Facing The Truth
by Elisabeth Robson
“In order to maintain our way of living, we must tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves.” — Derrick Jensen
On November 6, 2020, I allowed myself one breath out, a breath of relief that a despicable administration and its despicable leader have been voted out of office. With my next breath in, I reminded myself that the administration that will replace it will be just as despicable, only in different ways. Its leaders may be more humane—perhaps they will no longer separate children from their parents at the border, and perhaps they will offer sincere sympathies to the families of those who have died of COVID-19—but they will not usher in a voluntary transition to a more sane and sustainable way of living. They may not lie about their tax returns or the size of their inauguration crowd, but they will certainly lie about many other things. More dangerously, they will lie about those things while believing they are righteous, and in so doing will convince many others to believe they are righteous, too.
One lie the Biden-Harris administration is telling that I am most immediately concerned with is the lies that the words “clean energy” and “net zero” mean something real. This lie is rooted in a fundamental denial of physical reality.
Clean Energy and Net Zero
The first and primary goal of the Biden-Harris climate plan is to
“Ensure the U.S. achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050.”
Most people will, at this point, be familiar with the term “clean energy”. This usually means renewables, including wind, solar, hydropower, hydrogen, geothermal, and nuclear. These technologies are considered “clean” because the generated energy does not emit CO2 at generation time.
However, many will be less familiar with the term “net zero”. It’s understandable why so many in climate change circles, including Joe Biden and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), would rely on the concept of “net zero” given the decline in CO2 emissions required to meet the IPCC’s stated goals of keeping global warming to “well below +2C” if we actually wanted to get our emissions to zero:
The delusion of “clean energy” and “net zero” allows policy makers world wide to instead produce a graph that looks more like this:
This second graph is a lot more reassuring than the first. It means that we can continue to emit CO2 as long as we count on something—technology? forests? soil?—to pull extra CO2 out of the atmosphere (called carbon dioxide removal, or CDR) so we can say our CO2 emissions are “net zero” instead of zero. As long as the amount of CO2 we continue to emit is less than or equal to the CO2 we are pulling out of the atmosphere at the same time, we’re good.
We imagine that instead of facing the cliff-like drop-off in CO2 emissions in graph 1, we can follow graph 2, by gradually replacing the electricity grid with renewables producing “clean energy”, replace all 1.2 billion cars in the world with EVs, somehow figure out how to make concrete without massive amounts of fossil fuels, invent a substitute for steel that doesn’t require massive amounts of fossil fuels, replace industrial agriculture with regenerative agriculture world wide while still feeding 8 billion people, and do all this at a slower pace than within the decade or two required to get to zero emissions to avoid climate catastrophe. And, if the CDR works well enough, perhaps we imagine that we can continue to burn small amounts of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, putting CO2 into the atmosphere and pulling it out in equal measure.
Clean energy and net zero go hand in hand, and not just in the Biden-Harris climate plan. Indeed, net zero is required for a clean energy plan to work. To see why, think about what’s required for clean energy.
Wind and Solar
To build, install, and maintain wind and solar requires not just a whole lot of mining and refining of the materials (metals and minerals) to manufacture the component parts of wind turbines and solar panels; it also requires installing the turbines and the panels in giant farms, most often on public lands where plants and animals live until they are scraped away and killed for these farms. Installing the giant turbines and panels is a fairly energy intensive process. It also requires maintaining these farms for their lifespan, which is about 25-30 years, and then dismantling and disposing of the waste at the end of that lifespan (most often in landfills) and replacing them with new wind turbines and solar panels.
It also requires building massive energy storage plants, either from batteries, which require their own energy intensive resources to make, or in energy storage schemes like pumped hydro, which requires building dams (see below). It also requires building additional grid lines to the solar and wind farms and their associated energy storage, which requires vast amounts of copper, steel, and concrete. None of this is easy to do, and all of it currently requires a whole lot of minerals and metals, which must be mined out of the ground, and energy, which is usually in the form of fossil fuels. Hmmm. That means these clean energy solutions are still emitting a lot of CO2.
To build dams requires immense amounts of concrete, and concrete is still one of the world’s most energy-intensive substances to make. It requires large, heavy machinery, running on fossil fuels, and high heat, provided by fossil fuels. And the reservoirs behind the dams often become methane producers, and methane is a greenhouse gas with 20 times the atmosphere heating qualities of CO2. The water energy must be turned into electricity, which must be transported for use or storage, requiring grid lines. Hmmm. That means that this clean energy solution is still emitting greenhouse gases, both CO2 and methane. Oh, and dams kill rivers, but that doesn’t seem to matter to clean energy advocates.
Hydrogen fuel is clean when burned (meaning it produces only water at burn time), but currently requires a lot of energy to make. It is usually made from natural gas (a fossil fuel), but sometimes biomass (i.e. plants and trees). Mining natural gas emits quite a bit of methane, and cutting trees and harvesting plants emits CO2. The energy required to convert natural gas or biomass to hydrogen fuel could come from renewable sources but as we’ve seen those renewable sources are not clean. Hmmm. That means this clean energy solution is still emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Geothermal might be the least bad of these bad solutions, but geothermal still requires that we build infrastructure (from steel) and power plants (to convert steam heat into electricity) and grid infrastructure to get the electricity from the source to where the electricity is used. Hmmm. All of those steps require metals, minerals, concrete, and other resources, so it would seem this clean energy solution is still emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, too.
