Simply switching to renewables alone will not solve the climate change problem, writes Steffen Böhm, Professor in Organisation and Sustainability at the University of Exeter. We need to start removing carbon from the atmosphere. And we need to tackle the demand side. We cannot simply assume that relentless economic growth is compatible with a green future. Courtesy of The Conversation.
The Paris climate agreement has now officially come into force. Although Donald Trump and other climate change deniers have vowed to abandon it, most have hailed the agreement as a huge success and a significant milestone in our quest to limit the effects of global climate change.
But here’s the problem: many climate experts warn that the commitments made at Paris still fall far short of what is required to halt global warming at the 2°C mark, never mind reversing the growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The simple truth is that the Paris agreement is blind to the fundamental, structural problems that prevent us from decarbonising our economies to the radical extent needed.
The massive amounts of land required for installing gigawatts of solar and wind power will destroy natural habitats and take away valuable farmland
Take renewable energy. Among the most progressive leaders in business, government and NGOs there is a shared belief that, if only we could switch off the fossil fuel tap and quickly transition towards renewable energy sources, we still have a chance to save the world from runaway climate change. All that’s needed is massive investment in wind, solar, geothermal and other renewables. International agreements such as those reached in Paris are what makes those investments possible, providing business confidence and policy commitment.
While I feel part of this group of progressives, there are some hard facts that cannot be ignored.
Fossil fuel still dominates
First, the renewable schemes to date have largely been at the expense of unpopular nuclear installations, while the global share of fossil fuel-generated energy consumption remains at about 80-85%: just where it’s been since the early 1970s. Yes, massive solar and wind parks are being built around the world, but they haven’t yet changed the business models of Shell, BP and other fossil fuel giants. On the contrary, they feel more secure than ever to invest in fossil fuel sources, particularly gas, which they see as a “transition fuel” – here to stay until at least 2050 they say.
Second, the massive amounts of land required for installing gigawatts of solar and wind power will destroy natural habitats and take away valuable farmland. This is already evident in the way existing biomass production schemes – forests in the US for instance, sugar cane in Brazil or palm oil in Malaysia – have had serious environmental and social side-effects to the extent that they have been labelled as “greenwash.
The Toyota Prius, for example, one of the greenest cars on the market, relies on a range of very dirty rare earth minerals
There simply isn’t enough accessible land for all the solar or wind farms that would be needed to transition to a renewable future. Wherever renewables have been developed at the “mega” level, they end up bulldozing, quite literally, people and wildlife. And generally it’s the poorest, usually rural, communities who are disproportionately affected, given that their land values are lowest and existing users have little power or formal land rights. For example, large-scale hydroelectric dam projects, currently the greatest source of renewable energy, have destroyed many human communities and flooded irreplaceable natural habitats.
Yes, offshore wind can fill some of the gaps, but it is more expensive to build and maintain than onshore, and the generated energy has to be transmitted over long distances.
Heavy on metals
Third, as French scientist Olivier Vidal and his colleagues recently pointed out, the shift to renewable energy will “replace one non-renewable resource (fossil-fuels) with another (metals and minerals).” Vidal estimates that 3,200 million tonnes of steel, 310 million tonnes of aluminium and 40 million tonnes of copper would be needed to build the latest generations of wind and solar facilities. Together with demand from electric vehicle manufacturers, a worldwide renewables boom would rely on a 5% to 18% annual increase in global production of minerals for the next 40 years.
We cannot simply assume that relentless economic growth is compatible with a green future
Similarly startling projections are made for other materials oiling the wheels of green capitalism, including silver, lithium, copper, silicon, gallium and the rare earths. In many cases, supplies of these raw materials are already dwindling. The Toyota Prius, for example, one of the greenest cars on the market, relies on a range of very dirty rare earth minerals, the excavation and processing of which has devastated large areas of Inner Mongolia in China.
