that extrapolated existing person-hours used in the installation and production of wind and solar. That figure could be conservative because it does not include (1) management and coordination that would be necessary for the more aggressive rate of implementation, (2) the additional labor needed for additional resource extraction, or (3) other additional employment for conversion of transportation infrastructure and other infrastructures.
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Ultimately, we can see that the required growth curve to avoid energy rations is very steep. And the use of rations could very well cause more harm than good. The worst outcome would be governmental decay and/or nuclear warfare - both of which could lead to much higher future emissions. As discussed by Mark Jacobson, nuclear war would actually release large amounts of greenhouse gas from the burning of carbon-containing materials in man-made materials (like wood, rubber, and plastic), more than overcoming the short-term cooling impact. In the case of failed states, the carbon emissions could continue indefinitely from unorganized burning of coal and oil, along with rampant environmental degradation.