The idea of ‘green growth’ is flawed. We must find ways of using and wasting less energy


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Michael (Mike) Joy, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of WellingtonAs countries explore ways of decarbonising their economies, the mantra of “green growth” risks trapping us in a spiral of failures. Green growth is an oxymoron.

Growth requires more material extraction, which in turn requires more energy. The fundamental problem we face in trying to replace fossil energy with renewable energy is that all our renewable technologies are significantly less energy dense than fossil fuels.

This means much larger areas are required to produce the same amount of energy.

Earlier this year, data from the European Union showed renewable electricity generation has overtaken coal and gas in 2020. But previous research argued that to replace the total energy (not just electricity) use of the UK with the best available mix of wind, solar and hydroelectricity would require the entire landmass of the country. To do it for Singapore would require the area of 60 Singapores.

I am not in any way denying or diminishing the need to stop emitting fossil carbon. But if we don’t focus on reducing consumption and energy waste, and instead fixate on replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, we are simply swapping one race to destruction with another.




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The carbon causing our climate problem today came from fossilised biology formed through ancient carbon cycles, mostly over the 200 million years of the Mesozoic era (ending 66 million years ago).

We must stop burning fossil fuels, but we must also understand that every technology to replace them, while attempting to maintain our current consumption, let alone allowing for consumption growth, requires huge amounts of fossil energy.

Environmental impact of renewables

Carbon reduction without consumption reduction is only possible through methods that have their own massive environmental impacts and resource limitations.

To make renewable energy, fossil energy is needed to mine the raw materials, to transport, to manufacture, to connect the energy capture systems and finally to produce the machines to use the energy.

The new renewable infrastructure requires rare earth minerals, which is a problem in itself. But most of the raw materials required to produce and apply new energy technology are also getting harder to find. The returns on mining them are reducing, and the dilemma of declining returns applies to the very fossil fuels needed to mine the declining metal ore.




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Globally, despite building lots of renewable electricity infrastructure, we have not yet increased the proportion of renewable energy in our total energy consumption.

Electricity is only 20% of our total energy use. Renewable electricity has not displaced fossil energy in most countries because our consumption increases faster than we can add renewable generation.

The problems with wanting to maintain industrial civilisation are many, but the starkest is that it is the actual cause of our climate crisis and other environmental crises.

If we carry on with life as usual — the underlying dream of the “green growth” concept — we will end up destroying the life-supporting capacity of our planet.

What happened to environmentalism?

The green growth concept is part of a broader and long-running trend to co-opt the words green and environmentalist.

Environmentalism emerged from the 1960s as a movement to save the natural world. Now it seems to have been appropriated to describe the fight to save industrial civilisation — life as we know it.

This shift has serious implications because the two concepts — green growth and environmentalism — are inherently incompatible.

Traditionally, environmentalists included people like Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring alerted Americans to the industrial poisons killing birds and insects and fouling drinking water, or environmental organisations like Greenpeace saving whales and baby seals.

In New Zealand, being green had its roots in movements like the Save Manapouri campaign, which fought to save ancient native forests from inundation when a hydropower dam was built. Environmentalism had a clear focus on saving the living world.

Now environmentalism has been realigned to reducing carbon emissions, as if climate change was our only impending crisis. Parliamentary Greens seem set to want to reach net zero carbon by 2050 at any cost.

The word “net” allows champions of industry-friendly environmentalism to avoid considering the critical need to reduce our energy consumption.




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We must somehow drag ourselves away from our growth paradigm to tackle the multiple crises coming at us. Our only future is one where we consume less, do less, waste less and stop our obsession with accumulating.

If we keep trying to maintain our current growth trajectory, built on a one-off fossil bonanza, we will destroy the already stressed life-supporting systems that sustain us. Protecting these and their essential biotic components is true environmentalism — not attempting to maintain our industrial way of life, just without carbon.The Conversation

Michael (Mike) Joy, Senior Researcher; Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

In a landmark judgment, the Federal Court found the environment minister has a duty of care to young people


AAP Image/James Gourley, Author provided

Laura Schuijers, The University of MelbourneThis morning, the Australian Federal Court delivered a landmark judgement on climate change, marking an important moment in our history.

