Any modern-day war in and between rich industrial countries has bad ecological impacts. The amount of destroyed built-up material is a wastage that has to be replaced, which entails negative ecological impacts through mining and smelting of non-renewable resources. Same is the case with used up metals and other materials contained in equipment of war and munition. All this is known since long and applies also to the war in Ukraine. What, however, is especially remarkable in the case of the Ukraine War, is the clarity it brings to some dodgy ecological issues.
Background of some recent Facts
Facts are nearly always the best proof of the correctness or otherwise of political, economic, and ecological opinions and theories. So I want first to present here a selection of recent facts. Let me begin with two scenes from German TV broadcasts.
After the beginning of the Ukraine war, many Europeans, but especially the Germans, who since long have been importing huge quantities of relatively cheap Russian natural gas for domestic heating and many industrial purposes, became panicky over whether the Russians would continue to deliver gas in terms of the contract in spite of the various economic sanctions imposed on them by the EU. In the course of his frantic search for alternative sources of natural gas, Robert Habeck, the Green economy minister in the current “traffic-Light” coalition government went to Qatar and met the equally young Emir of the small but gas-rich country. During the handshake – one could see that in the TV-Report – Habeck made a low bow in the style of an humble supplicant, while the Emir stood with his head held high in the style of a patron.
The next scene: the former foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD, now a political has-been, derided the present coalition with the words: “It is really a change of times when the economy minister Habeck of the Green Party breathes new life into CO2-emitting coal-fired power plants, and the champion of an austerity policy finance minister Lindner of the FDP (Free Democratic Party) incurs hundreds of millions of Euro new debt.
Fact is also that many other states are taking several retro-steps like building new coal-fired and nuclear power plants. They are doing this because they are anxious to keep their industries and infrastructures, and their whole industrial or half-industrial mode of living supplied with sufficient and sufficiently cheap energy. Worldwide, at present, 200 new coal-fired power plants are being built. In Germany, of course, they are not building any new coal-fired power plants after Datteln 4 (completed in 2019), but they are now repealing the earlier decision to close down all lignite-fired power plants soon. Moreover, they are planning to import from the USA large quantities of LNG extracted by the fracking method which was earlier much reviled by ecologists and the Greens for its evil polluting effects. Together with the Netherlands government, they are also considering gas extraction from under the mud flats of the North Sea – formerly, for ecological reasons, a prohibited zone for such purposes.
As for nuclear power – opposed by all kinds of ecologists and Green parties since 1974 –, it is enjoying a new lease of life. At present, eight European countries are building new reactors, or are seriously planning to build new ones. France has decided to keep all its nuclear power plants running. And the EU has decided to change its energy taxonomy, henceforth calling natural gas and nuclear energy green energy.
Similar things are happening all over the world. China has recently been building more and more new coal-fired power plants. The tempo is increasing. For instance, in March 2020 alone, the authorities gave permission for building of more coal-power capacity (7.960 Megawatt) than in the whole year 2019 (6.310 Megawatt). India is pursuing a similar policy. This is manifested in the data on permission for opening new coal mines. Recently, some 40 such permissions have been given.
All over the world, at present, also about 55 new nuclear power plants (NPP) are being built. The German Angst of nuclear power does not appear to be too great anywhere else, not even in the underdeveloped world. In India, e.g. at present, two NPPs are being built, in Bangladesh one.
This worldwide trend has naturally led to very bad results for the climate. Instead of going down, total Co2 emission is continually increasing. According to International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2021, globally, 36.3 billion tons of CO2 –equivalents of green-house gases were emitted. That is two billion tons more than the figure for 2020. In Germany, after going down steadily since 1990, total CO2 emission is again rising. Whereas in 2020 it was 644 million tons, in 2021 it was 675 million tons.
In view of the above-mentioned facts and figures, Antonio Gutierrez, General Secretary of the United Nations, said in despair: “We are committing collective suicide.” Many Germans are thinking that the ambitious goal of energy transition has failed – among them are many leading politicians, such as Michael Kretschmer, Chief Minister of the province of Saxony. Chancellor Scholz and leading Green politicians however think that, despite the obvious setbacks, the energy transition can still be achieved. In their despair, many other European politicians – particularly the French President Macron – have recently declared nuclear power and natural gas to be “green energy”. The German Green Party, but also those of Europe as a whole, the main pillar of whose founding ideology was opposition to nuclear power, are of course resisting. But they may soon buckle.
