European Energy Independence

A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?

Tuchman, Barbara W., The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.
Global Energy System based on 100% Renewable Energy – Power, Heat, Transport and Desalination
Sectors. (Full study here)

The questions posed by the American Historian Barbara W. Tuchman are indeed puzzling and very relevant. Humanity has been almost unimaginably successful in eradicating disease, improving food security, and raising quality of life through agricultural, technical and medical advances. Almost all this progress was based on science. With the internet, everybody on the planet has access to this science and knowledge. Nonetheless, our species now seems intent on committing ecological suicide through climate change in the near future. Why?

Consider the situation from the European perspective:

  1. Climate change represents a clear and present danger, which will have disastrous consequences for anyone younger than 30 years of age. If you want a good update on the seriousness of the situation, I recommend the video Climate Change – The Facts with David Attenborough. It takes an hour to watch, but it is an hour well spent. The video is also available on Youtube.
  2. Simultaneously, a recent study from the Energy Watch Group and the LUT University in Finland points out that decarbonizing the economy would not only save humanity but also lower energy costs. After an initial investment, which requires a lot of capital, operational expenses of wind and solar power plants are very low. I am not saying that I believe all the conclusions of this report, but it is possible to argue that renewable energy is a lot cheaper than fossil fuel.
  3. At the moment, capital is available. However, many economists warn that the next financial crisis is just around the corner and that it will be worse than 2008. If we invest in renewable energy today, the money will be safe. A stock market crash changes many things, but it does not stop wind turbines from turning.
  4. We also know that Europe is currently extremely dependent on imported fossil fuel, spending roughly EUR 266 billion annually to import pollution and support various undemocratic regimes. Clearly, this dependence on imported energy represents a huge geopolitical risk. A renewable energy system would be decentralized and therefore less vulnerable.
  5. A significant part of the money not spent on buying fossil fuel, would be spent on creating local jobs in European countries. This money would reduce social tensions.

In other words, it would be possible for the European Union to launch a massive Energy Independence Initiative, which would cut CO2 emissions, cut energy costs, create a lot of jobs, and make Europe less dependent on foreign powers. For some reason, this does not happen.

I am willing to team up with anyone – researchers, companies, inventors – to start such an initiative. Any takers?

Concerns of young protesters are justified

This makes me feel somewhat more optimistic about the state of the world. The letter organized by scientists for future was just published in Science:

Science 12 Apr 2019: Vol. 364, Issue 6436, pp. 139-140 DOI: 10.1126/science.aax3807

My brother and 8 colleagues from the HSR signed too. A complete list of the signatories is available.

We see it as our social, ethical, and scholarly responsibility to state in no uncertain terms: Only if humanity acts quickly and resolutely can we limit global warming, halt the ongoing mass extinction of animal and plant species, and preserve the natural basis for the food supply and well-being of present and future generations. This is what the young people want to achieve. They deserve our respect and full support.

Scientists4Future

Weltweiter Klimastreik am 15. März 2019

Der neuste Blog-Beitrag von Prof. Dr. Reto Knutti zu den Klimastreiks ist sehr lesenswert: Warum wir uns einmischen.

Klimastreik und #ScientistsForFuture

Ich habe auch den Aufruf Scientists for Future unterschrieben und werde am 15. März an der Polyterrasse dabei sein. Die Zeit zum Handeln ist jetzt und der Klimastreik bietet eine Möglichkeit dazu!

Die HSR in Rapperswil engagiert sich auch für die Nachhaltigkeit. Es würde mich freuen, mit Ihnen am Infotag (16.3.2019) oder während der Nachhaltigkeitswoche (25.3.2019 – 30.3.2019) ins Gespräch zu kommen. Auch der Vortrag am 26. März könnte spannend werden.

PS: Offensichtlich haben bereits über 12000 Wissenschaftler den Aufruf Scientists for Future unterschrieben. Hier eine ausführliche Stellungnahme: Keine Ausreden mehr.

Nicht absent, sondern präsent!

Vor langer Zeit ist mir eine wunderbare Zukunftsvision aus den 50er Jahren in die Hände gefallen. Der Autor, ein deutscher Ingenieur, hat begeistert über die technische Entwicklung der Haushaltgeräte berichtet. Vom Kochherd bis zur Waschmaschine wurden, nach seiner Einschätzung, alle Geräte einfacher zu bedienen. Seine Schlussfolgerung: Die Hausfrauen der Zukunft werden wohl nur einige Knöpfe drücken müssen. Die Vorstellung, dass auch Frauen berufstätig sein wollen oder dass die Männer im Haushalt aushelfen können, war zu visionär. Für den Autor war Innovation ein technisches Gerät mit vielen Knöpfen.

