Three initial problems
Problem 1: Climate change is one part of a general mode of ecological destruction. It is not the total, and possibly not even the most important ecological problem we have. It may even distract us from the rest of the destruction. For instance we may do nothing about potential ocean death, or the decline in availability of phosphorus.
Problem 2: it appears that achieving contemporary ‘developed’ life, and military defense, requires massive energy consumption.
Problem 3: It is not yet demonstrated that capitalism can run with no ecological destruction, and no freeloading, or without growing ecological destruction, and without growing energy consumption.
Problems with the energy transition
Renewables make a tiny percentage of the total energy supply, although a reasonable percentage of electricity supply. They constitute about 5-8% of total energy supply if you don’t count biofuels or hydro, which are probably pretty much fixed.
While renewables are increasing, so are fossil fuels, and so are emissions and the amount of GHG (greenhouse gas in the atmosphere)
One big question is “How do we generate enough energy to manufacture the renewables we need rapidly?” as there is not enough spare Renewable energy to do this.
The answer is probably via fossil fuels – again new energy production may be needed, because we don’t have much spare. So the phase out may increase emissions for a while, and increase the problems.
Renewables are supposedly now cheaper to build and install, so this problem should diminish.
However, if we do “electrify everything” such as automobiles, then we need even more renewables, or else there is not that much point.
Emissions will not diminish if renewables (or other energy sources) do not replace fossil fuels, and emissions do not peak soon….. We cannot risk more emissions.
Reducing emissions, not only requires renewables, but probably requires some kind of degrowth.
Developing countries don’t want degrowth as it gives them less military power and prosperity, and developed countries won’t degrow because they think it will lose votes and corporate profits, and they keep promoting fossil fuels as the cheapest and easiest thing for developing countries, probably because they have been bought by fossil fuel companies.
However, life as was lived in the west in the 1960s say was ok, and released a lot less GHG emissions than we do nowadays. It was also incredibly energy inefficient, so we may well be able to attain that kind of life level for most everyone, if we wanted.
Renewables require minerals, and mining is ecologically destructive. The only compensation for the new mining being done is that coal, gas and oil mining are also ecologically destructive, and getting more so, as supplies get more difficult to find (you don’t go for tar sands, deep sea oil and coal-seam gas if you have better fields).
If open slather mining destruction is stopped, the price of minerals increases, and the transition slows.
At the moment we have masses of lithium, but like everything else it is exhaustible, and prices will increase, the greater the demand.
However, people are searching for other kinds of battery, such as weight driven batteries. I’ve certainly heard people say that lithium storage is not the way to go. (People are always talking about the endless creativity of capitalism, but for some reasons those people do not talk about it when it comes to renewables)
Many places have the prices of electricity tied to the most expensive source, which means that people rarely get rewarded for paying for renewables unless they have them personally. They still have to pay the price of fossil fuels, and deal with company profiteering. Fossil fuel profits are wildly up at the moment as there is no competition between fossil fuel companies. Fossil fuel companies have the dilemma of do we sell the stuff now while we can, or do we wait and slowly keep lifting the price. They need increased revenue to deal with the more difficult fields which they are likely to be left with. Gas fields are still relatively big, and easy, but we have seen the price of gas increase massively, which also suggests something like keeping production low and price high is happening.
The fossil fuel companies are incredibly rich and powerful, and will do everything to inhibit the transition, as it would mean the end of their riches and power. They are not making a transition at all – they are depending upon everyone failing to make the transition.
We can hope for improved nuclear or fusion tech, but this does not seem to be happening. Fusion is having successes, but they are small. I have seen reports that China is rolling out small reactors, but they typically have no data, and the CSIRO had no access to any real data about costs and electricity generated. Large scale nuclear appears to be slow, usually taking far more time and money than estimated to build, as well as its other problems.
AS climate damage increases, money and energy will be diverted away from the energy transition, into repair or preparation for the next set of damage. We cannot deal with cumulative catastrophe even now, never mind another 20 years.
As the problem seems insolvable people will invent fantasy solutions to help them cope with the reality. These will be theoretically feasible, but in practice which serve to keep fossil fuels going with the hope we can easily solve the problem soon. Things like carbon credits, carbon capture and storage. This can be called saved by imaginary technology.
Another way forward, is to give up on national action and encourage villages to be self supporting on solar or wind, and just accepting that sometimes the energy will be low.
It is very possible that the amount of low emissions energy will not increase at the rate we need, and that the amount of fossil fuels being burnt will also not decrease at the rate we need. We may need to degrow, and to value other things. But that does involve changing society.
But we need to keep active.