Green Horizon Magazine

A Solar Transition – It is Imperative

October 14th, 2012  |  Published in Ecology, Top Stories

“A Global Green New Deal (GGND) will deliver sustainable growth with huge benefits for both humans and nature, with clean air and water, organic food, meaningful employment and more free creative time for all on this planet.

Green sustainable growth will be a transition to a steady-state global solar economy in the 21st Century.”

By David Schwartzman

Humanity and nature face two technological threats of unprecedented magnitude.

Daunting obstacles stand in the way of removing these threats. But paradoxically, by overcoming these obstacles, we can realize the vision of “another world is possible”— the rallying cry of the 15,000 strong Social Forum participants in Detroit in 2010. The first technological threat is the continuing and foreboding threat of nuclear war. Though not inevitable, it is deadly.

The second threat is catastrophic climate change (C3). This is very likely inevitable if carbon emissions to the atmosphere are not rapidly and radically reduced—and the already unsafe atmospheric level of CO2 is not reduced by sequestration technologies to below 350 ppm. An unprecedented path to the “other world that is possible” will be opened up if humanity succeeds in the near future in overcoming the obstacles standing in the way of decarbonizing global energy supplies, and couples this with rapid implementation of state-of-the-science solar technologies such as wind, concentrated solar power and photovoltaics.

The obstacles are NOT technological. Rather, they lie in the political economy of real existing 21st Century global Capitalism, starting with the Military Industrial (Fossil Fuel, Nuclear, State Terror) Complex. A transnational movement for peace and justice must put this Dinosaur in the Museum of Prehistory where it belongs. There are three critical requirements for that “other world that is possible”: global demilitarization, agroecologies replacing industrial/GMO agriculture, and the creation of high-efficiency solar power replacing unsustainable energy (fossil fuels/nuclear power). Expanding democratic, bottom-up management of this transition is necessary to achieve these goals. We may have only 5 years left to begin radical cuts in carbon emissions.

Otherwise we face the likelihood of reaching tipping points to C3, including irreversible melting of Arctic sea ice/Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets with several meters rise in global sea level by 2100, widespread ecosystem collapse, alpine water supply disappearance, dangerous ocean acidification, catastrophic climate extremes (flooding, droughts, storm damage).



My older son Peter Schwartzman and I modeled global solar transition using values for the Energy Return Over Energy Invested for state-of -the-science wind/solar technologies, “EROEI”, i.e., how much energy does the technology such as a wind turbine generate in its usable lifetime divided by the energy needed to construct and maintain it. To our knowledge this was the first study which computed the necessary non-renewable energy needed to create the renewable capacity in a solar transition scenario.

Mainly because of its lower carbon emission footprint compared to coal, the preferred fossil fuel to make a solar transition is conventional petroleum (oil and natural gas, excluding the higher carbon footprint tar sands/fracked natural gas). We estimate that a robust solar transition can be completed in 20-30 years using no more than 40% of proven conventional petroleum reserves.

The latter requirement will be reduced as higher EROEI wind/solar technologies are developed. At the culmination of this solar transition a global increase in energy would be delivered to the world, with many countries in the global North such as the U.S. decreasing their wasteful consumption. But most of humanity, living in the global South, would receive a significant increase, reaching the rough minimumof 3.5 kilowatt/person required for state-of-the-science life expectancy levels.

The 3.5 kilowatt/person is necessary but not sufficient for acquiring the highest life expectancy. Several petroleum-exporting countries with high energy consumption/person in the Mideast and Russia fall well below this value. U.S. life expectancy is likewise below most industrial countries of the global North. Income inequality is robustly correlated with bad health and must be reduced to achieve the world standard life expectancy/quality of life.3 Supplying the minimum 3.5 kilowatt/ person for the present world population of 7 billion people requires delivering 25 Tera Watts, with the present delivery of 16 Tera Watts. Tera is trillion.

Note that power = energy/time, therefore the present annual global energy consumption is 16 Tera Watt Years ( having-access-to-energy). The solar transition must be parasitic on existing energy supplies, just as the industrial fossil fuel revolution was parasitic on biomass energy until coal reproduced itself. Early and rapid phase-out of coal use and aggressive energy conservation in energy-wasteful countries (e.g., U.S.) are imperative in order to begin radical reduction in carbon emissions.

