Does Green thinking need a red light?

Green thinking - more harm than good?














When the climate took a turn for the worse during the so-called Younger Dryas period some 12,000 years ago, our ancestors didn’t don a hair shirt and hope for the best. They innovated. A sharp return to ice age like conditions helped precipitate the development of agriculture in the Levant, a hugely successful innovation that soon diffused to other settled regions. So if contemporary climate change is to be taken as seriously as many Greens urge, our response should also be innovation driven. Why then does much of our current Green thinking focus on environmentally and socially regressive ideas?

While the development of agriculture during the Neolithic revolution was to change the world for the better, the real awakening from millennia of Malthusian stagnation was the industrial revolution. Whether through the far-reaching ideas of the Scottish enlightenment or the innovations of James Watt, it was realised that the future could be radically different from the past.

For example, in the late 19th century the growing use of steam power enabled energy and labour costs to decouple for the first time in human history. Energy became cheap while prosperity soared, not through crass consumerism, but through badly needed economic growth that provided an escape from agrarian poverty. It is the surplus from that innovation driven growth that now enables the provision of public services such as health and education. Nurses nurse and teachers teach only because someone else is providing their Joules, Calories and other material needs.

While innovation has undeniably delivered immense improvements in the human condition, innovation is also the principal route through which human needs can gradually be decoupled from the environment. Starting in the Elizabethan era, coal from the ground slowly began to replace wood from the land as the primary source of energy, a transition that only peaked in the early 20th century. In the late 19th century oil from the ground replaced oil from whales as the primary source of energy for domestic lighting. Coal eventually helped depleted woodland to re-grow, while the oil industry arguably saved the whale.

These slow historical energy transitions were away from diffuse energy sources such as wood and towards fuels of greater energy density, such as coal and much later oil and methane (gas). As noted by Jesse Ausubel at The Rockefeller University, each new fuel contains less carbon and more energy per unit weight, leading to a centuries long decarbonisation of energy production. The latest large-scale energy innovation, nuclear, is of course essentially carbon free. We should remember that these energy transitions did not take place because of concern for the environment, but because lower carbon fuels are more energy dense and so are simply better.

Overall, carbon emissions have of course been growing, a sign that global energy use has risen sharply since the industrial revolution. Growing energy use has been both liberating and civilising. We have used this growth to replace carbohydrate fuelled human labour with hydrocarbon-fuelled machines. But for carbon emissions to peak and then decline, we will need to accelerate our long historical journey towards fuels of greater energy density. Our energy mix therefore needs to transition away from coal, and ultimately oil, and towards methane, uranium and later thorium.

The alternative path offered by mainstream Green thinking is the ‘renewables revolution’. But what's being offered is not a revolution, it is a regression to a past of diffuse energy with arguably greater environmental impact. For a movement concerned with efficient resource use, it is remarkable that Greens ignore energy density and the fact that, per unit of energy produced, diffuse and intermittent renewable energy therefore requires vastly more steel, concrete and land than compact gas turbines or nuclear reactors.

And while Greens rightly abhor corporate greed, they seem content to see the pockets of consumers dipped by corporate energy interests to pay for cripplingly expensive offshore wind, or see a regressive transfer of wealth through feed-in tariffs from the energy poor to suburban property owners with the capital to pay for domestic solar energy. Viewed in this light, it’s hard to argue that inefficient and expensive renewable energy is somehow more ethical than compact and efficient thermal energy.

Such is the influence of mainstream Green thinking however that it is now doing real harm. In Germany, Die GrĂ¼nen manoeuvred Angela Merkel into a nuclear shutdown that will close the single largest source of carbon-free energy in Europe’s largest economy. In France, the Greens have the Socialists over a barrel in the run up to spring elections, extracting a promise to close nuclear plants and ramp up renewables in exchange for votes. The prospect of Greens forcing the closure of yet more carbon-free nuclear plants is truly absurd.

Similar damage also risks being done through blind opposition to shale gas. Through innovations in drilling technology methane can now be extracted from deep shale bedrock. Shale gas production has grown sharply in the US, with this new energy innovation set to diffuse to other regions including the UK. Arguments that renewable energy is required anyway since hydrocarbons are running out look increasingly suspect.

