March 30, 2011
I recently attended the European Commission, DG Climate Action’s conference on their roadmap to a low carbon economy in 2050. After hearing the European officials saying one thing (long-term targets) and the stakeholders another (short-term needs for funding innovation), I can only conclude that even with the best roadmap, we are definitely lost. And as often happens when we get lost, we have stopped listening to each other.
The best line I had heard that frightful morning was from MEP Satu Hassi, who tried to remind people that carbon is cumulative – a kilogram of CO2 saved today is much more valuable in the CO2 reduction scheme than a kilogram saved in 2050. Why then do people not pay attention to that?
I liken it to our pension time-bomb (one of my real risks that keep me up at night). We are told that a teenager saving €10,000 today will have much more in pension savings on average than a fifty-year old saving €300,000, and we understand the cumulative, compounding effect, but as we age, we still carelessly spend our money and go into debt until it is too late (and then make plans to move in with our children). With our decarbonisation efforts, we should be aiming at cutting carbon emissions now rather than dreaming up plans for a roadmap in, gulp, 2050. We should, but instead, we are emitting carbon like a drunken sailor today on green dreams. This is akin to taking a luxury holiday that our children will have to pay for, while telling them that we are making this sacrifice for their benefit. Green rhetoric has once again taken over logic and reason, placing environmentally destructive behaviour as a moral imperative.
So how are we spending today’s precious CO2 to in order to save a very devalued CO2 in 40 years?
We have a very biased carbon footprint calculation method that looks the other way when green initiatives are considered (similar to the ridiculously biased eco-label approach). For example:
- Solar CO2 impact: I have never seen a CO2 life-cycle assessment performed on solar panels – how much carbon is emitted in manufacturing them? When I look at the amount of energy needed to purify the silicon, produce the photovoltaic technologies, press the glass and then include the recycling and post-use disposal, I wonder if these green temples will ever, in a sunny country like Belgium, turn a CO2 surplus. In other words, we are creating an enormous amount of expensive CO2 today to manufacture solar panels, CO2 which will accumulate, for, maybe, some limited savings long term. Ah, but the rhetoricians reply that the future solar calendaring technologies will be more CO2 economical, which is why environmentalists and the German chemical industry keep demanding subsidies. They don’t seem to make the same argument about carbon capture and storage. Fine, fund continuing research, but don’t fund wasteful production of poor technologies that just add more CO2 to the atmosphere (we have at least 250 years of natural gas, so we can wait!).
- Biofoolish behaviour: Biofuels was another good example of a carbon bastard becoming the prodigal son. The amount of carbon emitted, water lost, agricultural land misappropriated and indigenous people dislocated showed that CO2 LCAs were not taken seriously when policies followed the green agenda. It wasn’t until Oxfam, offended by the injustice of the ongoing land-grab in developing countries, poured rain on the green parade and woke policy-makers up to some sobering truths. Still, biofuel targets are maintained in certain EU Member States, and CO2 is mortgaged today at exorbitant rates that our grandchildren will have to pay.
- Green Cars: My favourite though, is the idea that we can cut CO2 by building more environmentally friendly cars. How do you spell ‘stupid’? It is said that 30% of the CO2 that an average car will emit in its lifetime is produced before the car is driven off of the lot. The energy needed to smelt the steel, produce the electronics, tyres, glass … is very significant. How much more carbon is produced in building an electric-gas hybrid: a car with two motors and large batteries? I understand the batteries need to be replaced quite frequently. This is hardly any greener than a Hummer on biofuels! The easiest way to save CO2 from cumulating in the atmosphere today is to stop building cars. Second option is to demand that cars today are designed to last for 20 years (like they were in the 1960s) and not for five years – perhaps states could tax manufacturers who have to take back cars before 20 years – they will soon learn to retrofit clunkers.
These three examples seem like no-brainers – stop wasting CO2 today chasing green dreams that won’t provide any benefits long term. But I suppose that policy-makers in the EU have no brains since they seem to regularly succumb to green lobbyists and subsidise solar, biofuels and “green cars”. So the roadmap does not admit that we are going to be producing more CO2 today to meet dream targets in 2050, with all of the cumulative CO2 that will hit us then.
What should the DG Climate Action roadmap be doing then?
Save as much CO2 as possible today – promote energy conservation and better energy efficiency with what we have. Extend the lives of existing nuclear plants for as long as possible (if the oldest Japanese plant can survive after a 9.0 earthquake and 10m tsunami, we have little to worry about). Fund research on solar, CCS and wind, but don’t produce anything until they are eco-efficient. In the meantime, dash to gas – we have 250 years of shale natural gas so we have time to perfect the other energy technologies.
I tell my children to save for their pensions today. But they are children, full of dreams, targets and plans with which they can’t wait to busy themselves. It seems they share a lot in common with DG Climate Action civil servants.David Zaruk