It’s Not Game Over, It’s Game On


Planetary Emergency

We are in a planetary emergency.1 Make no mistake about that. As the twinned crises of climate2 and biodiversity loss3 worsen, apocalyptic messages become more common.4 Yet is all really doomed?5

Mathis Wackernagel of Global Footprint6 puts it best: It’s not game over; it’s GAME ON!

There is no doubt we are in a global emergency. Emergencies happen every day, somewhere around the world. And emergency responders know what to do, and they do it. When a fire threatens, when a flood is coming, they act. Emergency responders train, frame plans and are prepared to act when the worst strikes. Emergency does not mean the end. It means we all act to fix what’s gone wrong.

And help is on the way, in the form of economics. My colleague Eban Goodstein calls it the Solar Dominance Hypothesis.7 It will transform essentially everything about how we live, how we do business and how we solve the climate crisis—most all for the better.

Yes, polar bears are threatened,8 Yes, a million species are at risk of extinction. Yes, there is a true moral imperative to preserve a habitable planet for future generations.

What will solve the emergency we face today is the fact that it is now cheaper to use renewable energy, than it is to burn carbon-emitting fossil fuels. When the Kentucky Coal Museum puts solar on its roof, rather than hook to the perfectly good, coal-fired grid at its doorstep, you know that change is upon us.9

Regenerative agriculture can then lock away in the soil enormous amounts of the excess carbon already emitted into the atmosphere. The holistic management practices that do this are more profitable for ordinary farmers and ranchers, than the industrial agriculture that now ravages the planet.10 Put these two opportunities together, and here is a chance that we will solve the climate crisis at a profit, well before the scientists of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warn that we must cut emissions in half (2030) and become carbon neutral (2050).

Yes, we will suffer enormous damage on the way. In the last two years insured damages11 from so called natural disasters have risen to over $225 billion. The loss of human life will be staggering. The flood of human climate refugees,12 already numbering in the hundreds of thousands, threatens to overwhelm recipient government’s current ability to cope.13

The young are right to take to the streets, as millions did around the world September 20.14 But they are wrong that no one else is doing anything to fight the climate emergency. They were joined by their parents, activists of all ages and even by business leaders. I listened to Greta alongside Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever.15 The kids are right to demand a new way of doing business, but this new economy will only be implemented if we all shift the way that business is done. All of us: people who are making money, people who are making a living, need now to make a new reality.

In this, we face either the greatest threat of our time, or the greatest opportunity: the mother of all economic dislocations is bearing down on us, and in its wake, we will reinvent everything16 or we will be left with nothing. The more we do now to get ahead of this curve, the easier it will be, but make no mistake: it’s coming.

Solar Dominance

Begun by tinkerers in their garages in the 60’s and given urgency by the Arab oil embargo in 1972, renewable energy technologies brought to market an array of ways to meet our need for energy and the services it delivers. Remember, few of us want raw energy: we want the services it makes possible: cold beer and hot showers, the ability to power this computer as I write, or your ability to get online and read it. In the end, the cheapest way to do that will win.

In the latter days of the last century, many of us believed we would see a rapid shift to reliance on the sun, efficient use of energy and a solution to the threat of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. My first book on all this, Least Cost Energy: Solving the CO2 Problem, was written in 1981. It all seemed so simple.

There is more than enough blame to go around for why we did not then implement the solutions that were to hand. Even then, they were cheaper than continued reliance on fossil energy. The Koch Brothers and big fossil should bear most of the blame,17 and as the full extent of their disinformation campaigns begins to emerge, we should demand that they be held accountable.18 But all of us bear some blame. We were just too lazy.

Throughout the eighties, nineties, aughts it began to seem as if humankind truly was doomed. The climate science became ever clearer, yet the necessary turning away from fossil fuels came to seem ever more remote. We’ve now left it until almost too late. Churchill said, Americans can be counted on to do the right thing when they’ve exhausted all alternatives. That goes for the rest of the world, too, apparently.

