We all want desperately to believe there is a way out of the sticky situation we’re in. To believe we can keep living basically the way we’re living now and yet not tip the world into climate and ecological catastrophe. Right?
At this late stage of the game, we are out of time for delusional optimism and mistaken conceptions for how we might have our cake and eat it too. Yet I frequently see perfectly intelligent and well-meaning people make some big mistakes when describing both the situation we’re in, and the potential solutions to it. I don’t know if that’s because they haven’t thought things through all the way, if they have but can’t accept their conclusions, or they’re simply deluding themselves. Or perhaps all three.
A recent article in Yale’s Environment 360 online publication, “How to Shift Public Attitudes and Win the Global Climate Battle”, by Todd Stern illustrates many of the misconceptions I so often see about the wicked problem of climate change. The mistakes Mr. Stern makes (as so many others do too) can be loosely grouped into the following categories:
- We are making progress in decarbonizing our economies.
- It’s enough that we all change our attitudes; if we do, we’ll solve the problem.
- We know how to solve climate change, and we can do it, technically speaking.
- Renewable technologies and other technologies we’ll use to solve climate change are “clean” and “green”.
- Electric vehicles (and other similar replacement technologies) will help solve the problem.
- The Paris Climate Accord is the result of leaders shifting course on climate change.
- Net-zero emissions by 2050 is achievable (in line with the Paris Accord).
I’ll tackle these mistakes and myths one at a time, and end on a positive note. (I know, you’re shocked, right?!)
1. We’re making progress in decarbonizing our economies.
Mr. Stern makes this statement in his article, but this is a false statement. In 2017, our global primary energy consumption grew 2.2% and carbon emissions grew by 1.6%. CO2 ppm in the atmosphere grew by 3ppm. Oil consumption grew 1.8%, natural gas consumption by 3%, coal consumption by 1%, and renewable power by 17%. This continues the trend up through 2017 (coal had been declining the previous couple of years, but in 2017 coal use increased just slightly, mostly because of use in India) which you can see here in the Global Carbon Project’s Carbon Budget Report from 2018.
Note that while renewables are growing much faster than coal, oil, and gas, because renewables are still such a small piece of the pie, the growth in fossil fuel still vastly outpaces the growth in renewables, thus making clear that we are not, in fact, decarbonizing our economies. Fossil fuels provide a bit over 80% of the world’s energy use, and that number hasn’t changed much in four decades even as renewables manufacturing has quickly ramped up.
So why do people believe that we are making progress (“dramatic progress” even, as Mr. Stern claims) in decarbonizing our economies? I don’t know. The numbers are there for anyone to look at. My only theory is that economists keep going on about “green growth”, and almost all press articles about climate change seem required to end on a positive note, and do so generally by talking about the growth in renewables. Perhaps this leads to the misperception that renewables are actually making a difference, when in fact, non-fossil-fuel electricity has replaced less than 1/10th of fossil-fuel-generated electricity (and that’s electricity only; that doesn’t include other sectors like transportation, agriculture, concrete, and so on). And because GDP grows at an average of 3% per year, the pace of growth of the overall economy far outstrips the growth in renewables. Another little tidbit: Bitcoin alone is growing so fast that it could soon consume more electricity than all the world’s solar panels currently produce, effectively erasing much of the contributions of renewable energy to overall energy use.
2. It’s enough that we all change our attitudes; if we do, we’ll solve the problem.
Mr. Stern claims that “changing norms and attitudes can move mountains.” Indeed they can, but the mountains Mr. Stern compares to climate change in his article are cigarette smoking and same sex marriage. Both were (and still are!) difficult norms to change, but comparing these to climate change is like comparing a molehill to Mount Everest. Changing these norms did not require anyone to completely change the way they live their lives; solving our climate crisis will require almost everyone on planet Earth to completely change the way we live our lives (excluding uncontacted tribes and many of those approximately 1 billion people who live on less than a few dollars a day).
