We already know that all that glitters is not gold. Yet, the glittering enthusiasm expressed by big polluters when selling the adoption of biofuels as a way to reduce atmospheric CO2 – such as America during the Clinton and Bush administrations – couldn’t be more tarnished. Ethanol production has nearly tripled since 2007 and gasoline consumption is at an all-time high. And, while waiting for better technologies to turn carbohydrates into hydrocarbons, we cannot say that biofuels have been an environmental success so far either. As argued by the economist Hans-Werner Sinn, when a climate policy turns out to accelerate global warming we get a ‘green paradox’. Sinn was specifically referring to owners of fossil fuel sources, who may be encouraged by climate policies to extract more today than in the future. But there are plenty of other paradoxes.
In recent years, China has encouraged the adoption of electric scooters. As a result, huge waste dumps of rusting petrol motorbikes lie beside dumps of used bike batteries (generally shorter-lived than car batteries). Or take Germany, that has managed to build an impressive array of renewable energy sources but, after it started phasing-out nuclear power, has resorted to coal thus wiping out most of its CO2 emission reductions. With only one planet and atmosphere to share, it is easy to step into paradoxical loopholes.
Europe is the standard-bearer of climate action, in terms of willingness and regulations. Yet it has now come under the focus of American environmentalists, calling for a revision of its famed Renewable Energy Directive. Under the directive, wood ‘biomass’ qualifies as a renewable energy source. As a result, millions of tons of wood is being harvested in southeastern America and turned into pellets to be burned in Europe for electricity. ‘This will lead to long-term, landscape-scale loss of critical habitats that will worsen ongoing threats to the region’s biodiversity,’ reads a letter sent to Brussels by a group of scientists. Not to mention that harvesting trees for biomass can never be a ‘net zero carbon’ endeavour.
This is not to say that climate policies are useless or harmful. It is just to remind us that the path to a decarbonised world is long, bumpy and paved with unknowns. It must be carefully planned, continuously revised and swiftly travelled.
This was published in the April 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.
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