Green herrings: Winnipeg 'clean energy' conference focused on unrealistic solutions

Last week's Generation Energy conference provided little basis for optimism, says Michael Welch, with an unstated focus on the contradiction of reducing greenhouse gases while maintaining the current North American lifestyle and standard of living.

We can't cut greenhouse gas emissions and maintain the current North American lifestyle, says Michael Welch

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, far left, leads a Q&A session at the Generation Energy conference in Winnipeg on Oct. 13. The conference seemed to focus on an unrealistic promise that North Americans can reduce our output of greenhouse gases while maintaining our current lifestyles and standards of living, says Michael Welch. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"The American way of life is not up for negotiation."
U.S. President George H.W. Bush (Rio de Janeiro, 1992)

As someone concerned with the consequences of our culture's current fossil fuel addiction, last week's Generation Energy conference provided me little basis for optimism. Rather, it reinforced North America's divine right of conspicuous consumption without recognition of compromise, restraint or limit.

The two-day event was held at the RBC Convention Centre in downtown Winnipeg and presented as the culmination of a six-month effort by the federal government to engage Canadians and experts around the world on the goal of crafting a national energy strategy to realize an affordable low-carbon future. 

The dominant unstated focus of the conversation seemed to be how to reduce our output of greenhouse gases through new technological innovations, while maintaining our current lifestyles and standards of living. 

Some world-renowned thinkers on the subject of energy, notably absent from the Winnipeg conversation, would say that a change in our lifestyles is not only advisable, but inevitable.

'Clean' fuels aren't a panacea

One such thinker is James Howard Kunstler. For years, he has argued that cheap fossil fuels like oil and natural gas underlie all aspects of modern living, in ways we typically take for granted. The spinoffs include everything from cars, computers, plastics, and fertilizers to that institution that has become the hallmark of the modern North American city: suburbia.

Much of the conversation at the conference favoured high-tech approaches that principally rejected carbon-intensive fuel sources (coal, oil) in favour of "clean" energy alternatives (solar, wind, nuclear.) 

As Kunstler argues in his 2005 book The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change,and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, there is no combination of alternative fuels that can replace what fossil fuels have bestowed upon our technologically driven world of wonders over the past century. 

The benefits of an approach built around, say, making our cities more walkable, localized economies or the "transition initiatives" popularized by by environmentalist and transition movement founder Rob Hopkins were displaced at the Generation Energy conference by conversations about "efficiencies" and simply replacing "dirty" fuels with "clean" ones.  

Regrettably, the "externalities" associated with some of these alternative technologies typically get ignored. 

Talk about zero carbon emissions from wind and solar does not take into consideration the carbon energy involved in the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels.

These instruments are typically made with components that have been mined, smelted, and assembled with the use of fossil fuels. The parts had to be transported by ships, frigates, trucks and similar heavy machinery which, for the most part, run on diesel — which is a refined product of crude oil.

Although they may seem ecologically friendly, the fossil fuels used in the construction of an electric vehicle may actually make them more harmful for the environment than a standard internal combustion engine car. (Hannah Yoon/Canadian Press)

How much in the way of fossil fuels goes into the construction of a standard electric vehicle?

According to one 2012 study published in the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology, the production of the lithium-compound batteries alone proved to be more costly to the environment than the overall construction of a typical internal combustion energy vehicle. The extra costs largely spring from the extraction and transportation of the metals composing these batteries, which are mined mainly in Australia and South America. 

Also to be factored in is the cost of safely disposing of these batteries once they are at the end of their useful life. According to the study, it currently costs five times more to recycle the main component, lithium, than to produce it. 

Did I also mention that the asphalt in the roads on which these innovative new vehicles would ride is refined from oil? 

So much for keeping it in the ground.

In fairness, the study found that after years of operation on the road, electric vehicles might eventually compensate for that extra pollution in their manufacture — IF they're used somewhere the supply of electric power is "clean." Otherwise, EVs were found to "pollute more and cause more deaths" than internal combustion vehicles.

Sustained growth isn't actually sustainable

Importantly, a serious effort to address climate change and the environmental crisis would also have to reckon with the toxic cyanide spiking the Kool-Aid that is our economic system — namely the unquestioned mandate of sustained growth.

Economies, in order to be viable, will have some relation with the harvest, construction and transportation of physical goods and services. Money lent out by financial institutions to enable such economic activities needs to be paid back with interest. Hence, economic growth is exponential and will put pressure on a non-exponentially growing natural world.

The business community … can now thrive on new investment opportunities in electric cars, the renewable economy and other such green herrings — while the rest of us human frogs continue to cook in an incrementally heating water bath.- Michael Welch

Even if improved efficiencies serve to mask this trend in the short term, sooner or later reality will catch up with mathematics, resulting in increasing pollution and fewer resources to sustain a growing population.  

The late author Edward Abbey said it best: growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. 

I am far from convinced that the Generation Energy conversation, however earnestly entered into, is adequately grappling with the severity of the twin crises of peak oil and climate change we are confronting as a species.

The only upside I can see from the two days of talks I observed are that the business community, with the backing of the federal government, can now thrive on new investment opportunities in electric cars, the renewable economy and other such green herrings — while the rest of us human frogs continue to cook in an incrementally heating water bath.

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Michael Welch is a freelance writer and broadcaster based in Winnipeg, with a long history of involvement in peace and social justice activism.