Many people now understand that the individual actions touted in the media and by well-meaning ex-politicians make very little difference in the big scheme of things. We can change our personal attitudes about climate change all we want, but we are still part of a system: a system that depends on fossil fuels and a growth economy to work. Sure, changing norms and attitudes can help: if I recycle, it’s more likely my neighbors will recycle (although, of course, recycling is mostly useless); if I bike to work maybe other people in my office will bike to work, too. But that doesn’t get us out of the system we’re trapped in. Doing that requires more than changing norms and attitudes.
Besides which, changing norms and attitudes is just too slow. Look how long it took to get women the vote; and, once they had the vote, to be allowed to get a loan at a bank. We’ve been trying to change norms and attitudes on climate change for several decades. We’ve made progress, sure, but can we change norms and attitudes enough to shift our entire way of life to zero carbon emissions by 2050? Because that’s what we’d have to do to avoid catastrophic climate change. As of 2015, here’s what the world thought about climate change:
Not surprisingly, people in countries with high per-capita CO2 emissions are the least worried about climate change. Yet these (we) are the people whose attitudes and lifestyles need the most radical change. Yeah, good luck with that.
3. We know how to solve climate change, and we can do it, technically speaking.
Most of the effort in reducing emissions so far has been made in the electricity generation sector: that is, the electricity that powers and heats our homes, offices, and factories. This is in large part because this is the easiest one to tackle: the richest countries with the highest emissions tend to have well-built-out electricity grids powered by private or public utility companies, so there are fewer moving parts to modify. It’s challenging, but, at least in theory, it would be possible to replace electricity generated by fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) with electricity generated by renewables (hydro, solar, wind, biomass). We’ll leave nuclear aside as that’s a whole other discussion.
Electricity generation for power and heat is also a fairly large chunk of our global greenhouse gas emissions: about 28–30%. So, if we really could replace that sector with carbon-free energy (notice, I don’t say “renewables” here — for a reason, see below), that would be a big win.
However, saying that “we know how, and we can do it” fails to address the timeline; again, we have until 2050 to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to zero to avoid catastrophic climate change. Can you imagine trying to replace all the world’s power plants, and all the world’s electricity grids by 2050? By 2100? Me neither.
It also fails to address the other sectors which comprise 70% of our emissions. Those include manufacturing and construction (concrete, mining, etc.), transportation (there are over 1 billion cars on the world’s roads now, and if you imagine you can replace all 1 billion of those by 2050 with electric vehicles you are living in fantasy land; EVs currently represent 0.2% of light-duty vehicles on the road. Now remember there are 15.5 million large trucks in the US alone, 40,000 planes in the world, and 53,000 merchant ships in the world.), agriculture, and land use change (e.g. deforestation). Can you imagine completely changing all of that to non-fossil fuel sources by 2050? Can you even grow enough food for the estimated 9 billion people who will be on this planet by 2050 without fossil fuels? Can you mine metals out of the ground without fossil fuels? Can you make concrete without fossil fuels? The answers to these questions are important because our culture, our modern world relies on a steady supply chain of food, metals, and concrete in order to run smoothly. If any one of these gets disrupted… well, I’ll leave that to your imagination.
4. Renewable technologies and other technologies we’ll use to solve climate change are “clean” and “green”.
Everyone throws around the words “clean technology” and “clean energy” so often, it’s almost like one of Trump’s lies: say it often enough and it’ll be true!
The problem is, it’s not true. There is no such thing as “clean energy”. We all know fossil fuels aren’t clean. Nuclear certainly isn’t “clean” (I hope I don’t have to convince you of that). And so-called “renewables” aren’t “clean” either. Saying they are just misleads people. Some renewables might under some circumstances be “cleaner” than fossil fuels, but I personally wouldn’t know how to measure that definitively.
Let’s take solar panels as an example. Solar panels require silicon, made from silica (SiO2). Silica is mined from the earth, and must be refined into silicon. Refining silicon requires a smelter furnace that generates temperatures of 3000° F to melt silica into silicon. Producing one ton of silicon metal requires six tons of raw materials, including silica, coal, and wood chips. Wood chips are, well, from wood, which means cutting down forests, reducing available forest carbon sink, destroying habitat, and is typically done with large machines that run on fossil fuels. The smelting process requires a rare type of metallurgic coal called “blue gem” coal (in the US, this comes from KY) that burns at high temperatures with low ash and sulfur content, so as not to contaminate the silicon. A typical smelter requires 50,000 metric tons or so of blue gem coal per year. All of these materials must be delivered to the smelter, typically in big trucks, that run on fossil fuels. The smelter produces CO2, along with sulfur dioxide (which causes acid rain) and nitrogen dioxide, which inflames the lining of the lungs and reduces immunity to lung infections.
