Managed Powerdown

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Richard Heinberg:

"The other side of the divide argues that catastrophic climate change cannot be averted without a steep reduction in global energy use, and such a reduction will in turn inevitably mean economic contraction. Technology can assist in our adaptation to a new energy regime and a smaller economy, but it cannot realistically propel further industrial expansion of the kind seen during the 20th century.

Many powerdown proponents see climate change as a symptom of the deeper problem described in the 1972 Limits to Growth scenario studies. As population and per capita consumption increase, a point will inevitably be reached when resource depletion and environmental pollution make further growth impossible. According to this view, climate change is an expression of the pollution dilemma inherent in the expansion of population and per capita resource consumption; low-carbon technologies might be able to slow the trend toward ecosystem collapse driven by unbridled economic growth, but they cannot by themselves prevent collapse; only efforts to reduce population and consumption undertaken sufficiently early in the trend could accomplish that. Ecological footprint and planetary boundaries analysis offer confirmation, showing that current human population and consumption levels are drawing down Earth’s biocapacity and interfering with its natural support systems.

It is important to note that many renewable energy advocates are powerdowners who regard solar and wind power as insufficient by themselves to halt catastrophic climate change, absent fundamental economic change that would see per capita use of energy and materials decline significantly in industrial nations.

Others with a powerdown perspective say that while CCS and geoengineering are unworkable, carbon sequestration could indeed be accomplished via basic changes to agriculture that would enable farmers to build soil rather than destroying it (which is the net effect of current practices). Humanity has removed 136 Gt of carbon from soils through agriculture and other land use during the industrial era. There is the potential to reverse the trend by minimizing tillage, planting cover crops, encouraging biodiversity, employing crop rotation, expanding management intensive pasturing, and introducing properly made biochar to soils. But that would mean rapidly revolutionizing the entire global agricultural system—in effect, partially (and intelligently) de-industrializing it. According to its advocates, although powerdown goes against the grain of near-universal preference for further industrial expansion, it is a strategy that has one significant advantage: it is a proven way to slow and reverse climate change, since historic economic recessions have correlated closely with slower growth in carbon emissions. If economic contraction were managed, its unwanted adverse human consequences could be minimized, while its environmental benefits could be maximized." (