Lastly, the climate challenge is so urgent and huge that we actually need to remove carbon from the atmosphere, rather than just switching to renewables. That’s the view of prominent climate scientist James Hansen, the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who has shown that, even if we switched to zero-carbon energy sources today, we would still be facing a serious climate challenge for centuries to come.
What this all means is that the Paris agreement doesn’t go far enough. In fact, it might give us the impression of moving in the right direction, but actually the pledged actions are so far off what is needed, it spreads false hope.
So, what is needed then?
- A realisation that simply switching to renewables alone will not solve the climate change problem.
- We need to start removing carbon from the atmosphere.
- We need to tackle the demand side. We cannot simply assume that relentless economic growth is compatible with a green future.
These points raise uncomfortable questions that only those who can think and act against the grain dare to ask. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t transition to renewable energy. Not at all. But that alone will not save the climate. The world’s climate experts and leaders in business, government and NGOs, who are gathering in Marrakesh for yet another UN conference, would do well in starting to engage with this uncomfortable truth.
Steffen Böhm ‘(@SteffenBoehm) is Professor in Organisation & Sustainability and Director of the Sustainability & Circular Economy Research Cluster at University of Exeter Business School. See his lively website for a complete overview of his activities and background. This article was first published on The Conversation and is republished here with permission from the author and from the publisher under a Creative Commons licence.
Mike Parr says
The writer makes some very valid points – & I agree with the 3 bullet pointed ones at the end. This begs the question: how? how will CO2 be removed from atmopshere & (if we were sensible) the C separated and then sequestered. The C – O2 bond is quite strong – thus requiring some energy to cause the separation. Of course, if there was an enzyme sitting out there that could do that – well we would be home & dry – sort of..
“if there was an enzyme sitting out there that could do that” = chlorophyll. An enzym changes the activation energy required for the chemical reaction, C-0 bonds are thermodynamic bonds and sun light is used for that. So collect green stuff and bury it.
Are Hansen says
Böhm’s major point here is basically right: renewable energy buildout on the scale now envisioned is far too small. But he is wrong about the fact that this could be scaled up tremendously, if the political will (and therefore the economic frameworks) are put in place.
He says “Second, the massive amounts of land required for installing gigawatts of solar and wind power will destroy natural habitats and take away valuable farmland. “, and then use something else completely – biofuels – to prove this point. Yes, biofuels are not a good idea, but that has nothing to do with solar and wind.
Solar doesn’t have to be placed on valuable farmland or pristine nature, and usually isn’t. Böhm forgets all the roof space we have in the world, mostly unused – a majority of the world’s population now live in cities. Wind doesn’t destroy any farmland, but goes very well together, as has is happening many places in the US, where farmers get paid yearly for having wind mills on their land – an extra income on top of their crops, that has saved many hard pressed farmers from bankruptcy.
Yes, a lot of wind mills demand (at least at the current tech level…) a lot of steel. But there is no lack of iron in this world, and all metals are easily recycled.
He is probably right in that we also need to start removing CO2 from the atmosphere, not just stop adding more. Vegetation is the most efficient so far, and automatically repairs and renews itself…
His third point is the most interesting, and he is right that it hasn’t been discussd much so far: we can’t continue having economic growth forever. Oh oh, that means that our current economy (which needs constant growth to not crash) is not sustainably: capitalism. Yes, many of us know this, but we also understand that the huge turnaround will take time and consist of many steps. In this first phase, we use capitalism to quickly build out renewable energy. Then we take on the capitalists later…
Math Geurts says
As expected: this thruth is too uncomfortable.
The reasoning here is totally flawed on two major points:
1. “There simply isn’t enough accessible land for all the solar or wind farms that would be needed to transition to a renewable future.”
This is simply totally wrong and betrays a deep lack of understanding of physics on the autor’s side. He should probally start by looking at the visualization from the now outdated desertec project to gain a basic understanding of how little land actually is required to power the total world with renewable energy. Furthermore there are a lot of rooftops waiting to be used for PV, where there would be no additional land use and concepts like solar roadways.
