A general view of the Bir-Hakeim bridge near the Eiffel Tower above the Seine river in Paris, after flooding on 4 June 2016. Photo: Jeremy Lempin / EPA

By Jason Hickel
15 July 2016

(Guardian) – Earlier this year, media outlets around the world announced that February had broken global temperature records by a shocking amount. March broke all the records too. In June, our screens were covered with surreal images of flooding in Paris, the Seine bursting its banks and flowing into the streets. In London, floods sent water pouring into the tube system right in the heart of Covent Garden. Roads in south-east London became rivers two metres deep.

With such extreme events becoming more commonplace, few deny climate change any longer. Finally, a consensus is crystallising around one all-important fact: fossil fuels are killing us. We need to switch to clean energy, and fast.

This growing awareness about the dangers of fossil fuels represents a crucial shift in our consciousness. But I can’t help but fear we’ve missed the point. As important as clean energy might be, the science is clear: it won’t save us from climate change.

Let’s imagine, just for argument’s sake, that we are able to get off fossil fuels and switch to 100% clean energy. There is no question this would be a vital step in the right direction, but even this best-case scenario wouldn’t be enough to avert climate catastrophe.

Why? Because the burning of fossil fuels only accounts for about 70% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining 30% comes from a number of causes. Deforestation is a big one. So is industrial agriculture, which degrades the soils to the point where they leach CO2. Then there’s industrial livestock farming which produces 90m tonnes of methane per year and most of the world’s anthropogenic nitrous oxide. Both of these gases are vastly more potent than CO2 when it comes to global warming. Livestock farming alone contributes more to global warming than all the cars, trains, planes, and ships in the world. Industrial production of cement, steel, and plastic forms another major source of greenhouse gases, and then there are our landfills, which pump out huge amounts of methane – 16% of the world’s total. […]

Think of it this way. That 30% chunk of greenhouse gases that comes from non-fossil fuel sources isn’t static. It is adding more to the atmosphere each year. Scientists project that our tropical forests will be completely destroyed by 2050, releasing a 200bn tonne carbon bomb into the air. The world’s topsoils could be depleted within just 60 years, releasing more still. Emissions from the cement industry are growing at more than 9% per year. And our landfills are multiplying at an eye-watering pace: by 2100 we will be producing 11m tonnes of solid waste per day, three times more than we do now. Switching to clean energy will do nothing to slow this down. […]

Our more optimistic pundits claim that technological innovations will help us to de-couple economic growth from material throughput. But sadly there is no evidence that this is happening. Global material extraction and consumption has grown by 94% since 1980, and is still going up. Current projections show that by 2040 we will more than double the world’s shipping miles, air miles, and trucking miles – along with all the material stuff that those vehicles transport – almost exactly in keeping with the rate of GDP growth. [more]

Clean energy won’t save us – only a new economic system can


  1. Anonymous said...

    The only way to save the environment, is to raise the living standards of those in the third world, to those of the first world.  

  2. Anonymous said...

    There is no such thing as clean energy. The creation of energy from other sources (non-fossil fuels to make a point) requires converting raw materials into technological inventions, none which can be made -- without fossil fuels. Or maintained.

    The article is correct in that clean energy (an erroneous term) won't stop climate change. It's a red herring as a 'solution' because it's not. Already blogged this topic before, but it's nice to see a larger publication pick up on this point.  

  3. superpeasant said...

    THis old story about cattle causing global warming is very keenly promoted by the fossil fuel industry. Please bear in mind that Climate Change is an industrial era problem, 100 to 200 years at most, while we have had vast numbers of ruminants on this planet for millennia. The cattle in the US today for example are scarcely different from the numbers of wild ruminants such as deer and bison which also produced greenhouse gases. These animals,mwhether wild or domesticated are part of a grassland ecosystem which recycles and fixes CO2 for example in the soil. THe wworld's grasslands actually hold far more CO2 than its forests.

    I am no fan of intensive farming, livestock or otherwise, but by far the greatest agricultural contributor to climate change is Nitrogen fertiliser (derived from fossil fuels) and the climate gases it emits. DOn't believe this propaganda - it is fossil fuels which cause climate change.  

  4. booboo said...

    "Sustainable degrowth is a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions. Such societies will no longer have to “grow or die.” Material accumulation will no longer hold a prime position in the population’s cultural imaginary. The primacy of efficiency will be substituted by a focus on sufficiency, and innovation will no longer focus on technology for technology’s sake but will concentrate on new social and technical arrangements that will enable us to live convivially and frugally. Degrowth does not only challenge the centrality of GDP as an overarching policy objective but proposes a framework for transformation to a lower and sustainable level of production and consumption, a shrinking of the economic system to leave more space for human cooperation and ecosystems." -degrowth.org  

  5. Anonymous said...

    "human cooperation" Yes humans have always been so good at cooperating. I'm convinced most of you people never leave your house. You are utterly detached from reality, and seem to be completely ignorant about true human nature. The religious ideas you propose are only slightly more realistic than those of Christianity. There would be a another world war before anything like happens, then there will be no point anyway. Please read this book.




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