Suddenly this summer things changed. In June, General Electric announced that it was abandoning a natural gas power plant that had 20 years of projected life left because it could not compete with solar.19 Less than a month later, GE announced a partnership with Blackrock, the big financier, to deliver distributed solar and storage options to homeowners and small businesses.20

In August, Portugal announced what I call the Walmart award for everyday low prices: solar at 1.6¢ per kilowatt hour (¢/kWh) for 599 megawatts.21 The stuff that comes out of your wall socket costs you at least 10¢, and in many areas substantially more. China announced that unsubsidized distributed rooftop solar is cheaper than its coal-fired grid electricity.22

California which will hit its 2030 target of being half renewable by 2020, committed to getting 100% of its electricity from climate-friendly sources by 2045. More than 100 companies have set such a goal. A thousand cities too.

Similar results are coming in from India, where solar is now 14 percent cheaper than coal; Australia where it is cheaper than gas;23 from Europe, where the levelized cost of energy for solar plus storage is already below 2018 spot prices; 24 from Germany where one of every two solar installations now boasts battery storage, rendering utilities increasingly irrelevant.25

This snapshot of progress makes the demands of the young climate strikers to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 seem not so impossible.

Indeed, Stanford Professor, Dr. Mark Jacobson showed in a Scientific American article in 200926 that it is possible. His Solutions Project27 has calculated how to do it in every state in the U.S. and many countries. More recently, scholars like Christian Breyer have shown how to do this with photovoltaics alone.28

Do you believe it? You may soon have no choice.

In 2014, author Tony Seba warned that we face what he called a Clean Disruption.29 By 2030, he predicted, the world will be 100% powered by renewable energy. Four things will drive this transformation: Fall in the cost of solar, fall in the cost of storage (batteries), the electric car and the driverless car. These economic forces will be propelled by the business model of service instead of ownership. The switch from fossil energy to renewables is, he argues, inevitable.30

Falling costs will see solar achieve not only global grid parity, as is now true in Europe and China, but soon what Seba calls “GOD parity.” Generation on Demand means that the cost to put solar on your roof and storage in your garage will be cheaper than just having the utility produce even free power and maintain its lines. In this scenario, which Seba believes could come as early as 2020, any central station would be more expensive than distributed solar. Tony writes, ”Don’t believe in the Clean Disruption? The International Energy Agency (IEA) wants you to invest $40 trillion in conventional energy (nuclear, oil, gas, coal) and conventional utilities.  It’s their Kodak moment. It’s your money.”31

 

 

Solar and Storage: Better with Both

OK, we CAN run our society on solar energy, but what if the sun isn’t shining or the wind blowing?

Storage technology to make renewable energy available 24/7 is only in its infancy as an industry, but its prices are dropping, too.

In September, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power got into the battery game, sealing a deal to meet another 8 percent of its power needs with solar and battery storage at, for them, the record low price of 3.3¢/kWh.32 “Any renewable energy project with solar, we’re looking to pair it with storage,” said a senior utility executive. Combinations of renewable energy and storage are now cheaper than the fossil alternatives.

This means, however, that the race is on between the utility’s business model of being your monopoly power provider, and distributed energy. Companies like SimpliPhi Power can sell you the ability to store renewable energy with batteries.33 Because they don’t mind getting hot, and are safer, SimpliPhi’s rugged units are deployed in more than 40 countries and preferred by aid agencies. They are in use across Africa, at Forward Operating Bases in Afghanistan and on Whole Foods roofs in California.34 In the wake of the massive fires that forced the Pacific Gas and Electric utility into bankruptcy, California authorized utilities to deenergize their power lines whenever the wind blows or it’s hot—which is at least half the year. SimpliPhi now offers California residents the ability to retain function in these Public Safety Power Shutdowns.35

 

 

Here come the electric vehicles

In late 2016 the Financial Times36 reported that Fitch Ratings warned:

“Widespread adoption of battery-powered vehicles is a serious threat to the oil industry….The oil sector would not be the only industry affected. Big electricity utilities burning fossil fuels such as gas or coal face the risk of batteries solving the intermittency problem of wind or solar plants that cannot generate on windless days or at night….

