In the run up to theCOP21 UN climate talks in Paris this December (more here on how to join us and take action), we’re busting some commonly-heard c limate myths, from big business being part of the solution to putting our faith in techno-fixes. Catch up with last week’s mythbuster – “climate change is (only) an environmental issue“. Comments or questions about this article? Come and find us on Facebook and Twitter.
The last one in our series is an insidious one, heard again and again every time someone suggests that a serious institutional reform, systemic change or market regulation is needed. It goes like this: there is no need for that, it is technology, forces of free-market innovation and human ingeniousness set loose, that are going to save us all. We acknowledge that renewable technology should play a vital role in transition from fossil fuels, as well as efficiency. But it is fallacious to believe that this shift will happen inside the rules set by the current centralised corporate business model. And there are too many dirty technologies sold as the ultimate fix to climate change.
Before explaining why we cannot hope to solve climate problems using exactly the same approach that created them in the first place, let us look at the most dangerous “false solutions”, perpetuated under the techno-optimist paradigm, (and boasted at the corporate-sponsored “Solutions COP21” expo in Paris right now) and assess if they can possibly contribute to solving the climate crisis.
For quite a long time, the nuclear industry has been trying to present its product as a perfect climate-solution. Let us leave behind all the problems that nuclear energy in itself embodies: polluting at every step of its fuel chain, being a dangerous industry responsible for life wrecking accidents, causing growth in repression to societies that use it – and, last but not least, leaving behind tons of waste that nobody knows what to do with. More on all of this can be find in a great collection of first hand experiences in this brochure.
It is also of note, that the nuclear fuel chain is in itself highly carbon intensive (at least 30g of CO2 per kWh). That is why we say nuclear is not clean, but actually a dirty energy. But can building new nuclear reactors contribute to fighting climate change, or not? Let us talk numbers then. Those can be subsumed in three not enoughs:
Not enough uranium:
Currently, nuclear power produces about 11% of the worlds electricity (not all energy). If we wanted to produce 70% from it, we would use all the uranium reserves that the nuclear industry has, in just two years. Would it then be worth to even build the reactors?
Not enough time:
In 2008, the International Energy Agency designed a scenario for nuke-based climate action, quadrupling nuclear production by 2050. That would mean more than tripling the number of reactors across the globe in 40 years, comissioning 32 new reactors a year. All this would lower emissions from the energy sector by mere 6%. Worse even, it is hardly realistic – nuclear is on a steady decline, world-wide. Its current 11% share is the lowest since 1981. It has dropped by 8% since its peak in 1989, 5% of those just in the last ten years. This is beacuse most of the worlds reactors were been built in the 80s and hence are starting to creak to a halt. A nuclear power plant takes at least ten years to build, usually more.
Not enough money:
Since it will take a lot of money and effort to decarbonise the world’s economy, we should consider thoroughly consider where to put the money. And nukes just do not cut it, compared to renewables. They are almost twice as expensive as wind as a means of emissions-reduction.
Assesment: saving the climate with nuclear power is a pipe dream. Instead, it can succesfully distract us from real solutions, and devour funds we desperately need elsewhere. Moreover, it is on its own dangerous, polluting and socially detrimental. False solution.
(Fun point: Patrick Moore, the self-proclaimed Greenpeace co-founder turned corporate lobbyist has at various opportunities both denied the existence of antropogenic climate change and exalted nuclear as the best solution to it.)
II. Clean fossil fuels
The proposition that fossil fuels, mainly coal, can be made “carbon neutral” is based on the technology called Carbon capture and storage (CCS). This means the idea of successfully trapping the CO2 from thermal plants, transporting it through a network of pipelines, and then either:
1) Pressurise it into deep cracks in suitable parent rock
2) Inject it in half-emptied oil wells to extract even more oil (this is known as enhanced oil recovery or EOR)
3) Dissolve it in the ocean (further driving its acidification)
4) Letting it react with calcium-oxide to produce limestone.
Interesting, so where is the catch?
First, CCS greatly decreases fossil fuels’ EROI (energy returned on energy invested), making the power plant consume up to 40% of the energy it produces on CCS solely and hence driving such a utility to the brink of economic ruin. Second, if we use the most likely scenario, which is geological storage, there is a considerable risk of seepage. Third, CCS can justify further expansion of coal mining, with both devestating local impacts on land use and human health and the potential for it to be used to justify pursuing a coal based energy policy, rather than transition to renewables. See this report from Corporate watch.
