Can we live sustainably?

December 22, 2016

Can we live Sustainably?

Since getting involved with climate change, I’ve read or listened to some incredible people who have relentlessly explored and responded to our climate crisis over many years.

One of the individuals I came across was British physicist, mathematician and chief science advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change named Sir David JC MacKay who unfortunately died this past year of cancer at a relatively young age. I initially listened to his Ted Talk called “A Reality Check on Renewables.”

This led me to reading his remarkable book called “Sustainable Energy – Without Hot Air.”

In this book, written in 2009, David Mackay says in the preface: “I’m concerned about cutting UK emissions of twaddle – twaddle about sustainable energy. Everyone says getting off fossil fuels is important and we’re all encouraged to “make a difference,” but many of the things that allegedly make a difference don’t add up.

Twaddle emissions are high at the moment because people get emotional (for example about wind farms or nuclear power) and no-one talks about numbers…This is a straight talking book about the numbers. The aim is to guide the reader around the claptrap to actions that really make a difference and to policies that add up.”

As you might imagine from this preface, MacKay had a very unique voice. He cut through what could be called fuzzy green thinking, examining very pragmatically the feasibility of transitioning to renewable energy. He did, as he says, look at the numbers and in a secondary way, economics and social values. His focus is on Great Britain, but his methodology, his way of thinking, could be applied to any country at any time.

David Mackay is first and foremost a scientist presenting us with all the facts and for the most part leaving the ethical questions to be answered by others. Only after everyone has a clear picture can they  make meaningful ethical decisions.

In one chapter near the beginning called “The Balance Sheet,” Mackay looks at the question, (which is really the question of the whole book), “Can we (in this case the United Kingdom) live sustainably?” In answering this question, MacKay begins by systematically calculating the present energy consumption of the average citizen and balances it against what energy production would then be needed from all possible renewable energies to meet this consumption demand.

First, he explains how he will quantify energy and power using the simple measuring unit of kilowatt per hour per day (kWH/d)

He compares the energy consumed by one average UK person with regard to transportation, heating and cooling, lighting, information systems and gadgets, food and manufacturing and balances it against how much energy would then be needed from renewable sources to fulfill that person’s needs. Wind, solar, hydroelectric, tide, geothermal, and with a question mark nuclear, are all examined meticulously from every possible angle or questions that might arise.

As you can imagine, it’s quite a task. As a lay woman, I was constantly amazed at the extreme care given to examining all  the details resulting in estimates based on exceptionally sound reasoning.

In the course of exploring this question which takes up almost 1/3 of the book, MacKay goes into fascinating details about each form of renewable energy and how it would work, or not work in Great Britain. He concludes that for Great Britain to get off fossil fuels and still use the same energy consumption, renewable facilities would have to be country-sized. For example, to get a significant contribution from solar photovoltaics, Great Britain would need a land mass half the size of Wales. And a larger mass would be needed to use energy crops efficiently.  Mackay concludes in this section that going off fossil fuels at the present consumption of energy in Great Britain is not going to work.

However this is not the end of story.

In the second section, Mackay explores what the other options are available for the United Kingdom to succeed in getting off fossil fuels; options that would mean a reduction in energy consumption while increasing renewable supplies. After a full exploration of the different options, as always looking at the numbers first and economics and social acceptance, he comes to a three-fold solution.

Without telling everything, because in many ways it’s how he comes to the conclusions that is most interesting, but very simply one solution is to electrify all means of transportation (not planes). He recommends getting all green electricity from a mix of four sources: UK’s own renewables, maybe clean coal, maybe nuclear and finally, as he says, “with great politeness, from other countries’ renewables. He particularly mentions the countries who have access to desert solar power.

What I particularly appreciate about David MacKay is his ability to look at the facts, at what makes sense and what will work. And this will vary from country to country. It’s a way of thinking, objectively and pragmatically that always takes into account the human element. And he offered this book for free. It’s on line and anyone can read it.

Click to access cft.pdf

My hope is this essay entices you a bit to want to read more and/or listen to David MacKay’s Ted Talk which will give you a glimpse into this man’s elegant (and delightful) voice and soul.

      1. Thank you Robert. Had you heard of him before? He was very well respected and appreciated. What a shame he died so young – just 48 years old. Judy

    1. Hi Judy, thank you for this summary – an important read – I think it is interesting that looking at any country in isolation, it really might not be possible to live sustainably at the level of energy consumption we have gotten so used to. I wonder what happened to the plan by some European energy companies to build a big solar project in the Sahara I heard about a few years ago…

    1. Yes, that sounds very true Uli for many countries. I never heard about that big solar project in the Sahara. It would be interesting to look into it and see what happened. Judy

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