The class action case was brought on behalf of all Australian children and teenagers, against Environment Minister Sussan Ley.

Their aim was to prevent Ley from possibly approving the Whitehaven coal mine extension project, near Gunnedah in New South Wales. They argued that approving this project would endanger their future because of climate hazards, including causing them injury, ill health or death, and economic losses.

The court dismissed the application to stop the minister from approving the extension. But that’s just the beginning.

Before making those orders, the court found a new duty it never has before: the environment minister owes a duty of care to Australia’s young people not to cause them physical harm in the form of personal injury from climate change.

‘Australia will be lost’: the court’s moving findings

The court considered evidence in the case from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, and globally renowned ANU climate scientist Will Steffen.

In a tear-jerking moment during the Federal Court’s live-streamed summary, the court found that one million of today’s Australian children are expected to be hospitalised because of a heat-stress episode, that substantial economic loss will be experienced, and that the Great Barrier Reef and most of Australia’s eucalypt forest won’t exist when they grow up.

It found this harm is real, catastrophic, and – importantly from a legal perspective – “reasonably foreseeable”. In decades past, courts have considered climate change to be a “speculative”, “future problem”.

That is no longer the case. The court concluded, in a moving paragraph from the written judgment:

It is difficult to characterise in a single phrase the devastation that the plausible evidence presented in this proceeding forecasts for the children. As Australian adults know their country, Australia will be lost and the world as we know it gone as well.

The physical environment will be harsher, far more extreme and devastatingly brutal when angry. As for the human experience – quality of life, opportunities to partake in nature’s treasures, the capacity to grow and prosper – all will be greatly diminished.

Lives will be cut short. Trauma will be far more common and good health harder to hold and maintain.

None of this will be the fault of nature itself. It will largely be inflicted by the inaction of this generation of adults, in what might fairly be described as the greatest inter-generational injustice ever inflicted by one generation of humans upon the next.

To say that the children are vulnerable is to understate their predicament.

Establishing a new duty of care

The children took a novel route in asserting the federal environment minister owed them a duty of care. A duty of care means a responsibility not to take actions that could harm others. A duty of care is the first step in a claim of negligence.

A similar duty was found in the Netherlands in 2015, as a global first. In 2019, the Supreme Court upheld that duty – the Dutch government owed its citizens a duty to reduce emissions in order to protect human rights.

Other cases around the world were inspired by that success, including the one decided in Australia today.




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The court today didn’t say the minister has a duty to stop all coal projects of any size, as it was only considering the Whitehaven extension project. But this is still hugely significant.

Australia has been repeatedly criticised on the global stage for its stance on new coal and climate change more generally. Now, we may find the decisions made by its environment ministers could amount to negligent conduct.

The buck doesn’t stop at governments

Back in the Netherlands, something else significant happened this week — the world learned the buck doesn’t stop at governments.

In what’s been described as “arguably the most significant climate change judgement yet”, a court in The Hague ordered Royal Dutch Shell, a global oil and gas company, to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030 compared with 2019 levels, via its corporate policy.

This could have far-reaching consequences for oil and gas companies all over the world, including in Australia.

So now we have a dual momentum — governments need to be careful what they approve, and fossil fuels companies need be careful what they propose.

Putting the minister on notice

It’s important to recognise Ley hasn’t made a decision yet to approve the coal mine extension. The young Australians were seeking to stop her from approving it, and in that they didn’t succeed.

However, her responsibility to young people has now been formally recognised by the court.

Today’s children are vulnerable to climate change and they depend on the environment minister to protect their interests. We don’t know yet if the minister will approve the mine extension, or if she does, whether that means she has breached her duty to the children. But we do know how significant the harm from climate change will be.

In 2019, a NSW court confirmed now is not the time to be approving new coal, and every coal mine counts.

Today’s judgement opens the door for future litigation if the minister is not careful about approving projects that could harm the next generations of Australians.

But importantly, it puts the federal environment minister on notice — while political terms might be only short, decisions now have intergenerational consequences for the future.

Short-term financial gain can have detrimental impacts on the health and economic wellbeing of those who can’t vote yet.




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This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. It is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay foundation. You can read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Laura Schuijers, Research Fellow in Environmental Law, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.