Everyone already knows the main downside to nuclear energy: we’ve seen these downsides first hand at Fukushima and Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Aside from the energy required to mine uranium, build nuclear power plants, and deal with the nuclear waste (all of which requires fossil fuels), the devastating long term impacts of nuclear waste on the natural environment mean that it is perhaps the epitome of delusion to consider nuclear energy clean in any way.
So, even if we were somehow to run our “clean energy economy” on electricity from renewables alone, we’d still be far from zero CO2 emissions. Which is why we need “net zero”. We need a way to offset the CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions that will happen in the energy sector even if we were to somehow replace fossil fuels with renewables world wide. This accounting also does not include the emissions from other sectors producing greenhouse gas emissions, such as industrial agriculture, transportation, and industry (even if industry is run on renewables for its energy, large amounts of greenhouse gases are released during manufacturing from chemical reactions, as an example).
Negative Emissions Technologies
So what is the future something that we will rely on to pull CO2 from the air so we can get to net zero emissions? It’s a suite of technologies known as negative emissions technologies.
In a 2018 report on negative emissions technologies, the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC, with 197 countries participating) includes the following technologies: reforestation and afforestation, land management, enhanced weathering, ocean fertilization, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), direct air capture and carbon storage (DACCS), and carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Reforestation and afforestation means planting a whole lot of trees. It means reforesting the areas we’ve deforested, and it means planting trees in areas that were not previously forested. The thinking is that trees pull CO2 from the air as they grow. Of course, before industrial civilization, there were a whole lot more trees, and those trees were part of the normal carbon cycle of the Earth, pulling CO2 out of the air in balance with the amount of CO2 emitted by normal processes that are part of life and death on this planet. So to get more CO2 pulled from the atmosphere to offset the industrial emissions from fossil fuels and other man-made sources of greenhouse gases, we’d have to plant a whole lot more trees.
This at a time when deforestation continues apace for mining, development, and industrial agriculture, and at a time when population continues to grow and land is regularly cleared of forest in order to produce the vast quantities of food to feed that growing population. Unfortunately, many tree planting schemes concocted for carbon offsets tend to be mono-crops of trees, rather than forests, and so don’t contribute to increasing viable habitat for wildlife at the same time. In addition, if trees are planted in the wrong place, this can often do more harm than good. It is hard to argue against planting more trees (if done well, and in the right places), but given we continue to deforest more than reforest, it seems unlikely this solution is viable.
Increasing carbon storage in soil through land management:
including regenerative agriculture and biochar, could store up to 0.7 gigatons of carbon (GtC) a year from the atmosphere, according to the UNFCC, and perhaps more if the depth of carbon storage is increased significantly with deeper soils. Keep in mind, that the total GtC released into the atmosphere from fossil fuels is about 10 GtC a year, and that carbon capture in soil would require completely overhauling global industrial agriculture at a time when industrial agriculture is rapidly expanding to feed the world’s growing population.
Enhanced weathering is a technique to increase the rate of CO2 absorption in slow natural mechanisms that remove CO2 from the air, such as rock weathering, by applying chemicals to rocks, or by spreading finely ground rock over large areas of land. This is a purely speculative NET since no studies have been done at scale on the process.
Ocean fertilization is the process of adding fertilizer, typically iron, to the ocean to increase the uptake of CO2 by plankton algae. Only small tests have been done with ocean fertilization, including one rogue fisherman who dumped 100 tons of iron dust in the waters off Canada. As the UNFCCC states in its report, ocean fertilization is “associated with very high levels of uncertainty and ecological risks for relatively small sequestration potential.”
My conclusion is that manipulating nature to reduce atmospheric CO2 has limited potential at best, and the risk of damaging the natural ecology of the Earth at worst.
That leaves technology. The technologies included in the UNFCCC report are carbon capture and storage (CCS), bioenergy with CCS, and direct air CCS. CCS is really just a catch all name for BECCS and DACCS, as well as the ecosystem manipulation techniques described above.
BECCS requires replacing the fossil fuels burned in power plants world wide with biomass fuels, and adding technology that can capture the CO2 emitted when burning the biomass. Estimates of the amount of land required to grow the biomass to replace electricity at current levels of demand are about twice the size of India. Needless to say this would be problematic not just for food production, but also the reforestation and afforestation plans mentioned above. Another major problem with BECCS is that capturing CO2 in power plants is still highly speculative, has been demonstrated in only a few power plants, and the captured CO2 is most often used for “enhanced oil recovery”—i.e. getting more oil out of the ground—rather than stored. As of 2012 there were 62,500 power plants operating around the world, and 18 of them can now capture carbon. I’ll leave you to do the math.
