Green Growth Debunked

Is economic growth compatible with ecological sustainability? A new report shows that efforts to decouple economic growth from environmental harm, known as ‘green growth’, have not succeeded and are unlikely to succeed in their aim.
There are seven reasons to be sceptical about green growth in the future.

Each of them taken individually casts doubt on the possibility for sufficient decoupling and, thus, the feasibility of “green growth.” Considered all together, the hypothesis that decoupling will allow economic growth to continue without a rise in environmental pressures appears highly compromised, if not clearly unrealistic.

1 Rising energy expenditures. When extracting a resource, cheaper options are generally used first, the extraction of remaining stocks then becoming a more resource- and energy-intensive process resulting in a rising total environmental degradation per unit of resource extracted.

2 Rebound effects. Efficiency improvements are often partly or totally compensated by a reallocation of saved resources and money to either more of the same consumption(e.g. using a fuel-efficient car more often), or other impactful consumptions (e.g. buying plane tickets for remote holidays with the money saved from fuel economies). It canalso generate structural changes in the economy that induce higher consumption (e.g. more fuel-efficient cars reinforce a car-based transport system at the expense of greener alternatives, such as public transport and cycling).

3 Problem shifting. Technological solutions to one environmental problem can create new ones and/or exacerbate others. For example, the production of private electric vehicles puts pressure on lithium, copper, and cobalt resources; the production of biofuel raises concerns about land use; while nuclear power generation produces nuclear risks and logistic concerns regarding nuclear waste disposal.

4 The underestimated impact of services. The service economy can only exist on top of the material economy, not instead of it. Services have a significant footprint that often adds to, rather than substitute, that of goods.

5 Limited potential of recycling. Recycling rates are currently low and only slowly increasing, and recycling processes generally still require a significant amount of energy and virgin raw materials. Most importantly, recycling is strictly limited in its ability to provide resources for an expanding material economy.

6 Insufficient and inappropriate technological change. Technological progress is not targeting the factors of production that matter for ecological sustainability andnot leading to the type of innovations that reduce environmental pressures; it is not disruptive enough as it fails to displace other undesirable technologies; and it is notin itself fast enough to enable a sufficient decoupling.

7 Cost shifting. What has been observed and termed as decoupling in some local cases was generally only apparent decoupling resulting mostly from an externalisation of environmental impact from high-consumption to low-consumption countries enabled by international trade. Accounting on a footprint basis reveals a much less optimistic picture and casts further doubt on the possibility of a consistent decoupling in the future.

Full Report:

The Greening of The West Leaves Other Countries a Devastated, Toxic Mess

As a culture, we are myopic. We only see what we want to see. We only see what the culture wants us to see and in this case, the culture wants us to see how amazing it is to buy a solar panel/hybrid car/wind turbine and do our part to curb global warming. We do it and feel great giving the culture our money, knowing, when we go to bed, we did this incredible, Earth-saving venture.

But what if we were really informed? What if we were given all the information on the creation of this “green” product? What if our “greening” was really, at the core, just more destruction?

Let’s visit a couple of places where minerals are mined for the production of our “alternative, save-the-Earth, green technology”.

Baotou, China, Inner Mongolia

In a place that was once filled with farms as far as the eye could see, now lies a lake (which are called “tailing ponds), visible from Google Earth, filled with radioactive toxic sludge. The water is so contaminated that not even algae will grow. Maughan describes the chill he felt when he saw the lake: “It’s a truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying”. Because the reservoir was not properly lined when it was built, waste leaked into the groundwater, killing off livestock, making residents sick and destroyed any chance of farming. In reality, though, farmers have long been displaced by factories. The people that remain are experiencing diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems. Residents of what is now known as the “rare-earth capital of the world” are inhaling solvent vapors, particularly sulphuric acid (used for extraction), as well as coal dust. But hey, we need wind turbines to save the planet. And the electric car is definitely going to reduce carbon emissions.

I’m sorry to say that there is no amount of “greening” that going to remove this toxic sludge from the lives of those who live in Baotou. We are stealing the Earth from others. Our logic that solar/wind/the electric car is going to save the planet, instead of the most logical action of using far less, is destroying faraway lands and lives. It’s easy for us to sweep it all under the rug since we are not the ones directly affected by this lust for more energy consumption. We are simply sold on the latest and greatest technology that will save the planet and make our insatiable energy consumption a little bit easier to digest.

We must be willing to change or face the fact that people and earth and animals are dying for our inability to change.

