It's Not Easy Going Green

Environment

Recent news from the Arctic is that Greenpeace tried to block the drilling of a prospect well off the coast of Greenland, much to the chagrin of Cairn Energy Plc, the company who holds the lease for oil and gas concessions along that portion of the Greenlandic shore. The Arctic is widely believed to be the last, great unexplored region where resources like oil and natural gas, along with a host of precious metals, will be found in any significant concentrations, and thanks to global climate change, these previously inaccessible reserves may finally be recoverable as the Arctic sea ice thins and retreats each year – nowhere is this more true than in Greenland, whose 60,000 residents could become among the world's richest citizens per capita if the resource projections play out as expected. Greenpeace said they tried to block Cairn's experimental drilling to show their opposition to oil and gas production in the Arctic. Hot on the heels of the BP Macondo drilling rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Greenpeace is arguing that the Arctic environment is just too fragile to risk allowing a similar incident to occur there, and is too remote for any potential spill to be cleaned up effectively.

But their opposition is part of a larger strategy among environmental groups to oppose any new oil production projects – environmental groups in the United States have also been waging a campaign this summer against the Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Alberta's oil sands region to refineries along America's Gulf Coast. Ostensibly, opposition to projects like Cairns and Keystone is based on claims of potential damage each could/would cause to the environment, the subtext though is that environmental groups are opposing in general any projects that would lead to the introduction of new sources of crude oil into the world petroleum supply on the basis that this would only perpetuate the current energy system around the globe and would delay the transition to a system based on renewable (a.k.a. “green”) sources.

They raise a valid point with their concerns – mankind has a great capacity to avoid dealing with potentially difficult problems and painful choices; moving the world away from a system based on the exploitation of fossil fuels would be both. The problem with the green energy movement though is that the renewable resources – namely wind, solar and biofuels – just aren't equal to the fossil fuels they seek to replace. It's a topic that is discussed in some detail in the forthcoming book The Post Carbon Reader (the chapter is available as a PDF download here). In essence, these green sources aren't as “energy dense” as the fossil fuels they seek to replace, meaning you have to use a lot more of them to meet the energy demands currently served by petroleum-based products; it's not a 1:1 replacement. And this brings us to the ecological problems caused by the American Dream.

The post-World War II version of the American Dream is that everyone can (and should) own their own house, filled with the latest electronic gadgets and two cars parked in the driveway. It has been a powerful image of prosperity not only in America, but the rest of the world as well. In 1959 people in Moscow were enthralled by the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park, which featured a reproduction of a “typical” American home – albeit one tricked-out with every possible modern convenience; the house would serve as the backdrop to the famous Nixon-Khrushchev “Kitchen Debate.” The message sent by the pavilion was clear: this was the future that awaited anyone who embraced the American Dream.

Six decades later, much of the rest of the world has bought into this very American idea of the good life. Middle-class aspirants across China, India and Africa not only dream of this Americanized idea of a consumer-goods nirvana, they feel it is their right to obtain it. Perhaps nowhere has embraced this ideal more than China where that quintessentially American brand of automobile, the Buick, has become something of a status symbol. Twenty years ago, Beijing was a city dominated by bicycles, today a major highway north of the city is so snarled by traffic, some estimates predict it may remain jammed until sometime in December when road construction on another route is finished.

And therein lies the problem. The global energy system is already straining under the demands of the American lifestyle – the United States, with roughly 6% of the world's population uses by most estimates, 25% of the global energy resources. Toss in a billion people across Africa and Asia trying to adopt that same level of consumption and the system becomes wholly unsustainable. But the “highly-developing” nations (for lack of a better term) like China, India, South Africa and a few others have so far resisted any calls for curbs on their future growth arguing at best that the developed world (US/Canada/Western Europe) is holding them to a double-standard by not letting them enjoy the same lifestyle commonplace in the developed countries and at worse trying to impose a kind of new colonialism upon them. This is the kind of situation where the developed nations could show some real leadership by engaging in the type of technological/societal reforms necessary to have a truly sustainable system, or at least one that doesn't consume so much, but leadership has been lacking among politicians in the developed world. The Copenhagen climate talks last December, meant to come up with a successor to the Kyoto Protocols, fell apart in large part because the United States wouldn't commit to a series of already soft greenhouse gas reduction goals. 

Environmentalists though aren't helping matters by suggesting a transition can be made to a system of wholly-renewable energy sources at modest cost and with little to no change to modern society. In fact as indicated in The Post Carbon Reader, society will have to change quite a bit as renewable sources will provide far less energy than the current fossil fuel regime. For example, while electric and plug-in hybrid cars are held up as a way to allow us to keep our love affair with the car alive while weaning ourselves off of gasoline, the existing electric distribution system is simply not up to the challenge of having millions of vehicles plugged into it; last week officials in Ontario warned that even if 10% of the homes in the province plugged in an electric car, it would likely cause the power grid to crash. Environmental advocates then are not doing anyone any favors in pushing the idea that such a transition can be relatively painless.

But that transition is necessary. When the world runs out of fossil fuels is a topic for debate; that we will run out however is not.  At some point there will need to be a transition to a post-fossil fuel world, whether that transition is smooth or chaotic (as the German military recently discussed) is up to us. What we need though is for environmental activists to present a clear picture of what's involved in that change and for our politicians to show some real leadership on the issue.

Arctic, Canada, China, Development, Green, Consumerism