Die Geschichte zeigt exemplarisch, wie eingeschränkt das Denken vieler Menschen ist. Der Physiker Max Planck hat schon festgestellt, dass der wissenschaftliche Fortschritt nur durch das Aussterben älterer Professoren möglich ist. Da wir Menschen immer älter werden, ist die Gefahr gross, dass wir in alten Denkmustern erstarren. Besonders problematisch ist dies, wenn Politiker nicht rechtzeitig abtreten wollen. Zugegebenermassen ist das Alter das kleinste Problem von Donald Trump, aber er sollte lieber seinen wohlverdienten(?) Ruhestand geniessen, statt Politik zu machen. Dies ist kein Votum gegen alte Menschen, aber wieso soll ein 72-jähriger über die Zukunft entscheiden?

Mit der Klimaerwärmung ist die Menschheit anscheinend in diese Falle des erstarrten Denkens getappt. Das Problem fängt schon bei der Formulierung der Kernfrage an. Können wir die Klimaerwärmung stoppen? Die richtige Frage wäre, ob wir mit der Klimazerstörung aufhören wollen. Ohne uns Menschen hätte das Klima nämlich gar keine Probleme. Und die Antwort lautet, dass wir dies wollen müssen. Sonst haben unsere Kinder keine Zukunft, was sie, angeführt von der Jeanne d’Arc der Klimabewegung Greta Thunberg, auch festgestellt haben.

Die gute Nachricht ist, dass wir die Klimazerstörung noch stoppen können, wenn wir mit dem Verbrauch fossiler Brennstoffe aufhören und unsere Essgewohnheiten drastisch ändern. Dafür muss, in den Köpfen vieler Menschen, ein transformatives Umdenken stattfinden. Das Klimaproblem lösen wir nicht, indem wir Benzin- und Dieselautos durch Elektroautos ersetzten, sondern durch eine Neudefinition der Mobilität. Auch das Wirtschaftswachstum und das Wesen des globalen Kapitalismus müssen ernsthaft hinterfragt werden. Eine spannendere politische Aufgabe kann man sich wohl kaum vorstellen. Schnelles Umdenken tut not, da wir sonst Gefahr laufen, grosse Fehlinvestitionen in Infrastruktur und Ausbildung zu tätigen. Sind sechsspurige Autobahnen, eine zweite Gotthardröhre, ein Ausbau des Flughafens Zürich und grosse Investitionen in die Informatikbildung die richtige Antwort auf eine Klimakrise? Wie ein Jugendfreund von mir es mal so schön formuliert hat: «Die Politik will nichts verändern und dies sehr schnell».

Dies macht die jüngsten Klimaproteste der Schüler so aufregend. Sie sind als eine Herausforderung der Jugend an die Erwachsengeneration, zu der ich auch gehöre, zu deuten: «Könnt Ihr noch denken und wollt Ihr noch führen? Wenn nicht, dann macht bitte die Bühne frei für Leute, die noch kreativ sind und Ideen haben». Die Schüler und Schülerinnen, die auf die Strasse gehen, sind nicht unerlaubterweise von der Schule abwesend, sondern in der Politik sehr präsent. Wir Erwachsene müssen wählen, ob wir für oder gegen die eigenen Kinder kämpfen wollen. Ich habe mich schon entschieden!

Rising to the global challenge

Why we need a consumer strike to save humanity

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

Douglas Adams, The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Although the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a great book, its opening statement is wrong. Earth – it turns out – is very significant. As far as we know, it is the only planet in the universe which has managed to outsmart the entropy principle to create a biosphere full of fantastically complex life forms. This is a remarkable feat, which took billions of years to accomplish. Among other things, it required removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to create oxygen and the ozone layer. The fossil fuel deposits in the ground are the reason why we can breathe. Unfortunately, Earth’s ape-descended life forms seem to be too primitive to understand the importance of this fact. Douglas Adams got that right!

Earth, Moon, and the Biosphere
Earth, Moon, and the Biosphere. Based on a picture from Wikimedia Commons.

The biosphere is a precious thin layer of life on the surface of a small planet in an otherwise dead universe. The picture above shows the Earth, the Moon, and the volume of the Earth’s biosphere as small green sphere. To create the picture, I assumed that most life is located between –2 km and +3 km relative to the sea level. This green sphere thus represents the totality of habitable space in the known universe. It is roughly ten times smaller than the Moon and we basically use it as a sewer!

