The Risk-Monger

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.

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  1. Hi David,

    As always, an interesting post. One thing that you wrote above really struck me, and it seems so obvious, but is never ever mentioned…

    “The easiest way to save CO2 from cumulating in the atmosphere today is to stop building cars.”

    You know in the UK, it is believed that there are now 33 million cars on the road. 33 million!! Enough will never be enough the way we are going. I can remember growing up and it seemed as though EVERYONE had an old car. Through the late 70s and much of the 80s, times were hard and families simply couldn’t afford a new car. It feels a little like this now, because far less people are buying new, but only a couple of years ago I returned and was struck that everyone seemed to be in a new car. The boom was rolling along nicely.

    And then you see that in the US, Ford and GM have been in all sorts of financial trouble, their books have been in meltdown because of their pension and healthcare liabilities and needed government funding. Government funding to save businesses that seem to have big problems with their business models AND create a product that the world really can’t afford to have any more of??? We really are in trouble…

    If we (humanity) are to have a chance in the medium to long-term, there needs to be so much change it is simply impossible to imagine that we can manage to make them all. Sure we have to start somewhere and it is possible to see a difference being made, but the scale of whats needed is amazing.

    I wish I knew the answer…

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Thank you for your kind words.
    As a major EU employer, the auto industry can lobby successfully in their sleep and the NGOs give them a free ride (Duh, who would fund any campaign to take my car off the road!!!). But the planned obsolescence should be addressed. In the 1960s, my parents bought a Chevy Bel-Air – after 20 years there was more rust than body on the car, but we continued to drive it until the entire frame rusted through. Cars in Cuba are still going strong fifty years later (less salt than on Canadian roads!). Surely the industry is designing better cars today than they were in the 50s and 60s. Tax the automotive industry for their planned obsolescence if we can’t get at least 20 years of service per vehicle.

  3. A future with no cars sounds about awesome… but what about today? How can we address mobility needs, not only mobility of people but also of goods. European internal market depends heavily on transportation of goods, and as of today, I know of no carbon-neutral commercial-scale transportation solution.
    So… what’s it going to be? I’m not in favor of cars, I’m in favor of responsible choices! And I guess we both agree in that! I’m just asking what are our choices today regarding transportation!
    I loved the article and I took the liberty of twiting it!
    Greetings from Germany!

  4. Thank you for the retweet.
    If you took all of the subsidies for solar, wind and biofuels over the last five years in Western European countries, it would probably cover a significant number of large-scale public transport projects.
    Clearly a world without cars is not going to happen – we are sadly heading in the other direction, and not just in India and China. We need to consider how much CO2 is used in making cars and consider ways to reduce that (eg, taxing hybrids for their wasteful production consumption, charging manufacturers for cars that don’t stay in service for at least 20 years). We need an NGO who will stand up and campaign against cars regardless of the feeble fundraising opportunities.

  5. Excellent post. Some of it, and the comments, reminded me of another excellent post recently published on the democratic society blog about the EU’s 2050 transport goals.

    Anthony Zacharzewski also assigns as much credibility to the EU’s goals as you do to the decarbonisation targets (i..e, not much), but for different reasons – the transport goals perhaps being the right ones, but with no hope of being politically viable.

    Which raises an interesting question. What’s better:
    – to have the wrong goals which are doable, and which will make some positive difference (presumably it’s better to reduce some carbon at some point than not at all)?
    – or to have the right goals that have no chance of being implemented?

    It also strikes me that it’s a shame that the only link between these two posts is made by the fact that I happened to read both of them within 36 hours. These conversations need to be knitted together more effectively.

    Perhaps then we might get well-thought through goals which are politically viable. But I’m not holding my breath.

  6. Thanks Mathew. This post you sent and something I heard from a Commission official yesterday at the Safe Nano Forum (blog on that to come) disturbs me. The official said: We should not underestimate the importance of the roadmap tool. The transport roadmap, like the low-carbon roadmap are not even lazy people’s White Papers – they are merely wish lists for something forty years down the road (why not make it an even 50 years? … Oh, because 2050 sounds nicer and 2020 is too close – people might remember what we said!). As these things proliferate and become more and more meaningless, I wonder if the Commission is merely becoming little more than a think tank (building meaningless scenarios rather than initiating legislation). The Commission needs a roadmap on where their roadmaps are taking them.

  7. Hi,
    Actually, the whole carbon reduction scheme is barking up the wrong tree. CO2 emissions are NOT the cause of climate change. Climate change is caused by excess run off of rainwater from the earth’s continental surfaces which consequently dehydrates the landscape causing solar radiation to reflect off the earths surface as sensible heat. If water were retained on the surface so that it can evaporate, it would feed the small hydrological cycle and with it maintain a stable climate as well as carry out numerous other functions.

    1. Thanks Peter. I think we can agree that there is a lot more to learn about mitigating climate change before we can approach the issue with the certainty the the IPCC pretends.

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