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BLOG | We Can’t Build Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis

Tim Whitehouse

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We can’t build our way out of the climate crisis

Healing the planet sometimes means doing less, not more

 

Much of the focus on mitigating climate change has been centered around the electric sector. That makes sense for two reasons: it is the easiest sector to decarbonize, and it forms a foundation for decarbonizing the transportation, building and industrial sectors as they are increasingly electrified. The good news is that decades of advancements in wind and solar technologies, and more recently in battery storage and fuel cells, mean a fully decarbonized electricity supply may be within our grasp.

But just replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy will not stop the climate crisis. The Earth’s resources are finite, and even renewable energy production requires the use of precious natural resources, causes pollution, and results in habitat destruction and species loss. While this destruction is less than fossil fuels, these impacts cannot be ignored or discounted. Air and water pollution, species extinctions, land degradation, and deforestation all underscore how humans are destroying the natural world. This destruction accelerates climate change by adding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and destroying and degrading the ability of forests, oceans, and other natural environments to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

That is why simply replacing fossil fuels with solar, wind, and hydropower will not be enough to address climate change. Rather, conservation and preservation of our natural world must be a central tenant of any effort to combat the climate crisis.

I. A rapid transition to a carbon-free grid is imperative, and achievable.

Keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius requires radical reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases from every sector of the economy—including the power sector, buildings, appliances, transportation, industry and agriculture. Of these, the electric sector is the linchpin for reductions in many of the other areas. Clean electricity allows for clean transportation when cars, trucks and buses are electrified, and for clean buildings when all-electric heating systems and appliances replace natural gas and heating oil. Together these sectors make up about two-thirds of carbon emissions in the U.S., with industry and agriculture comprising the remaining third.

In addition to CO2 reductions, replacing fossil fuels with carbon-free renewables removes much of the methane from the energy sector. Since methane’s climate warming effect is 80 times more potent than CO2 over the initial 20 years, eliminating as much oil and gas from the energy economy as rapidly as possible will be a key factor in achieving climate goals. The most effective way to reduce methane emissions from the energy sector is simply to phase out oil and gas production.

The good news is that a decarbonized electricity grid is now cost-effective and feasible almost everywhere, thanks to steady advancements and falling costs for wind, solar, and battery storage technologies. Wind and solar are the cheapest forms of new electricity in the world, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Even in the U.S., where cheaper fracked gas has displaced coal as the leading source of power generation, wind energy can outcompete all other new generation sources in many states.

Solar panels with a setting sun in background and flowers in foregroundIndeed, the rapid cost declines for solar photovoltaics led the International Energy Administration last year to declare that falling prices mean solar is “becoming the new king of the world’s electricity markets,” poised to become the primary source of new electricity generation worldwide by 2030. Renewable energy as a category will overtake coal to become the largest source of energy generation worldwide in 2025, according to EIA.

The only expensive part of an all-renewables scenario today results from the challenge of keeping supply in sync with demand. But as with wind and solar, the cost of storage technologies has been falling on a similar trajectory. Batteries increasingly compete with fossil fuels to meet peak demand. In the longer term, “green” hydrogen generated from surplus wind and solar will extend storage opportunities and make possible more applications for renewable energy beyond the electric sector.

Rapid decarbonization will not be as easy as economics alone would suggest. Politically powerful oil, gas and coal producers, utilities trying to protect their investments in fossil generation, and workers dependent on extraction industries all have a stake in slowing down the transition. Their limited success during the fossil-friendly Trump administration is an indication of the momentum behind the rise of wind and solar and battery storage.

The shift to renewables, however, can only succeed if we reclaim conservation and preservation as part of our climate mandates.

II. Increasing demand for electricity poses problems that can undermine a successful transition

Reaching a 100 percent renewable grid does pose practical problems and requires trade-offs, especially as consumption increases.

Wind turbine with setting sun, orange sky, and birdsAs projects proliferate, conflicts with local communities and the natural world result. Construction of utility-scale solar and wind projects contribute to habitat loss, and wind turbines have been implicated in the deaths or displacement of birds, bats and other species. Endangered migratory bats are especially at risk of collisions with land-based wind projects, and decimation of critical bat species could disrupt necessary pollination.

