Commercially available solar panels now routinely convert 20% of the energy contained in sunlight into electricity, a truly remarkable feat of science and engineering, considering that it is theoretically impossible for silicon-based solar cells to be more than 32% efficient. This upper bound, known as the Shockley-Queisser Limit, was first calculated by the eponymous scientists (who actually gave 30% as their original limit) in the Journal of Applied Physics in 1961  (see also updates by Rühle ).
Now, if we can answer why solar panels are thus limited, we can understand the essentials of photovoltaics (PV), which have their basis in the photoelectric effect, and p-n semiconductor junctions. While many have never heard of it, the photoelectric effect is of monumental importance, and when Albert Einstein received the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics, it was “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect,” while p-n junctions lie at the foundations of modern electronics, including transistors and LEDs. Indeed, a solar cell is essentially an LED in reverse: Instead of an electric current generating light, light generates electric current!
Whether 100 or 100,000, it’s consuming the fossil fuels extracted by these companies that ultimately drives climate change
The famous 71% figure comes from tracing fossil fuels to the companies that extracted the raw fuel, ignoring all the downstream companies, governments, and individuals that actually use these fuels
Viewed from the perspective of fossil fuel consumption, global warming emissions are generated by myriad actors, with households the final common driver of the overwhelming majority of climate altering emissions
Transitioning away from fossil fuels requires a revolution in how economies and households use energy, and it is largely irrelevant that 100 companies extract the majority of fossil fuels
The 100 companies/71% figure is mainly used to discourage meaningful change, and thus acts as a kind of zombie statistic: Relatively small changes in household consumption across the US populace could dramatically reduce warming emissions
A mere 100 hundred companies have generated 71% of warming emissions (based on ), so the refrain goes, and so changing your own habits and thinking this a meaningful response to climate change is either delusion, virtue signaling, the result of corporate propaganda, or some combination thereof. This has become the “zombie statistic” of popular climate discourse, cited almost exclusively by those that do genuinely care about the ongoing climate catastrophe, and yet ironically employed toward the utterly counterproductive ends of paralysis and inaction. While not untrue (and indeed an important element of a full understanding of climate change), the zombie nature of this factoid arises from the nihilistic implications that are typically assumed.
Vegetarian, vegan, plant-based, etc. diets seem much more mainstream in the media these days, and meat substitutes are no longer just a bad joke, and yet the typical American eater is the greatest carnivore in all the world, with Americans consuming more meat and other animal products (per capita) than any other country. And meat consumption continues to climb, reaching record highs every year for the last five years, though this year the coronavirus may yet put a small dent in this trend.
So, just how much meat does the average American consume? Fortunately, the USDA provides plenty of data on carcass, retail, and boneless meat supply for over 100 years. Figures 1 and 2 summarize the trends from 1909 through 2017 (excluding seafood), and we can summarize things as follows:
Since World War II, a revolution in livestock, and especially poultry production, has kept per capita meat consumption high, which is now over 220 lbs of retail meat per person per year.
Chicken has overtaken beef as the number one meat consumed in America, with an astronomical number of chickens now raised to slaughter yearly in confinement systems.
The veal and lamb markets have largely collapsed in recent decades.
Not shown here, Americans also each eat about 16 pounds of seafood, with shrimp the biggest component at over 4 pounds. This represents on the order of several ten billion fish and shellfish.
Introduction and effective waste in the food system
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the patterns of American life in unprecedented
ways and with stunning rapidity, resulting in many unintended, but not unwelcome, environmental benefits, as skies clear and animals venture into newly empty spaces . On the other hand, the pandemic has also resulted in what appears to be (and is) a shocking crisis of food waste: Acute demand shocks from the almost overnight shift away from food consumption in suddenly closed restaurants and large institutional settings (including schools, universities, and many places of business) towards in-home consumption have resulted in the well-publicized farm-level wastage of whole fields of fresh produce, and the dumping of millions of gallons of fresh dairy .