It endangers the banks, as well: a quarter of all corporate debt, perhaps as much as $3.4 trillion is related to utility and car company bonds that are tied to fossil fuel use. Fitch, the ratings agency warned that low cost batteries could “…tip the oil market from growth to contraction earlier than anticipated. The narrative of oil’s decline is well rehearsed—and if it starts to play out there is a risk that capital will act long before” and in the worst-case result in an “investor death spiral.”

Anyone doubting this risk must have been sobered when in September 2017 China announced that it was going to phase out internal combustion (ICE) vehicles.37 With a quarter of the global automobile market, China has already converted half its bus fleet to electric. With India, France, the UK, and Norway making similar announcements to ban ICE, this is an existential crisis for both the oil and car industries.

Robotaxis

In Seba’s38 scenario, it’s the driverless, autonomous electric vehicle (AEV) that forces the real reduction in cost he claims will make the disruption inevitable. He predicts that it will cost you four to ten-fold less to whistle up an AEV than to pay to buy, fuel, insure and maintain a personal gasoline-powered car.

Are AEVs more than just science fiction? Didn’t Tesla’s self-driving car kill someone?

Remember, 6,000 American pedestrians die every year in crashes with human driven cars, and 1.25 million people die annually in vehicle crashes around the world. General Motors CEO, Mary Barra is now calling for a future of “zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero fatalities,”39 from self-driving cars. It gets better. GM sees its future as offering autonomous electric vehicle Transit as a Service.40

It’s coming: the Google car has driven ten million real miles, and billions of simulated miles. Waymo, Google’s spinoff, has its service on the road now, and in 2018 logged more autonomous miles than all competitors combined.

 

 

The Mother of All Economic Dislocations.

If the evidence laid out here is true, it has profound implications for, well, everything. It will mean the dissolution in value, likely complete loss of the oil, gas, coal, uranium, nuclear, utility, auto industries, the banks that hold the loan papers for all of these companies the pension funds and insurance companies that are invested in them.

In 2011, Mark Campanale of Carbon Tracker published “Unburnable Carbon—Are the world’s financial markets carrying a carbon bubble?”41 This calculated that at least 80% of the fossil deposits still in the ground would have to stay in the ground if the world is to avoid warming beyond 2 degrees C more that pre-industrial levels.

Given that those fossil assets are on the balance sheets of some of the world’s wealthiest companies and form the basis of the sovereign wealth funds of many nations around the world, John Fullerton, previously a Managing Director at JP Morgan, calculated the enormity of stranding these assets. His article, “Big Choice,”42 reckoned that this implied a write-off of at least $20 trillion dollars. In contrast, Fullerton warned, the 2008 financial collapse was triggered by the stranding of only $2.7 trillion in mortgage assets. In its 2018 report, 2020 Vision, Carbon Tracker estimated the about to be stranded assets at $25 trillion. And, they said, peak fossil will occur in 2023.

Mark Campanale recently told me that it’s actually worse: an October 2017 CitiGroup report calculated that if you count the foregone revenues from not digging up, selling and burning all that fossil fuel, the looming loss is $100 trillion, or more that global GDP.

In contrast, American business leaders Tom Steyer, Hank Paulsen and Michael Bloomberg have shown that solving the climate crisis would unleash billions of dollars in investment and create millions of jobs.

So, we have a choice: transition to a future of renewable energy, save the climate and create the greatest prosperity known to humanity…or risk climate catastrophe, and crash the global economy.

Growing the Other Half of the Solution.