Consequently, we are now facing a sustainability crisis of astronomic proportions. The consensus of most studies published in 2018 is that the manmade destruction of the biosphere is progressing much faster than previously thought and that we have very little time to act. Amazingly, very few people are prepared to accept the consequences of this. To give one simple example: the latest IPCC report calls for a reduction of CO2 emissions by almost 50% in 11 years. A modern commercial aircraft is designed to last for 25 years. In other words, if we were to take the report seriously, we should stop the production of aircraft tomorrow. This is not a political statement but a mathematical fact.

The good news is that this would easily be possible. The key to solving our sustainability crisis is to stop doing things which harm the environment but are not necessary. Today, most flights and travels by car are for pleasure, with tourism accounting for 10% of CO2 emissions. In other words, we are destroying the planet out of boredom. The same is true for consumption; most people go shopping in order to break the monotony of daily life. If we weren’t that miserable, we would consume less.

There are many reasons for our inability to respond to the climate crisis. The most important one is that our capitalist system requires growth to function. Capitalism is based on the idea that capital is a scarce resource and therefore valuable. The problem is that capital income (or ROI) also leads to an increase in the amount of capital available. If the real economy does not grow, we soon have a situation with more money available than is needed, leading to negative real interest rates. Unfortunately, the correlation between GDP and environmental destruction is almost perfect. On the other hand, there is only a weak correlation between GDP and quality of life. To simplify the discussion, it might be better to refer to GDP as Global Destruction of the Planet at this point.

Another problem is that politicians have no incentive to be bearers of bad news. In recent years, it has become clear that people rather listen to pleasant lies than inconvenient truths. In addition, the status of the politician has declined to a level where there are very few political visionaries and leaders left. Why bother to tell the truth, when you can win by lying?

Finally, scientist – who have been warning us about climate change for decades – are not very good at getting things done. They are trained to find and communicate the truth. Leadership, on the other hand, can best be described as the ability to act on incomplete information. We have known enough about global warming to take action for many years know. What was missing was the political will to act. We are suffering from paralysis by analysis.

This leaves us in a very difficult situation. Although we know that we need to ban the use of fossil fuel before 2050, global demand for energy still grows faster than renewable energy production. As a result, we now use more coal, gas, and oil than ever before in human history. The picture below shows the energy forecast by BP. It predicts 74% of the global energy demand to be covered by fossil fuel in 2040, down from 85% in 2016. Because of the increasing energy demand, more fossil fuel will be used in 2040 than today. You can criticize BP for a lot of things, but they do know a thing or two about the global energy market. And they have a strong incentive to keep the oil flowing.

The problem is that the rich and powerful benefit from the current system and are convinced that they can buy themselves out of any problem. The only way to instigate real change is to ensure that these people feel the pain too, by destroying the global financial system. A massive financial meltdown would ruin many banks and global corporations, requiring society to step in and take charge again. The global accumulation of wealth has reached such absurd levels – with 1% of people receiving 82% of the wealth – that we now need to press the reset button. Homo Economicus cannot not solve our current crisis.

Homo Sapiens, on the other hand, might still have a chance. In order to survive, we need to rethink the way our society is organized. Above all, we need to stop defining ourselves by what we steal from others – including future generations – and start appreciating what we contribute to society. Our basic problem today is that people can get rich by destroying the planet. A coal mine – to take an obvious example – destroys value, but still allows its owners to get rich. Why? The problem is that the free market optimizes the economy locally rather than globally.

This is why I advocate and implement a consumer strike. By not buying stuff, I save money and time and drastically lower my global footprint. Rather than running around in shops or browsing for the best deal on the internet, I spend time with my family, going for a walk, reading a good book, or doing some other meaningful activity. And it is perfectly legal; nobody can force me to buy things I do not need. More importantly, by not spending money, I actively sabotage the global financial system. If enough of us join in, it will collapse. Forget digitalization – what we need is demonetization!

If this sounds like a drastic solution, it is important to remember that the alternative is even worse. We do not get to cherry pick. The future of humanity is not a Disney movie with a guaranteed happy ending. We must choose between protecting the financial system or the biosphere; you can’t have the planet and eat it. The decisions we take today will determine if human civilization will collapse or not. Fortunately, more and more young people realize this and are prepared to fight for their survival. I have decided to join them. It is fun, it is rewarding, and it gives me a sense of purpose. It is better to die fighting than to live on your knees.

A last look back on Earth from the Cassini mission. Our planet is indicated by the arrow. The biosphere is not visible.

PS: Just after finishing this blog post, received the following article from the Huffington Post: We Cannot Fight Climate Change with Capitalism.