Solar panels also require metals such as copper and cadmium. Cadmium rarely appears in nature, and is made in the production of zinc. Copper and zinc mining are both destructive and toxic mining processes.
Copper deposits are typically mined with open-pit methods, and open-pit mines effectively permanently destroy the land. Copper typically makes up less than 2% of the ore rock, so the rock from the open-pit mines must be crushed. The crushed ore is then transported to vibrating screens that size and distribute ore for further processing. All the machines involved in mining copper are large, and require large amounts of fossil fuels and electricity to run.
Like copper, many zinc mines are open-pit mines. Blasts and large fossil-fueled machines are required to remove the ore from the earth. The ore is roasted at 950° C, and then diluted with sulfuric acid, and filtered. The resulting liquid contains zinc, cadmium, and other byproducts. This process also produces sulfur dioxide. To separate zinc from cadmium and other metals the liquid is purified, at high pressure and temperature.
Inhaling zinc can cause “metal fume fever” in humans, and high zinc concentrations kill plants. Cadmium is highly toxic and is known to cause cancer in the body’s cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, neurological, reproductive, and respiratory systems. The waste water from both copper and zinc mining is highly toxic and if released into rivers or ground water systems can permanently contaminate the water for wildlife and for drinking.
Sound clean to you? Didn’t think so.
I could go through a similar process to describe how wind turbines, biomass, and hydropower dams are also not “clean”, but I’ll leave that for another day.
5. Electric vehicles (and other similar replacement technologies) will help solve the problem.
Whenever and wherever there’s talk about climate change, invariably someone mentions electric cars. Mr. Stern does so in his article (of course), saying:
And consider the pivotal moment coming soon, whether in 5 years or 10, when electric vehicles cost no more than conventional cars, are far cheaper to operate and maintain, and can be charged almost anywhere in five minutes.
The implication is that if we can replace our gasoline cars with EVs everything will somehow be okay. As if EVs are somehow made of thin air. As if we can replace 1 billion gasoline cars with EVs overnight.
Did you know that up to 30% of the material in car tires is lost as they wear out (tires, by the way, are made from fossil fuels), and that material ends up on the side of the road from where it runs off and contaminates water ways, and in the air where we inhale it into our lungs?
Let’s focus on the batteries. Electric vehicles require batteries. Lots of them. Batteries are made with a wide variety of toxic materials including lithium. Mining lithium requires immense amounts of water: about 500,000 gallons per ton of lithium. Toxic chemicals are required to extract the lithium; these chemicals and up in the resulting waste water, which, if released into the ground water or into a river system is deadly to all life. Lithium mining scars the landscape, and destroys the water table. The key ingredient in the batteries that power our electric cars, in other words, is helping to destroy the world.
Two other key ingredients in batteries, cobalt and nickel, are also incredibly toxic to mine and refine. Cobalt is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in Africa, and hardly anywhere else. As you probably know, the DRC is not a peaceful place. In addition, cobalt is often extracted from the ground by hand, using child labor, without protective equipment. By some estimates, 40,000 children work in the cobalt mines in the Congo.
Cars require roads. Roads are made from concrete and asphalt. Asphalt is a semi-solid form of petroleum. Cement for concrete is one of the most energy intensive modern materials to make, and requires large amounts of just the right kind of sand, which we happen to be running out of. Roads cut through the landscape, often fragmenting forests and wildlife habitat. Between now and 2050, more than 15 million miles of new paved roads will be built worldwide, for all those EVs we’ll be driving.
Electric vehicles will not solve our problems. Now apply the same analysis to any replacement technology that your optimistic friends come up with.
