Physics, renewables, and regulations: Are we getting it wrong?

Despite our best efforts to mitigate climate change, we are still incurring in costly mistakes. There are no shortcuts in this fight to save our planet, and we cannot allow our margin of error to get any narrower.

Author: Ricardo Ángel Barrientos, Bachelor in Politics, Law and Economics

“In an isolated system, the entropy can only increase”

I came to know the second law of thermodynamics through a Muse song, “The 2nd Law: Isolated System”, from their album The Second Law. This law explains how in a closed system, energy can, on average, only become more disorganized with time. For us and our societies to exist and flourish, we demand energy from our environment, meaning that other organized structures (forms of life) have to suffer the consequences.

As explained in Harvard’s online cosmic evolution course, the second law of thermodynamics stands in relationship with sustainability in that, to keep one human fed for a year, the equivalent of 10 billion blades of grass are needed (assuming the human feeds on only trout, which, in turn eats frogs, which eat grasshoppers, which eat grass) (Chaisson, 2013). These are not unrealistic assumptions, and the model takes into account just the basic cost for one human to survive for a year. Now imagine the toll on nature of keeping 7 billion humans alive, plus all the energy needs of the society we have built. Numbers are of course astronomical, and the cost to the planet is not only logical but also unavoidable. Human society necessarily implies costs to the environment, but what exactly are the current costs? And more importantly, how can we try to minimize them?

To begin to answer the aforementioned questions, we have to consider where humanity is at in terms of climate change perception. “Humanity will react in times of crisis and therefore react to climate change when it’s needed most.” The previous statement is what a lot of people believe and is the reason why they are not too worried about climate change right now. For example, in three of the major cities of Colombia: Medellín, my home city, Bogota, the district capital, and Bucaramanga, a heavy restriction on vehicular mobility has just been imposed, effectively, as a response to the dangerous levels of contamination these cities are facing. Here, a great example of a time of crisis coupled with an appropriate though shy response.

As a result, even though the environmental problems we are facing are not new, people hope that some future technology will magically appear in time to save us, without any trade-off, or that society will be able to react once the situation becomes critical. The problem is that most don’t understand that a climate change induced crisis is not something that will occur at some point in the future but is instead one that we are already experiencing and that worsens daily.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the word crisis as “A time of intense difficulty or danger” (Oxford). For most people in the world, the intense and immediate difficulties they face don’t seem to arise primarily from climate change since there is not a perceived direct impact on their personal income or immediate health. Yet, it is impossible to disregard this as a time of extreme danger, not only for human beings but also for the planet. Is it exaggerated to claim that already being the cause of what seems to be the most significant extinction in the animal kingdom since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago constitutes a crisis? As described in her book The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert argues how our actions already compromise human beings and the rest of the biosphere in an interconnected chain (Kolbert, 2015). The intense danger our planet is facing is something we are gradually feeding with our economic system and everyday actions, without taking any personal responsibility.

Sure, even if we do not live in constant angst over the destruction of our planet, most of us agree that decisive steps have to be taken to fight climate change. But naturally, we find ourselves asking how to do so most effectively and how to balance economic efficiency and restrictive measures. Regulations are already in place: for instance, carbon taxes are already somewhat popular, having been adopted by already 60 jurisdictions, and some countries are even considering a tax on beef (Amadeo, 2019). We seem to be off to a good start, but how do we know when it’s enough? How to measure if we are on the right track?

Several goals have been set in order to assess our performance in measuring climate change reduction’s impact. I will mention two specific ones that caught my interest. In 2008, the International Energy Administration stated that starting then until 2058, countries need to spend $45 trillion in order for climate change not to prevent economic growth. The UN, in turn, concluded that countries need to remove 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to prevent unsustainable temperature rises (Amadeo, 2019). So far, our cheapest technology available is able to capture carbon dioxide at $100 per ton, meaning that to meet the goal set by the UN, we need at least $100 trillion, which does not even include the probably more expensive process of storing the captured carbon dioxide (MIT Technology Review, 2019).

Regulatory steps for a transition to a more sustainable economy are definitely necessary. But what if we are taking the wrong measures? What if we are actually being inefficient in our efforts to become greener, despite our best intentions?