Obviously, it is a paradox. The din of the Ukraine War, the embargo on Russian oil etc. and the fear of Russia turning off the gas taps are only four and a half months old, whereas the euphoric assertions of low costs and all round efficacy and adaptability of the renewable energies are quite old. Let us take three examples:
The late Herman Scheer, the then President of Eurosolar, and high priest of solar energy, wrote in 1999:
“For an inconceivably long time the sun will donate its energy to humans, animals, and plants. And it will do that so lavishly that it could satisfy even the most sumptuous energy needs of the worlds of humans, animals and plants experiencing drastic growth: The sun supplies us every year 15,000 times more energy than what the world population commercially consumes …” 1
In 1999, this euphoria was a bit too far away from the then reality. Photovoltaic and other “renewable” and “clean” energy technologies were actually still too costly. But in 2014 came good news. Ottmar Edenhofer, economist and one of the three co-chairs of the third working group of the IPCC, said something that made us sit up and take notice. He said: “It would not cost us the world to save the planet.” The cost of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius would, he said, be only 0.06 percent less yearly economic growth than what would otherwise be possible. And Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate in Economics, wrote a few weeks later in NEW York Times an article entitled Climate Change: Salvation Gets Cheap. Referring to the glad tidings on the cost of saving the planet coming from the IPCC, Krugman wrote the [problem of] climate threat is solved. He even wrote: “… there’s no reason we can’t become richer while reducing our impact on the environment.” The reason behind this euphoria was that prices of photovoltaic panels were tumbling.
And now a more recent example: Greta Thunberg founder-leader of the teenager climate protection group Fridays for Future, that is simply demanding that the politicians finally do something decisive about the problem, was once asked, what then the politicians should do. She is reported to have replied: Why do you ask me? I am only a schoolgirl. Ask the scientists (as if all that the scientists advise were so easy to do!). She once wrote, all the technologies needed for the solution of the problem were already there. They only needed to be used. This was nothing concrete, though many other young people are glibly mouthing concrete “solutions” like their radical elder brothers do: “shut down all coal mines immediately”, “let all fossil fuels remain in the ground”, “all energy supply must come from renewable sources only” etc. etc.
And now, in 2022, this mad rush for alternative sources of natural gas – a fossil fuel, mind you – and the US President Biden eating his words of making Saudi Crown Prince Salman a pariah and going to him with the request to increase oil supply on the world market. Inevitably, the question comes to mind: Why couldn’t the renewable energy technologies long ago replace the fossil fuels and nuclear energy? How do we explain this about-turn in energy policy?
An Explanation of the Paradox
This euphoria, which had begun much earlier than 1999, was all along baseless. For the sake of brevity, I shall here present only the main points of my arguments and won’t go into details, which the interested reader can find in my theoretical book2 and many articles in my blog. 2):
(1) India e.g. is a tropical sunbathed country. The sun nearly uninterruptedly shines nine months a year. Even in the rainy season the sky is not clouded all the time and everywhere. And the South-West and North-East monsoon winds plus our long coast line can provide ample suitable sites for setting up wind-power facilities. Highly qualified engineers and technicians are also not scarce. Similar are the conditions in China. So why don’t the Indian and Chinese capitalists ditch much reviled fossil fuels, coal in particular, as our main source of power and invest heavily in solar and wind-energy industries? Can’t they calculate chances of making profit? Of course, they can.
(2) The reason why capitalists do not want to give up fossil fuels, particularly the super versatile petroleum, is that they are the most profitable sources of energy. That is mainly because their energy density is much higher than that of the renewable sources sun and wind. Since for capitalists the ecological and social costs of fossil fuels are mere externalities, they, not being idealists and fashion-conscious, naturally prefer the fossil fuels.
Moreover, ordinary people are not willing to pay higher prices for energy, not even in rich industrial countries. This was demonstrated in France by the yellow vests movement, the participants in which even violently, and successfully, resisted the increase in prices of fossil fuels for automobiles.
