Is silicon valley going to rescue the green damsel in distress? A critique of bright green environmentalism

The idea behind bright green environmentalism is that prosperity can be achieved in an environmentally sustainable manner, through pursuit of technological innovation and social change. Most mainstream environmental groups today are increasingly inspired by a bright green ideology. When the IPCC proclaims that after 2070, negative greenhouse gas emissions will help stabilize our climate, we’re looking at a form of bright green environmentalism, the idea being that technological innovation will somehow protect us from having to face the consequences of our decisions, enabling us to have our cake and eat it too.

How did bright green environmentalism become the dominant form of environmentalism? Not because they’re correct or because they’re simply passionate, but rather, because of how our society works. Bright green environmentalism is a meme and memes undergo natural selection too. Producing new technologies makes a person wealthy and famous, which allows them to amplify their personal opinions. In addition, bright green environmentalism appeals to policymakers and politicians, as they have the task of satisfying both the general public and preventing climate change.

Bright greens propose energy efficiency, electric vehicles and renewable energy as solutions to our crisis. Jevons paradox illustrates the problem with this line of thinking. The reason for the dramatic increase in coal use in 19th century England was because greater efficiency in use simply increased the economic incentive to use coal in other applications as well. The first steam engine wasted about three quarters of the energy contained in coal, thus a steamship would be forced to bring massive amounts of coal with it. Innovations reduced the amount of energy wasted, thus it eventually became practical to use coal.

We intuitively understand this, as we’ve seen it with computers. Computers used to be as big as a living room. If the same computer can be built, but at half the original size, would anyone believe that the total number of computers would stay the same? No, it’s obvious that the computer will now find more applications in different areas. If the computer’s size halves again, it’s going to be practical for even more situations, until finally we end up with the current situation where everyone has a computer.

Now, let us apply this same principle to transport. As humans, we go on vacations and business travel to foreign countries. There’s no inherent *need* to go to such far away places. After all, vacation is ultimately a luxury, while business travel is often unnecessary as well. The problem is that you want to make a good impression on your client. If you can afford to visit them in person, they’ll prefer you over someone who merely wants to talk on skype. You demonstrate that you’re more invested in them and have the means to accomplish what you want.

If it takes a week to travel across the pond, like it did before the invention of commercial airliners, hardly anyone will engage in business travel. As soon as airplanes become available however, this does become a mandatory ritual. As long as the cost of air travel continues to go down, more people will travel by air. College students studying abroad (itself arguably a useless rite of passage ritual) won’t simply stay away for a year, but will instead go back for weekends to visit their family and friends. We’ve now reached the point where Ryanair wants to offer flights between the US and Europe for ten pounds. It remains to be seen whether they will accomplish this. If God has mercy on us, they will fail miserably of course, as it would mean a catastrophe for our climate.

The point to understand here is that all your efforts at saving oil have been in vain. You drive your electric car, perhaps ride your bicycle, perhaps you take public transport. You use less oil as a result. With oil demand low, oil prices drop. The consequence this has is that air travel becomes less expensive, which means that the opportunity is opened up to more people. Global air travel increases by about 4.5% a year, twice the growth of GDP.

The result is that people travel by airplane who could otherwise not afford to travel. Your climate castigation creates room for someone else to use the oil instead. I’m not saying that because I disapprove of your intentions, I’m convinced they’re good. I don’t heat my house, I don’t own any cars or other combustion powered vehicles and I don’t eat meat. I don’t want anyone to be under any illusions however. The machine pursues growth at any cost and doesn’t care whether we volunteer to participate, there are more than enough other candidates.

In the EU, we want to reduce emissions by 80-95% by 2050, compared to 1990. If you have 4.5% a year growth in emissions from air travel however, you’d be looking not at a 80-95% decrease by 2050, you’d be looking at a 1300% increase. If we assume that air travel emissions have to go down by the same amount as every other sector of the economy (80%), continued growth in air travel would ensure that by 2050 we’d be looking at 70 times the yearly emissions in air travel that we can actually afford.

You might argue that emissions from airflights don’t have to stay the same, they could decrease instead through application of new technologies. As I’ve mentioned earlier, simply using the same amount of oil we use today in the future, would be more polluting, the reason being that tar sands and shale oil produce more emissions per barrel of oil than conventional oil does. Thus, even keeping emissions per kilometer of airline flight *stable* would force us to find new miracle technologies to keep our growth going.

What do we have so far to solve this problem? I first want to make clear that solar powered airlines are not a serious option. They’re experimental toys, used to transport one person at most over some limited distance. People foolish enough to try to make air travel sustainable are looking at biofuels instead. Imagine for a moment that we could in fact make air travel carbon free. We would not have solved the disaster. Estimates are that the total radiative forcing (ie the amount of warming caused by air travel) is 90% higher than that of the CO2 emitted alone. A previous estimate put the total radiative forcing at 170% higher. I leave it to the specialists to decide which estimate is correct. The reason is because aircraft produce other changes in the atmosphere besides the CO2 they emit. They produce water vapor, as well as ozone, contrails and cirrus clouds. The point should be clear however: If you got rid of *all* CO2 emissions from aircraft, you’d have solved half the problem at best.