2. “the shift to renewable energy will “replace one non-renewable resource (fossil-fuels) with another (metals and minerals)””
This is also totally wrong. The metals and minerals are not getting used up like oil and coal, they can be recycled over and over, and a shift to a circular economy is absolutely essential to keep supplying sufficient products to maintain or even enhance our current civilisation level. Going back “into the caves” is simply not an option as we need all our technology prowess to produce enough food for more than 7 billion people.
While I agree that the challenge of limiting climate change is tremendous and removal of carbon from the atmosphere will most likely become a necessity and that any reduction of mindless and unnecessary consumption is a very good thing on many levels, the complete lack of understanding of the basic physical principles of our reality cannot be excused and I would have been very ashamed to portray this astonishing lack of understanding in an article like this. It is very much ok to criticize the growth mantra and to highlight sufficience but it is not ok to twist reality in an attempt to make it fit in to one’s own agenda, whatever that agenda may be.
Math Geurts says
The main message: we need more than just renewable energy to prevent climate change. Very uncomfortable.
The author relies on scientific would be figures such as James Hansen, who wrote that Chernobyl caused 43 deaths, while even IAEA (which has the target to promote nuclear) states ~8000 deaths.
So what is the value of the authors other statements?
Consider statements such as:
” the massive amounts of land required for installing gigawatts of solar and wind power will destroy natural habitats and take away valuable farmland”,
while many studies showed that it’s not true.
He lives in UK, where studies found that N-sea wind in the UK part can generate 675GW, while UK grid is ~50GW. Consider that:
– N-sea wind can operate with cap. factors of ~50% (337GW av.)
– Irish sea can also contribute ~100GW
– rooftop solar, etc can also contribute 100GW.
Either the author tries to promote nuclear indirectly, or he is an unknowing outsider.
I agree with the author and most commenters that a transition to renewables should be accompanied with other measures. Especially in the field of energy efficiency there is still a lot of low hanging fruit to be picked. A change from goods of services will save energy and minerals without slowing down the economy. Limiting growth will mean that governments can make less debt. If the pie does not grow so quickly anymore it means be more evenly divided. Try that in the current political climate!
I also agree with most commenters that the arguments against renewables are not very strong. Since the author uses a Gish Gallop style of argumentation there are still some points not mentioned:
*Solar and wind are just getting competitive and only a few countries have seriously invested in them. So it is not strange that their effect is not visible in global statistics yet. However, if you follow the link in the article you can see that Germany and Denmark didmanage to seriously reduce their relative fossil fuel use during the last two decades.
Regarding rare earth elements:
Neodynium magnets are used in all harddisks, and in the windturbines of some manufacturers. Other manufacturers produce perfectly fine turbines without permanent magnets.
Some experimental perovskite solar cells use Lanthaneum. For the rest no rare earth metals  are used in solar cells. But some
types of thin film solar panels do use rare (as in high concentration deposits are rare) metals such as Indium or Tellurium. These have only a small market share and most solar cells are made from silicon which is one of the most common elements on earth. So limitations on the use of rare and rare-earth metals, because of availability or environmental regulation, will not limit the growth of solar and wind power, it will just cause some shifts within the technology.
The abstract of the Vidal et al article that Böhm links to says: “Renewable energy requires infrastructures built with metals whose extraction requires more and more energy. More mining is unavoidable, but increased recycling, substitution and careful design of new high-tech devices will help meet the growing demand. ” Clear case of selective quoting.
The Wuppertal institute comes to the conclusion that mineral availability does not impose a critical limition on renewable energy .
It is understandable that Böhm want to promote his research topic, but that he thinks he must do that by using misleading arguments against renewable energy is unworthy of a professsor.
Another point: Böhm mentions that offshore wind is expensive, the latest tenders in the Netherlands and Denmark show otherwise:
Math Geurts says
Anyhow: if the threat of climate change is as big as we believe then there is more needed than just renewable energy. If you don’t accept that your are a kind of climate sceptic and a renewable zealot at the same time.
