An unauthorised steel factory in Inner Mongolia, China. | Photo Credit: South China Morning Post

Clean Energy: The Climate Crisis’ Hail Mary?

Scientists have been raising the alarm on climate change since the late 1950s, increasing the severity of concern especially in recent years. True to human nature’s propensity to procrastinate, the deadly two degree increase in global temperatures is rapidly approaching. Claire from the IAS Gazette investigates the buzz around ‘Clean Energy’ to see if it is truly a saving grace or another perfunctory performance by world leaders.

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The ramifications of man’s laggard and insufficient response to the warnings from scientists, advocates from non-governmental organisations, and cries of help from climate change victims, have arrived and are here to stay. 

Namibia’s Namib and Kalhari deserts have been expanding, leaving farmlands destroyed and whole regions uninhabitable since 2007. The Philippines holds the title of having one of the fastest sinking cities due to rising sea levels. China’s extreme weather conditions have led to many lives being taken away by the flash floods in Qinghai Province and severe droughts in Chongqing

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that on average, more than 20 million are forced to leave their homes to escape progressively intense and prevalent extreme weather events every year. 

People who were forced to abandon their homes in the San Pedro Sula Valley due to floods in the aftermath of Hurricane Eta take refuge in a makeshift camp underneath an overpass in Chemelecon. Credit: Seth Sidney Berry/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Hondurans taking refuge from Hurricane Eta in a makeshift camp underneath an overpass. | Photo Credit: InsideClimate News

The window to stop climate change is long over. 

As for the window to mitigate the effects of it, one side of the argument is set by optimists who deem it ‘not too late’ while pessimists on the other hand, believe ‘the end is inevitable’.

But the undeniable facts are that climate change is getting worse, the damage done is irreversible; and action should have been taken decades ago. With the earth approaching its endgame, could clean energy be the hail mary that turns things around? 

Introducing Clean Energy as a Solution 

The recent revival in the shift towards environmentalism has a few notable milestones such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit adopting 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 2016 Paris Agreement and the 2019 climate change movement led by Greta Thunberg which brought Generation Z into the environmental conversation. 

As a result of the recent buzz around mitigating the effects of climate change, countries have looked towards clean energy as a solution. 

Generally, clean energy specifically refers to the generation of energy that does not produce greenhouse gas emissions. Even though experts are still in disagreement about the exact demarcation of clean energy’s definitions, it is not interchangeable with renewable energy or sustainable energy.

Clean energy’s trait is the combustion of gaseous hydrocarbon fuel with oxygen in a gas generator adapted from rocket engine technology. Sources of it include: wind power, solar power, tidal power, geothermal power, hydropower, biomass, and nuclear power. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that “renewable electricity growth is accelerating faster than ever worldwide”, as it rides on the coattails of the COP26 Climate Change Conference. 

The IEA also projected an accelerated growth in renewable capacity in the next five years, estimating that it could account for a 95 per cent of the increase in global power capacity by the end of 2026. 

As more governments commit to fight climate change via stronger policies and ambitious clean energy goals, reducing the dependence on fossil fuels and transitioning to clean energy sources seems to be the popular method. 

It does seem like a plausible option for countries to concentrate their efforts in tackling environmental concerns arising from energy, considering how the energy sector contributed 73 per cent of global emissions in 2017

So, maybe there is some merit to the whole clean energy craze after all, and all we have to do is wait. But is this too good to be true? 

Reality Check 

The IEA optimistically projects a 43 per cent global renewable capacity growth for China, as well as high numbers for Europe, the United States (US) and India. These four markets hold a 80 per cent oligopoly in renewable capacity expansion. 

Before we break out the champagne, I want to emphasise the word ‘capacity’. The IEA is saying that these top greenhouse gas emitters would have a better infrastructure for clean energy in the future, not that these countries would be operating from an increased capacity of clean energy. 

A better infrastructure would definitely mean more utilised clean energy, but how much of that percentage increase of global renewable capacity growth translates to actual clean energy generated and use, is anyone’s guess. 