Finally and most importantly, there is not yet a single fully implemented CCS project in the world. An MIT-sponsored study shows that this is hardly possible sooner than 2030. Which is, gently put, too late to change anything, as CO2 emissions need to start falling rapidly during this decade at the latest, if we want to stand a chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Even worse, all the pilot projects to date are falling behind timescales.
Assessment: like many other business-driven technological solutions, CCS is portrayed as a bridge technology, giving us the time and resources needed to make the transition to a truly renewable energy system. In fact, the efforts of coal companies to “clean themselves” through CCS are overrated. It is too risky, too undeveloped and too expensive to make a contribution. On the contrary, it is used as big coal’s PR strategy tool, used to legitimise its continued expansion with an unsubstantiated hope. False solution.
III. Gas as a bridge fuel
Although it is a fact that gas is less carbon-intensive than other fossil fuels such as oil or coal, and that retrofitting coal plants to burn gas instead can, to some extent, contribute to mitigating climate change, the notion of gas as a bridge to renewable future is, again, used to actually justify further investment in new gas infrastructure, including pipelines, new plants, or water-polluting fracking projects.
This increases our dependence on fossil fuels, as new infrastructure has to be used for decades for the investments to return. It is notable that in the EU, gas imports mainly benefit authoritarian regimes, such as in Russia or Azerbaijan. Moreover, large scale state-led investment into gas infrastructure, under the guise of “bridge” rhetoric, uses funds could be used in renewables development, as this briefing illustrates. And finally, there is a growing body of evidence for large-scale leaks during its extraction and transport. And natural gas is mainly methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than CO2,
Assesment: bridge fuel rhetoric concerning gas could have made some sense 10-20 years ago, when the competitiveness of renewables was in question. That is no longer the situation. False solution.
IV. Sustainable automobility
Transport, the second-largest source of developed countries CO2 emissions after the electricity/heat sector, is different in that it relies on much less diversified power sources. Cars, trucks and lorries provide too large of our transport, both passenger and cargo, and alternatives to oil as a means of their propulsion are scarce. Emissions from transport need to drop. Can that happen without significantly diminishing automobiles’ grip on our transport system? The automobile industry has been trying to propose at least three technologies, that would suggest so. How feasible are those?
Biofuels: even at the limited scale of their current use, fuels made from agricultural produce such as rape, are known to drive food prices upwards, thus contributing to malnutrition and hunger. Worse still, many bio-fuel projects have been actually using more fossil fuels through fertilization and mechanisation, than they managed to save. Replacing oil with biofuels is impossible.
Hydrogen: More energy is used to manufacture the hydrogen than can be recovered from it. There is no known technology that would be sufficient to make hydrogen use as a fuel energy economic and generally available.
Electric cars: they do not produce any emissions directly. But watch out – where does the electricity come from? And also, can we scale up progress in electromobiles development, production and operation and transition to renewable energy at the same time, in a manner that would curb our emissions adequately to science and equity – and not lead to a significant drop in car usage? Even studies projecting an unlikely increase in electro-mobility show that their contribution to emission-reduction cannot be of significance.
Assesment: the problem with cars lies not just in what is used to drive them, but also in that they are an inherently inefficient means of transport. Insisting that we can slash their environmental impact just by replacing their power-source is to assert false solutions. We need to shed the shackles of car-culture, and pursue real alternatives. This implies shifting the tax burden on petroleum and investing heavily in clean public transport, which is available to everyone, such as trains and light rail, as well as, improving bicycle infrastructure. Localisation of food production and the shift in cargo from trucks to trains should happen too. Cities world-wide are already coming to this realisation, as car over-use is detrimental not just climate-wise. False solution.
V. Green economy? Limits to renewables and efficiency
Renewables are great, most of us would agree. They are efficient, clean, potentially decentralised, inviting citizen control and have the potential to fulfil all of human energy needs, if used wisely. So is efficiency – or simply cutting the amount of energy we use.
Thus, one of the most dangerous mind tricks used by corporate spin doctors is to agree on this point – and then insist we should sit back and let the magic of the market take care of our future. Without interfering with the “natural” free trade, we are told, through business as usual, “green economy” will gradually come into being and we will decouple growth in economic output from growth in energy and material consumption (and emissions).
But the problem is that the growth in renewable energy production or efficiency, has neither a direct nor an inevitable relationship to the consumption of fossil fuels (and emission levels) – instead, it can lower their market prices, thus driving growth in their consumption. This paradox has been first described already in 1865 by English economist William Stanley Jevons, who was puzzled by the fact that growth in the efficiency of steam engines actually led to more, not less coal consumption. There are studies showing that this is the case with renewables in the current economic model.
