SA: Very powerful. It such a shame that a young person has to plead for a future at the United Nations. This is what intergenerational injustice looks like.
“You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
SA: So much hope these days centers on the dream of replacing the fossil fuels that are killing life on this planet with solar panels and windmills so that we get to keep the way that we currently live basically the same. Fuck, no one wants that more than I do. But it cannot happen.
There are many, many reasons why it is an utter myth that “clean, renewable energy” is the pathway to our best future but I’ll lay out three prime ones here.
The first reason is the reality of renewable energy: it provides electricity. At this time, electricity only amounts to around 20% of all the energy we use. Even an enormous scaling up of electricity production and transforming much of the realities of modern life to function on electricity will not come close to replacing what fossil fuels do for us. The vast majority of our modern world is created or enhanced by fossil-fueled fire, from transportation, to manufacturing, to everyday materials. Electricity is not a substitute for so much of that. So a renewable world will be a fundamentally different one.
The second reason is that the fabrication of renewable generators involves socially and environmentally unjust mining of non-renewable resources. The mined material is then transported, fabricated and installed using fossil fuels. They are not only unjust, they are vastly dirty.
The third reason is a corollary of the second. Renewable energy technologies are not at present able to reproduce themselves using only the energy they generate. That is, neither solar panels nor windmills generate the energy needed to mine, transport, fabricate, install and maintain themselves. They are not self replicating
There are many more “clean, renewable energy” myths exposed is this fine piece by Don Fitz at Resilience.org. His summation after exposing those myths: “Every form of energy production has difficulties. ‘Clean, renewable energy’ is neither clean nor renewable. There can be good lives for all people if we abandon the goal of infinite energy growth. Our guiding principle needs to be that the only form of truly clean energy is less energy.”
While undoubtedly unpopular with Green New Deal folks, this is the reality we must be planning our living arrangements for: A future with extremely low energy, and that is bioregionally localized focused on a regenerative society of sufficiency.
SA: This commentary about the myths of a renewable economy, from Alf Hornberg, is powerful, and most likely very unwelcome to adherents of a Green New Deal. While undoubtedly their hearts are in the right place, the idea that somehow fixing what we’ve got to run on renewably generated electricity and interjecting more “justice” into the current system will allow us to keep all the mod-cons we enjoy is extremely misguided.
The crux of Hornberg’s argument: “Despite good intentions, it is not clear what Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and the rest of the climate movement are demanding should be done. Like most of us, they want to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases, but seem to believe that such an energy transition is compatible with money, globalised markets, and modern civilization.” Spoiler alert: it is not.
And further: “Take the ultimate issue we are facing: whether our modern, global, and growing economy can be powered by renewable energy. Among most champions of sustainability, such as advocates of a Green New Deal, there is an unshakeable conviction that the problem of climate change can be solved by engineers.” Spoiler alert: it can’t be.
The final line of the piece lays out our fundamental challenge: “Climate change and the other horrors of the Anthropocene don’t just tell us to stop using fossil fuels – they tell us that globalisation itself is unsustainable.”
I agree with Rupert Read that at this time we are facing three possible outcomes to the crises we find ourselves in:
This civilisation could collapse utterly and terminally, as a result of climatic instability (leading for instance to catastrophic food shortages as a probable mechanism of collapse), or possibly sooner than that, through nuclear war, pandemic, or financial collapse leading to mass civil breakdown. Any of these are likely to be precipitated in part by ecological/climate instability, as Darfur and Syria were.
This civilisation (we) will manage to seed a future successor-civilisation(s), as this one collapses.
This civilisation will somehow manage to transform itself deliberately, radically and rapidly, in an unprecedented manner, in time to avert collapse.
The first two cannot be avoided or aided by Green New Deals. It is the last prospect to which Green New Deals are presumably addressed. The transformation Read alludes to must be to an extremely low energy, bioregionally localized, regenerative society of sufficiency. That means the end of the current era and will require an entirely different set of adaptations than are currently proposed by Green New Deals.
If we want to salvage a livable future, we must give up clinging to the thought that we can just “green” up our current arrangements and inject more “justice” into them. The current system is inherently unjust and cannot be “greened” by its very nature. Instead, we must strive to imagine what it means to live regeneratively, in small scale, local places, where social and environmental justice is intertwined within our everyday lives.
SA: Below is a hopeful piece about the economic possibilities of trying to suck excess carbon dioxide out of the air. It may work, but do we have the time? Is achieving this in 100 years worth continuing to emit CO2 today?
From David Roberts in Vox: “To give a sense of scale, that means by 2030 humanity needs to be compressing, transporting, and burying an amount of CO2, by volume, that is two to four times the amount of fluids that the global oil and gas industry deals with today.”