6. The Paris Climate Accord is the result of leaders shifting course on climate change.
The IPCC was established in 1989, a year after James Hansen testified before congress about the coming climate catastrophe. The first greenhouse gas emissions treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, was adopted in 1997. The third IPCC report was published in 2001, the same year the US pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, effectively neutering it. The fourth IPCC report was published in 2007. The Copenhagen Conference of Parties (COP) of 2009, attended by 45,000 people, was an utter failure, ending without a global agreement on climate change, thanks in part to the United States. The fifth IPCC report was published in 2014. The Paris Climate Conference was held in late 2015, and the resulting agreement ratified in 2016. The agreement made a statement, however, while many hold the same overly optimistic view of Mr. Stern, who writes:
It sent a powerful signal to the world, from governments to boardrooms to civil society, that leaders had finally made a pivotal decision to tackle climate change, built on strong temperature goals, a system of five-year cycles to ratchet up ambition, and a series of measures to ensure accountability and integrity.
since the agreement was ratified, only seven of the 195 countries who participated have made any commitments or efforts that would achieve the 2C goal of the Paris accord. Seven. In addition, the Trump administration is in the process of pulling the United States out of the agreement, and it is likely that Brazil will also pull out now that far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro has won the election.
This is a history of failure. We’ve known for over a century about the potential impacts of adding CO2 to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels:
The first warnings from scientists to the President of the United States about climate change were made in the 1960’s. James Hansen testified in 1988. At no point during this long history of knowing about climate change have any of our leaders done anything to change the sharp increase in the use of fossil fuels and the associated emissions. Our leaders utterly failed us.
And what has happened since Paris? Fossil fuel use has continued to rise; emissions have continued to rise. While it is true that coal is on the downturn here in the US, China and south Asia continue to operate and build new coal power plants at a fast pace.
In the United States, of course, we’ve been rapidly replacing coal with oil and gas from fracking.
Originally sold as a “bridge fuel” because natural gas produces less CO2 than coal when it’s burned in power plants, we now know that fracking leaks methane at all stages of production. Methane is 20–86 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, and so any leakage over very small amounts eliminates the advantage of burning natural gas. In addition fracking uses and contaminates vast amounts of water. Britain has recently jumped on the fracking bandwagon, despite strong resistance.
In other words, Paris has really made no difference at all. And just a few weeks ago, the IPCC released a special report on 1.5C detailing how much worse climate change impacts will be at 2C than they will at 1.5C (and the impacts at 1.5C are no walk in the park), concluding that only “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” can stop climate catastrophe. Since then what have our leaders done? As a recent article in The Guardian described, since that 1.5C report was published:
In the UK, fracking for fossil fuels was given the green light, plans were announced for a huge new road in the south-east, incentives for electric vehicles withered, the expansion of Heathrow airport is still going ahead and Gatwick airport is trying to expand too by bringing a back-up runway into use. It’s like seeing a sign that says “Danger: vertical cliff drop” and pulling on your best running shoes to take a flying leap.
And of course here in the US, our president doubled down on his belief that climate change isn’t a problem, stating that “it will change back again” and that climate scientists say what they say because they have a “political agenda”.
What was that about a “pivotal decision” on climate change from our leaders again Mr. Stern?
7. Net-zero emissions by 2050 is achievable (in line with the Paris Accord).
My quibble with this mistake is less about the timeline (although that is clearly impossible; see above) than it is about the words “net-zero”. Built-in to all IPCC scenarios that keep us below 1.5C, and most of the scenarios that keep us below 2C (and, as a result, all current climate policy) is the concept of negative emissions. But wait, you say! How can we have negative emissions? Good question.
Let’s start with what it means. Negative emissions is the idea that we can remove CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, thus counteracting previous or current emissions. This idea came into vogue because achieving the carbon reductions necessary to restrict our emissions below what is necessary to keep the global average temperature from rising more than 2C is so incredibly difficult. So rather than just saying, hey, this is virtually impossible, we’ve decided to say, hey this is achievable assuming we invent some magical technology that currently doesn’t exist to remove CO2 from the atmosphere in the future.
It’s a little like the deficit; we avoid paying now, and assume our children will pay later. Only with climate change, it’s we avoid paying now, and our children have no future.
