Greta Thunberg must do more than cry platitudes
Yuriy Humber is president of Yuri Group and founder of the Japan NRG platform, which publishes weekly reports on the state of energy and electricity in Japan.
When the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its grim report on the state of our environment last month, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg lamented the continued procrastination of world leaders, saying that ” the only thing that changes is the climate “.
As the 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change, or COP26, to be held in Glasgow in November approaches, voices like Thunberg are demanding immediate drastic action. Going through a crisis, she says, “everything can change overnight.”
While many of us share the goal of a healthy environment, Thunberg’s well-meaning reasoning is at best misleading and at worst harmful, eliciting makeshift emotional responses that make people demand actions without accepting them. consequences.
Would you like to shut down all power plants that run on fossil fuels today? The answer to this question could be a simple “yes”.
If this question became: would you accept as a condition for shutting down fossil fuel power plants today that at least one of your relatives loses his job; that you will only have access to electricity for part of the day; and your utility bills will double, the answer may not be that simple.
Such a disruption is expected to last for at least a decade before a new energy system is put in place. Not easy, especially after the COVID pandemic revealed that most people have a limited appetite for hardship, especially those that would literally cost lives and put millions of people in poverty.
Some might say that this takes Thunberg’s comments too literally. Maybe she doesn’t really mean “overnight”. Yet the kind of rapid change demanded by some politicians, activists and social leaders is tantamount to overnight for our energy systems.
Take Japan’s latest energy strategy, which foresees a doubling of renewables in the electricity mix to 38% within nine years. It is an ambitious goal.
Yet it has been criticized as insufficient by those demanding that Japan quickly shut down all of its coal and nuclear power plants and source electricity from renewables by 2030.
Closing all coal, oil and nuclear power plants would remove the source of more than 50% of Japan’s electricity. That would inevitably lead to the burning of a lot of gas, another fossil fuel, or blackouts – exactly the scenario analysts fear for Germany next year once it shuts down the last of its nuclear power plants.
Based on current knowledge, replacing all thermal and nuclear capacities with renewable energies within nine years to 2030 is implausible. So why set yourself a goal that will surely fail?
A relatively quick source of green energy to install would be solar power, and it will clearly play a role in decarbonizing Japan. However, the country already has more solar panels per square meter than anywhere else. Such congestion has led to an increasing number of localities limiting other solar projects.
This doesn’t mean we have to keep coal forever, but better energy solutions will take decades to scale up. The advantage of such a gradual change is that it avoids waste. If we had gone completely solar at the turn of this century, our earth would be several times more cluttered with less efficient panels. The gradual transition saves time for improvements.
Today’s land constraints are pushing innovation to discover thinner, smaller, and lighter solar panels that can be applied to walls, cars, and other untapped spaces. There has been a huge leap in battery technology over the past few years, as the development of a global hydrogen economy began in earnest just over a year ago. Scientists made a breakthrough in the production of electricity from nuclear fusion last month.
A fantastic race is on to discover the best sources of clean energy, with the price at which technology will power our future ships, planes, factories and even cars yet to be won. There is also more research than ever to verify if these solutions are as green as they claim.
More than 50 countries have now signed up to decarbonization and most have unveiled draft roadmaps. Several countries have gone so far as to enshrine this objective in law. But Thunberg says that “basically nothing has changed.”
There is nothing wrong with instilling a sense of measured urgency. But surely the pandemic has debunked the myth that we work best during crises and have to be in crisis mode to achieve our goals.
Changing our energy systems in a sustainable and inclusive way is closer to training for an Olympic gold than responding to an emergency call. It takes daily and sustained concentration over extremely long periods of time.
To continue, we need to set realistic goals and create the positive reinforcement that will accompany reaching those goals. Let’s not promise ourselves that we can solve climate change overnight and then wallow in nihilism when we don’t.
Thunberg says the world has let its generation down. For the climate to remain habitable, many generations, including its own, will have to play their part. Being angry shouldn’t be their only contribution.