Further, energy conservation in the global North would free up petroleum needed for rapid solar development in the global South. Oil-rich countries in the Mideast, South America (e.g., Venezuela) and Europe (e.g., Russia) will be valuable partners in this solar transition by providing the needed petroleum. There is little doubt that this transition will require global demilitarization as a necessary condition for a global cooperative regime. If this transition is delayed then humanity will face the virtually inevitable onset of C3. The higher the EROEI of wind/solar technology used, the less unsustainable presently-used-energy is needed for transition.


We posit a conservative value of EROEI = 20 for wind/solar, twice the current global energy delivery, roughly 32 Tera Watts, corresponding to 9 billion people, is generated for a 20-30 year solar transition with the complete termination of fossil fuel/nuclear/biofuels. In order to ensure a steadily growing global supply of energy, conventional petroleum will provide the complementary supply to the growing wind/solar delivery, with a progressive decrease to zero at the end of the transition. We estimate that no more than 40% of the proven conventional reserves of petroleum is needed. The latter requirement will be reduced as higher EROEI wind and solar technologies are developed.

In addition, coal, nuclear power, as well as hydropower and biofuels with significant carbon footprints, can contribute to RE creation before being phased out completely in the early phase of the transition. Thus, the 40% of petroleum reserves needed as a backup is a likely maximum.2 If a vigorous solar transition is delayed too long, then we face virtually inevitable onset of C3, barring the near future revolutionary solar technologies with much higher EROEI values. Nevertheless, carbon sequestration powered by agroecologies and solar power is imperative, and must start asap to have any hope of preventing the C3.

The longer the excess carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere the more likely the tipping points for C3 will be reached, therefore radical and early cuts in carbon emissions and carbon sequestration should go hand-in-hand.


Baseload is the backup supply of energy when a particular energy technology is not operating at full capacity. Commonly, supporters of continued reliance on fossil fuels and/or nuclear power raise the misleading objection that wind/solar cannot meet the challenge of baseload. Available storage technologies will facilitate the expansion of these renewables. However, a big enough array of turbines, especially offshore, can generate a baseload without the need to supplement it with separate storage systems.5 Further, the progressive expansion of combined wind, photovoltaics, and concentrated solar power in deserts will generate a baseload simply because the wind is blowing or the sun is shining somewhere in the system linked to one grid. Meanwhile baseload would be backed up by petroleum, on the way to a full solar transition.


Carbon-sequestration from the atmosphere is imperative, and must start in the near future since the longer the excess carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere the more likely the tipping points for C3 will be reached. Only the thermal inertia of the oceans responding to the now unsafe (400 ppm) and ever rising atmospheric level of CO2 gives us a short window of opportunity.

A prevention program to have any chance of avoiding C3 must include carbon-sequestration from the atmosphere to achieve an atmospheric CO2 level at or below 350 ppm asap.6 A recent study recommends a 6% cut/year in fossil fuel consumption starting now, with 100 Pg of carbon sequestered from the atmosphere by reforestation from 2031-2080 leaving 350 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere by 2100.7We estimate that a combination of global agroecologies, increasing soil carbon storage, and solar-powered-industrial-carbon-sequestration from the atmosphere, burying carbonate in the crust (not “clean coal”!) has the capacity of reaching the 350 ppm limit by 2050 if implementation starts very soon.


The convergence of the economic, social and ecological/climate crises makes a rapid transition to wind/solar power imperative, hence a Global Green New Deal must be on the agenda.


The degrowth movement is gaining support in Europe. Richard Heinberg is an influential champion of the Transition City movement. Here is a sample of his argument: “there is no credible scenario in which alternative energy sources can entirely make up for fossil fuels as the latter deplete. The overwhelming likelihood is that, by 2100, global society will have less energy available for economic purposes, not more…A full replacement of energy currently derived from fossil fuels with energy from alternative sources is probably impossible over the short term; it may be unrealistic to expect it even over longer time frames…

Fossil fuel supplies will almost surely decline faster than alternatives can be developed to replace them…we believe that the world has reached immediate, non-negotiable energy limits to growth.”

