The Green Energy Revolution Is Exciting - but Don't Forget the Pollution!
Boading, dubbed China's 'greenest city', is the world's biggest maker of solar panels and wind turbines, write Caleb Goods & Carla Lipsig-Mumme. But it's also has the country's worst pollution. Green energy, electric cars and the batteries that power them are great, but with the heavy toxic footprint they carry from mine to factory, we must not delude ourselves that they are 'sustainable'.
The Green Energy Revolution Is Exciting - but Don't Forget the Pollution!
By Caleb Goods and Carla Lipsig-Mumme / theecologist.org

The recent unveiling by Tesla founder Elon Musk of the low-cost Powerwall storage battery is the latest in a series of exciting advances in battery technologies for electric cars and domestic electricity generation.

We have also seen the development of an aluminium-ion battery that may be safer, lighter and cheaper than the lithium-ion batteries used by Tesla and most other auto and technology companies.

These advances are exciting for two main reasons. First, the cost of energy storage, in the form of batteries, is decreasing significantly. This makes electric vehicle ownership and home energy storage much more attainable.

The second, related reason is that these cheaper green technologies may make the transition to a greener economy easier and faster than we have so far imagined (although, as has been recently pointed out on The Conversation, these technologies are only one piece of the overall energy puzzle).

Beware the industrial option

These technological advances, and much of the excitement around them, lend themselves to the idea that solving environmental problems such as climate change is primarily a case of technological adjustment.

But this approach encourages a strategy of 'superindustrialisation', in which technology and industry are brought to bear to resolve climate change, through resource efficiency, waste reduction and pollution control. In this context, the green economy is presented as an inevitable green technological economic wave.

But the prospect of this green economic wave needs to be considered within a wider environmental and social context, which makes solving the problems much more complex. Let's take electric vehicles as an example.

The ecological damage of cars, electric or otherwise, is partly due to the fact that the car industry generates more than 3 million tonnes of scrap and waste every year. In 2009, 14 million cars were scrapped in the United States alone.

The number of cars operating in the world is expected to climb from the current 896 million to 1.2 billion by 2020. The infrastructure associated with growing vehicle use, particularly roads, also makes a significant contribution to the destruction of ecosystems and arguably has important social costs.

Are electric vehicles 'better enough'?

Electric vehicles (EVs) offer a substantial greenhouse gas emission improvement from the internal combustion engine. However, this improvement depends on green electricity production.

An EV powered by average European electricity production is likely to reduce a vehicle's global warming potential by about 20% over its life cycle. This is not insignificant, but it is nowhere near a zero-emission option.

In large part, the life-cycle emissions of an electric vehicle are due to the energy-intensive nature of battery production and the associated mining processes. Indeed, there are questions around battery production and resource depletion, but perhaps more concerning is the impact that mining lithium and other materials for the growing battery economy, such as graphite, will have on the health of workers and communities involved in this global production network.

Processes associated with lithium batteries may produce adverse respiratory, pulmonary and neurological health impacts. Pollution from graphite mining in China has resulted in reports of 'graphite rain', which is significantly impacting local air and water quality.

The production of green technologies creates many interesting contradictions between environmental benefits at the point of use, versus human and environmental costs at the production end.

Baoding, a Chinese city southwest of Beijing, has been labelled the greenest city in the world or the world's only carbon-positive city. This is because Boading produces enormous quantities of wind turbines and solar cells for the United States and Europe, and has about 170 alternative energy companies based there.

But last year the air in the city of Baoding was declared to be the most polluted in China - a country where air quality reportedly contributes to 1.2 million deaths each year. These impacts need to be placed into any discussion or policy frameworks when exploring the shift to a 'greener' future.

Beware new problems from new solutions

We should be excited about the shift to greener cars and affordable home electricity storage units, but in the process of starting to solve the technological challenges of climate change we must ensure that we are not creating environmental problems, particularly for the largely unseen workers and communities further up the production stream.