No large scale use of liquid hydrogen made by using “renewable” energy (so-called “green hydrogen”) is yet being tried. Through any conversion of energy from one state/form to another, a lot of the original amount of energy gets lost. So “green hydrogen” is much costlier and much less profitable than any original form of energy. The greater part of the batteries of e-cars of the world are for this reason still loaded up with electricity made by using conventional fuels, not with solar or wind electricity.
(3) Krugman and all others of that ilk always look at the market price of solar panels (and wind turbines), which indeed tumbled in the recent past. But serious energy scientists, when they try to judge the basic cost and efficacy of energy technologies, compare mainly their EROEI (Energy return on energy invested) figures.
The market price of any commodity is in principle a very uncertain thing. It can vary from time to time and place to place, and it depends on many variable and volatile factors: wages, taxes, subsidies, distances etc. But, given that technologies used for the manufacture of solar panels, wind turbines etc. are more or less the same everywhere, the amount of energy required to be invested, from A to Z, for manufacturing them (the EI of the term EROEI) must be roughly the same everywhere, and hence they can be compared. The ER of the term (energy return) varies from place to place, depending on availability of sunshine and blowing wind.
To measure the ER of any energy technology is easy. We just need to attach a meter to the end point of the system. But to measure its EI is difficult. The equipment needed to produce e.g. solar panels have first to be produced themselves – beginning with all the mining machinery (excavators e.g.) for mining the necessary minerals all the way upwards to the metal frame on which the solar panels are mounted.
Of course, an excavator e.g. is not used for producing just one solar panel. But the prorata energy consumption of any equipment used in any serially produced object can be estimated. In this estimating process many mistakes can be and indeed are made, many steps in the production line are ignored. This explains why different researchers can and do present very different, often exaggeratedly optimistic estimates of the EROEI (aka net energy) of renewable energy technologies. This is why many false hopes of 100 percent renewable energies, total energy transition etc. could be circulated – particularly by the Green Parties. How controversial the matter still is can be seen in a recent paper.3 But for me, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
One may now ask: why do we then hear (e.g. in Germany) that today renewable energies are cheaper than coal-fired energy? One brief reply: in Germany, electricity production in coal-fired power plants is almost entirely done with lignite excavated in Germany with equipment made in Germany by high-wage German workers. The solar panels e.g. used in Germany are however all made in China, by using coal-fired electricity and the labor of low-wage Chinese workers. State subsidies, tax benefits etc. also play a role.
The atmosphere of the earth is a global affair. It does not matter at all where the green-house gases are emitted, they are distributed by the winds in the whole atmosphere. And the whole earth warms up as a result.
The truth of the matter has been sufficiently revealed in the months following the beginning of the Ukraine War. Industrial society is basically and mainly a product of fossil fuels. A whole industrial society cannot be run without these fuels. And, moreover, the global ecology problem, the various kinds of global pollution, cannot be reduced to the issue of climate change and green-house gas emissions. It is also and mainly a question of growing amount of resources that a growing number humans consume in an industrial way. Global warming and its consequences are just symptoms of too much consumption of fossil fuels and other resources.
I have above referred to Greta Thunberg’s belief that all the technologies needed for the solution of the climate change problem were already there. That they only needed to be used. Below the article in which I read this opinion of Thunberg was a comment made by a reader. It read: “The greatest minds in the Western world are working on this. They have produced no solution, because there is none.”
This comment is convincing, but only partly. There is no solution because nobody is prepared to ditch the industrial society that has made life so comfortable for so many people. “The greatest minds” have failed to find a solution because they all want to have their cake and eat it too. If they were prepared to give up their addiction to the industrial society and their self-sanctification, then the problems could be solved: with a steady state economy at a much lower level with just two billion humans living on the earth.
1. Hermann Scheer (1999: 66) Solare Weltwirtschaft: Strategie für die okologische Moderne. Munich: Antje Kunstmann.
2. Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism. A critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices. 1999, London (Zed Books).
3. “Renewables K.0.-ed by EROEI?”
by Craig Morris