The climate crisis can only be solved by enhancing the ways that nature pulls carbon from the air and restores it to the soil. In nature, carbon is not the greatest poison: it is the building block of life.

Industrial agriculture is energy and chemical intensive. By breaking vast swathes of land, it decarbonizes the soil. Over-application of nitrogen fertilizers denitrifies the soil, driving emissions of nitrogen oxides, another potent greenhouse gas (GHG). Confined animal feeding operations release massive methane gouts, a far worse GHG than carbon dioxide. Such agriculture causes about a quarter of the emissions of greenhouse gasses, and is itself vulnerable to climate change. It is degenerative of rural economic integrity and human health.

To counter this, there is increasing interest in what Robert Rodale called regenerative agriculture.43 Regenerative systems, he said, enhance the resources that they use, leaving them more abundant instead of depleted or destroyed. Such systems are holistic, enhancing innovation and delivering environmental, social, economic and spiritual wellbeing.

Agriculture that uses nature’s wisdom, not human brute force has been taught for decades by Allan Savory. The Savory Institute (SI) is now the leading proponent of ways to use agriculture to solve the climate crisis. SI44 seeks to impact a billion hectares by 2025 through the teaching and practice of Holistic Management and Holistic Decision Making.

Practitioners turn deserts into thriving grasslands, restore biodiversity, bring streams, rivers and water sources back to life, combat poverty and hunger, all while reversing global climate change.45 Holistically managed grazing animals, it turns out, are one of the best ways to reclaim depleted land. Savory’s approach mimics how vast herds of grazing animals co-evolved with the world’s grasslands: dense-packed because of predators, moving as a herd, eating everything, fertilizing the land, tilling the manure and seeds into the soil with their hooves, and then moving on, not returning until the grass is lush again.

This interaction is one of the more important ways to create healthy communities of soil microorganisms. These recarbonize the soil, and restore natural nitrogen cycles. Savory, in his many writings and a TED talk viewed by three and a half million people,46 argues that even achieving zero emissions from fossil fuels would not avert major catastrophe from climate change. Grassland and savanna burning would continue and desertification would accelerate as soils become increasingly unable to store carbon or water.47 Averting disaster, Savory says, will require a global strategy to cut carbon emissions, substitute benign energy sources for fossil fuels, and implement effective livestock management practices to put the carbon already in the atmosphere back into the soils. Profitable Holistic Management is the only way, he argues, to reduce biodiversity loss and biomass burning and reverse the desertification that is not caused by atmospheric carbon buildup.48 Awarded the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge Prize for decades of work, Savory’s Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Zimbabwe and SI show how to transform degraded grasslands and savannahs into lush pastures with ponds and flowing streams. This award recognized Savory’s work to accelerate development and deployment of whole-systems solutions to climate change, and sustainable development.

Dirt To Soil49

One of the best examples of regenerative agriculture is the work of Gabe Brown.50 Because he was going broke as a commodity farmer of corn and soybean, he converted his 2,000 acres near Bismarck, North Dakota to regenerative agriculture to cut costs. When he began in 1993, his soil quality was poor, requiring annual inputs of fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides to produce a crop.

In 1995, Brown stopped plowing his land. In 1997 he added the use of a wide variety of multi-species cover crops. In 2006 Gabe introduced Savory-style grazing practices, adding different livestock species. He now raises cows, sheep, broiler hens, bees and corn and soybeans.

Eliminating chemical inputs and fossil energy cut his costs and increased his profitability. These savings enabled Gabe to produce a bushel of corn for $1.35, which he could sell for more than $3.50. He cannot keep up with demand for his grass-finished beef and lamb, and his fields have never been healthier. The capacity of his acreage to cycle nutrients51 including carbon, exceeds that of his neighbors, who farm organically but without animals, and of two neighbors who practice no-till operations that use varying amounts of synthetic fertilizers.