Without commercial customers or the means to quickly reorient to retail supply chains,
and with limited on-farm storage capacity, some farmers have been forced to plow crops under,
bury already harvested produce, or dump milk into manure lagoons. With slaughterhouses now
reeling from COVID-19 as well, slaughter numbers are down and the dire prospect of millions
of livestock meeting their end on-farm without ever reaching a plate is raised, and the USDA now projects Americans will actually decrease their meat consumption in the coming year .
And yet, shocking images of rotting crops and animal culls belie a US food system that has long
ultimately wasted, in one form or another, the vast majority (perhaps as much as 80-90%) of all
food calories produced at the farm level, with dramatic consequences for the environment and
both animal and human health and well-being, while the pandemic could paradoxically spur beneficial changes that mitigate such waste.
Part the First: Brief Background on Emissions Factors
Electricity generation accounts for almost one-third of US territorial greenhouse gas emissions, and the average US residence consumes just under 11,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) electricity per year (in addition to other fuels, such as natural gas). Thus, it is essential to understand the impact of electricity use, and especially how changes in use at the household level will affect emissions.
Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.
I too am reduced to repeating what must be said, and given this nascent blog’s readership, it seems rather likely that it will need saying again. To wit, George Monbiot recently discussed, in a melancholy but extremely important article (see also the version in The Guardian), the vanishing of so much nature and wild life before his own eyes, in his own lifetime. It is not mere false nostalgia, and he cites much published work that documents the astonishingly rapid and ongoing global loss of animal life, a process that has been variously (and by respectable scientists, no less!) termed “defaunation” in the “Anthropocene” and, more recently, a “biological annihilation.”
I wrote several hundred pages of a book that amounted to exhorting people to alter their own habits of residential energy consumption (turn down the heat, you rogues!), as well as upgrade their built environment (e.g. insulate the attic) and appliances, or even, *gasp*, add solar to their roofs. All this because the numbers, at least in the abstract, showed that such banal acts of conservation (not counting solar) can reduce the carbon footprint of residential energy use by at least 30-50%, from a baseline average of about 12 metric tonnes (1 tonne = 1 metric ton) of CO$_2$-equivalent (CO$_2$e). But a demonstration of how, over the course of roughly 5 years, the net energy use in my house actually fell progressively from around 17,000 kWh of electricity per year down to less than zero (net) seems in order.
I should like to highlight here (see also TomDispath.com version) a remarkable essay by Greg Grandin, one that contrasts two of Melville’s characters as faces of Empire: Captain Ahab and the historical sealing captain Amasa Delano, who partook in the massive late eighteenth century extirpation of seal populations in the South Pacific for fur, which was used a luxury item for the wealthy, and who put down a slave rebellion aboard a Spanish slave ship. Delano viewed himself as a moral man, one “who has a knowledge of his duty, and is disposed faithfully to obey its dictates.”
Unfortunately, as reported by the EIA, electrified drivetrains—hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs), plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs), and battery electric vehicles (BEVs)—still make up only about 3% of new vehicle market share, a share that has been stable for the last five years, with HEVs continuing to account for most electrified drivetrain sales:
Although fuel economy has increased somewhat for conventional vehicles in the last few years, compared to typical gasoline vehicles, lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions are generally 30-60% lower for most alternative drivetrain vehicles (with some larger luxury vehicles exceptions to this rule).
Stay tuned for a more in-depth comparison of the top-selling HEVs, PHEVs, and BEVs…
A new analysis drawing on 570 studies with data covering 38,700 commercial farms shows dramatic variation both worldwide and within-region in the environmental impact across all major foods, but confirms that beef in particular and animal products in general are responsible for the greater part of food’s impact on earth, which adds up to 31% of global warming emissions (including non-food agriculture), and 43% of ice- and desert-free land. Supplementary material available for free (and is very comprehensive), while the main article is for subscribers only (here).
Poore, J., & Nemecek, T. (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, 360(6392), 987-992.