Last week I lamented the demise (or loss) of the
environmental movement. This week I wish to outline some of the reasons for
that lamentation. First, let me suggest some principles of environmentalism (as
I understand them, at least.)
Environmentalism is, first and foremost, the conscious desire to protect and preserve nature from the ravages and plundering by humans. Those with an environmental understanding recognise some important ecological principles: the integrity of the whole is nourished and sustained by the diversity of species living and existing within niche ecosystems and bioregions. This diversity is mediated through a rich, vast, and complex array of inter-connections. (Note that none of this privileges or prioritises humanity, let alone humanity’s industrial-consumer society of perpetual growth.)
However, when ‘environmentalism’ is simplified and comprehended as single-focussed, and single-issued, then ‘environmentalism’ is misunderstood. This is what has happened as ‘environmental activism’ became increasingly fixated on carbon emissions as the one-and-only environmental issue. In a rush to propose - and promote - solutions, this movement concentrated on ‘renewable’ sources of electricity production.
And, with that concentration, the movement cut itself off from environmentalism.
Let me suggest just a few ways in which the ‘solutions’ offered are not environmental solutions.
Mining has been described as “…the most important activity destroying the ecological environment and causing pollution and disasters.” Yet, ‘renewable’ sources of electricity (primarily solar and wind) require immense amounts of digging into the Earth for the minerals and elements that go into the building and infrastructure of such sources.
Solar and wind electricity generating plants require fifteen to twenty times as much base-material input per TW1 as does coal, gas, and nuclear electricity generating plants.2 For instance, for wind turbines to produce 1 TW of electricity requires more than 7,500 tons of cement/concrete. A coal fired electricity plant requires about 1,000 tons for the same amount of electricity.
A further example is the amount of digging required to make the battery in an electric vehicle (EV.) An EV battery weighs approximately 450 kg. To mine and process the ores and materials needed for that battery necessitates the removal of approximately 250 tons of earth – let alone the plants and animals that lived on that earth. The largest EV manufacturer in the world (Tesla) produced more than 2,500 EVs per day in 2021 – that’s lot of earth! Tell me that is an environmental solution!!?
Mining leaves behind highly toxic residues and tailings. Ask the local indigenous people in the infamous “lithium triangle” (encompassing areas of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia) and they will speak of this. A protest sign by one indigenous resident reads: “We don’t eat batteries. They take the water. Life is gone.”3
This is the very opposite of the environmental principle of the diversity of local ecosystems. Sadly too, it is an example of “out-of-sight-out of-mind.” So long as we in the rich nations of the world can drive our EVs, proclaiming that in doing so we are ‘saving the world,’ what does it matter that communities living in poorer areas of the world must shift, having seen their environment polluted and destroyed?
Wind farms are known to kill birds, especially larger raptors and other birds of prey. A common rejoinder to this is to claim that the fossil fuel industry kills more birds. This argument is akin to me claiming that the road toll in my country is acceptable because it is less than that of other nations. I would prefer that we set the bar against a higher standard, not that we measure ourselves against the worst case possible.
Furthermore, assenting to the killing of raptors and birds of prey is a dismissal of another important environmental principle: that of the complex interconnections between species in a bioregion. The lessons of the removal, and later reintroduction, of wolves in Yellowstone Park should have been well learned by now – especially by environmentalists.4
Neodymium and Friends.
Neodymium is a Rare Earth Element (REE.) It is a crucial element in wind turbines (as well as mobile phones, EVs, hard drives, and audio devices.) Along with the other 16 REEs it is mined mostly in China which accounts for more than half of the world’s supply.
These REEs come at a significant environmental cost. Included in that cost is CO2 equivalent emissions. Estimates vary between 12 kg up to 66 kg CO2 equivalent per single kg of neodymium over the full life-cycle.5 A standard 2 MW wind turbine contains about 360 kg of neodymium. Simple arithmetic results in carbon-equivalent emissions of between 4,320 kg and 23,760 kg – and that is just for the neodymium component. For a technology that is supposedly carbon-free this is not good news.
Neglecting to take into account the environmental devastation of REE mining and manufacture (including CO2 emissions) is an example of not recognising the environmental principle of inter-connectivity, and thus the need to take a long term, whole of life-cycle, perspective.
It hasn’t even worked.
Solar and wind electricity generation began to be noticed within the global energy mix around 1990. Since then, solar and wind generating capacity has increased by a combined 7,560 TWh (from just 12 TWh in 1990.) Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? It does, until you realise that in the same period, coal and oil capacity increased by 32,130 TWh. Fossil fuels outstripped ‘renewables’ by more than a factor of four.6
In the same timeframe carbon emissions have increased from 22.75 billion tons per year to 34.81 billion tons.
The introduction of ‘renewables’ has made no difference. None, zilch! Even though ‘renewables’ have increased capacity in the last thirty years by a whopping 630% there has been absolutely no reduction in energy use, and no reduction in annual carbon emissions.
We might ask why?
We might answer: Because ‘renewables’ are not a solution to the basic problem.
Significantly, the only two times in the past thirty years when there has been a reduction in annual carbon emissions have been in 2008/09 during the ‘financial crisis’ and in 2019/20 during the coronavirus crisis. Carbon emissions dropped by 1.4% and 5.2% respectively.
‘Renewables’ were not responsible for these reductions. A reduction in consumption and production was. I will not spell out the obvious conclusions that can be drawn from this. (Maybe another blogpiece.) I might give a taste however; and suggest reading what Greta Thunberg has to say. She was on track recently when she noted that, “We cannot live sustainably within today’s economic system.”7 Too right Greta. That is the problem. ‘Renewables’ are not the answer. Furthermore, Greta made no mention whatsoever of ‘renewables’ in this article.
Can we reclaim or resurrect the environment movement? Can we restructure the climate change movement so that it becomes an environmental movement again? A movement that will seek to protect and preserve the Earth and all those creatures that live on or under the earth? In short – can we re-discover a movement that will seek to give voice to the creatures that have no voice?
I’ll attempt to answer this. Nah – I might leave that to Part 3, this piece is already far longer than I normally write.
1. TW (Terawatt) is one million million Watts. That is equivalent to 10,000,000,000 average 100 W lightbulbs.
2. Schernikau, Smith, & Falcon, Full Cost of Electricity “FCOE” and Energy Returns “eROI,” in Journal of Management and Sustainability, Vol 12, No. 1; 2022, published 23 May 2022. Please note, I am not arguing for coal fired electricity plants; simply noting that ‘renewables’ are not the environmental solution they are made out to be.
3. Indigenous people are left poor as tech world takes lithium from under their feet, in Washington Post, first published 19 December 2016, updated 2 February 2017.
4. The removal and reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park is a well-documented example of how an ecosystem needs all its diverse species. Watch this YouTube video for a short account of what happened. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_BqQEZQOJw
5. Julio Navarro & Fu Zhao, Life cycle assessment of the production of rare-earth elements for energy applications: a review, in Frontiers in Energy Research, November 2014.
6. The data in this section are from www.ourworldindata.org accessed 11 October 2022.
7. The Guardian, 8 October 2022.