Our response to climate change needs to be more than just a technological adjustment. We argue that the shift to a green economy requires more transformative social political actions via skills and training, worker participation, and the coming together of environmental organisations, unions, business and government.

Indeed, the world of work is a critical site for emission reductions: 80% of Europe's carbon emissions are workplace-related.

As we adopt emerging greener technologies, we will have to look beyond our shiny new Powerwall, or the electric car parked on the front drive, to ensure that the environmental and social changes promised by green technologies are not just illusions.

 


 

Caleb Goods is Postdoctoral research fellow at York University, Canada.

Carla Lipsig-Mumme is Professor of Work and Labour Studies at York University, Canada.

4.0 ·
1
What's Next
Trending Today
Why Are Media Outlets Still Citing Discredited 'Fake News' Blacklist?
Adam Johnson · 7,787 views today · The Washington Post (11/24/16) last week published a front-page blockbuster that quickly went viral: Russia-promoted “fake news” had infiltrated the newsfeeds of 213 million...
93 Documentaries to Expand Your Consciousness
Films For Action · 6,660 views today · There are over 800 documentaries now cataloged in our library of social change films. That's probably way too many for any mortal to ever watch in a lifetime, let alone a few...
The Orwellian War on Skepticism
Robert Parry · 5,770 views today · Official Washington’s rush into an Orwellian future is well underway as political and media bigwigs move to silence Internet voices of independence and dissent, reports Robert...
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 4,833 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
Projext X: Using Leaked Documents to Reveal the NSA's New York Spy Hub, Hidden in Plain Sight
10 min · 3,935 views today · A top-secret handbook takes viewers on an undercover journey to Titanpointe, the site of a hidden partnership. Narrated by Rami Malek and Michelle Williams, and based on...
Where Do You Draw the Line? (2016)
60 min · 3,025 views today · Why is the Ecuadorian government proposing to extract oil in an area frequently classified by ecologists as one of the most bio-diverse rainforest regions left intact on earth?...
Twelve Things To Remember After The US Election, From Front Line Organizers
Bill Quigley · 2,132 views today · When you find yourself in a suddenly darkened room, what do you do?   Some rush blindly to where they think the door might be.  Others stand still, let their eyes get...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,932 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Social Media Echo Chambers: Here's How Most of Us are Living in One
2 min · 1,681 views today · Americans are blocking out the friends and news sites that won't confirm their views.
Law Professor's Epic Response to Black Lives Matter Shirt Complaint
Social Design Notes · 1,264 views today · A first year law school student wrote a complaint about her professor having worn a Black Lives Matter T-shirt during class. The professor’s response is priceless. Scans of...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,169 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,028 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 787 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
This Short Film Plays Out Like an Epic Movie That Will Shake Your Soul - But the Movie Is Real, and We are The Actors
6 min · 723 views today · For next year, we need a resolution capable of confronting the crisis we face, and making a future worth fighting for. This short film looks back on the crisis and confusion...
Why We Need Big Picture Activism
Helena Norberg-Hodge · 569 views today · Despite the countless grassroots projects already under way, the global economic juggernaut can seem too powerful to stop. But because more and more of us are becoming aware of...
How a Land High in the Western Himalayas Can Help Us Understand The Crisis of The Modern World
9 min · 456 views today · This is a clip from The Economics of Happiness. Watch it here. It's a brilliant film that was easy to put at the top of our list of the top 100 documentaries we can use to...
Dreaming Beyond Capitalism: a Culture Without Fear
Martin Winiecki · 410 views today · In the 1990s an unusual encounter took place in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In plant rituals, shamans of the Achuar, a tribe living in pristine forest that had never been in touch...
The 6 Grand Illusions That Keep Us Enslaved
Sigmund Fraud · 365 views today · For a magician to fool his audience his deceit must go unseen, and to this end he crafts an illusion to avert attention from reality. While the audience is entranced, the...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 343 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 318 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
The Green Energy Revolution Is Exciting - but Don't Forget the Pollution!