Did you really read the comments? Böhm is not criticised about this main point. He is criticised about his fallacy laden Gish Gallop rant against renewables.
Math Geurts says
You are right but that does not change the fact that there is more needed than renewable energy which appears to be very uncomfortable for most commentors.
How does agreeing with Böhm’s main point show that commenters are uncomfortable with this? Furthermore, the idea that we have to do many things to keep our planet liveable for ourselves is hardly new. It is has been part of the message of the green movement since the nineteenseventees.
Joris van Dorp, MSc says
All “Green” environmental organisations insist on a 100% renewable energy future, including the immediate shutdown of nuclear power globally.
And Böhms main point is that even if we do this we have to do other stuff as well, which is also part of the message of “the” green movement (not really a monolithic block).
What are your ideas regarding more needed, other than energy savings (more isolation, etc)?
Math Geurts says
Geography is very important. Be aware that the Netherlands actually produce more renewable power than “100 %” Costa Rica, almost without hydro and volcanos, although the area of Costa Rica is 50% more and the number of people about 25%.
Germany is still very far from 100% renewable energy and the costs are already very far from insignificant.
We have a many decades ongoing program to reinforce our dikes, so they can withstand the blackest scenario of the climate scientists.
Germany is much further with renewable (~33% of electricity consumption) than we are.
German renewable share will continue to increase with ~2%/year, as German population consider the costs as insignificant.
And that will stay so as the costs won’t increase much because the high guarantees of the first years (up to 70cnt/KWh) will gradually end.
So the costs are expected to decrease after 2022 as you can see at Agora (EEG-Calculator).
“Germany far from 100% renewable and the costs are already far from insignificant.”
German population consider those to be insignificant as shown by exceptional high support for the Energiewende. And their judgement, not yours unless you live in Germany, counts.
Furthermore those costs hardly increase and go down after ~2022 while the Energie transition continues towards >80% renewable in 2040 (=my estimation, officially still 2050).
In addition to Merkel’s promise, you can also see it at the calculator at the Agora site.
A reason: the high 20yrs price guarantees for all solar produced power (also for self consumed!) in the 2000-2008 period end (guarantees of 40-70cnt/KWh).
Those guarantees created the market volume which allowed for mass production which created the major price decreases. The world should be grateful for that,
Math Geurts says
Renewables share in primary energy consuption in Germany was 12.5 % in 2015. In my opinion that is far from 100% https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_energy_in_Germany
The high feed price for solar (the main cause for high cost) indeed ended after 2013 but also the fast growth. Even the rather modest target of 52 GW PV in 2020 will definitely not be reached
Math Geurts says
As the real urgent problem is climate change, for the Netherlands I would promote switching to natural gas, heat distribution, even from fossil plants for the time being, and CCS. Beside of that: no premature closing of the existing nuclear plant.
The Dutch NPP ‘Borssele’ is near its end of live, as it is making major losses already and next years Dutch whole sale prices will decrease further.*)
The owners have a major problem as they didn’t put enough money in the decommission & waste fund.
Looking at experience in a.o. USA ~€1billion is needed. The official target was ~€500million, but the fund contains only €175million. It implies that the owners will have to pay ~€800million when they close.
They asked already whether Dutch government would subsidize part, but got a no.
Now they want to continue 5 years despite the losses, in the hope that there will be a CDA government after next elections. As CDA is expected to be more positive against the owners, government then may decide to subsidize part of the decommission and nuclear waste costs…
*) Next years the interconnection capacity with Germany will increase, which implies that Dutch whole sale prices will decrease more towards German levels (this year 50%, in the period towards 2021. Which implies a significant production increase (~10%), so prices will decrease further.
Math Geurts says
This issue is not just about nuclear. Except hydro, all carbon-free power production is more expensive than German sales prices. The choice depends on what is considered the worst problem. Until now only Germany (and Japan) are more afraid of tsunami’s then afraid of climate change.
It is hard to understand that decommission of a nuclear plant will be less expensive after premature retirement.
This optimistic report explains.
