The High Cost of Living – Moving to Green/Ignoring Impacts

February 17, 2012

By Matt Palmer

Germany’s Sunshine Daydream – Bjørn Lomborg – Project Syndicate.

I had another post planned for today, but when I read this article from Bjorn Lomborg, and another article by John Fullerton in the Huffington Post, it was clear to me that there are elements in each article that need to be discussed and thought about as they relate to my over-arching theme of “unintended consequences”.

In the Lomborg article he provides a sharp analysis of major issues that Germany faces as a result of their foray into solar energy. Germany, like most of Europe, is in the midst of an economic crisis. Germany spent a lot of money to ramp up solar energy, perhaps odd for a country that does not get a lot of sunshine. On top of that, as Lomborg asserts, this investment in solar technology may have little impact on CO2 emissions.

Moreover, this sizeable investment does remarkably little to counter global warming. Even with unrealistically generous assumptions, the unimpressive net effect is that solar power reduces Germany’s CO2 emissions by roughly eight million metric tons – or about 1% – for the next 20 years. When the effects are calculated in a standard climate model, the result is a reduction in average temperature of 0.00005oC (one twenty-thousandth of a degree Celsius, or one ten-thousandth of a degree Fahrenheit). To put it another way: by the end of the century, Germany’s $130 billion solar panel subsidies will have postponed temperature increases by 23 hours.

The intentions are good, but the plan for solar in Germany may not make sense, at this time with current technology.

Defenders of Germany’s solar subsidies also claim that they have helped to create “green jobs”. But each job created by green-energy policies costs an average of $175,000 – considerably more than job creation elsewhere in the economy, such as infrastructure or health care. And many “green jobs” are being exported to China, meaning that Europeans subsidize Chinese jobs, with no CO2 reductions.

Germany’s experiment with subsidizing inefficient solar technology has failed. What governments should do instead is to focus first on increasing research and development to make green-energy technology cheaper and more competitive. Production should be ramped up later.

In the meantime, Germans have paid about $130 billion for a climate-change policy that has no impact on global warming. They have subsidized Chinese jobs and other European countries’ reliance on dirty energy sources. And they have needlessly burdened their economy. As even many German officials would probably attest, governments elsewhere cannot afford to repeat the same mistake.

Taking action to reduce pollutants from coal-fired electrical generation is important but investing in solar did not achieve this, because Germany still imports energy from other countries, some of which comes from coal-fired power plants.

Interestingly enough, in his book “Power Hungry”, Robert Bryce writes that Denmark’s 30 year push into wind energy has not reduced their emissions because they rely on coal to provide back up capacity.

Lomborg is not a popular man to many environmentalists, I’ve seen twitter posts this morning referring to him as a climate sceptic which he is not, but he brings an important perspective to the conversation.

Then yesterday I was alerted to this article by John Fullerton in the Huffington Post called “Ending the Keystone Debate”. In the article he argues that the Keystone XL pipeline must be stopped if want to have any chance of saving the planet from climate disaster.

At the end of the article he argues that our “unsustainable economic system poses the greatest threat to our national (and global) security.” If we look at what is happening in Germany and Spain, and how investments in alternative energy are causing tremendous economic strain, and that the emissions pay off is not being realized, should we be looking at the issue differently? If Fullerton is arguing that the current system is “unsustainable” how does he rationalize what is happening in Germany?

Smart path: We will understand, as our military and security establishment now does (another essay on that here), that our unsustainable economic system poses the greatest threat to our national (and global) security. We will start making hard decisions in line with a vision of a sustainable future, one important decision at a time. Deciding not to expand Tar Sands production when the challenge is how to decide which existing resources to strand in the ground, and how to share the consequent financial and social burdens, will be one of the easier of these decisions.

I’m not an economist, but I do think as we look at the serious issues of environment, and energy, and how we use our resources (particularly non-renewables) purely arguing from an “environment first” position, may not achieve the goals. There are other factors to be considered that would include: environment, social, economic, and political, and then additionally, factoring in important energy attributes like energy density, power density, scalability, deliverability, natural resources needed to get alternatives to global scale, and constancy.

What I am curious about, and do not have the answer for, is once we look at energy including all these factors, will we define “green”, “renewable”, and “sustainable” differently? I’ve seen interesting arguments that propose that “density” is green.

There is a high cost to humans living the way we do on this planet. As we make the necessary changes to reduce our impacts on the environment, it would be prudent to understand that moving to new energy systems introduces a whole new set of unintended consequences (positive and negative) and it is sensible to think before we leap, as Germany and other countries are learning.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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