So, focus on that half of the problem you’re going to solve. Let’s say we’re going to use biofuels, which all the experiments are focused on. What happens? There are a variety of problems we’d face. Biofuels compete with land we use to feed humans. There are biofuels out there that can grow on land not used to grow crops, but this is land where yields will be lower, thus energy returned for every unit invested will be lower too. Optimizing for one variable thus comes at the cost of other variables. We could also use algae based biofuels, which would be an effective way of depleting our aquifers.

But let’s say that we actually figure out a solution to these problems. There’s a magical biofuel solution waiting for us, that doesn’t use land we’d use for food otherwise, that doesn’t have an energy return on energy invested ratio of 1:1, that doesn’t waste massive amounts of water and doesn’t lead to soil erosion and deforestation. On top of all of this, it would have to be cheaper than using oil (or coal converted into liquid fuel). If this were to happen, costs for air travel would go down further, the non-CO2 related effects would remain (how do you build an airplane that doesn’t produce contrails?), but most importantly, oil would be freed up for other sectors of the economy! A third of oil isn’t even used for transportation. It’s used to produce plastic, lubricants, medicines, pesticides and a variety of other oil products. They would become more affordable and the freed up resources would thus be redirected.

So, perhaps we wish to discourage air travel instead. We allow a tiny drop of dark into our bright green philosophy and accept that we can’t fly anywhere we want without consequences. This would be a step in the right direction. Instead of frequent flyer rewards, we would move to frequent flyer taxes. We tried this in my country. The consequence of course was that people decided to depart from Belgium instead of the Netherlands. It probably also ends up hurting tourism. Thus any sort of air travel tax would have to be implemented globally to be genuinely effective. National carbon castigation is a policy of suicide if China and other countries refuse to go along. It’s also unpopular with the electorate. We implemented a flight tax back in 2008. In 2009 we abolished it again. Polls show that around 80% of the public was against the tax. Now this is in a progressive wealthy country like the Netherlands. People want to solve climate change, but only through magical solutions that don’t financially affect them in any way.

Fine. We’ll declare that air travel is a lost cause. As a bright green, you can give up on some battles. Our carbon budget isn’t zero, because we settled on accepting two degrees of warming, even though evidence shows that we’re already witnessing positive feedback effects now and will see significant problems at two degree, something that even IPCC prominents like Pachauri seem willing to admit.

We can look at simple travel by car instead. The pearl of the bright greens, the electric car, a concept that has given rise to billionaires like Elon Musk, is supposed to deliver us carbon-free transportation. The problem is that the difference we observe is really minor. The electric car requires twice as many emissions during its production. When you drive it, in Europe you’d be looking at a 10-24% decrease in global warming potential. In other words, an electric car delivers a fraction of the 80% reduction we wish to see by 2050. It also remains to be seen how many electric cars we can put on the road. Places with electric cars face massive blackouts, as a consequence of the high strain that these cars place on our electricity grid. Perhaps we can improve our electrical grid to help us drive our cars, but that would of course come at the cost of the meager reduction in emissions we so painstakingly accomplished.

Attempts to simply capture CO2 before it is emitted and then sequester it have been a failure. It was attempted in Norway, where it failed. It was attempted in Alberta, Canada, where it failed. It has also failed in Britain and Germany. Carbon capture is a Moloch that keeps asking for more money without delivering any results. It’s simply not a practical solution.

Why is it so difficult to address climate change? This is the question we have to ponder. The solution to many of our problems used to found in technological innovation. We phased out DDT, ozone depleting chemicals, asbestos, phosphates in washing powder and other pollutants, because we realized that these chemicals were dangerous to our environment. Life on Earth has evolved under a number of conditions, some of which vary quite readily, others of which remain relatively stable. Technology enables us to push some of these conditions outside of the bounds in which life as we know it evolved, either locally or globally. As an example, as a species we have the technological ability to destroy the ozone layer, if we were to desire this course of action. We also appear able to spray the world with sufficient radioactive particles to wipe out most vertebrate lifeforms. Nuclear testing only stopped when people figured out that we don’t need to wait for nuclear war to wipe ourselves out, as enough nuclear tests have the same effect. We can also produce entirely new chemicals that have never before occured on Earth, that bioaccumulate and end up at the top of the ecological pyramid, decimating many species important for the functioning of an ecosystem.

