Precise, passionate, and deliberately iconoclastic, the climate specialist and engineer Jean-Marc Jancovici delivered the inaugural lecture to second-year undergraduate students in Paris, demonstrating the inevitable end of the golden age of energy. In this matter, no compromise is possible: if we are to decarbonise the economy, we must let go of our obsession with perpetual economic growth. Here are the key takeaways from his lecture.
"For two centuries now, we’ve been replacing renewable energy sources with non-renewable ones," declares Jean-Marc Jancovici in his opening remarks. "For what reason? Humans are not morons; there is a profoundly physical reason for this."
How Man became "the real Superman"
Supported by figures and examples, Jancovici narrates the story of the excessive power that mankind was able to develop due to fossil fuels and the technologies developed for their exploitation. "It's pretty simple, really: today, there are 7 billion human beings on the planet, and if we wanted to be fully independent of machinery, there would need to be 1,400 billion of us." These superhuman powers have increased manifold economic growth, wealth… but also CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, in an unimaginable and irreversible manner. He warns us, "we cannot purify the CO2 already released into the atmosphere - even 100 years from now, over half of the amount of carbon that we have released into the air up until today will remain”.
"We are nowhere close to reducing the consumption of fossil fuels"
Yet, “Superman is beginning to feel suffocated in his suit”. And non-renewable energies, necessarily means limited-stock energies. "The infamous peak of petroleum was already reached in 2008 for most petroleum-based products, and nobody talked about it," deplores Jancovici, who also denounces "the disproportionate media coverage of the development of renewable energies," which in reality only represent a "negligible part" of the energy sources being consumed today. "It is not feasible to 100% replace these energies with renewables - it is manifestly incompatible with our economic system."
To reduce carbon is to reduce growth
It is time to abandon the idea that decarbonisation can go hand in hand with GDP growth, quintessential to our current economic system. "CO2 or GDP - we have to choose," he insists. Traditional economic theory falsely spread the notion that natural resources were "free", since one could simply "bend down and pick them up". "But since they had no price, their destruction cannot have one either - this is where this school of economic thought reveals itself to be incapable of apprehending the changes taking place." According to Jancovici, the only ways to "cushion the blow" of the economic decline required is to stop measuring our economic progress on the basis of GDP growth, to develop projects that are not dependent on growth to evoke enthusiasm, and to rely on, in addition to renewables, nuclear energy to soften the decline and its negative consequences.