A Future Without Fossil Fuels Is Impossible Without Lifestyle Changes

But it also says that all is not lost.

Smoke Emitting From Chimney Against Sky

Max Shmakov / EyeEm

A study from the Geological Survey of Finland (GTK) quantifies what resources would be needed to build all the electric cars, wind turbines, solar panels, and other technologies needed to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. Superficially, the report appears really dire: There simply isn't enough stuff in the ground to make everything we need to replace what we have. According to the GTK summary:

"The new assessment, which includes different vehicle classes, clearly shows that the mineral resources we currently know are not enough to cover even one generation of electric car batteries and their energy storage in the current global industrial ecosystem. The results also show that the planned solution based on renewable fuels requires more energy than ever before. At the same time, the power of the future energy system based on renewable fuels is possibly lower than the current energy system based on fossil fuels. This is because systems using non-fossil fuels have a lower efficiency of performance (ERoEI) than systems using fossil fuels, where the raw material is oil, gas or coal."
Electricity required

GTK / Simon Michaux

The problem here is that fossil fuels pack in an incredible amount of energy and replacing what they do, besides just pushing cars but also industrial processes like making steel or fertilizer, will require replacing the existing electricity production from fossil fuels with over twice as much power. That's a lot of solar panels and wind turbines, all of which are made of materials that have to be mined and processed. Simon Michaux, an associate research professor at GTK, also calculates that the amount of energy storage needed to deal with the intermittency of renewables has been underestimated.

Michaux is not the first to have noted that it is going to take a lot of resources to make the transition from fossil fuels. In his book "Numbers Don't Lie," Vaclav Smil wrote about the scale of the transition to electric cars:

"In 2021 there were some 1.4 billion motor vehicles on the road, of which no more than 1 percent were electric. Even if the global road fleet were to stop growing, decarbonizing 50 percent of it by 2030 would require that we manufacture about 600 million new electric passenger vehicles in nine years—that is about 66 million a year, more than the total global production of all cars in 2019. In addition, the electricity to run those cars would have to come from zero-carbon sources. What are the chances of that?"

Michaux's report came out in late 2021 but is buzzing around Twitter now because of a Countercurrents piece by Robert Hunziker asking: Is there enough metal to replace oil? (Spoiler: The piece answers it with, "No, not even close!"

"A recent study puts a damper on the prospects of phasing out fossil fuels in favor of renewables. More to the point, a phase-out of fossil fuels by mid-century looks to be a nearly impossible Sisyphean task. It’s all about quantities of minerals/metals contained in Mother Earth. There aren’t enough."
Battery metals required to phase out fossil fuels

GTK/ Simon Michaux

Hunziker quotes Michaux from a seminar saying, “The quantity of metal required to make just one generation of renewable tech units to replace fossil fuels is much larger than first thought. Current mining production of these metals is not even close to meeting demand. Current reported mineral reserves are also not enough in size." The doomers—those who believe that we have no way out of the climate crisis and might as well give up—have leaped on this.

It should be noted that it probably isn't as dire as it looks, and everyone here is sounding like the original doomer, English economist William Stanley Jevons. He wrote in "The Coal Question": "I must point out the painful fact that such a rate of growth will before long render our consumption of coal comparable with the total supply. In the increasing depth and difficulty of coal mining we shall meet that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress." We didn't run out of fossil fuels because we got better at finding them and use them more efficiently.

Also, if you go back to Michaux's actual reports, he is not a doomer. He is pointing out that we can't carry on the way we are going, just all-electric, because we don't have the time or the resources. We also have to change the way we live.

"Without a reliable energy source with a useful ERoEI ratio that is available to most of the human population, plans for future development will have to let go of many current assumptions relating to maintaining existing consumption patterns, and technology complexity," said Michaux. "Therefore, the restructuring of society and the industrial ecosystem to consume less and establish a new improved understanding of interdependence between raw materials and energy might be needed.”

In the GTK discussion of options for the future without fossil fuels, after looking at the electricity needed, the lithium to be mined, the area of land needed for biomass, and the need for fertilizers, they ask: "The logistical challenges to replace fossil fuels are enormous. It may be so much simpler to reduce demand for energy and raw materials in general. This will require a restructuring of society and its expectations, resulting in a new social contract. Is it time to restructure society and the industrial ecosystem to consume less?"

Michaux and GTK are asking the same questions and raising the same issues that we have in our recent discussions about net-zero: There are no easy solutions. We can't all have electric cars; we need fewer cars. We can't just electrify everything; we have to reduce demand. Then we won't need so much of all these metals.