But if we assume we’ll have negative emissions, then we can do some squirrelly math and make up a great story about how in 2050, we will have “net-zero” emissions. That means we’ll still be emitting some greenhouse gas, but we’ll be sucking up enough of that greenhouse gas with this new magical negative emissions technology that it’ll offset what we’re emitting and ta-da! We have net-zero emissions. (It’s like you have a hole in your bathtub but you’re filling the bathtub from the faucet at the same rate the water’s going out the hole.)
As you can probably tell from my sarcastic tone, I don’t believe negative emissions technologies will work. Why?
Well, partly because the best idea anyone’s had for negative emissions technology so far is something called BioEnergy Carbon Capture and Storage, or BECCS. (Okay that’s not entirely true; the best idea we’ve had to suck CO2 from the atmosphere is to rapidly reforest the world, but since deforestation is still rampant and shows no sign of slowing, my guess is that isn’t going to happen, and certainly wouldn’t happen in time.)
BECCS requires growing huge amounts of “biomass” (plants, in other words). As the biomass grows, it sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequesters it. The biomass is harvested and transported to specially built power plants that burn the biomass to produce energy, and capture all the CO2 generated in that burning process. The captured CO2 is then liquified and transported to vast underground storage (typically old mines) where is must remain forever.
Does that sound fantastical to you? If not, then consider this:
To grow enough biomass to offset our emissions at current rates of energy use would require 2x the land mass of India.
Now add in the infrastructure to transport that amount of captured CO2 to where it needs to be stored, plus the infrastructure and political support to ensure that CO2 remains where it’s supposed to (even in the face of war and earthquakes, etc) and it should sound like delusional insanity. (Also, who’s going to pay to store all that CO2?)
Factor in that we have exactly zero power plants that can capture all the CO2 emitted during the burning process, and we have only a handful of power plants in the world that can do CCS at all, and zero long-term CO2 sequestration capabilities (currently, in order to make the CCS technology financially feasible, captured CO2 is used for enhanced oil recovery — that’s right, it’s used to get more oil!), and for this to work the technology would have to be deployed globally by 2050, and it should be very clear that BECCS is a fantasy used in these planning scenarios to make everyone feel better and does exactly nothing to help solve the problem.
I could discuss similar issues with other negative emissions technologies, but I’ll leave that to you to explore on your own.
“Net-zero emissions” is just a way of claiming that we can solve our climate problem because we’ll invent some technology in the future. Are you comfortable with that bet? Are you comfortable making that bet for 2050 (32 short years away)?
I continue to be disheartened by these mistakes and more I see otherwise intelligent and clear-thinking people make on a daily basis about the climate crisis.
While I understand the need to keep people from giving up in despair, I believe it is grossly negligent for our leaders, our scientists, and our policy makers to pretend that all is well, that we will somehow solve our problems with the right attitude, “green growth”, and a handful of “clean technologies”. This is simply false.
But here’s the positive note I promised I’d end on. Despite the gloomy outlook for humanity, there is one thing we can and should do. One thing we could do that will stop the rampant destruction caused by our fossil-fueled culture, one thing that could perhaps save some wild places, save some species, save some clean water, and give something living a chance for a future on this planet.
What is that one thing? We could dismantle our way of life, completely. We could say “no more” to a culture intent on consuming everything in its path, and say “yes” to a world with small, local communities living sustainably on the land. We’d need a global revolution against the powers that want to keep their mansions and yachts and private jets and stuff and more stuff. We’d need a global revolution for change. We’d have to change how we think about travel, and cities, and heating and cooling and food and … well, everything.
There will be loss of life, yes. But there will be loss of life regardless. Might as well pull the bandaid off now, get it over with, and perhaps some people will make it. Perhaps some whales and elephants and salmon and marbled murrelets and bees and black rhinos and banana frogs and gorillas and orangutans and hog-nosed bats and vaquita dolphins will make it too. Dismantling our entire way of life on this planet and making a new one is our only chance.
We could do it. It’ll require all of us to do it together. Want to?
Photograph by yours truly, titled The only green that matters.