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Wind powered coal mine
Image: James Cohen

The irony that gives the lie to “green” energy

In a global economy that most people readily agree is unsustainable, sustainability will not be achieved by adding new energy generating technologies to the mix.

“Ah,” I hear you say, “but what about countries like Germany that now produce 85 percent of their energy from renewables?”

Germany is, indeed, the poster child for renewable energy.  But the irony here is that Germany’s carbon footprint has increased despite deploying all of those renewables.  The reason for this is that Germany chose to use renewables to phase out nuclear power.  German coal power is still alive and kicking.

The picture varies from country to country, of course.  Britain – which is one of the worst polluters in the European Union – is set to phase out coal ahead of schedule.  However, Britain’s decision to substitute gas for coal means that even with a quarter of its electricity coming from renewables, its carbon footprint continues to rise.  Globally, the picture is even clearer.  Despite countries as diverse as China, Germany, Norway and Saudi Arabia investing in a massive expansion of renewable capacity, the global carbon footprint continues to grow.  This is simply because renewables have been added to fossil fuels whose use is still growing:

Source: Our Finite World –

What is interesting about Norway and Saudi Arabia is that their motive for deploying renewable energy technologies is more to do with economics than with concern for the environment (although ostensibly the two align).  Both states have seen their oil reserves shrink despite global oil consumption continuing to grow.  At the same time, both states have allowed themselves to become over-reliant on oil and gas to power their domestic economies.  The switch to renewables is more to do with freeing up the remaining oil and (in Norway’s case) gas for export.  Germany’s drive for renewables has been about the politically expedient but environmentally questionable choice to phase out nuclear power.  China is a little different insofar as its massive investment in renewables is aimed at cutting its reliance on coal.  This is simply because China currently uses nearly half of all the coal consumed on earth.  If China were to continue growing at 7 percent per year without changing its energy mix, it would have to consume almost all of the coal on earth by 2030 – something India in particular, and coal-burning states in general might choose to prevent.

Similar calculations are being made within corporations.  As the price of electricity continues to grow – not least because many states load the cost of renewables into electricity bills (which can be evaded) rather than general taxation (which, at least legally, cannot) – corporations view renewable energy as a means of saving money.  Tesco are the latest large British company to do so, although they are not even the first supermarket to adopt renewables:

“We’ve invested over £700 million in energy and refrigeration efficiency in our stores and DCs since 2007. This has reduced emissions by 41% per square foot of our estate. We are on track to achieve our -50% target by 2020. Our efficiency improvements have also cut our electricity bill by £200 million per year. Energy efficiency is not only the responsible thing to do, it saves money too.”

There will be proponents of renewable energy who will argue that these motives are irrelevant.  All that matters is that we increase the amount of energy generated from renewable technologies.  The problem with this argument is economic and political.  When renewables are deployed to lower the cost of energy to corporations or to maximise the income to big oil companies, the costs fall disproportionately onto ordinary people, and have a devastating impact on those at the bottom of the income ladder.  This is the “energy death spiral” in which those at the top avoid the cost by switching to renewables while those at the bottom simply switch off.  The result is that the cost of maintaining national energy infrastructure falls disproportionately on the squeezed middle.

It is no accident that the climate change denying Global Warming Policy Forum (GWPF) has switched to attacking renewable energy on cost grounds, since this is a far more credible argument than any (widely discredited) claim that man-made climate change isn’t real.  In Britain, for example, the high cost of energy has prompted even the right-wing Tory party to pledge a cap on energy bills if they are elected on 8 June – to which the GWPF response is: “forget the energy price cap; cut the green crap.”

Underlying the problem with green energy, however, is the Al Gore problem – that the people who shout loudest about climate change seem to go out of their way to add massive volumes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere as a result of their privileged lifestyles.  The reality, though, is that all of us in the developed states have lifestyles that depend upon fossil fuels.  At the most trivial, that YouTube video you watched yesterday may have used a tiny amount of energy on your phone, but collectively, our video viewing requires data centres around the world to burn huge volumes of coal.  More seriously, the most of the food that you eat has to be imported.  In the USA this means an average journey from farm to fork of more than 3,000 miles on oil powered ships, aeroplanes and trucks.

The real irony that our continued dependence upon fossil fuels to maintain our unsustainable lifestyle, coupled to an insane economic system that depends upon infinite growth to function, means that even the fossil fuel industry itself is getting in on the fashion for renewable energy:

“Major mining companies, including some of the world’s biggest suppliers of fossil fuel, are seeking to use more renewable energy themselves as they strive to drive down costs and curb emissions.

“Glencore (GLEN.L), the world’s biggest shipper of seaborne coal, said in Tuesday’s 2017 sustainability report that it gets 19 percent of its energy from renewable sources, up a percentage point from last year’s report.

“At the same time, the company reiterated its view that the wider world would carry on burning coal, the most polluting fossil fuel, and it does not see a risk of its own coal operations becoming stranded assets.”

When “green” energy technology is deployed to lower the cost of extracting the fossil fuels to be burned to produce the next round of economic growth, the irony is laid bare – green energy has little to do with combatting climate change; only a shift to a sustainable economy will achieve that.

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