A Green New Deal requires large amounts of fossil fuels, significantly worsening ecological overshoot
Opinion: For many of those who understand the importance of dealing with climate change, the green energy transition is the popularly accepted pathway. Electrify everything and produce electricity with solar panels, wind turbines and geothermal installations.
The green energy transition is part of a broader response generally labelled green growth, or a Green New Deal. It includes the circular economy notion, as well as the idea of decoupling energy and material use from economic activity and or environmental harm. Transitioning away from fossil fuels is part of this movement, at least in principle.
But is green growth really the answer to climate change and a future of continued economic growth with electricity? There is growing evidence that many of the basic elements of green growth will actually make both the climate crisis and the broader ecological crisis even worse.
There are several critiques of the green growth movement, drawing into question whether it will do more harm than good. Here are some of the main points.
The “renewability” of the green growth technologies of choice – solar panels and wind turbines – is more marketing than reality. Building these technologies requires a considerable amount of non-renewable raw materials, all of which have to be mined.
Calling these technologies renewable is yet another example of using words to obfuscate and make us feel as if things are in control. Another example is calling something sustainable when it is actually just less unsustainable (and often by an insignificant amount compared with the level of unsustainability we are dealing with).
A more accurate term for these green growth technologies would be replaceable. They could be replaced when they eventually wear out in a few decades.
Building them initially and replacing them will require enormous amounts of fossil fuels. Fossil energy is essential for the mining of raw materials, manufacturing, transporting, constructing on site, and maintaining these technologies. Oh, and don’t forget the fossil fuels needed to build new road access to get the wind turbines to their desired locations.
Mining requires fossil fuels. These technologies therefore require continued use of non-renewable carbon-intensive materials. Hence, these supposed green technologies are neither renewable nor sustainable.
Various independent research groups have looked at the greenhouse gas emissions that would be associated with this process of providing most of global energy with solar and wind. The results indicate the associated emissions would push global temperatures well beyond the 1.5C safe zone.
Ramping up this “renewable” energy transition quickly would increase greenhouse gas emissions when we are supposed to be struggling to reduce emissions dramatically.
Another major obstacle to electrifying everything as proposed by green growth advocates is the scarcity of many key raw materials, and not just the exotic ones. Enormous amounts of copper, for instance, are required for a single wind turbine, and even more copper would be needed to electrify everything.
Mining has expanded significantly over the past few decades, and the quality of ore is declining. More and more earth has to be moved to provide the same quantity of desired minerals.
The raw materials required to build a global infrastructure to replace fossil fuels would require more key materials than are available in known reserves. Because many of these raw materials have been mined for decades, the easily accessed resources have already been tapped.
For many materials, the yields have been declining. Decreasing amounts of the desired ore is captured from increasing amounts of earth. This raises the energy required for the mining at a time when fossil fuel use must decline. It also causes more environmental destruction for less benefit.
Limited availability of certain materials may not stop wealthy countries from grabbing what they can. But most of the world will not be able to obtain a fair share of what is available. This will increase international tensions and conflicts at a time when we urgently need ever more cooperation to face our shared existential challenges.
The war against Ukraine, for example, is at least partly a resource war. Ukraine has one of the richest supplies of essential resources in all of Europe.
The social costs of mining in poor nations, or poor areas of rich nations, will also cause further alienation and social tensions. More mining will also expose wealthy nation hypocrisy regarding justice and social equity. Financial wealth has replaced racism and colonialism as a means of extracting valuable resources from the poor.
Yet another dynamic that draws the green growth approach into question is the phenomenon of energy cannibalism. The case is most dramatic with our most critical fossil fuel – petroleum. Most of the easy sources of petroleum in the ground have been used already. This was the easily extracted oil that required relatively small energy inputs to do the extracting.