The vast amount of material needed to build out enough wind, solar, and battery infrastructure to meet the growing demand carries its own problems. The International Energy Agency recently warned that “the data shows a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realizing those ambitions.”  Moreover, obtaining some components (such as lithium for batteries) often involves significant environmental damage. Mining the minerals used in solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles and other “clean” technologies creates new problems while solving others. In a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t scenario, the EIA projected that the need for critical minerals could grow six-fold by 2040 if governments act quickly to reduce emissions.

Amid this projected increase in demand, many countries and the European Union are exploring options for deep-sea mining for metals used in renewable energy technologies. To date, the impacts of these mining operations are under-studied, but destruction of habitats of critical benthic organisms—some of which are estimated to sequester 200 million tons of CO2 annually—could offset any benefits from the renewables being expanded. Due to the lack of sufficient research showing what harm may occur from deep-sea mining operations, several Pacific Island countries have called for a moratorium on mining permits until more research can be done. Despite this, the International Seabed Authority has issued 31 licenses for deep-sea mining exploratory missions, and indicates that deep-sea mining could begin as early as 2027.

A successful transition to renewable energy will require that these obstacles be overcome with stringent energy efficiencies, strong regulations, and robust recycling, but in every case the problems become worse the greater the scale of energy consumption. Conservation—using less energy—is the only solution that avoids overtaxing limited resources.

III. Critical sectors of the economy are much harder to decarbonize

Renewable energy can decarbonize the electric sector and buildings effectively, as well as parts of the transportation sector. But while wind power is making a minor comeback in shipping, modern-day ships and airplanes continue to need portable fuels. Airplane makers and airlines are beginning to incorporate biofuels as a renewable option, but producing them in quantity is expensive and resource-intensive, and many biofuel projects are of dubious environmental value. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes, “Potential drawbacks include changes to land use patterns that may increase GHG emissions, pressure on water resources, air and water pollution, and increased food costs. Depending on the feedstock and production process and time horizon of the analysis, biofuels can emit even more GHGs than some fossil fuels on an energy-equivalent basis.”

Given the remarkable progress in renewable energy technology in recent years, there is room for optimism that researchers will solve the air travel and shipping problems, too—but they are not solved yet. And unfortunately, with the exception of the drop in travel in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, airplane travel has seen a striking upward trend decade after decade. Commercial aviation now accounts for 2.4 percent of global CO2 emissions and 5 percent of the total global warming impact.

Other human activities also hobble the planet’s ability to contribute to its own healing. Although most of the climate discussion focuses on the production and use of energy, it is notable that in Drawdown, the climate solutions textbook edited by Paul Hawken, only three of the top ten solutions involve energy (the three are utility solar, distributed solar, and onshore wind). Three of the others involve food, two would help limit population growth through female empowerment, and one is refrigeration management, which snags the number one spot due to the extraordinarily powerful greenhouse gas impact of chemical refrigerants. (EPA has now issued a proposed rule to phase out the manufacture and use of hydroflurocarbons, one of the most potent greenhouse gases.)

Food ranks high as a category because agriculture, especially the raising of cattle for food, plays a large role in climate change. The OECD estimates that agriculture contributes 17 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions directly and an additional 7 to 14 percent through land use changes. Climate change is also impacting farms, through floods, droughts, heat waves, and the spread of new pests and diseases, amplifying the soil damage already being done by monoculture crops, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides. The EPA estimates that poor soil management practices are responsible for half of greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector, with livestock grazing and manure management responsible for most of the rest.

A variety of changes in farming practices can address emissions from the agricultural sector, but there are no silver bullets. Interestingly, the two leading solutions mentioned in Drawdown for this category both ask people to do less of something, not more: to waste less food, and to eat less meat.

Cows Grazing in PhotoAs with farmland, poor management of public lands prevents them from fulfilling their potential as carbon sinks. A report from the U.S. Geological Society found that emissions from fossil fuels produced on federal lands represented 23.7 percent of national CO2 emissions and 7.3 percent of methane emissions, while the ability of federal lands to sequester carbon offset only 15 percent of the CO2 emissions. Overgrazing of public lands further degrades the soil’s ability to sequester carbon, while raising methane emissions from cattle eating the low-quality forage typical of western rangelands.

Many parts of the industrial sector are currently also resistant to decarbonization, particularly energy-intensive industries like steelmaking and concrete manufacturing. Concrete is the world’s most-used building material, and represents 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Over the long term, industry insiders express optimism that even these industries can lower their carbon footprint, and in the case of concrete could even play a role in sequestering carbon.