We had to learn from these mistakes. In most cases, we did not pass any clear defining point where it was “too” late and our entire planet was irreversibly tipped into another state, like a glass of wine that spills over your carpet. Nonetheless, ecosystems were damaged, species went extinct and thousands of humans were born deformed or died premature deaths, before we addressed the problems we created. Some local ecosystems were in fact irreversibly damaged by humans, like the decline in temperatures medieval Iceland witnessed from deforestation that changed the local albedo. Despite the fact that a quarter of the island was once covered in trees, Iceland become too cold for trees to grow back as a result of deforestation and turned into the barren rock we see today. The glass had fallen, the wine spilled into the carpet and the stain won’t leave.

What characterizes most of these problems is the fact that they could succesfully be addressed by technological innovation. A limited number of chemicals bioaccumulate in our food chain, interfere with our endocrine system, or deplete our ozone layer, substitutes can be sought for these chemicals and were found. This might not always have come easilly and sometimes the replacement was about as bad as the chemical it replaced. Example, in the solar panel industry, a chemical with a global warming potential (GWP) 12,000 times worse than CO2 was replaced by one with a GWP 17,000 worse than CO2. In plastics, BPS has started to replace BPA, but like BPA, it is an endocrine disruptor. Nonetheless, a great many catastrophes have been averted. It is not disputed for example that our ozone layer is now recovering.

It would be seductive to extrapolate from the above trend and proclaim that we will have to find a technological solution to global warming. This is what most policymakers, politicians, intellectuals, scientists, economists and activists do. Not all, there is a substantial minority of people from the above categories who suggest that we have to shrink our economy, but the majority believe that technological solutions are ahead, our only problem being vested fossil fuel industry interests. Technological solutions are also popular with the electorate of course, while solutions that aim to prevent growth in use of anything we enjoy or depend on are deeply unpopular. The problem however, is that we are dealing with problems of a fundamentally different order. Our economy and our influence as a species on the biosphere has grown by such a massive scale, that activities that produce chemicals that are widespread in nature now have a detrimental effect on the planet. Just as many of our rivers and lakes suffer eutrophication as a result of our activities, our atmosphere and our coean undergo a process comparable to eutrophication. A naturally occuring chemical is introduced in such large amounts that it can not be removed by other lifeforms and starts to acidify the ocean and heat up the atmosphere.

In addition, part of the problem we face is that gains in efficiency are mostly behind us. The amount of energy a particular task takes will always have a hard physical limit, created by the laws of physics. Thus, although great improvements in efficiency are possible in the beginning, as we saw with the example of the steam engine, which first wasted three quarters of its energy, eventually we reach a point with every technology where further gains in efficiency are very minor. As an example, steel production, by itself responsible for five percent of our total energy use, no longer seems to have any significant gains in energy efficiency in the developed world.

As we grow our economy, activities that become unsustainable become ever more generalized. Whereas hunting mammoths as a source of food becomes unsustainable at very low population levels, use of wood as a source of energy takes a higher population density to become unsustainable. Nonetheless, around the 18th century, Europe had so much economic activity and such a high population, that a practice as central to our economy as the use of wood as a source of heat and construction material had become impossible to sustain. Similarly, in small amounts, we do not have to fear endocrine disruptors. The problem is that the size and complexity of our economy ensures that we are exposed to a cocktail of endocrine disruptors that ruin our health, despite the effect of every individual type of endocrine disruptor being too small to measure at the levels we are exposed to them. The problem has grown so large that it seems to affect our society’s ability to function. The cost of [endocrine disrupting chemicals is believed to be over €150bn a year in Europe alone.

It’s questionable whether this problem could ever be addressed without seriously affecting the functioning of the economy. The problem we face is simply a problem of sheer scope. Endocrine disrupting chemicals are ubiquitous, even in nature we can expose ourselves to them, simply by eating the wrong food. The problem is that our industrial activity produces large amounts of them, the outcome of which is visible in declining sperm counts among other symptoms. If we can conceive of the idea of broad aspects of the industrial economy being unsustainable when practiced on a sufficiently large scale, we can ask whether this principle could apply to climate change as well.

Climate change involves the release of greenhouse gasses, a category of chemicals that includes such ubiquitous compounds as carbon dioxide, ozone and methane. These chemicals are involved in practically every aspect of the industrial economy. Producing cement requires the release of carbon dioxide, there is no way of avoiding this. Methane is universally produced by animals. It’s also leaked when we produce natural gas. Even if we were capable of sequestering the carbon dioxide produced by a power plant, the production process leaks methane. For us to artificially raise high numbers of ruminants leads to high emissions of methane. Whether you use biofuel or not, fuel combustion emits oxides of nitrogen, which will form ground level ozone.

