By Paolo von Schirach —
WASHINGTON— Now it is fairly clear. Getting to a green, decarbonized economy in order to stop global warming is a worthy aspiration; but realistically not an achievable goal, at least not in the next 5 to 10 years. It is an unachievable goal simply because we do not have cost-effective, scalable renewable energy technologies capable of reliably delivering all the energy we need to run complex economies at a reasonable cost. This realization started slowly sinking in, particularly in Europe, in the last year or so, following evaluations of the very slow progress in the implementation of the European Union’s ambitious green tech agenda. More recently, after the outrage caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it became totally obvious that would-be green Europe simply cannot survive without importing huge amounts of Russian oil and gas –and this after years of sustained efforts to do away with them. For obvious political reasons, EU countries would love to stop buying hydrocarbons from Russia, an aggressor country that uses this large energy revenue to finance the invasion of Ukraine. But this is impossible because Europe could not survive without these energy supplies. Therefore, no sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas imports. Imagine that. Consider this: continuing dependence on imported fossil fuels is so heavy that Europe, notwithstanding its almost unanimous commitment to a non-fossil green future, has to buy them from a country that is now the closest thing to a declared enemy.
The green economy still a distant dream
Put it simply, notwithstanding years of EU green energy policies aggressively pursued at multiple levels, coupled with policies aimed at discouraging the use of fossil fuels, today in Europe the green economy is still a distant dream. A real inflection away from oil and gas to wind and solar has not occurred. And it is not likely to happen anytime soon. Hence its heavy reliance on Russian imports. Europe and North America (and the rest of the world) still rely today and will continue to rely for many more years very heavily on fossil fuels. And this is not for lack of effort in pushing green tech’s adoption.
This is because renewable energy solutions to are still inadequate, and thus unable to replace the emissions causing hydrocarbons on the scale necessary to foster a fast adoption of green energy. Because of this, like it or not, today and for many years to come we need plenty of oil and gas in order to satisfy the energy needs of complex industrial societies. Dependable, emissions free nuclear power should also be developed in order to cut our dependence on oil and gas. But unfortunately nuclear power has been demonized (fear of accidents and consequent radiation release) and therefore there is strong political opposition to it.
Denial still prevails
While all this is well known, it is taking a very long time for all key stakeholders –policy-makers, utilities, industry leaders– to come clean and tell the public this simple truth. Green tech, primarily wind and solar, is not yet cost-effective, and therefore it cannot be scaled up to the point that it will allow us to ditch dirty fossil fuels.
In fact, denial still prevails. Confronted with the reality of acute dependence on oil and gas, (in Europe’s case much of it imported from Russia), many Western leaders stated that this predicament is an additional reason for doubling down on investments in renewable energy.
Climate catastrophe scenarios did not help
And yet we thought that the pressure to do so already existed. Remember that until yesterday (that is before the Russian invasion of Ukraine) the green energy imperative was justified by the impending climate catastrophe caused by fossil fuels emissions. Everybody agreed that global warming soon enough will make Planet Earth literally unlivable. Going green, therefore, was not and is not about doing something nice. It is about the very survival of the human race. And, still, the almost undisputed acceptance of this nightmarish scenario did not make green tech magically scalable.
Today, the realization that Europe must rely on an enemy country –Russia– for absolutely essential large imports of fossil fuels is unlikely to create green miracles either. And yet the delusion that a post carbon world is just around the corner somehow still persists.
Difficult to tell the truth
While many fully understand the disconnect between lofty green policy goals and the reality of inadequate means to reach them, many policy-makers are still very reluctant to openly and publicly admit this. Not because this conclusion is questionable; but because doing so would amount to heresy and at least for some elected officials political suicide. The fact is that being “Green” is now akin to a religion. Asserting unquestioned belief in green tech is associated with holding the moral high ground. It is associated with virtue. Therefore, how can anyone really say that, based on evidence, “the good” (green energy) does not work as well as advertised, while “the bad” (fossil fuels) still works more effectively?
It is about faith not facts
There is broad based agreement (although no unanimity) that our planet is getting progressively warmer due to the cumulative effect of increased greenhouse gases emissions caused by humans burning fossil fuels. However, on the basis of this (almost) unarguable factual premise, the environmentalists have been pushing a dire scenario that includes an inevitable, catastrophic endgame. Because of global warming caused by our ill-advised use of fossil fuels, we are literally just a few steps away from an irreversible climate apocalypse that will probably result in the end of life on the planet.
Given this horrific scenario, there is only way forward. Fast track the adoption of life saving, readily available green energy technologies, while going down to zero use of fossil fuels as soon as possible. This superficially credible plan won the day. In most Western countries “Going Green”, at the highest speed, was universally viewed as the only possible way out of climate catastrophe.
