Capitalism Will Ruin the Earth By 2050, Scientists Say

The good news is, by cutting our consumption, there's another way.
October 21, 2020, 1:00pm
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A spate of new scientific research starkly lays out the choice humankind faces in coming decades: 

By 2050, we could retain high levels of GDP, at the price of a world wracked by minerals and materials shortages, catastrophic climate change, and a stuttering clean energy transition —paving the way for a slowly crumbling civilization. 

Or, we could ditch the GDP fetish and enter a world of abundance, with energy consumption safely contained within planetary boundaries, and high-tech economies that support jobs, health and education for everyone without costing the earth.

On the first option, scientists backed by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program have concluded that capitalism-as-we-know-it cannot support a successful clean energy transition.  

Not only that, but capitalism is on track to lead the world into mineral shortages and supply bottlenecks that could cut short efforts to decarbonize transport systems, guaranteeing dangerous climate change. 

The new study published in the journal Energy Strategy Reviews finds that electrifying our cars, trucks and trains so that they run on renewable energy is only viable if we reduce the endlessly growing levels of consumption in industrial societies. That, effectively, means fundamentally transforming the very sinews of capitalism. 

The good news is that separate research published in September proves that such an economic transformation is perfectly feasible while still maintaining a good quality of life for people all over the world. 

Modeling the world 

The transportation study is based on a highly sophisticated ‘integrated assessment model’ (IAM) that brings together a vast amount of empirical data. Known as the MEDEAS-World model, it incorporates feedback relations between global and regional economies; renewable, fossil fuel energy flows and energy infrastructure; technology developments and costs; minerals and land requirements; climate change and water; and many other sectors. 

Earlier this year in February, the EU-team released a detailed explanation of how the model works in Energy & Environmental Science, a journal published by the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK. The model points to a perfect storm of converging problems.  

The model reveals that fossil fuel energy sources are approaching “biophysical constraints” related to “Energy Return on Investment” (EROI)—an efficiency ratio based on the quantity of energy needed to extract a certain amount of energy from any given resource. 

Oil, gas and coal, including unconventional sources, are experiencing a combination of increasing costs and declining returns, indicating an overall decline in EROI. This in turn could reach a point where their continued extraction becomes too costly to sustain. Unfortunately, the MEDEAS model shows that renewable energies do not necessarily solve this problem, due to several limitations.

These include issues like the intermittency issue: wind energy only works in areas where the wind blows, and depending on seasons, for instance. Renewables also require more land to produce equivalent quantities of energy compared to fossil fuels; and they are still dependent on a large supply of minerals and materials to produce renewable power plants and related infrastructure.

An EV revolution to avert energy and climate disaster 

In their new paper, the team behind the MEDEAS model apply this framework specifically to the analysis of transportation, which relies overwhelmingly on liquid fuels largely derived from oil.  

The scientists argue that although not widely recognized, “Most global oil extraction forecasts predict stagnation in the 2020s decade.” This is due to the stagnation of conventional oil production since around 2006, and the ensuing reliance on more expensive unconventional fuels which are also likely to decline within coming decades.  

Therefore, transitioning to renewable energy systems will be essential not just to combat climate change, but to evade an energy crisis.  

In particular, the study confirms the importance of shifting to battery electric vehicles for private and public transport, describing it as “the best option” for energy savings and potential greenhouse gas emission reductions.  

But there is a problem: if we continue growing our economies at current rates, it will require a level of minerals and materials that the Earth will not be able to provide. This is the case even if heavy materials are replaced with light alternatives.  

For instance, the automobile industry is replacing steel components of the electric motor, battery and vehicle body with wrought aluminum, magnesium and titanium, or other composite materials such as carbon fibre reinforced plastic. Yet “these materials tend to require more energy and have a higher global warming potential in the production stage than the heavier materials they replace.” 

Endless growth will generate minerals scarcity within decades 

The EV transition is, in short, a massive industrial project. Electrification of roads and rail will require upgraded smart grids, complex routes connected to high power lines, and regular battery-swap stations. The paper explores several scenarios to explore how such a transition would take place. 

In a continuing GDP growth scenario, the authors note that the economy begins to stagnate “due to peak oil limits at around 2025-2040,” but GDP is able to continue growing thanks to the EV transition. This shows that the reduction in liquid fuels in transportation can play a powerful role in avoiding “energy shortages in the economy as a whole.” 

But then the economy hits the limits of mineral and material production to sustain this electric transition—in just three decades. And this is even with high levels of minerals recycling.

By 2050, in this scenario, the EV transition will “require higher amounts of copper, lithium and manganese than current reserves. For the cases of copper and manganese the depletion is mainly due to the demand from the rest of the economy,” but most lithium demand “is for EV batteries,” and this alone “depletes its estimated global reserves.”

Mineral depletion takes place even with “a very high increase in recycling rates” in a continuing GDP growth scenario.  

In one such scenario, the authors apply what they consider to be realistic upper level recycling rates of 57 percent, 30 percent and 74 percent to copper, lithium and manganese respectively. These are based on extremely optimistic projections of recycling capabilities relative to their costs.  

But still they find that even these high recycling rates wouldn’t prevent depletion of all current estimated reserves by 2050. The conclusion corroborates findings of other studies, estimating an expected bottleneck for lithium by 2042-2045 and for manganese by 2038-2050.  

Actual bottlenecks could come even earlier because existing studies—including the MEDEAS model—don’t account for material requirements needed for internal wiring, the EV motor, EV chargers, building and maintaining the grid to connect and charge EV batteries, the catenaries to electrify the railways, as well as inherent difficulties in recycling metals. 