And even if we have seen a relative decoupling in the developed countries, this is to a great extent allowed for by the fact, that during globalisation, we have been able to “offshore” a large portion of our most polluting “heavy” industry to the global south, where it produces export goods for northern markets – and ever growing emissions. Moreover, if there ever was anything like a “free market”, there is nothing of that sort anywhere around today. Fossil fuels are heavily subsidised, in rich and poor countries alike, by around 500 billion dollars annualy, which is greater than the global funding for healthcare.
All of this means that if we want emissions to start falling before 2020 and have anything like a good chance to avoid catastrophic climate change, we cannot possibly hope to leave the transition in the hands of the markets. Large scale intervention is needed to ensure that 80% of fossil fuels (minimum) stay underground. This includes banning new dirty energy projects, further exploration for new reserves, and unconventional fuels. Public spending needs to be shifted to support truly clean energy for everyone. And remember – if we want a society that is not only sustainable, but just also, technological change is never enough. To make sure the transition benefits the poor and the marginalised first, we must challenge business driven strategies and pursue a deep institutional reform instead.
Geoengineering is a term used for a set of technological measures, that could be eventually taken to try to lower the temperature of the Earth (or withdraw CO2 from the atmosphere). There is a wide range of these. There are the ridiculously unaffordable, like painting all roofs and mountains white to reflect sunlight or fertilizing oceans to “eat” more CO2. Also, we have insidious ones, like covering the oceans in polystyrene chips or to genetically modify trees for same reasons.
The most realistically considered, seriously discussed and even financially kickstarted scheme is known as Solar Radiation Management, or SRM. It would mean literally putting a hose to the stratosphere using a balloon or a plane, and dispersing a sulphate aerosol – particles of which would than deflect sunlight, thus curbing the warming. This “solution” has been also painted as a perfect “market-based fix” to climate the crisis in the bestselling book “SuperFreakonomics” by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. A pity that they have not mentioned its plentiful downsides. First, the sky would lose its natural color, turning to pale-grey, for ever. But the value of blue sky probably cannot be quantified in dollars. Second, and even worse, once started, the project would most likely have to be maintained indefinitely, because if we stopped emitting the sulphates, the planet would experience a disruptive shock-warming. Third, modeling of the impacts of SRM shows, that it would damage rainfall patterns heavily, mainly in the equatorial area, shutting down monsoon rains, that billions of people depend on for subsistence.
Assesment: ideas like the SRM are the worst examples of where the mindframe of always trying to fix symptoms, and never the root causes, would finally take us – to a zombie-planet, tottering from extreme to extreme in our desperate attempts to make it “work” and wondering where did it all went wrong. False solution.
(Fun point: SRM proponents scoff at criticism, claiming that the rain problem could be solved by rain-seeding. Seemingly, there is nothing we could not deal with by dumping more chemicals into the air.)
Every time you hear someone say that our problems can be solved by business-driven technological progress, you ought to be cautious – isn’t that, what for the most part caused them in the first place? Every time a technology is presented as the “easy” solution, we ought to ask: who is promoting it? Who is going to benefit from its implementation? Will it be the corporations, who have profited from causing the climate crisis, and now want to profit some more? And do the basic numbers add up – in other words, does it live up to the hype?
For technology is political. It embodies the social relations that have produced it, they are embedded into it. It can only be perceived and understood as a part of a social system that it serves, as it follows its demands and purposes. Nuclear energy, for example, can never be democratically controled, and is thus incompatible with the democratic energy systems we want. In transport, it is not only a question what do we power it with, but also what should be moved, whre from and to what destination – and never the less how do we want our cities and landscapes to look like. Opposing certain technologies does not mean to try to hamper progress, but instead choosing, what kind of progress we want. Technology is means, not an end. What technology we choose to develop depends on our collective decision of what kind of society we desire.
Although it is specific technologies that are putting greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and warming the planet, simply replacing them is not enough. We have to challenge the system that has deployed them and maintained their operation – a system based on never-ending economic growth and seeking profits at all cost. The transition we urgently need will include technological change and can make use of many new exciting innovations – but social and economic institutional change, one based on justice and emancipation of those, who have been underserved by the fossil-fuel economy, must come first.
What change would we like to see then? A transition to truly clean, renewable energy system in people’s hands, that put us on our way make our society more equal and deepening our democracy. A society that would not hamper the living systems of our planet, while securing a decent livelihood for everyone. Technology can not deliver this – people can. Are you in?