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Why are greens so brown?

One reason for why so many people still do not believe climate change is real is that people who identify as “greens” behave as if they are also in denial.

This manifests in two ways.  First, there is so-called “Al Gore syndrome” – the practice of flying around the world pumping thousands of tons of carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere while simultaneously lecturing the poor on why they need to consume less.  Peter Kalmus from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the latest climate scientist to berate his peers for this:

“This weekend, 25,000 Earth, Sun, and planetary scientists from across the US and abroad flew to New Orleans for the annual American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting. These scientists study the impact global warming is having on Earth. Unfortunately, their air travel to and from the meeting will contribute to that warming by emitting around 30,000 tonnes of CO2…

“Like academics, climate activists also tend to fly a lot. This sends its own contradictory message: if the people urging us to burn less can’t even do it, then it must be impossible. But in reality, many of us could cut our emissions in half with little effort…

“I’d love to see what would happen if prominent climate activists and outspoken celebrities would consciously, publicly, and radically reduce their own fossil fuel use. They could begin by flying less.”

There is, however, a second practice in which those who profess to be green endorse technological “solutions” to climate change that turn out to be highly damaging to the environment.  Hydraulically fractured shale gas as a “bridging fuel” is an obvious example, since it merely substitutes a less polluting fuel for coal.  Electric vehicles are another example, since as much as a third of the greenhouse gas emissions come from the manufacture of a vehicle (and, of course, the power is only clean if it isn’t generated with fossil carbon).  One particularly nasty example is the uncritical support that many greens give to the broad category of “renewable energy.”

Although renewables produce 14 percent of the world’s primary energy, modern renewable technologies like wind and solar account for less than 1.5 percent.  The remaining 12.5 percent is not really renewable at all – 10 percent is wood and waste burning and 2.5 percent is hydroelectric.  Damming rivers and burning woods and forests can only be considered renewable when done at a small scale (some would argue that they are not renewable even then).  But when greens uncritically push governments to adopt more “renewables” and governments respond with more hydro and more wood burning, then they do more damage to the environment than if we continued to burn gas.

An example of this is playing out in within the policymaking machinery of the European Union.  Responding to public pressure for an end to fossil fuel use (something that will happen naturally as accessible reserves deplete) the EU is about to enact a Directive that will oblige member states to double their renewable energy by 2030.

“What’s not to like?” I hear you ask.

I turns out that the main way in which the shift is to be achieved is that EU states will be permitted to use what are innocuously referred to as “biofuels.”  And European climate scientists are up in arms.  In an open letter published in the Guardian, 15 such scientists explain to EU lawmakers why this is a seriously dangerous proposal:

“Even a small part of Europe’s energy requires a large quantity of trees and to avoid profound harm to the climate and forests worldwide the European council and parliament must fix this flaw.

“European producers of wood products have for decades generated electricity and heat as beneficial by-products, using wood wastes and limited forest residues. Most of this material would decompose and release carbon dioxide in a few years anyway, so using them to displace fossil fuels can reduce the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere in a few years too.

“Unfortunately, the directive moving through parliament would go beyond wastes and residues and credit countries and companies for cutting down additional trees simply to burn them for energy. To do so has fundamentally different consequences because the carbon released into the air would otherwise stay locked up in forests.”

Burning wood produces 1.5 times the carbon dioxide produced by coal.  And while ultimately that carbon will be reabsorbed by new tree growth, time matters:

“Placing an additional carbon load in the atmosphere for decades means permanent damage due to more rapid melting of permafrost and glaciers, and more packing of heat and acidity into the world’s oceans. At a critical moment when countries need to be ‘buying time’ against climate change, this approach amounts to selling the world’s limited time to combat climate change under mistaken claims of improvement.”

More broadly, of course, if the EU adopts the measure it will amount to a form of national Al Gore syndrome – if Europe slashes and burns its forests (and imports wood from elsewhere in the world) what is to stop developing states from doing the same?

“By 1850, the use of wood for bioenergy helped drive the near deforestation of western Europe even at a time when Europeans consumed relatively little energy. Although coal helped to save the forests of Europe, the solution is not to go back to burning forests…

“The solution is to restrict eligible forest biomass to its traditional sources of residues and waste.”

Underlying this faux greenery is an inconvenient truth even less palatable than the one revealed by Al Gore at the end of the last century.  The global economy that we all live within was built on the back of fossil fuels.  We have now grown – both in population and activity – to the point that further economic growth will destroy the human habitat (although not rapidly enough to spur anyone into action until it is too late).  Modern renewables like solar and wind will provide us with lifeboats to preserve something of our current way of life; but when the fossil fuels go away, so too will global industrial civilisation.

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