Fossil fuels, food and a just, sustainable response to COVID-19

A recent article by David Roberts, “A just and sustainable economic response to coronavirus, explained,” recommends some approaches to jump-starting the US economy after the Coronavirus crisis in order to get it moving in a new and more sustainable direction.

While there’s plenty in there that I’d agree with, such as cash transfers and support for small and medium enterprises, and I’d certainly share the author’s goal of a zero-carbon economy, I’m troubled by some of the core assumptions that Roberts makes.

The nub of my difficulty is what Roberts refers to as the ‘key context’ for the paper’s argument, which comes from Carbon Tracker analyst Kingsmill Bond, and is paraphrased from an article by Bond entitled “Peak fossil fuel demand”:

“Fossil fuel industry growth has been slowing (to about 1 percent last year) as the world begins the shift to cleaner energy. Together, renewables and nuclear power now make up 12.8 percent of total global energy supply. Analysts agree that a structural shift is underway and that fossil fuels are going to peak and begin a permanent structural decline relatively soon.”

Both Bond’s and Roberts’ articles imply that the main reason for the slowing in fossil fuel industry growth is that more efficient renewables are poised to take over, and they refer to various other historical technological shifts, such as the move away from horse power and the transition from gas lighting to electrical lighting, to bolster their case.

On a superficial level it may be true that renewables are becoming more efficient in relation to fossil fuels – but there is an important nuance which is being missed and which will hugely affect our future. It’s that high-quality fossil fuel, in particular oil, is getting harder and harder to source, and therefore less and less efficient once you factor in the energy that’s required to extract it from the ground. So the goalposts are changing all the time, making renewables appear more efficient than they really are. In fact it’s very unlikely that they’ll ever reach the efficiency of the ‘golden age’ of oil production, which is now well in the past.

Of course, with the Coronavirus crisis and the resulting oil demand crunch, we’re now seeing ‘you couldn’t make it up’-type scenarios of there being nowhere to store the excess fossil fuels that are being pumped out of the ground, which may distract us from the bigger picture.

Although this slump in oil demand may seem welcome at first to those of us concerned about climate disruption, I think we’ll need to play our cards very carefully indeed to make sure things don’t quickly turn extremely nasty – or rather, even nastier than they already are, particularly for the 2.7 billion people worldwide whose work has been abruptly halted or cut back by the Coronavirus pandemic.

The fact that high-quality oil is getting harder to source matters for lots of reasons, but a big one is that oil is hugely important to transportation, and electric vehicles aren’t ever going to be able to handle anywhere near the same level of transport as was happening pre-virus. Our transport sector and the infrastructure that supports it were built on the assumption that transport fuel would be highly efficient and reasonably easy to source into the foreseeable future. However, renewables are too intermittent and inefficient to be able to fill the gap left by a shrinking high-quality oil supply. Also, electric vehicles require batteries which make use of scarce resources: for example, the copper needed to make enough batteries for electric vehicles to replace the 2016 transport fleet would consume 9 years of production at 2018 rates. We simply can’t scale the electric vehicle supply up to anywhere near the existing internal-combustion vehicle supply. Freight transport is particularly hard to replicate.

So I’m very disturbed by Bond’s assumption that “by the time total car demand growth returns to its usual level of 3-4 million, electric vehicless are likely to be providing all of the underlying growth in demand. The result is that [internal combustion engine production] becomes a declining industry.” Where are the materials for those millions of electric vehicles going to come from, and how will the electricity be produced to power them?

It’s noteworthy also that Bond isn’t just saying that electric vehicless will replace the existing stock of internal combustion-powered cars, but that their supply will continue to grow beyond that. Quite apart from the questionable maths involved, there’s also the issue of what sort of economy we actually want – do we really want one full of electric vehicles stuck in traffic jams?

Food security and supply lines

This assumption that renewables will be able to maintain the transport sector as it stands today – or rather, as it stood pre-virus – is linked with another aspect of the article which I find problematic: there’s no mention in it of food security or the need to shorten supply lines.

There is growing concern that global food shortages may start to really hit hard later in 2020, when the combined effects of reduced transport and the inability of seasonal migrant workers to show up for work will start to kick in.

Combine this with the limits to renewable-powered transport described above and the high dependency of freight in particular on fossil fuel use, and it seems clear that the more we can localise the production of food and other essential goods, the better off we’ll all be. Singapore seems to recognise this as it is providing grant assistance to local food producers so as to improve its food security. Other countries are already limiting exports of grains.

Indeed, the Green New Deal will need to primarily be an agrarian revolution rather than an industrial one.

Diversified farms will be more labour-intensive, which means more jobs in the agricultural sector. They should also be more protective of biodiversity.

There are, of course, valid concerns that food security measures will impoverish farm workers in poorer countries who are currently dependent on export markets. However, the best way to improve their status is to increase their autonomy by campaigning for international trade and tax justice – including justice on debt repayments – and encouraging their own markets to become more localised. An excellent resource for finding out more about this vital issue is the Via Campesina website.

It seems clear, in any case, that the future economies of industrialised countries will have far less truck drivers and far more mixed farmers. One might wonder whether the latter group’s quality of life will be better or worse than that of the truck drivers. It depends partly on how you measure these things – but it’s clear that the more effectively workers secure their rights in the course of the energy transition, the better the future is likely to be for them.

To manage this, however, they’ll need access to sound information about the kinds of economic and employment changes that are most likely to happen – not ungrounded projections implying that the transportation sector can simply be turned electric, and then industrialised food production can barrel on as before.

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.