Visions of a globalised future with renewable energy are wholly unrealistic unless we change the economy.
- From The Conversation
6 September 2019
Scientists from all over the world tell us that emissions in 10 years must be half of what they were 10 years ago, or we face apocalypse. School children like Greta Thunberg and activist movements like Extinction Rebellion are demanding that we panic. And rightly so. But what should we do to avoid disaster?
Most scientists, politicians, and business leaders tend to put their hope in technological progress. Regardless of ideology, there is a widespread expectation that new technologies will replace fossil fuels by harnessing renewable energy such as solar and wind. Many also trust that there will be technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and for “geoengineering” the Earth’s climate. The common denominator in these visions is the faith that we can save modern civilisation if we shift to new technologies. But “technology” is not a magic wand. It requires a lot of money, which means claims on labour and resources from other areas. We tend to forget this crucial fact.
The cost of going green
As much as 90% of world energy use comes from fossil sources. Meanwhile in 2017, only 0.7% of global energy use derived from solar power and 1.9% from wind. So why is the long-anticipated transition to renewable energy not materialising?
One highly contested issue is the land requirements for harnessing renewable energy. Energy experts have estimated that the “power density” – the watts of energy that can be harnessed per unit of land area – of renewable energy sources is so much lower than that of fossil fuels that to replace fossil with renewable energy would require vastly greater land areas.
In part because of this issue, visions of large-scale solar power projects have long referred to the good use to which they could put unproductive areas like the Sahara desert. But doubts about profitability have discouraged investments. A decade ago, for example, there was much talk about Desertec, a 400bn euro (£364bn) project that crumbled as the major investors pulled out, one by one.
Author’s comments: This is because Capitalism still rules, and is based on short term gain benefiting shareholder’s dividends to achieve quick gain from return on investment, rather than investors keeping their investment in a long term venture to make a large commercial scale renewable project feasible. Unfortunately it’s greed from the private sector!
The cheapening of solar panels in recent years is to a significant extent the result of shifting manufacture to Asia. We must ask ourselves whether European and American efforts to become sustainable should really be based on the global exploitation of low-wage labour, scarce resources and abused landscapes elsewhere.
Also, we must consider whether renewable energy sources are really carbon free. Wind turbines and nuclear power remain critically dependent on fossil energy to produce, install and maintain. And each unit of electricity produced by non-fossil-fuel sources displaces less than 10% of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity. At the current rate, the renewable power revolution is going to be very slow.
Author’s comments: The current carbon footprint of constructing a large scale off shore wind turbine involves a lot of civils and electricity distribution works before power is generated, transmitted and used by the end-user, and likewise with nuclear energy production. These type of renewable projects are surely not the best examples of being carbon free?
Even if 100% of our electricity were renewable, electric-powered aircraft and boats are a novelty and not capable of replacing the masses of vehicles in our global transport networks. Likewise, steel and cement production – required for many renewable technologies – are still major sources of greenhouse gases.
The current blind faith in technology will not save us. For the planet to stand any chance, the global economy must be redesigned. The problem is more fundamental than capitalism or the emphasis on growth: it is money itself, and how money is related to technology.
Banks Are Finally Starting to Account for Climate Change Risk
How much are assets on companies’ balance sheets contributing to global warming?
The United Nations last year warned that without dramatic new limits on global temperature increases in the next decade, humanity could see food scarcity, mass migrations, and instability as soon as 2040. For banks, one concern is that if society ignores the problem and is later forced to transition quickly to a low-carbon economy, companies and assets that produce a lot of emissions might see a sudden collapse in value.
Anti-HS2 campaigners join forces with Extinction Rebellion to save ‘Britain’s Amazon’
Is HS2 a good infrastructure project? Or another example of pleasing Capitalism with it’s end goal mainly benefitting the rich business man commuting between cities in the UK?
Should we continue or invest in a no. of large infrastructure project that are more driven to help climate change rather than negate climate change, in a more centralised way to using unused or derelict brownfield sites? Such as creating basin sinks from unused car parks in brownfield sites to be used to produce Hydro power generation for London and Greater London, or other similar brownfield sites along certain coast line destinations of Britain? An Innovative Hydropower plant would not only create renewable energy from water, but also help curb rising flood water levels by creating a large scale flood defense and help local regional Sustainable Urban Drainage systems as well as create reservoirs for supply of water during future droughts around the country.
So should we rely solely on technology to the future of reducing climate change emissions?
No, we need to think more innovatively with the science and economics! Look around us and look at what we already have got! Making best use of the air and the water we have in abundance, within a given environment!
Making best use of science and enhancing the research and development in project engineering to improve co-efficiency of performance and economic efficiencies through more innovative designs, than merely trying to improve just the product engineering and technology advancements.