Salar de Atacama, Atacama Desert, Chile

The International Energy Agency forecasts that the number of electric vehicles on the road around the world will hit 125 million by 2030. Right now, the number sits around 3.1 million. In order to support this growth, a lot of lithium is needed for the batteries to run this fleet. It is this lithium extraction that is destroying northern Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Lithium is found in the brine of the salt flats, located in Chile. To extract the lithium from Salar de Atacama, holes are drilled into the flats to pump the brine to the surface. This allows lithium carbonate to be extracted through a chemical process. The whole process requires a lot of water. So much water in fact that the once life-supporting oasis is now a barren wasteland.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Sara Plaza tells the story heard time and time again: “No one comes here anymore, because there’s not enough grass for the animals,” Plaza says. “But when I was a kid, there was so much water you could mistake this whole area for the sea.” She recalls walking with her family’s sheep along an ancient Inca trail that flowed between wells and pastures. Now, an engine pumps fresh water from beneath the mostly dry Tilopozo meadow. “Now mining companies are taking the water,” she says.

The race for lithium extraction is viewed as a noble one. Electric cars are sold as a ticket to salvation from Climate Change. Electric auto makers want to make it easier and cheaper for drivers to convert to “clean”, battery-powered replacements for “dirty” combustion engines. Rather, they want more money and will sell us the “green” theory.

Extracting Atacama’s lithium means pumping large amounts of water and churning up salty mud known as brine. In Salar de Atacama, the heroic mission of saving the planet through electric cars is leaving another Indigenous community devastated.

If this was really about saving the planet, there would be regulations on single drivers in cars. Public transportation would be at the forefront, not affordable priced electric cars that EVERYBODY can own. Let’s be real here. The people that are poised to benefit the most from “green” energy are companies such as  Albemarle Corp. and Soc. Quimica & Minera de Chile SA, who are responsible for mining most of Chile’s lithium.

The locals, whose families have lived here for thousands of years, are not benefiting.

From Bloomberg: “The falling water levels are felt by local people. Peine, the village closest to the mining, has a license to pump 1.5 liters of water per second to supply 400 residents and a transient population of mine workers that can rise as high as 600. BHP’s Escondida copper mine has a license to pump 1,400 liters per second. Albemarle and SQM, the big lithium miners, have licenses to pump around 2,000 liters per second of brine.”

“We’re fooling ourselves if we call this sustainable and green mining,” says Cristina Dorador, a Chilean biologist who studies microbial life in the Atacama desert. 

Which begs the question: What is “green technology“?

The Earth is green technology. The blade of grass that grows towards the light is green technology. The breath of fresh air that is given to us by the plants on land and the plants in the ocean is green technology. The spring water that rises from the depths, mysteriously and miraculously, is green technology. This fragile environment that surrounds us, the unexplainable, intricately woven web of life that holds us, the environment that is degrading rapidly from our greedy lust for more and more, that is green technology. What we are being sold today from companies who are leading the rat-race of civilization is not green. This green technology that they speak of is actually dark red, almost black, stained with the radioactive, desecrated blood of people and earth.

What ever happened to the Energy Transition?

Despite “record setting” growth in renewables, the overall growth in demand for energy is larger still. In March 2019, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that global energy demand grew by 2.3% in 2018 – the sharpest rise, and nearly twice the average rate, this decade. The surge was attributed to strong overall economic growth, as well as to record temperatures in many parts of the world, which raise demand for heating and cooling

While demand for all forms of energy is growing, what is happening with the power sector (electricity) is especially important. Moving away from fossil fuels will involve widespread electrification, dramatically increasing the need to generate electricity. Global demand for electricity grew even faster in 2018 than demand for energy overall, at 4%. And 42% of energy-related emissions last year came from the power sector.

Despite the closure of many coal plants around the world, coal remains the dominant fuel for generating electricity globally. On current trends, coal consumption is projected to remain at roughly current levels for many years. Although coal consumption declined for a few years, it actually rose in 2017, and again last year.

Coal consumption is growing dramatically in several large countries, mainly in Southeast Asia. China recently announced plans for at least 300 new coal-fired power plants – most of them outside China. Coal demand for power rose 2.6% last year, and CO2 emissions rose 2.5%, with coal accounting for 80% of the increase.

Where coal generation capacity has been replaced in the energy mix, it has mostly been replaced by natural gas rather than renewables. This is especially true for the world’s two largest emitters, the U.S. and China.

From the perspective of climate change, this is bad news. Natural gas has been promoted as a “bridge fuel” between coal and renewables, because burning methane produces less CO2 than burning coal. But methane itself is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 on shorter time scales – roughly 86 times more powerful on a 20-year time scale – and we are learning that methane leakage from fracking and other operations is significantly higher than previously recognised. It even exceeds any gains associated with burning gas rather than coal.

So what we are seeing is not a “transition to renewables,” but rather a reconfiguration of the world’s energy systems. Meanwhile, overall use of energy continues to grow, and no major fuel source is going away any time soon. In other words, not only are we not yet digging our way out of the hole, but we haven’t even stopped digging the hole deeper yet.

In March 2019, the IEA reported that the deployment of new renewable generation capacity “stalled” in 2018.