And everybody jumped in. All the key players, including the high emissions industries, had to go out of their way to show the world that they had repented. Indeed, many of them (including some energy companies) advertise that they are doing their very best to cut down and eventually end the harmful use of fossil fuels.
Because of all this theatre and posturing, a legitimate debate about the cost effectiveness of different energy technologies was transformed into proclamations of green virtue. Fearful of losing popular support, politicians and high emissions industries eagerly embarked on the policy folly of forcing the massive adoption of still ineffective green technologies. This has been going on for several years, and this trend still has significant momentum. But now at least some have recognized that the policy is not working because of the high cost and relatively inferior performance of the currently available green energy technologies.
Green could not deliver
In the end, here is where we are on green energy. We get electricity from solar and wind. But it turns out that it is more expensive than what we get by burning fossil fuels, and it is not reliable. In order to ensure uninterrupted renewable energy supply, utilities must add back up systems (that use fossil fuels) to be activated when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. Besides, to date we do not have workable devices (think big, high capacity batteries) capable of storing large amounts of electricity produced via renewable green tech to be used when there is no or insufficient generation. Hence no flexibility. Contrast this with power generated using fossil fuels, or nuclear power. They are always on.
Furthermore, and this is the worst part, most projections on global warming indicate that all these gigantic efforts to adopt green energy on a massive scale have produced and are likely to produce insignificant results in terms of slowing down, let alone reversing, rising global temperatures. Which is to say that this gigantic, onerous and super expensive green tech effort does not and will not produce the intended result: namely stopping or reversing global warming.
So this is where we are now. After years of massive financial resources misallocation resulting in horrendous levels of malinvestment in expensive renewable energy, the net result is that in many western countries electricity rates (and therefore the cost of doing business) have gone sharply up, supply is less reliable, and –ultimate irony– there are no net gains in terms of substantially reduced emissions.
And it may get worse. Policies aimed at forcing the adoption of ineffective green solutions will continue to raise the cost of energy (and everything else affected by energy prices) while diverting capital away from more productive endeavors, this way starving good investment opportunities and ultimately slowing down global economic growth.
There is a better way
There is a way out of this. First of all, we should acknowledge that global warming, while serious and real, is not the final ecological catastrophe. Global warming has and will have adverse effects for the planet and for us living in it. But it can be dealt with effectively, without halting economic growth by taxing dirty industries to death while investing in ineffective green tech. Since stopping emissions while ramping up green tech does not work, the best of course of action has to be to invest in adaptation. Applied human ingenuity will generate advanced solutions that will allow the human race to live in a world with higher temperatures.
For instance, it should be possible to scale up vertical urban farming. This proven, commercially viable technology is about growing large quantities of food in controlled, extremely high yield enclosed environments where we control the temperature, humidity levels, light spectrum, appropriate nutrients, and so on in order to optimize the growth of vegetables, with no fertilizers, no pesticides, and minimal use of water. In a world in which most people live in cities, growing food right next to consumers will be very cost-effective. It will save energy, since the vegetables do not need to be transported in refrigerated trucks from the farm to the supermarket shelf, while it will spare crops from the vagaries of the changing climate. It will also allow the reforestation of enormous amounts of farmland currently used to grow vegetables.
When it comes to different approaches to clean energy, a great deal of work has already gone into designing small nuclear reactors. It seems that we are getting close to constructing them. Assuming commercial viability, these small reactors will produce emissions free electricity, while avoiding the hurdles facing large reactors projects that require a multitude of permits and authorizations. These small reactors can be built quickly, and relatively cheaply thanks to modular designs. They will be safe and they will produce a minimal amount of waste. Assuming success and scalability, this technology could be a way to ensure emission free electricity supply.
As oceans levels are rising due to melting polar ice, it is possible to protect coastal areas with a combination of restored wetlands, mangroves, new coastal defenses and other man made protective barriers. The Dutch have been living in a country largely below sea level for hundreds of years. They have done and are doing this by creatively adapting to their very challenging environment, while developing a modern, innovative economy. We can learn from them and get busy with the construction of effective coastal defenses.
That said, let us keep in mind that in order to spend significant sums on effective adaptation, we need healthy, prosperous, innovative economies. Only prosperous countries will be able to generate the funds necessary to finance new investments in research and development that will lead to innovations in both adaptation technologies and hopefully new types of emissions free energy options that will be truly cost effective. We shall not have vibrant economies if we continue targeting most industries with taxes and heavy mandates.
Solar and wind (and maybe something else not yet on our radar) may become truly cost-effective at some point in the future. But this is not the case today. Pretending that they already are has led us to a blind alley of mandating the implementation of expensive and ultimately ineffective renewable energy projects. It is time to acknowledge reality and move on to a pragmatic approach to global warming that will allow adaptation without crippling our economies. Let us keep in mind that we need robust and resilient economic growth. This is the essential precondition for creating the capital to be invested in the innovations that down the line will generate truly cost-effective, emissions free technologies.
Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.