Chart showing the Top 10 GreenHouse Gas Emitters | Photo Credit: World Resources Institute

To give some perspective, the top three greenhouse gas emitters — China, the European Union and the US, contribute 41.5 per cent of total global emissions while the bottom 100 countries contribute just 3.6 per cent. 

In fact, Russia and the US are not pulling their weight at all, considering the 2,119,432 kilotons and 6,558,345 kilotons of greenhouse gases emitted respectively in 2019, according to the United Nations Greenhouse Gas Inventory Data

As National Geographic identifies in a partnership with the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States are “barely trying” to ramp up their efforts in tackling climate change. 

The bleak reality is, if the top emitters do little to nothing, the efforts of the others won’t matter. 

Moreover, the CAT reported that countries have ceased in efforts to advance further with the commitments they have made since COP26. The Glasgow Pact requires countries to update their national 2030 climate targets in 2022, but 180 have not. 

In other words, the world is still on track to hit the deadly two degree increase. Worse still, the CAT estimates an overshoot to “2.4 [degrees C] with 2030 targets and even higher, 2.7 [degrees C], with current policies”.  

The Feasibility of Clean Energy

The basics of problem solving are: identifying the problem, coming up with a solution and implementing it — ta-da, problem solved! 

In this case, the root problem of climate change is the increasing amount of greenhouse gases in the air that is trapping the sun’s ultraviolet rays in the earth’s atmosphere causing the unescape heat to increase temperatures. Therefore, the solution should revolve around removing this excess amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by limiting its output.

But why does this solution seem so difficult to achieve? 

In theory, clean energy would be a solution to limiting the output of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Assuming that the entire world shifts over from fossil fuels to clean energy sources, this would decrease the output of greenhouse gases. 

Yet, this possibility weighs heavily on a few factors: the world’s capacity and infrastructure for clean energy; and commitment and coordination from big greenhouse emitters — both countries and industries — to make the switch. 

Clean energy requires an updated infrastructure, unlike fossil fuel and nuclear plants, which not all countries are ready to be equipped with or have. 

As illustrated in a YouTube video titled “Why the US isn’t ready for clean energy”, Vox referenced Vermont as one of the greenest grids in the US with two-thirds of their electricity coming from renewable energy sources. However, even though they aimed for 75 per cent of their energy sources coming from renewable energy, a new solar project was declined because the power grid capacity reached its maximum power wattage. 

Clean energy sources are also inherently inconsistent and unpredictable, think solar and wind power, which increases the difficulty in producing energy on demand.

The solution lies in obtaining a stable supply of energy through the use of efficient battery storage systems. Thankfully, today’s technological advancements are in the process of minimising the issues of longevity and the battery capacity. 

Additionally, government intervention can help ease infrastructure and capacity issues by implementing policies, subsidies or grants. Fossil fuels monopolise current energy markets and huge upheavals to the current system have to be done to make way for renewable energy.

Breakdown of energy consumption by source in 2019. | Photo Credit: Our World In Data

Both the public and private sector have to work together in tandem to escape from the claws of fossil fuels. Which is where another hurdle comes in. 

A recent ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’ episode unveiled just how duplicitous private corporations can be about their green efforts. Carbon offsets are the popular and preferred solution because it allows corporations to operate with the current level of carbon emissions. 

This would not be as big of a problem if clean energy is a robust and thriving industry, but as established thus far — it is not. 

Therefore, even though clean energy theoretically be the most fitting solution to end greenhouse gas emissions, there are significant hurdles that have to be overcomed for it to be a viable solution. 

Can clean energy tackle existing problems?

Lest we forget, clean energy is only half of the solution — reducing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted. But what about the greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere? 

Clean energy has no role in that, which is arguably the biggest shortcoming. The effects of climate change are felt now because of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today. 

Even in the highly unlikely event of the entire world shifting to clean energy today, the climate crisis remains the same due to the existing amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. 

Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are naturally regulated through the carbon cycle in terms of sources (adding carbon) and sinks (removing carbon). When this system is unbalanced, we get the current climate crisis. 