The increase in water-extractable organic carbon (WEOC) in the soil, may be the most amazing result of Gabe’s agricultural practices. When he bought his farm in 1993, it had shallow soils with 1.3 percent soil organic matter (half of which is soil carbon). By 2013, he had plots with more than 11 percent soil organic matter. By 2018, it was up to 15 percent.

Gabe is rolling climate change backwards, recarbonizing his soils at a profit. As he puts it, if your soil is healthy you will have clean water, clean air, healthy plants, healthy animals and healthy people. You will have a healthy ecosystem. You can be a part of this. Gabe sells his regeneratively produced, grass-fed beef at Nourished by Nature, that allows supporters to mail-order healthy meat that is helping to solve the climate crisis.52

This sort of agriculture regenerates more than the soil.53 Will Harris converted White Oak Pastures,54 his family’s commodity cattle farm in South Georgia, to a successful regenerative operation. He now raises, slaughters and sells five kinds of poultry, five kinds of red meat (all pasture raised), eggs and vegetables. The products are sold on-line and to highend restaurants as far away as Miami, as well as to Whole Foods markets across the Eastern U.S. Will employees 167 residents of the once-decaying town of Bluffton. His commodity farmer neighbor, with the same acreage, employs four.55 White Oak Pastures features agri-tourism, a restaurant, a general store, and serves as the Savory Hub for the region.

Recognizing the power of such approaches, the French government in 2015, in the lead-up to the Paris Climate Summit, announced the 4 per 1000 Initiative56 to demonstrate that agriculture, and agricultural soils in particular, can play a crucial role where food security and climate change are concerned. The Initiative57 invites all partners to declare or to implement practical programmes for carbon sequestration in soil and the types of farming methods used to promote it (e.g., agroecology, agroforestry, conservation agriculture, and landscape management).

How much carbon can be sequestered in properly managed grasslands and how fast? The truth is we do not know. But here are some illustrative numbers. In some California experiments, manure from dairy and beef operations is blended with green waste that would otherwise go to landfill, impose costs, rot and release methane. The mix is composted and spread on pastures. Scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, take annual soil cores a meter deep and test whether that soil has soaked up additional carbon. One application of compost to rangeland, for example, doubled grass growth and increased carbon sequestration by up to 70 percent.58 Every year the carbon increases. The study found that this can achieve total greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation rates over a 30-year time frame of more than 18 tons of CO2-equivalents per acre of land treated with organic amendments.59 The researchers noted that:

“Sequestration of just 1 Mg C ha-1 y-1 (or one metric ton per hectare—a hectare being 2.2 acres—per year) on half the 23 million hectares of rangeland in California would offset 42 million metric tons of CO2e, an amount equivalent to all of the annual GHG emissions from energy use for commercial and residential sectors in California.”60

Dr. David Johnson,61 Director of the Institute for Sustainable Agricultural Research at New Mexico State University has developed a similar approach. His research has shown that:

“…promoting beneficial interactions between plants and soil microbes increases farm and rangeland’s efficiency for capturing carbon and storing it in soil. These same interactions increase soil microbial carbon-use efficiencies reducing the rate at which soil carbon, as CO2, is respired from the soil. When this bio-technology is promoted in agro-ecosystems, it is feasible to capture and sequester an average of >11 metric tons of CO2 per hectare per year in rangeland soils62 and >36.7 metric tons CO2 per hectare per year in transitioning farmland soils63 all for less than one-tenth the cost of EPA’s recommended Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) technologies.”

Put all of these numbers together and what does it add up to? Current emissions from fossil fuels are about 10 GtC/yr. Dr. Richard Teague and his colleagues have calculated that almost a gigaton could be soaked up just in North American soils.64

The world’s permanent pasture and fodder lands amount to roughly 3.4 billion hectares. Back-of-the-envelope calculations with Seth Itzkan of Soil4Climate show that multiplying Teague’s carbon capture findings of 3 tC/ha/yr (conservative when compared with the 8 tC/ha/yr values Machmuller identified) by the global hectares of pastureland gives 10.2 GtC/yr potential soil carbon capture via grazing. That, alone, would offset all human emissions.65

Clearly, it is a big “if” to say that Holistic Management will be practiced on all of the world pastureland, but coupled with the composting approaches of David Johnson, the organic cropping practices of Rodale Institute, the perennial wheat of the Land Institute, and the reductions in carbon emissions possible and profitable. it is clear that we can solve the climate crisis and do it in ways that are profitable.

