Laudato Si

The talk of the town these past few days has been Pope Francis' encyclical letter Laudato Si'.

So let's start by asking what would happen if we massively followed one of its key recommendations.

"Replace consumption with sacrifice." 

Let's leave aside the sacrifice part for a moment but, imagine if say, people heeded this message and world automobile production dropped by 50%. We would have in our hands the mother of all layoffs. 

The reduction in auto production would have a cascading effect all through the network of suppliers, dealers, independent mechanics, government revenue, what have you.

Almost certainly the weaker automobile companies would go bankrupt. All luxury brands would be history (remember, replace consumption with sacrifice). This would in itself generate another wave of bankruptcies among suppliers, dealers, etc. 

Think also about the textile industry. If people replaced consumption... we would use our clothing until it wore off, not to show off and thus millions of people would lose their jobs in third world countries. 

In consumption think of many other things that would be curtailed: travel, electronics, entertainment, housing, etc.

Add all of this up and we'll have a catastrophic economic depression in which a substantial percentage of the global population would lose their jobs and this would create a snowball that would continue to eliminate jobs throughout the world. 

Yes, a substantial reduction in CO2 emissions would by then be achieved, but it would be a Pyrrhic victory. 

So, bottom line, it is not as easy as it may seem at first sight to reduce our consumption. It would be equivalent to reducing the speed of an airplane in the middle of the Atlantic. It would crash and burn, killing all on board.

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."


Technical Feasibility

Many, maybe even most of the alternatives to fossil fuels that have been or are now being proposed are for the most part technically feasible.

  • Is hydrogen as a fuel feasible? Yes.
  • Are electric vehicles feasible? Absolutely. You can run now to the dealer and buy a LEAF or a Tesla.
  • Could we generate, say, 30% of our electricity with solar and wind? Don't even doubt it.
  • Will fusion power become a reality? You can take that to the bank.
  • What about tidal power? Yes, it works, in France, Canada and elsewhere.
  • Compressed air cars? Also, fully feasible and the "battery," in other words the air tank, can be recharged forever.
  • Geothermal? Just ask Iceland. 
So, if we have all these feasible and wonderful alternatives to fossil fuels, how come they barely make a dent in the global energy market?

Ah, the reason is that to compete and win technical feasibility is not enough. To displace fossil fuels the alternatives need to be cheaper. If, for example, the kWh of electricity (in the USA) can be produced for 6 cents from natural gas, THAT is the technology to beat. If a company brings something to market that can produce that same electricity for, say, 10 cents, then it is almost certainly going to fail. 

The same with electric vehicles. For them to truly compete, their purchase price would need to be the same or lower than a gasoline or diesel car and, more important, their cost per kilometer driven (including the battery replacement cost) should be the same or lower than that of a conventional automobile. Even if both these requisites were met, the EV is still not as convenient as an internal combustion vehicle. 

Alternative energy reporting is, for the most part, deceiving. For example, renewable lobbyists tend to report "installed capacity" rather than actual energy production. 

If we show actual energy production we can see fossil fuels almost completely dominate the market and this is not due to cute political tactics but because they are (relatively) cheap, abundant, convenient, etc.