Wonderfully, methane can be burned in compact, ultra-efficient combined cycle gas turbines producing electrical energy with less than half the carbon emissions of coal. The use of methane and nuclear as a replacement for coal, and even eventually oil, follows the long historical trend of decarbonisation through increasing energy density. But horrified at the prospect of many decades worth of low cost, relatively clean energy, Greens have called for an immediate ban on shale gas and insist on a future based almost entirely on diffuse and inefficient renewable energy.

In addition to ignoring energy density, Green thinking often confuses energy efficiency with demand reduction. For example, the replacement of whale oil lamps with kerosene, and their subsequent replacement with electric filaments and now solid-state lighting has delivered huge gains in energy efficiency. These gains enabled a mass democratisation of the use of artificial lighting as costs plummeted and so utilisation soared.

Efficiency is therefore a natural consequence of innovation and leads to a socially progressive growth in consumption of an energy service until demand is saturated, only after which can energy consumption fall. However, while ultra-efficient lighting may take a modest slice out of developed nations energy use, it will be more than compensated for by a badly needed growth in the utilisation of artificial lighting in developing nations as efficiency grows and costs fall.

In contrast, demand reduction is a socially regressive tool, an artificial increase in the price of energy to suppress consumption, the burden of which falls on the energy poor. It is often hard to avoid the conclusion that Greens advocate expensive renewable energy specifically to ensure demand reduction and a future of energy austerity.

The real lack of innovation in Green thinking though can best be seen in arguments against nuclear energy.  For example, a long-standing grumble is that it leaves future generations with a stock of nuclear waste to deal with. Nuclear energy does indeed present an intergenerational transfer, but it’s an overwhelmingly positive one. By constructing compact, nuclear plants with a design life of 60 years we can leave future generations the ability to generate abundant clean, reliable low cost energy towards the end of the century. This compares to renewables which typically have a design life of only 25 years. Growth of nuclear output can accumulate, while renewables will saturate as we begin to re-build existing capacity in less than a generation.

But while Greens only see nuclear waste, innovators see spent fuel, still with copious quantities of energy that needs to be released in so-called fast spectrum reactors rather than buried. Further ahead, thorium offers the prospect of clean energy production into the distant future. Whether nuclear or methane, there is no shortage of clean, high-grade energy to deliver a future of shared prosperity, but only if we have the will and ambition to exploit it. We will need this energy to liberate the poor in the developing world, power rapidly growing global cities and efficiently recycle strategic materials in ways undreamt of at present.

In contrast, Green claims that renewable energy creates more jobs per unit of energy produced than nuclear energy are again regressive. The entire point of economic development is productivity, doing more with less. So if we can generate clean, reliable energy from compact nuclear plants, requiring fewer people than renewables then labour is freed to doing something more useful, such as creating real prosperity and providing public services. Using such regressive Green economics we could in principle create plentiful employment by banning the use of tractors on farms, which is one vision of the future of agriculture in re-localised Green economies.

On agriculture, Green opposition to innovation in GM technology is also telling. While that opposition is often seen as precautionary, the precautionary principle cuts both ways. Mainstream Green thinking now runs the real risk of holding back innovation that can both improve crop resilience in the developing world and deliver increased food production without annexing more land from nature.

Again, Greens insist that innovation is actively suppressed. And if the contention is agri-business corporate antics, why have Greens ripped up field trials of publically funded research that could provide GM technology to the poor patent-free? Let’s also remember that it was through the development of agriculture, and entirely artificial means of organising nature, that our ancestors innovated their way out of climate change in the Younger Dryas period and prospered, rather than merely prevailed.

The greatest danger to humanity is not climate change, nuclear energy or the other calamites that form the cataclysmic imagery of mainstream Green thinking. It is a paralysis of inaction due to risk aversion, coupled with a wider technological pessimism that has robbed us of a coherent vision of a better future. For all these criticisms, Green thinking does of course have a key role in providing the essential checks and balances of a pluralistic society. But its deeper hues ultimately risk being marginalised as conservative, limit-setting views which are increasingly both socially, and environmentally regressive.

First published Caledonian Mercury 22 February 2012