At the end of 2015, the Paris climate talks were seen as a reason for celebration and optimism. The world rejoiced and felt that something great was achieved. Some even called it the “world’s greatest diplomatic success.” For those who do not remember what was agreed upon in the COP 21, Contributor Hans Maes wrote a very useful Roundup about it. The Paris agreement was a binding climate deal that would keep global warming under 2°C. It also aimed at net zero carbon emissions on the long-term. The climate deal is of course a laudable achievement, worthy of international attention. However, it brings us only a few steps closer to saving the world. We are not there yet and I believe there are some bumps along the road of which we need to be more aware. (Featured Image © Pexels)
Rejoice, but cautiously
In recent years we have been hearing some positive things about our battle against climate change. According to Eurostat, for example, the EU has reduced its greenhouse emissions by almost 20% since 1990. Germany managed to meet almost a third of its midday energy demand with the use of solar power. Tesla’s gigafactory is ahead of schedule and is already churning out Powerwalls to power homes off the grid. And at the same time, Al Gore proved that sustainable investment is even more profitable than regular investments, paving the way for a greener capitalism.
Technology will eventually help us solve the issues we are facing, but we should be aware of the fact that technology in itself is not green.
All of these are success stories, making the world a better place. But caution should be exercised; as Oscar Wilde once said: “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.” The EU data for example does not include air transport, when that accounts for 3% of EU greenhouse gas emissions and will have increased worldwide by 70% between 2005 and 2020. While I think that we are in a better position than twenty years ago, I do believe that uncurbed faith in technology might do more harm than we realise. Technology will eventually help us solve the issues we are facing, but we should be aware of the fact that technology in itself is not green. This is because its ecological impact is never fully calculated nor would it be possible to do so. Consumer goods follow a similar logic, making it impossible for consumers to be aware of the impact their choices have.
Take for example electric cars, which are being put forward as a solution to the carbon emission problem. The principal problem with this option is the batteries they require. The environmental impact of batteries is far from zero because of the heavy ecological toll of large-scale mining and the toxic waste created by earth metal purification. Recycling programs will greatly reduce this impact in the future, but for now, batteries are mostly produced from raw materials. The resulting toxicity is so problematic that the BBC even ran a story showing the destruction in Batou, the Chinese city where most of these metals are produced. By producing immense amounts of batteries, we are simply trading carbon emissions for toxic waste.1 Research for cleaner and more powerful batteries is being undertaken, but will take years before being commercially viable.
Without investments in green energy, pollution is simply moved from the tailpipe to the coal plant.
The batteries surely help avoid tailpipe emissions, but without investments in green energy, pollution is simply moved from the tailpipe to the coal plant. This would result in a zero sum game. Currently electric cars are reducing CO2 emissions with some 16% in Western countries, when compared to regular cars. But again in countries with different energy mixes, such as China, the reduction will be notably less or even non-existent. Investments in green energy are therefore needed to ensure the maximum effect of electric vehicles.
Problematically, the materials needed to produce solar panels and wind turbines also come from places like Batou, further increasing the output of toxic waste. Consumers should be aware that, because of the different environmental restrictions in various countries, the place where their solar panels are manufactured greatly influences the ecological impact of that panel. A panel made in China, for example, will have a much larger impact than one produced in the EU. This is true for practically all consumer goods, not only solar panels.
The EU and the USA have used environmental impact restrictions and performance-based regulations to reduce their carbon emissions and achieve lower energy intensity.2 While being crucial to decarbonize their economies, they have helped little to curb global CO2 emissions. Most emissions have instead been “outsourced” to developing countries such as China. Very energy intensive production has been largely moved to developing countries, whereas the products are still consumed in the West. Because the West did not produce the goods it consumed, it does not count the CO2 emissions. So if the total CO2 cost of Western consumption were calculated today, it would most likely be higher than 20 years ago.
According to recent studies, the global CO2 output has almost stalled, but to keep the earth from reaching a 2°C increase in temperature, a 70% emission cut by 2050 would be necessary. We are nowhere near that, especially since the West has not changed its consumption pattern. The outsourcing gave us hope, but unfortunately it proved to be false. In this regard, the Paris agreement is very important because it focuses on carbon cuts on a global scale, having the potential to truly reduce emissions and not give into merely ‘truth improvement’.
A better definition of Green
There are many other things such as electronics, the Internet, low emission diesel cars, and alternative food hypes that appear to be green but have a bigger overall ecological impact than intended. One part of the solution could be to develop scores for a product’s environmental impact and notifying this on the packaging. This could be similar to the nutritional information on foodstuffs. A problem is that carbon emissions are difficult to measure, especially since data on lifetime emissions is practically non-existent. Further research should be conducted to inform consumers of the environmental impact of the products.
Our focus on carbon emissions is legitimate, but consumers should broaden their perspective and reflect more on the overall impacts of their choices.
The environment, however, is a highly complex mechanism that is not only influenced by carbon emissions, but also by erosion, pollution, bio-diversity and many other factors. Our focus on carbon emissions is legitimate, but consumers should broaden their perspective and reflect more on the overall impacts of their choices. A scoreboard would help consumers realize the impact of their purchase. In the meanwhile consumers will just have to use green energy, pay attention to where their products are made and the materials that were used. As always, the golden rule is to live by the three R’s: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Ultimately, I believe that the burden should not be fully on the consumer. We should strife for stricter environmental controls worldwide.