It is clear that the costs of reducing climate change seem gigantic, scary even. The difficulty of such high costs is exacerbated by the lack of individual responsibility that arises from a global problem; the tasks seem too daunting for people to be motivated to act. Countries, such as has been the case with the United States, have an incentive not to fall behind the rest of the world, so best exemplifying game theory, they have incentives to cheat on the fight towards climate change whenever they can. At the individual level, those who will suffer climate change the most are the world’s poorest, and also often the ones that suffer most from climate change regulations are the poorer sections of countries’ populations. The case of the diesel tax that was attempted in France at the end of last year exemplifies this, making it so that the less well-off section of a country will be the least concerned with fighting climate change while also being the one the burden is often placed upon. Additionally, companies extracting oil and producing plastic, beef, textiles and other heavily polluting goods and services can have a high political lobbying power because of their size and influence, therefore influencing the agenda to follow their interests. Political parties take advantage of these three factors (or need to accommodate to them), so they often downsize the importance of climate change and don’t make the necessary efforts to fight it.

Despite the hardships, governments are slowly realizing the need for a policy change that directs countries into a greener future. Regulatory steps for a transition to a more sustainable economy are definitely necessary. But what if we are taking the wrong measures? What if we are actually being inefficient in our efforts to become greener, despite our best intentions?

Such might actually be the case, perhaps surprisingly, even among what are thought to be the most informed and committed actors. Let’s use Germany here as an example. Michael Shellenberger explains in his TED Talk that while Germany is trying to convert its energy into renewable, it still has 54% of its energy coming from “dirty” sources. France, in comparison, only has 9% (Shellenberger, 2019). This difference is mainly due to the use of nuclear energy on the side of France, a type of energy which is still under more debate and scrutiny than it probably should be. Renewables may be better for the planet than oil, but they still present challenges regarding their efficiency, raw material costs and impact on biodiversity and especially endangered bird species, aspects that are relatively ignored in the agenda when pushing for more renewable energy sources.

The focus should not merely be on fighting to save our planet. It is definitely a first step to raise awareness about climate change and loss of biodiversity, but we cannot conform with blind attempts at improving the planet’s climate conditions; the danger of costly unintended consequences is just too high. Now that awareness is increasing, it has to be coupled with experimental and proven solutions that actually work, those that are economically viable and can create the biggest impact. Through mere guesswork, no regulation will be enough to stand a chance at fighting climate change. Informed decisions, backed by as much scientific study as possible instead of by well-intentioned but ill-informed politicians, are the only way to move forward.

Climate change is going to have huge costs on the global economy, be it because of the expenses of transitioning to a more sustainable system or the impacts of rising temperatures on the different economic sectors. If climate change is going to cost us anyway, why don’t we at least try to salvage as much of the biosphere and ourselves as we can? Improvisation and last-minute responses won’t work this time. The stakes are too high for regulators to sit still or design ineffective policies that can even worsen the problem. Balancing economic interests with a comprehensive, detailed and effective response to the current environmental catastrophe is an ongoing task that policymakers should set as a top priority.

Ricardo Ángel Barrientos is a second-year student of Politics, Law and Economics at IE University. He is president of the Political Think Tank Club in Segovia and Editor of the LawAhead Hub in Madrid. He has experience working with the social investment firm GAWA capital, the risk management and risk assessment firm ASR S.A.S., and the Fintech startup 

Note: The views expressed by the author of this paper are completely personal and do not represent the position of any affiliated institution.

Amadeo, K. (2019, March 5). What Has Climate Change Cost Us? What’s Being Done? Retrieved March 18, 2019
Chaisson, E. J. (2013). Second Law of Thermodynamics. Retrieved March 18, 2019
Kolbert, E. (2015). The Sixth extinction: An unnatural history. London etc.: Bloomsbury.
MIT Technology Review. (2019, February 28). 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2019, curated by Bill Gates. Retrieved March 18, 2019.
Oxford. (n.d.). Crisis | Definition of crisis in English by Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved March 18, 2019.
Shellenberger, M. (2019, January 04). Why renewables can’t save the planet. TEDxDanubia. Retrieved March 18, 2019.