Natural systems evolved over eons to create enormous biodiversity and abundance for all living creatures. Our ecological overshoot is destroying nature’s capacity to continue the evolutionary marvel of a self-regulating biosphere
Now more and more unconventional oil is being used, from much harder to extract sources. These include Arctic and deep sea oil, as well as tar sands and fracking. These sources require significantly more energy inputs to extract from the earth.
It is projected that by 2050 half the oil extracted will have to be used to extract more oil. This will dramatically increase greenhouse gas emissions for less benefit. The same phenomenon exists for natural gas.
The emissions associated with “renewable” technologies over the coming decades will be increasing to ever more dangerous levels.
The evidence above speaks to the difficulties associated with the current concept of green growth. It points out that the notion of electrifying everything is not quite as green as suggested. The only genuine green growth is plant and animal biomass.
In the not too distant past renewable natural resources fed and clothed us, provided most of our energy, and provided the raw materials to build structures to shelter us. This relationship with the natural world will become a growing part of our future.
Parts of the green growth approach is the circular economy and the notion of decoupling. The circular economy involves reducing waste by design, and recycling what cannot be composted. There are clearly benefits from such practices which imitate natural processes of recycling. An important difference is that nature recycles 100 percent of what is produced.
Recycling non-renewable resources is never 100 percent. In fact, we currently recycle little of what we produce, and the highest rates, in the over 90 percent range, occur for very few products. But even at 90 percent, only six iterations through the recycling process reduce the original materials to roughly half of what we started with. This is clearly not a sustainable process in the long run. Again, it is only natural processes that attain the gold standard. All our technical ingenuity cannot do as well as nature.
Various trends in the past century have created expectations that whatever we wish for we are entitled to. The magic of fossil fuels, along with a trillion dollar a year marketing and advertising industry, has made those manufactured wishes feel like needs
The decoupling process is another mainstay of the green growth movement. It involves attempting to decouple energy and raw material use from economic activity or environmental impact. Attempts to do this have been explored for several decades – with no empirical evidence that it is possible.
It is true some nations have recorded reduced energy or material throughput while maintaining economic growth. However, this is generally accomplished by outsourcing the dirty industries to poor nations – it’s an accounting trick rather than an actual decoupling on a global scale. Nature requires absolute decoupling in the real world, not accounting tricks.
Another major difficulty with the green growth approach is that it focuses largely on reducing carbon emissions to address climate change. Decarbonisation is clearly critical for a safe climate, but alone will not deal with all the existential treats we face.
Climate change is only one symptom of a more fundamental existential threat – ecological overshoot. We have too many people consuming too much of nature.
Natural systems evolved over eons to create enormous biodiversity and abundance for all living creatures. Our ecological overshoot is destroying nature’s capacity to continue the evolutionary marvel of a self-regulating biosphere.
In reality, green growth is an extractive process requiring large amounts of fossil fuels, the combination significantly worsening ecological overshoot.
This is one of the important but ignored consequences of our current green growth paradigm. It does not recognise the scope, scale and speed of biosphere destruction we have already done. It is bringing seemingly attractive but physically impossible “solutions” to the wrong problem. It is not climate change alone, but ecological overshoot that is a terminal condition. And our current concept of green growth will make ecological overshoot worse.
Along with its emphasis on decarbonisation, green growth assumes we can replace the energy from fossil fuels with “renewable” technologies. But these are two quite different issues. We could decarbonise without a huge build-up of alternative technologies by rethinking what we use energy for. We could prioritise essential services with the hydro and geothermal energy sources we already have.
New Zealand is one of the highest per capita energy users on the planet. We waste a lot of energy to do things that are unnecessary for our fundamental wellbeing.
Various trends in the past century have created expectations that whatever we wish for we are entitled to. The magic of fossil fuels, along with a trillion dollar a year marketing and advertising industry, has made those manufactured wishes feel like needs.
Part of learning to live sustainably, with genuine green growth based on biomass production, is understanding those expectations, and their implications. These expectations and sense of entitlement are not friends of living well sustainably. Changing our mindsets is as critical as changing our energy source.