Finally, humans are able to produce a variety of greenhouse gasses that do not occur in nature, but are on an individual basis thousands of times more powerful than the ones we regularly use. I recently mentioned Nitrogen Trifluoride, a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential of 17,000 times a particle of CO2. Concentrations of Nitrogen Trifluoride are increasing at a quasi-exponential rate by 11% in the atmosphere every year. This is emitted in the process of producing solar panels, electronics and other modern tools. Note the problem with exponential growth here. In 2050, 35 years from now, the concentration in the atmosphere would be 38.5 times as high as it is today.

The problem that has to be understood here is that substitution of one greenhouse gas for another is not a solution. Rather, it makes the problem worse. Different greenhouse gasses operate on different parts of the spectrum. There is some overlap for different greenhouse gasses, but the overlap is not complete. Some of these parts of the spectrum are relatively saturated. Adding more CO2 will cause warming, but every additional particle of CO2 has less of an effect than the previous particle. This is why we say that a doubling of CO2 concentration causes a particular amount of warming. What this means is that when you replace CO2 emissions with emissions of another greenhouse gas, that blocks a different part of the spectrum, you’re moving from a saturated part of the spectrum, where your emissions have relatively little effect, to a non-saturated part of the spectrum, where every addition still has a very drastic effect.

Hypothetically, we could consider the saturation of different parts of the spectrum as a rough proxy for social complexity. More advanced societies will produce a more diverse variety of greenhouse gasses, whereas a more primitive industrial or agricultural society mostly produces methane and carbon dioxide. This is why the problem is so insidious. Just like endocrine disruptor production, greenhouse gas production seems to be intricately linked to the development of an industrial society. When we choose to industrialize, we choose to retain more heat within our atmosphere.

Now I wish to move on to the idea of climate engineering. When you are destroying the planet, a last desperate attempt at addressing the problem would be to simply remove the chemicals you are emitting from the atmosphere, or to simply block the sunlight. I wish to divide the geoengineering solutions into two categories: One category seeks to remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. The second category seeks to mask the effects that it has.

The second category, of attempts to mask the effects of carbon dioxide, is not worth much of our consideration. There are multiple reasons for this. The most important reason is that carbon dioxide has a variety of effects on how life on Earth operates, besides its effect of warming our atmosphere. Rising amounts of carbon dioxide cause ocean acidification, which disrupts our oceanic ecosystem. Second, there are a wide variety of effects that carbon dioxide has on plants and the interaction between plants and other organisms. As an example, fungal endosymbionts start to produce more toxins when their plant host is exposed to both high amounts of nitrogen as well as high amounts of carbon dioxide. In addition, the problem with these type of interventions is that they have other unpredictable consequences. As an example, sulfur aerosols may reduce temperatures, but will also drastically change precipitation patterns, as well as negatively affect the health of many organisms.

The prior category, of attempts to sequester the greenhouse gasses we emit deserves a closer examination. The most promising candidate so far has been iron fertilization, but effects have been disappointing. The reason is because although iron is a limiting nutrient in many places for plankton which sequester carbon, as soon as plankton populations increase, other limiting nutrients like nitrate become a problem. Ocean fertilization is unlikely to be completely useless, but it rapidly hits diminishing returns. After all, while a single particle of iron allows the capture of up to 1060000 atoms of carbon, a single particle of nitrogen added to the ocean only allows the capture of 6 atoms of carbon.

Mining olivine is another popular suggestion, but it does not appear to be cost effective, because of the massive amounts of olivine that are needed to make any sort of punch. A lot of people seem to believe in sequestration through different agricultural practices as a solution, but the potential is again rather limited. The soils have lost 42 to 78 gigatons of carbon. Half to two thirds of this it is estimated can be restored. That leaves us with 52 gigatonnes of carbon the soil can take up. How much is that? Less than 15 percent of what we currently emit in a year. Am I saying that reforestation is useless? No. It’s essential, because plants produce biogenic volatile organic compounds that lead to cloud formation, thereby locally reducing temperatures. We shouldn’t expect miracles however, the most we can expect from this is to restore some of the damage we produced in the first place.

I can’t explore every technological solution suggested against the problem we face, but I’ve attempted to address the most popular ones. The problem is that it takes far less effort to describe a possibility, than it takes to explain why a possibility is unlikely to solve the problem. I have also explained some of the general principles that make technological innovation a poor solution to the problems we now face. The situation we’re in now required to accept that we’re living far beyond our means as a species. This can’t be reduced to any one particular activity, but is rather a product of the entirety of our lifestyle. The standard of living that we in the West currently enjoy can not be sustained, but for the third world to adapt to our standard of living would be a recipe for disaster. We have to abandon the idea of perpetual economic growth and pursue a different value orientation instead. Bright green environmentalism, with its promise of making our current lifestyle sustainable, is part of the problem, rather than the solution.


Een gedachte over “Is silicon valley going to rescue the green damsel in distress? A critique of bright green environmentalism

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