Why has this happened? As Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported in early 2019, investment in new clean energy capacity fell 8% in 2018 from 2017 levels – from $362 billion to $332 billion. This is very striking, given that we hear so frequently about “record low” prices for renewable generation, which we are told makes renewables more attractive than fossil fuels.

The initial boom in solar and wind capacity in Europe and elsewhere – the boom that has now stalled there – was largely due to generous, “come one, come all” subsidy schemes. These typically took the form of “feed-in tariffs,” where anyone who could afford to provide generation capacity could sign up and enjoy the guaranteed revenues. This generated a burst of deployment – so much in fact that it became impossible to accommodate all of the new capacity into existing grids.

It also led to exploding subsidy bills for governments. These costs were often passed on to users in the form of higher electricity bills, which led to skepticism about renewable energy and political pressure on government officials. This is why many governments shifted to “competitive bidding” systems, which allowed them to contain both capacity additions and costs – but also led to shrinking profit margins and the loss of investor interest.

The implications of these trends are profound. In order to have any chance of a just transition, we first need to ensure that there is a transition. The current, market-based approach to the energy transition has failed, and we cannot afford to wait any longer.

Unions and climate activists need to organise and mobilise for public and social ownership of energy, with real democratic accountability. Only such an approach can ensure a rapid but orderly transition to renewable energy – one that takes considerations of profit out of the equation, and puts workers and communities at the centre.

What ever happened to the Energy Transition?

Making Wind Power Sustainable (Again)


Wind turbine blades are made from light-weight plastic composite materials, which are voluminous and impossible to recycle. Although the mass of the blades is limited compared to the total mass of a wind turbine, it’s not negligible. For example, one 60 m long fiberglass blade weighs 17 tonnes, meaning that a 5 MW wind turbine produces more than 50 tonnes of plastic composite waste from the blades alone.

A windmill blade typically consists of a combination of epoxy – a petroleum product – with fiberglass reinforcements. The blades also contain sandwiched core materials, such as polyvinyl chloride foam, polyethylene terephtalate foam, balsa wood (intertwined in fibers and epoxy) and polyurethane coatings.

Unlike the steel in the tower, the plastic in blades cannot be recycled to make new plastic blades. The material can only be “downcycled”, for instance by shredding it, which damages the fibers and makes them useless for anything but a filler reinforcement in cement or asphalt production. Other methods are being investigated, but they all run into the same problem: nobody wants the “recycled” material. Some architects have re-used windmill blades, for example to build benches or playgrounds. But we cannot build everything out of wind turbine blades.

Because of the limited options for recycling and re-use, windmill blades are usually landfilled (in the US) or incinerated (in the EU). The latter approach is not less unsustainable, because incinerating the blades only partially reduces the amount of material to be landfilled (60% of the scrap remains as ash) and converts the rest into air pollution. Furthermore, given that fiberglass is incombustible, the caloric value of the blades is so limited that little or no power can be produced.

Most of the roughly 250,000 wind turbines now in operation worldwide were installed less than 25 years ago, which is their estimated life expectancy. However, the rapid growth of wind power over the last two decades will soon be reflected in a delayed but ever increasing and never-ending supply of waste materials. For example in Europe, the share of installed wind turbines older than 15 years increases from 12% in 2016 to 28% in 2020. In Germany, Spain and Denmark, their share increases to 41-57%. In 2020 alone, these countries will each have to dispose of 6,000 to 12,000 wind turbine blades.

Discarded blades will not only become more numerous but also larger, reflecting a continuous trend towards ever larger rotor diameters. Wind turbines built 25 years ago had blade lengths of around 15-20 m, while today’s blades reach lengths of 75-80 m or more. Estimates based on current growth figures for wind power have suggested that composite materials from blades worldwide will amount to 330,000 tonnes of waste per year by 2028, and to 418,000 tonnes per year by 2040.

These are conservative estimates, because numerous blade failures have been reported, and because constant development of more efficient blades with higher power generating capacity is resulting in blade replacement well before their estimated lifespan. Furthermore, this amount of waste results from wind turbines installed between 2005 and 2015, when wind power only supplied a maximum of 4% of global power demand. If wind would supply a more desirable 40% of (current) power demand, there would be three to four million tonnes of waste per year.

Yet a look at the history of wind power shows that plastic is not an essential material. The use of wind for mechanical power production dates back to Antiquity, and the first electricity generating windmills – now called wind turbines – were built in the 1880s. However, fiberglass blades only took off in the 1980s. For some two thousand years, windmills of whatever type were entirely recyclable.

New wood production technology and design makes it possible to build larger wind turbines almost entirely out of wood again – not just the blades, but also the rest of the structure. This would solve the waste issue and make the manufacturing of wind turbines largely independent of fossil fuels and mined materials. A forest planted in between the wind turbines could provide the wood for the next generation of wind turbines.

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