Endless growth cannot avoid dangerous climate change 

The continuing GDP growth scenario also guarantees that the world fails to meet the Paris Agreement targets for a safe limit of global average temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

The model shows that although dependence on fossil fuels is greatly reduced in the transportation sector, the drive for continuing GDP growth means that other economic sectors continue to intensify their dependence on oil, gas and coal consumption.  

Therefore, while greenhouse gas emissions go down in the transportation sector, “the shortage of liquid fuels is delayed for some years and the economy grows more” in other sectors:  

“The final result is that in total, GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions do not decrease as intended by the transport decarbonization policies, and even could increase in absolute terms… Since GDP tends to grow because the current economic system is based on this objective, a constant increase in energy demand is almost impossible to avoid.” 

This means that global average temperatures would continue to rise well over 1.5C, tipping over into the danger zone that guarantees catastrophic impacts such as the destruction of most of the world’s coral reefs, increased crop failures, accelerating destructive extreme weather events, and so on.

Letting go of growth 

On the other hand, the authors find that the only scenario in which the world is able to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent in the transportation sector by 2050 involves “a radical shift towards light electric vehicles, shift of road freight to electric train, ambitious recycling mineral levels, drastic reductions in the demand for transportation (especially for those more polluting such as aviation) and a significant decrease in overall economic activity.”  

All this will require what the authors describe as “a profound change in the dominant economic paradigm”—namely, capitalism. 

In other words, the only way to avoid catastrophic climate change is by shifting to a new social and economic framework called “degrowth”—that is, where current “growth-oriented economies evolve towards a new system that fulfills human needs without the necessity for continuous growth.” 

While these would meet ambitious decarbonization targets in line with the 1.5–2°C limit, the authors point out that unfortunately these policy options generally fall “outside the political and economic options of the moment.”  

Indeed, the new paper has its detractors. Auke Hoekstra, a researcher at Eindhoven University of Technology’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, argued in a Twitter thread that the study wrongly assumes a battery size 10 times higher than they need to be for electric trucks, citing the Tesla Semi as an example. This results in overestimating the extent of projected mineral requirements, he explained.  

But according to study co-author Iñigo Capellán Pérez—an industrial engineer at the Group for Energy, Economics, and System Dynamics of the University of Valladolid, Spain— Hoekstra’s criticism is too “simplistic” as he assumes levels of technical performance “which have not been reached” and which rely on “very specific wheels and an aerodynamic tractor unit that is not allowed in the EU.”  

Pérez also told me that Tesla’s claims about the technical performance of its electric trucks do not stand up to independent analysis.  

In fact, after the exchange with Hoekstra, Pérez’s team began plugging in some of the alternative figures into the MEDEAS model to see if the overall verdict still stood up. So far, he told me, the results were “not so far” from the initial findings. 

He pointed out that their modelling approach is focused on assessing technologies based on current knowledge of technical performance and their anticipated limits. Technological developments which are too uncertain and unlikely to hold much promise are therefore excluded.  

The model also looks at potential costs. If viable technologies have “huge costs, how can we think that these can be spread over the world, where let's not forget still hundreds of millions of people do not have access to electricity—where are these trucks going to even recharge?” 

Quibbling over these uncertainties raises important data points, but doesn’t invalidate the model’s overall policy implications, he said. 

Prosperity—without growth

The biggest policy implication, it seems, is that to successfully decarbonize our transportation systems, we will need to shift to a new sustainable economic model quite different to the current form of capitalism which requires continuous growth just to avoid economic collapse. 

And that will mean prioritizing meeting human needs and well-being with a much lower material footprint on the planet than we currently have in place today. 

A major new study by scientists at the University of Leeds School of Earth and Environment, University of Lausanne Faculty of Geosciences (Switzerland), Yale School of Environment, and International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, proves unequivocally that such a post-capitalist transition is entirely workable. 

The paper published in the Global Environmental Change journal concludes that by 2050— when the MEDEAS model sees capitalist endless growth generating multiple mineral scarcities—global energy consumption could be reduced to less than 40 percent of current levels of global energy consumption: while still providing a decent standard of living for as many as 10 billion people.

This is roughly the same level of energy consumption as in the 1960s when the human population was just three billion people. 

The study compared current levels of energy consumption across 119 countries to the estimates of how much energy we need for decent living. It found that the vast majority of countries actually have too much energy, far more than they need. In some of the world’s richest countries with the highest per-capita consumers, it’s possible to cut energy consumption by much as 95 percent while still providing decent living standards to all.

This standard of living, which the authors describe as “sufficiency,” provides a compelling response to “the clichéd populist objection that environmentalists are proposing that we return to living in caves.”

The study shows that under a transformed economic system, everyone in the world could receive highly efficient facilities for cooking, storing food and washing clothes; an ample supply of clean water for drinking and bathing; the maintenance of a constant comfortable air temperature of around 20°C throughout the year, irrespective of geography; computer access and a global internet infrastructure; extensive transport networks including up to 15,000km of mobility per person per year; universal healthcare; universal education for children and young people; and a reduction in necessary working hours—and all by more than halving current levels of energy consumption.

“While government official are leveling charges that environmental activists ‘threaten our way of life’ it is worth re-examining what that way of life should entail,” said study co-author Professor Julia Steinberger who leads the Living Well Within Limits project at the University of Leeds. “There has been a tendency to simplify the idea of a good life into the notion that more is better. It is clearly within our grasp to provide a decent life for everyone while still protecting our climate and ecosystems.”

Altogether, these studies suggest that doing away with endless-growth-capitalism is not just necessary to avoid catastrophic materials shortages and dangerous climate change destabilizing our societies within a few decades, but could pave the way for a far more equitable economic system which protects the planet while sustaining prosperity for all.