The cost price of Borssele NPP’s electricity is now ~30% higher than av. Dutch whole sale price (~€30/MWh). Which translates to major losses for the shareholders
Furthermore Borssele still has to implement the post-Fukushima security measures (cost ~€300mln) if it continues (same with much other EU NPP’s).
The owners also see that continuation of Borssele will cost them a fortune.
A break-even can only be reached with at least a doubling of the electricity prices in next 10years. But ‘official’ Dutch expectation is that it will be €29/MWh in 2035.
So not strange that the owners try to socialize as much and as fast as possible, in order to suffer less losses themselves.
It’s far better if govt invest in more wind, etc. as that has the future.
Math Geurts says
Again: the issue is not nuclear but climate change and all carbon-free power needs support. If the nuclear plant retires which measures above more renewables and energy saving are you willing to accept for the Netherlands?
Try at least to answer the question.
Nuclear emits 2-20times more carbon than wind & solar. So, in line with the Germans we should stop all nuclear asap. Thereafter all fossil.
The needed subsidy of ~€500mln for an old NPP (a.o. to bring it at post-Fukushima safety) which cannot compete is wasted money.
If spent for more wind, the emission reduction is at least a factor 2 bigger.
We should copy Energiewende, and adapt it to the Dutch situation.
Ask Agora scientist to assist, so we can be sure it will be a success here too.
Jeffrey Michel says
All of the global PV capacity realized to date could only supply the power required by one year’s current production of air conditioners. Although ample roof space is available for many more solar installations, any accelerated pace of deployment would still underlie a limited number of full-load generation hours per year. Air conditioners demand the most electricity when the sun is shining, but curiously solar panels are not mandated on the homes and office buildings that use them. High-rise buildings nevertheless provide little prospect of more than token solar utilization. Even super markets cannot capture enough rooftop solar energy to keep their refrigerated food sections powered around the clock.
Biogenic fuels do not unequivocally qualify as decarbonized energy resources. The tacit assumption that the CO2 of combustion will soon find its way back into vegetation is faulty. That process takes at least several decades to be culminated, exceeding the time frame required for limiting global warming to 2 degrees centigrade. In the meanwhile, at least 27 percent of this carbon dioxide (some sources cite higher percentages) will be absorbed by the world’s oceans indiscriminately with the carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion. The ensuing process of ocean acidification permanently removes CO2 from global carbon and oxygen cycles.
This distinction becomes important when examining the current structure of renewable energy usage. Only 4.4% of Germany’s primary energy demand is presently (2015) covered by non-carbon renewable sources that include wind energy, solar heat and electricity, hydropower, and geothermal energy. Nearly twice that amount, approximately 8%, is derived from biomass and biofuels, both of which are only conditionally carbon-neutral.
To fully decarbonize its energy supplies, a country like Germany might have to dedicate 20 times the area presently devoted to solar and wind generation, a strategy that could negatively affect real estate valuations far more than benefitting local employment. If cooperation with other EU member states became necessary, foreign energy dependency would weaken the arguments for decentralized generation and storage. The sun does not provide enough just-in-time irradiation for solar and wind farms to satisfy all of Europe’s diurnal and seasonal energy requirements. Ocean waves, offshore heat, and deep geological formations cannot be tapped at an appropriate scale to compensate for that shortcoming.
Germany is a dense populated major country that has far less natural resources (incl. wind & solar) than most counties. So if Germany can do migrate to near 100% renewable, almost any country can do it cheaper & easier. Especially USA.
And German scientific studies by a.o. (predececessors of) Agora think-tank found long ago that they can do it. The only issues discussed now are the cheapest methods, the phases, and the speed. Speed is important as higher speed implies more costs and the consensus is that the costs should stay insiginificant, as support by the population is critical (it’s now 90%).
More backwards USA may be somewhat less efficient regarding energy transitions etc. but still:
When Germany can keep the costs insignificant, then USA should be capable to follow against lower costs as USA has far better resources (incl. wind & solar)!