But for the present, more consumption means more emissions. And right now, many countries are pursuing massive stimulus spending on infrastructure as a response to pandemic-induced economic disruption. Some investments, for things like wind turbines and transmission lines, will help lower emissions in the future, but it would be foolish to ignore their impact in the present.

Finally, there’s plastic. The EIA estimates that petrochemicals, including plastics, make up 14 percent of oil use, and are expected to drive half of oil demand growth between now and 2050. For the planet however, carbon and methane emissions from oil and gas are just one part of the problem; disposal is another. Eleven million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans each year, an amount that will triple by 2040 on the current trajectory. Plastic in the ocean harms marine life, damages habitats, and slowly degrades into microscopic particles that enter the food chain, threatening ecosystems that are already under extreme pressure from climate change.

IV. The missing piece of the climate action agenda: A culture of conservation

Drawdown discusses a total of 100 climate solutions. Several of these would produce greater energy efficiency (such as LED lighting and improved insulation in buildings), but only a few address the essential problem of overconsumption. That’s important because of the “rebound effect” that leads people to use more energy when it becomes cheaper due to improved efficiency. One aspect of this phenomenon is known as the lighting paradox: more efficient LEDs save energy, so people can afford to use more of them, negating some of the energy savings and worsening light pollution.

Much of excess consumption is voluntary, though greatly influenced by cultural norms, business practices, and government policies. Consumer acceptance is all that sustains the manufacture of single-use plastic bags, bottles and cartons. Most airplane travel happens by choice. Government policies favoring home ownership and suburban sprawl have made American homes larger than in other parts the world. Meat and dairy consumption vary by country, custom, and religion, such that the U.S. per capita meat supply is 50 percent higher than Northern Europe’s, and fully 32 times that of India.

Obviously, not all increases in consumption are bad. Part of what makes conservation so urgent is that providing access to energy is a critical anti-poverty measure for developing countries, where whole villages may not have access to the grid currently. Electricity enables children to study at night, powers cellphones that connect farmers with markets, and provides refrigeration for medicines and foods. Underserved populations have as much right to the comforts of an energy-intensive economy as residents of industrialized nations do. But, if they were to achieve this level of consumption, the climate consequences would be dire.

The answer is not to throttle the ambitions of the world’s poor to live a better life, but for richer countries to adopt a level of consumption that wouldn’t bust the carbon budget if the benefits were shared equally.

V. Rethinking Energy Consumption

Conservation has had a bad rap in the U.S. dating back to the oil crisis of the 1970s, when Republicans mocked President Jimmy Carter for urging Americans to conserve energy. Almost half a century later, it is still considered politically risky to suggest that less can be better than more.

Yet several trends indicate that at least some Americans are embracing the idea. Thrifting is replacing fast fashion. The tiny house movement and the broader minimalist aesthetic arose in direct response to ever-larger suburban “McMansions” packed with possessions. Walkable cities and bike lanes appeal to young adults more than suburban sprawl and the car culture. Though the Covid pandemic and the option of working from home may have given suburbs new appeal temporarily, the fact that home prices in cities are rising faster than those elsewhere suggests that the long-term trend is towards less energy-intensive, urban lifestyles.

These trends are most popular among the youngest adults, members of Gen Z, and for good reason, since their generation is the one most concerned about climate change—and is the one that will be most affected by it.

But there is also good reason to think that actions society takes to respond to the climate crisis could have the welcome side effect of making everyone’s lives more pleasant. The fossil fuel phase-out will improve air quality, leading to better health, fewer work and school days lost to illness, and even improved academic performance among children. Transforming car-centered suburbs into mixed-use, walkable and bikeable communities would improve residents’ fitness levels and decrease social isolation. Lower meat consumption would have well-documented health benefits. A culture of conservation—buying and using less stuff—would both increase household savings and reduce the stress associated with the consumer culture.

Conclusion

It might be too much to ask of corporations to try to sell us less of the things that earn profits for them, but governments have no excuse. Policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stave off the worst effects of climate change must make room in the solutions toolbox for conservation. Reducing our energy use must be a goal, along with changing where it comes from. Time is too short, and the climate math is too rigorous, for us to build our way out of this crisis.


Ivy Main is a lawyer and a longtime volunteer with the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter. A former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employee, she is currently the Virginia Sierra Club’s renewable energy chairperson.

Tim Whitehouse, Executive Director of PEERTim Whitehouse is the Executive Director of PEER. Among other things, Tim formerly served as an EPA enforcement attorney.