Daniel Riordin, in his book Averting Global Collapse, described the numbers necessary to scale this approach. Using current global livestock numbers of 2.24 billion standard animal units, rangeland and crop/ pasture land could carry 10.33 billion livestock. Doing this would require a minimum of 2.5 million herders (assuming 1,000 head/ herder). Like most sustainable agriculture, Holistic Management is more labor-intensive, not a bad thing in a world needing jobs.66

 

 

What can be done?

For starters, it appears unwise to have any of YOUR assets in the industries that will be disrupted. Bevis Longstreth, former Securities and Exchange Commissioner, observed,67

“It is entirely plausible, even predictable, that continuing to hold equities in fossil fuel companies will be ruled negligence.”

As I write CNBC asks “Did we just witness the beginning of the end of Big Oil?” citing how Exxon has just dropped off the S&P 500’s top 10 stocks for the first time in 90 years.68 Even beady-eyed investors are waking up to the fact that fossil-laden portfolios are not performing as well as fossil free ones.69 The amount of assets held by investors pledging to divest from fossil stocks has hit $11 trillion and rising fast. A year ago, it was $6.2 trillion, up from only $52 billion five years ago.70

Norway recently announced that it is divesting of ownership in fossil industries.71 BNP Paribas, the large French bank sold its holdings in a tar sands pipeline.72 Change Finance73 offers an Exchange Traded Fund that is entirely fossil-fuel free. For the price of a pizza, ordinary individuals can now hold companies that are not subject to the looming fossil risk.

Where do you source your energy? Are you dependent on an industry that is at risk? Millions of people, communities and cities are going 100% renewable.

Where does your food come from? Do you know the farmers and ranchers who are producing what you eat? Buy local, if you can. If not, mail order your food from the regenerative ranchers like Gabe Brown and Will Harris.

Is your job at risk? Companies will either become part of the solution or they won’t be a problem, because they won’t be around. The emerging industries are creating millions of jobs, but millions are at risk. Will we substitute a Guaranteed Jobs program, as the Green New Deal calls for?
Will we entrepreneur our way to a Well-being Economy? Will we descend into unimaginable darkness? Or will we create a Finer Future?74

As ever more people wake up to the Planetary Emergency, cries rise for mechanical solutions: release pollutants into the atmosphere to replicate a volcanic eruption, run massive machines to capture carbon from the air and mechanically convert it to carbon that can be pumped into deep earth reservoirs….

Wouldn’t it make more sense to lay out all of the possible solutions, prioritize them based on efficacy and cost, then start with the ones that work best and that cost less (or are even profitable)?

Men in powerful positions have a great propensity to invest in fancy sounding solutions that cost a lot. Either way, we will totally transform the global economy. The crises we face, and the inevitabilities of change described here WILL drive this change.

The change is here. How will you change to deal with it?

 

References:

  1. Planetary Emergency Plan, Club of Rome, Potsdam Institute, 23 September 2019, https://www.clubofrome.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/PlanetaryEmergency...
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  16. This phrase owes to Catherine Greener, Greener Solutions, https://natcapsolutions.org/team/
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  33. SimpliPhi Power, https://simpliphipower.com/
  34. Kyle Field, “Simpliphi Power Triples Sales Of Its Energy Storage Products, Then Slashes Prices,” CleanTechnica, 12 May 2018, https://cleantechnica.com/2018/05/12/simpliphi-power-triples-sales-of-it...
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