Inquiry arc: 2017-2020

For the last few years I’ve used Beyond this Brief Anomaly primarily as a platform for announcing work stemming from the inquiry that has been published through other channels, rather than for releasing original content. That’s mainly because the work I’ve been doing has been in collaboration with other people. While I’ve highlighted the two books (three including the German translation of Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future published in September) in particular, and a few spin-off articles and events related to those, there have also been a number of peer-reviewed journal articles that either add directly to the inquiry here, or that address issues that are thematically connected. I’ve been slow off the mark linking these directly here, with the oldest of these going back three years now.

To make the inquiry record as comprehensive as possible, I’ll introduce these papers here in reverse chronological order simply by posting the abstracts, with links to the journal or manuscript versions on my own repository website where relevant. The manuscripts also contain links to the article pages on the journal websites.

The political economy of deep decarbonization: tradable energy quotas for energy descent futures

Alexander, S., & Floyd, J. (2020). The Political Economy of Deep Decarbonization: Tradable Energy Quotas for Energy Descent Futures. Energies, 13(17), 4304. doi:10.3390/en13174304.

Abstract:

This paper reviews and analyses a decarbonization policy called the Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) system developed by David Fleming. The TEQs system involves rationing fossil fuel energy use for a nation on the basis of either a contracting carbon emission budget or scarce fuel availability, or both simultaneously, distributing budgets equitably amongst energy-users. Entitlements can be traded to incentivize demand reduction and to maximize efficient use of the limited entitlements. We situate this analysis in the context of Joseph Tainter’s theory about the development and collapse of complex societies. Tainter argues that societies become more socio-politically and technologically ‘complex’ as they solve the problems they face and that such complexification drives increased energy use. For a society to sustain itself, therefore, it must secure the energy needed to solve the range of societal problems that emerge. However, what if, as a result of deep decarbonization, there is less energy available in the future not more? We argue that TEQs offers a practical means of managing energy descent futures. The policy can facilitate controlled reduction of socio-political complexity via processes of ‘voluntary simplification’ (the result being ‘degrowth’ or controlled contraction at the scale of the physical economy).

Energy descent as a Post-carbon transition scenario: how ‘knowledge humility’ reshapes energy futures for post-normal times

Floyd, J., Alexander, S., Lenzen, M., Moriarty, P., Palmer, G., Chandra-Shekeran, S., Foran, B., Keyßer, L. (2020), ‘Energy descent as a post-carbon transition scenario: how ‘knowledge humility’ reshapes energy futures for post-normal times’, Futures. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2020.102565.

[This paper builds substantially on the case set out chapter 5 of Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future, which formed the backbone to the book and in turn was based on my 2017 article for the Insurge Intelligence symposium ‘Pathways to the post-carbon economy’.]

Abstract:

Many studies have concluded that the current global economy can transition from fossil fuels to be powered entirely by renewable energy. While supporting such transition, we critique analysis purporting to conclusively demonstrate feasibility. Deep uncertainties remain about whether renewables can maintain, let alone grow, the range and scale of energy services presently provided by fossil fuels. The more optimistic renewable energy studies rely upon assumptions that may be theoretically or technically plausible, but which remain highly uncertain when real-world practicalities are accounted for. This places investigation of energy-society futures squarely in the domain of post-normal science, implying the need for greater ‘knowledge humility’ when framing and interpreting the findings from quantitative modelling exercises conducted to investigate energy futures. Greater appreciation for the limits of what we can know via such techniques reveals ‘energy descent’ as a plausible post-carbon scenario. Given the fundamental dependence of all economic activity on availability of energy in appropriate forms at sufficient rates, profound changes to dominant modes of production and consumption may be required, a view marginalised when more techno-optimistic futures are assumed. Viewing this situation through the lens of ‘post-normal times’ opens avenues for response that can better support societies in navigating viable futures.

A critique of the Australian National Outlook decoupling strategy: a ‘limits to growth’ perspective

Alexander, S., Rutherford, J., & Floyd, J. (2018), ‘A Critique of the Australian National Outlook Decoupling Strategy: A ‘Limits to Growth’ Perspective’, Ecological Economics, vol. 145, pp. 10-17, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2017.08.014.

Excerpt from introduction:

This paper provides a critical commentary on the high profile Australian National Outlook (ANO) Report, published in late 2015 by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) (Hatfield-Dodds et al., 2015a). The report’s findingswere also published in the prestigious, peer-reviewed journal Nature (Hatfield-Dodds et al., 2015c), suggesting that the conclusions are robust and should be accepted. The report argues that with collective effort and sound policy, Australia can ‘achieve economic growth and improved living standards while also protecting or even improving our natural assets’ (Hatfield-Dodds et al., 2015a: 12).1The report therefore aligns closely with a broader range of literature arguing that economic growth, no matter how environmentally damaging it has been historically, can be ‘decoupled’ from environmental impacts by way of technological innovation, resource efficiency improvements, pricing mechanisms, and conservation efforts (see Hatfield-Dodds et al., 2015a: 4; see also UNEP, 2011; Grantham Institute, 2013; Blomqvist et al., 2015). The findings of the report are underpinned by several scientific papers that will also be considered throughout our critique (Schandl et al., 2015; Hatfield-Dodds et al., 2015b; Hatfield-Dodds et al., 2015c; Baynes, 2015). We maintain that the ANO Report has not established a convincing case for the decoupling strategy, a conclusion that has implications beyond the Australian context.

An exploration of divergence in EPBT and EROI for solar photovoltaics

Palmer, G., & Floyd, J. (2017), ‘An Exploration of Divergence in EPBT and EROI for Solar Photovoltaics’, BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, 2(4), 15. doi: 10.1007/s41247-017-0033-0.

Abstract:

Solar photovoltaics (PV) is widely regarded as one of the most promising renewable energy technologies. Net energy analysis (NEA) is a tool to evaluate the energetic performance of all energy supply technologies, including solar PV. Results across studies can appear to diverge sharply, which leads to contestation of NEA’s relevance to energy transition feasibility assessment and contributes to ongoing uncertainty in relation to the critical issue of the sustainability of PV. This study explores how PV NEA approaches differ, including in relation to goal definitions, methodologies and boundaries of analysis. It focuses on two principal NEA metrics, energy return on investment (EROI) and energy payback time (EPBT). Here we show that most of the apparent divergence between studies is accounted for by six factors—life-cycle assessment methodology, age of the primary data, PV cell technology, the treatment of intermittency, equivalence of investment and output energy forms, and assumptions about real-world performance. The apparent divergence in findings between studies can often be traced back to different goal definitions. This study reviews the differing approaches and makes the case that NEA is important for assessing the role of PV in future energy systems, but that findings in the form of EROI or EPBT must be considered with specific reference to the details of the particular study context, and the research questions that it seeks to address. NEA findings in a particular context cannot definitively support general statements about EROI or EPBT of PV electricity in all contexts.

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