If we add CO2 capture to all existing, non-biomass burning power plants, this will reduce the CO2 emitted from fossil fuels at burn time, but will do nothing to stop the destructive mining to get the fossil fuels from the ground. Existing coal power plants that have been converted to biomass typically burn wood pellets, some of which come from forests cut down to provide that wood, which seems counterproductive given the first NET discussed above, requiring that we plant more trees, not cut more of them down. In addition, it takes more wood to produce the same energy as you’d get from burning coal, so more CO2 is emitted, and because of the long lag time in tree regrowth and associated carbon sequestration, it quickly becomes clear that burning biomass will add more CO2 to the atmosphere during the critical near-term time period we need to be rapidly decarbonizing.
This is a well-known loophole in CO2 accounting schemes, and yet biomass burning has been enthusiastically embraced by power plants as an easy way to reuse current technology without having to account for the CO2 emitted.
DACCS is another speculative technology that uses giant fans to bring air into reactors made with plastic and potassium hydroxide to bind with CO2 and remove it from the air.
The CO2 is then purified and processed with “chemicals” (I’m not sure which chemicals, it seems to be proprietary information)—a process that requires energy, of course—and the resulting pure CO2 can then be stored to keep it out of the atmosphere. However, to pay for the technology and energy required to capture CO2, rather than being stored, the captured CO2 is typically used for enhanced oil recovery, which would seem to make the entire process moot. Indeed, one of the most well known of the DACCS companies operating today, Carbon Engineering, partnered with Chevron in 2019 in order to use the captured CO2 to pump more oil and gas.
If the captured CO2 from both BECCS and DACCS is to be stored, which is necessary to prevent it from heating the atmosphere, the CO2 must be stored forever. So far the most promising technique for storing CO2 long-term is to mix it with water and inject it into basalt (volcanic) rock, where it reacts with the rock and remineralizes. This technique has been demonstrated in only a small number of experiments. If one imagines power plants and direct capture infrastructure capturing CO2 all around the world, this also begs the question of how to get the captured CO2 to locations where it can be stored into rock, remembering that the world currently emits about 40 GtCO2 a year, which is a huge amount of CO2. Would we use pipelines? And if so, how do we build the pipelines without a whole lot of steel and fossil fuels? Other techniques for storing CO2 are to put it in old salt mines or to replace oil extracted from the ground, but both of these storage techniques have limitations in a world with regular earthquakes, seepy rock, and human error.
In sum, none of the negative emissions technologies discussed in the UNFCCC report sound particularly hopeful, and even the UNFCCC admits in its own report that
“these technologies offer only limited realistic potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere.”
Despite this, the IPCC states in a post dated July 31, 2020, that
“global emissions need to be reduced to net-zero within the next few decades to avoid a dangerous increase in global temperatures”
“the good news is we already have affordable, reliable technologies that can put the peak in global emissions behind us and start the drive down to net zero.”
“Deployed quickly and on a major scale, the clean energy technologies we have at our disposal right now can bring about the kind of decline in energy-related emissions that would put the world on track for our longer-term climate goals.”
Governments around the world, including the United States, look to the IPCC for guidance on making policy related to climate change and yet this guidance is clearly delusional.
The list of lies one must tell oneself in order to believe this rhetoric is long:
- renewable energy and associated technologies (e.g. electric vehicles) is “clean”;
- deploying renewable energy world wide in time to avoid climate catastrophe is possible or even desirable;
- mining and refining the metals and minerals required to build that renewable energy is an acceptable further destruction to the natural world at a time when scientists are telling us habitat loss and biodiversity loss and extinction are crises just as important as climate change;
- that it’s okay for us to target “net zero” emissions rather than zero emissions because we have faith we’ll have the technology we need to pull CO2 from the air,
- that we can deploy these technologies globally in time to prevent catastrophic climate change;
- and perhaps worst of all, that any of this can be called “environmental justice” for those most impacted—the land, rivers, lakes, plants, and human and non-human animals whose homes and lives are lost to mining, industry, and technology.
Nowhere does the Biden-Harris plan for the future make mention of de-growth, reducing industry or the military, or reducing consumption. Nowhere. In fact we see the opposite: the catch phrase for the Biden-Harris administration is “build back better”. Build back to what? The unsustainable lifestyle to which we have become accustomed? A life of jumping on planes to the nearest tourist destination, where we buy crap we don’t need and throw away six months later? A life of building more houses, more roads, and bigger and more productive corporations with the municipal and industrial waste that goes with that? A life with a military that is the worst polluter in the United States and requires a constant supply of fossil fuels, metals, and minerals mined from the ground? Biden claims he wants to “build prosperity”. Does he understand that true prosperity is created by healthy ecosystems, because without healthy, flourishing, fecund ecosystems, there is no life on Earth? We live in a world where eight people have more wealth that most of the rest of the world combined. How is that prosperity helping the natural world? How is that prosperity being used to stop the destruction? The answer is obvious: it isn’t.
These are just a few of the lies we must tell to each other, and especially ourselves, if we wish to go along quietly with the policies outlined in the Biden-Harris plan for the next four years.
However, if you cannot lie to yourself or your loved ones, speak up. Tell the truth. Face ecological reality. This is no time for delusion, unless we are ready to ignore the suffering around us and give up on this beautiful planet we call home.