Saying no to climate solutions

In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein highlights the utility of a “Blockadia” strategy to keep fossil fuels in the ground through local land-based resistance campaigns. As George Hoberg raises in his latest book, and many others have discussed, the inclination of the environmental movement runs more toward stopping and preventing things than toward building solutions. For one thing, they get caught up in what I see as false narratives that corporations are exclusively to blame for climate change, or that somehow the world would be able to use drastically less energy. Environmentalists also tend to see any environmental impact as grounds for opposing a project. Impact on birds is a reason to resist wind; impact on the landscape is a reason to oppose solar; offshore wind may ‘mesmerize crabs.’ They point out that even if we bring climate change under control we will have problems with lost biodiversity, toxic pollution, and many other issues — and thus spread their skepticism about electric vehicles or battery power because of the mineral resource requirements.

All this leaves us in a position where environmentalists are accurately raising the alarm about climate change, while rarely suggesting a path forward for replacing that energy and for providing new energy to the parts of the world that are developing economically. As David MacKay put it at the end of his book:

Because Britain currently gets 90% of its energy from fossil fuels, it’s no surprise that getting off fossil fuels requires big, big changes — a total change in the transport fleet; a complete change of most building heating systems; and a 10- or 20-fold increase in green power.

Given the general tendency of the public to say “no” to wind farms, “no” to nuclear power, “no” to tidal barrages — “no” to anything other than fossil fuel power systems — I am worried that we won’t actually get off fossil fuels when we need to. Instead, we’ll settle for half-measures: slightly-more-efficient fossil-fuel power stations, cars, and home heating systems; a fig-leaf of a carbon trading system; a sprinkling of wind turbines; an inadequate number of nuclear power stations.

We need to choose a plan that adds up. It is possible to make a plan that adds up, but it’s not going to be easy.

We need to stop saying no and start saying yes. We need to stop the Punch and Judy show and get building.

If you would like an honest, realistic energy policy that adds up, please tell all your political representatives and prospective political candidates.

Global energy use is about 576 EJ (5.8 x 1020 J), and world electricity consumption to be about 63 EJ (6.3 x 1019 J). Giving all 7.7 billion people on Earth the 125 kWh/day energy use of the average European would require energy production of 962.5 billion kWh per day (3.5 x 1018 J), or 351.3 trillion kWh per year (1.3 x 1021 J). That’s equivalent to about 45,000 1,000 MW power stations. If we want to avoid climate change in a way that is at all politically plausible, we need to get building.


7 thoughts on “Saying no to climate solutions”

  1. But it isn’t just oil and gas projects that are becoming increasingly difficult to build these days, Yager said. In Ontario, wind farm projects have been cancelled because they pose threats to bat populations. In Quebec, a proposed hydro line that would have carried clean power to Massachusetts was scrapped after residents of tiny Maine refused to allow transmission through their state.

    “You can’t even build a cellphone tower anymore without running into opposition,” Yager said. “Where do you think you could put a new hydro dam nowadays? Nowhere.”

    Experts have suggested that Canada will have to double, perhaps even triple, the size of its electricity grid by 2050 in order to meet its net-zero goals. That would require not just new transmission infrastructure, but interprovincial co-operation on new regional interties to help connect areas with access to clean power to areas still reliant on coal.

    In addition, the federal government wants to increase Canadian production of critical minerals such as copper, aluminum and lithium in order to support a domestic supply chain for the electric vehicle industry.

    The prospect is daunting, said Warren Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

    “All of these things have a footprint, and are going to be a challenge to implement,” he said.

  2. The case for an environmentalism that builds

    Economic growth should help, not hinder, the fight against climate change

    And, in a deep and damaging irony, some of the biggest advocates of slowing climate change do not accept the logic that to do so requires building more.

    As our Technology Quarterly explains, expanding and greening the grid will be demanding—and phenomenally expensive. A recent report by the Energy Transitions Commission, a global group of experts, sees the split in costs between the new generating capacity needed for an ample supply of clean electricity and the distribution, transmission and storage systems needed to make that supply useful as a roughly 55:45 proposition. The 45% that goes on grids and storage comes to about $1.1trn a year between now and the middle of the century. For comparison, the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental think-tank, reckons that worldwide spending on electric grids is currently around $260bn a year: far less than is needed and, tellingly, less than is invested in upstream oil and gas.

    But climate change is a problem of a different magnitude from almost all other environmental concerns, and of a different kind. That it was brought to the world’s attention mostly by the environmentally minded is to the movement’s credit. But it cannot be tackled merely with the values central to classical environmentalism. Those most anxious to achieve the energy transition must acknowledge that more building is the most practical course of action.

    And it is economic growth that will make possible the building of new transmission lines, gigawatt-scale renewable power installations and, indeed, the mines from which the minerals these things need are sourced. To demonise it, as some environmentalists do, is to expose the world to more climate change, not less. Many environmentally minded politicians now boast of the “green jobs” that their policies will bring. Seeking extra jobs makes sense only in the context of the continued economic growth they make possible.

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