Two important sinks are the oceans and the forests, which remove half of the carbon humans add to the atmosphere. 

However, rising ocean temperatures and increasing water pollution, coupled with more forest fires and rapid rates of deforestation, have made these two safety nets more like cut up pieces of rope. 

Due the seductive nature of money has made the health of the planet a low priority, the Amazon — which accounts for half of the remaining forests on earth is crucial to stabilising the global climate — is getting deforested at the highest rate in six years

Amazon rainforest deforestation: The Amazon is in trouble. Again. - Vox
Destruction of the Amazon Rainforest. | Photo Credit: Vox

On the oceanfront, things are not great either. Currently, the ocean stores fifty times more carbon than the atmosphere, resulting in a thirty per cent increase of ocean acidification compared to preindustrial levels. 

Bleached coral
New mass bleaching event of the Great Barrier Reef. | Photo Credit: BBC

Not only does this damage the ocean’s environment and biodiversity, it also affects the ocean’s efficiency of absorbing carbon. Rising water temperatures also affect the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon

As such, with rising ocean temperatures and increasing water pollution in oceans, coupled with more forest fires and rapid rates of deforestation, these two safety nets are now more like cut up pieces of rope. 

The Verdict

The bad news keeps rolling in: no, clean energy is too good to be true. 

As the renewable energy industry grows, so does the waste it produces: 43 million tonnes of wind turbine blade waste by 2050; 2 million tonnes of lithium-ion battery waste annually by 2030; and 78 million tonnes of solar panel waste by 2050. 

Pieces of wind turbine blades in a landfill in Wyoming.
Landfill of wind turbine waste. | Photo Credit: American Chemical Society

Even though alternative clean energy sources have been proven to be more cost-effective than fossil fuels, it simultaneously creates problems with the reusing and recycling the components. Most of the components of clean energy sources like the wind turbine blades will end up in landfills or incinerators. 

And the bad news intensifies: the renewable energy sector is an industrial material maximalist. To make one wind turbine, large quantities of steel, iron, fibreglass, copper and aluminium are needed. Clean energy needs fossil fuel energy to make it work.

Governments should have remained committed to clean energy decades ago if they wanted this to work. 

Nevertheless, I do admit that clean energy is still part of a fundamental approach to tackle climate change and pave the way for sustainable and green development. 

The key is to remain committed. 

With the current geopolitical turmoils and conflict, world governments have an added incentive to pivot to clean energy to bolster energy resilience. The current Russian-Ukraine war has threatened European energy’s normal, resulting in increased prices and energy instability. 

Decades ago, the hole in the ozone layer was the climate crisis then. But with a concerted and coordinated effort, governments illegalised chemicals damaging the ozone layer and companies switched over to non-toxic materials. As a result, the hole in the ozone layer is healing and is no longer considered a problem. 

There is hope: the world did it before, it can do it again. 

So, now what? 

The world has not yet reached the 1.5 degrees increase the Paris Agreement was trying to avoid. 

But a not so gentle reminder: global carbon dioxide emissions are at an all time high with the highest atmospheric concentration in more than three million years. 

Clean energy, despite its flaws, must not be abandoned. Countries and corporations must increase their commitment to actualise the dream of clean energy. Clean energy is the roadmap to redevelop the world and prevent a future climate crisis from happening. 

One third of Pakistan is under water: worst floods in more than a decade. | Photo Credit: The Straits Times

As for tackling the climate crisis now, governments need to invest in and set up infrastructure and solutions that will protect the people from extreme weather. From permanent shelters to house people in the case of typhoons, flooding and hurricanes, to boosting funding and providing state of the art technology to put out forest fires. 

The indulgent over-consumption behaviour celebrities and influencers promote have to go as well. Shifting the world’s wealthiest consumption patterns to be more sustainable and eco friendly could cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 70 per cent by 2050.  

Earth is in its endgame: the coach and players are still figuring out the game plan, the VIPs are enjoying the air conditioning and the gourmet catered food safely away in their exclusive box, and the fans on the bleachers are yelling at the team to do something, anything.

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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