Au contraire, we show that a complete global transition to wind/solar energy is possible using current technology taking 20-30 years. Richard Heinberg’s precription would doom most of humanity to a future of living hell since global energy supplies must be increased to end energy poverty in the global South as well as create the capacity for carbon sequestration from the atmosphere and for the massive cleanup of the biosphere.

Nevertheless, while degrowth is a very problematic recipe for global restructuring, it should not be dismissed as a useless response to the unsustainable reproduction of capital, with a reduction in certain kinds of consumption necessary especially in the global North and for elites in the global South.

Thus arguments for degrowth should be taken seriously insofar as they address economic activities that increase consumption of fossil fuels, especially coal and tar sands, the two most intense carbon emitters. The degrowth program is highly problematic because of its failure to analyze the qualitative aspects of economic growth and its emphasis on the local economy without recognizing the urgency to address global anthropogenic change from a transnational political perspective.

This demands struggle on all spatial scales, from the neighborhood to the globe. Global degrowth fails to come to terms with qualitative versus quantitative aspects of economic growth. Further, the energy base of the global physical economy is critical: global wind/solar power will pay its “entropic debt ” to space as non-incremental waste heat, unlike its unsustainable alternatives. The concept of economic growth should be deconstructed, particularly with respect to ecological and health impacts. Growth of what are we speaking, weapons of mass destruction, unnecessar y commodities, SUVs versus bicycles, culture, information, pollution, pornography, or simply more hot air?

Instead, degrowthers commonly lump all growth into a homogenous outcome of the physical and political economy. A Global Green New Deal (GGND) will deliver sustainable growth with huge benefits for both humans and nature, with clean air and water, organic food, meaningful employment and more free creative time for all on this planet.

Green sustainable growth will be a transition to a steady-state global solar economy in the 21st Century. Further, the GGND will create the social and material base for bottom-up democratic management of the political and physical economies while still having a chance to prevent C3. Hence, Jill Stein’s focus on the GND is very timely! The political requirement for realizing the “other world that is possible” is transnational, multidimensional class struggle. Class struggle in the 21st Century transcends the narrower conceptions of the 19th and 20th Centuries centered around the activity of the industrial working class. 21st Century class struggle encompasses the creative activity of the 99%.

It is profoundly democratic, aimed at expanding democracy to all spheres, political, economic and social, bringing into full reality the rights spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent treaties for all humankind. The rule of the 1% (more accurately the 0.1%) is obsolete and a continuing threat to human civilization and biodiversity.

A likely maximum of 40% of proven conventional petroleum reserves is needed if a robust solar

transition starts very soon.

This rule must be terminated, with the 1% joining the rest of us in the “other world that is possible”.

Transnational/multidimensional class struggle for social governance of production and consumption on all scales, neighborhood to global includes the following agenda:

• Publicly owned/accountable banks

• Municipalization of electric and water supplies

• Reconversion of MIC to the Green Clean Energy physical economy, including Green Cities

• Nationalization of energy, rail, and telecommunications industries

• Compulsory licensing of state-of-the science wind/solar/ information technologies, making them freely available globally, following the precedent provided in the U.S. Clean Air Act

• Creation of decentralized solar power, food, energy, farming cooperatives and worker-owned factories (“solidarity economy”)

• Replacement of industrial/GMO agriculture with agroecologies

• Organizing the unorganized in all sectors, especially GGND workers.

This is a transition to America beyond Capitalism, yes the World beyond Capitalism.


David SchwartzmanA robust solar transition is possible requiring a few decades, with the potential of avoiding irreversible tipping points. Simultaneously, energy poverty in the global South could be ended, thereby meeting a necessary condition for the state-of-the- science quality of life for all of humanity.

The convergence of the economic, social and ecological/climate crises makes a rapid transition to wind/solar power imperative, hence a Global Green New Deal must be on the agenda for implementation in the very near future.

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