As one of the dozen or so Australian lead authors on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report, currently underway, I have a deep appreciation of the speed and severity of climate change unfolding across the planet. Last year I was also appointed as one of the scientific advisers to the Climate Council, Australia’s leading independent body providing expert advice to the public on climate science and policy. In short, I am in the confronting position of being one of the few Australians who sees the terrifying reality of the climate crisis.
The world’s readiness for the inevitable effects of the climate crisis is “gravely insufficient”, according to a report from global leaders.
This lack of preparedness will result in poverty, water shortages and levels of migration soaring, with an “irrefutable toll on human life”, the report warns.
Trillion-dollar investment is needed to avert “climate apartheid”, where the rich escape the effects and the poor do not, but this investment is far smaller than the eventual cost of doing nothing.
The study says the greatest obstacle is not money but a lack of “political leadership that shakes people out of their collective slumber”. A “revolution” is needed in how the dangers of global heating are understood and planned for, and solutions are funded.
SA: This is a really powerful argument about the need for ending all fossil fuel use. Not “net-zero” but “real zero.” The implications of the first sentence alone for all planning and design disciplines is enormous.
ABSTRACT: To halt global warming, the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by human activities such as fossil fuel burning, cement production, and deforestation needs to be brought all the way to zero. The longer it takes to do so, the hotter the world will get. Lack of progress towards decarbonization has created justifiable panic about the climate crisis. This has led to an intensified interest in technological climate interventions that involve increasing the reflection of sunlight to space by injecting substances into the stratosphere which lead to the formation of highly reflective particles. When first suggested, such albedo modification schemes were introduced as a “Plan B,” in case the world economy fails to decarbonize, and this scenario has dominated much of the public perception of albedo modification as a savior waiting in the wings to protect the world against massive climate change arising from a failure to decarbonize.
But because of the mismatch between the millennial persistence time of carbon dioxide and the sub-decadal persistence of stratospheric particles, albedo modification can never safely play more than a very minor role in the portfolio of solutions. There is simply no substitute for decarbonization.
SA: Prof Sir Ian Boyd, the UK government’s chief environment scientist almost gets it right in his retirement interview with the BBC. But then he does what everyone in positions of responsibility right now does, and waffles….badly. There are hints of the truth in this interview, but his closing tells people it will be ok: nothing will really have to change.
“Emissions are a symptom of consumption and unless we reduce consumption we’ll not reduce emissions.”
“Emissions won’t be reduced to Net Zero while ministers are fixed on economic growth measured by GDP, instead of other measures such as environmental security and a relatively stable climate”
“We need to make major technological advances in the way we use and reuse materials but we (also) need to reduce demand overall – and that means we need to change our behaviours and change our lifestyles.”
“We certainly won’t be able to travel so much as we have in the past, so we have to get used to using modern communications methods.”
And the, he brings the waffles, bigly:
“It will very rarely come down to a direct message like ‘sorry, you can’t buy that but you can buy this’. But there will be stronger messages within the (tax) system that make one thing more attractive than the other.”
If it will “rarely” come down to such direct messages, and we will have to rely on the tax system, then I’m pretty sure we’re fucked. And he was coming so close to delivering the ultimate truth about the post carbon world: everything changes, in every single way.
Stories like this make me scream, silently: breathless reporting about such and such city, nation, corporation going “carbon neutral!” This sounds so cool! So progressive! S0 painless! So easy!
But in reading this particular story – like many others – it becomes clear that all the carbon neutrality refers to is electricity generation and some transportation. “The carbon-neutral goal, as in other cities, only includes emissions from transportation, electricity, heating, and cooling (not, for instance, the footprint of the items that people buy that are made elsewhere and shipped in).”
Well of course, that’s the fucking easy part! In most countries, electricity generation provides approximately 20% of total energy use. The other 80% is always fossil fuels.
There is no shaming in this critique. Copenhagen’s goal is extremely admirable and should be replicated immediately by every city in the world.
But the carbon accounting listed above accounts for less than half of all carbon emissions that make the city run. There is no accounting for the emissions in building materials and construction, embodied emissions, infrastructure maintenance, all consumer products, most food, air transportation to and from the city, etc, etc.
And anyway, we must get to BELOW ZERO, not “carbon neutral.” Even if we were to succeed in becoming “carbon neutral” as a civilization, all it would mean is that we would stop the atmospheric CO2 concentration from rising. But there are already too many negative impacts from the CURRENT CO2 level. Therefore, we must be working on REDUCING CO2 levels. And this story absolutely shows that Copenhagen is not doing that. At best, they are helping to slow the increase. That ain’t enough.
Thus, it is misleading reporting to state that Copenhagen will be a carbon neutral city in 6 years. And it is deceptive to not investigate ALL the city’s emissions. This is irresponsible because it gives people the impression that becoming zero carbon/negative carbon really wont be that hard. That it won’t mean much change in their lives. But it will, it will. Far better for stories like these to report on the great strides, but also allow for an honest accounting of ALL carbon emissions associated with the city and what zero carbon will mean to it.