Opinion: Why Lomborg is Wrong

By Anders Lorenzen

As the world gathered on 22nd April to celebrate Earth Day, which in 2013 carried the message of climate change, people were encouraged to upload positive stories on social media. Danish provocateur and self  proclaimed sceptical environmentalist, Bjørn Lomborg, took a different approach. In a column on USA Today and later on Huff Post Live he claimed that green energy technologies are too expensive and energy inefficient, and we should frack more and reduce subsidies for renewable energy. I will try to tackle his points and clarify why I believe he is wrong on almost every single issue.

Lomborg had a big dig at renewable subsidies and said in an attack on Germany’s energy policies: “German taxpayers have poured $130 billion into subsidizing solar panels’’ he also made space for an attack on the electric car: “The electric car is even less efficient. Its production consumes a vast amount of fossil fuels, and mostly it utilizes fossil fuel electricity to be recharged’’.  First it’s nifty of Mr Lomborg to attack the renewable energy sector on the grounds of the subsidies it receives as it still only gets a fraction of what the fossil fuel industry gets. Millions and millions of taxpayers money goes towards subsidising the fossil fuel industry. There has been several calls to remove subsidies from the sector from prominent names such as US President Barack Obama and EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard. If such a thing were to happen, it would bring technologies like wind and solar very close to being competitive with fossil fuels. In fact, reports suggest that in India and Italy renewables are close to being cost competitive with fossil fuels, and all the time countries all over the world are reducing the cost of cleantech technologies. It’s also interesting that Lomborg has either missed or chosen to ignore that renewables every year increase in efficiency and more and more often breaks new output records, such as the wind power record output in Denmark which I wrote about in March. On electric cars, it’s no secret there is still a long way to go, but we have come a long way in the last decade. The possible mileage of electric cars keeps being extended, infrastructure moves forward with more charging stations and technology with less charging-time needed. On the carbon footprint of an electric car; the more clean energy we develop, the cleaner the electric car will be too.

Sustainable development
On Huff Post live Lomborg made the claim that to get poor people out of poverty and help countries develop, we need fossil fuels. Even though he acknowledges climate change and believes it’s manmade, thus believing it’s a problem, he nevertheless does not view it as a big problem, rather that it should come far down the urgency list. We should, according to him, be focusing more on aid and helping to deal with diseases in Africa for instance. It’s disappointing that someone who believes in climate change cannot see or chooses not to open their eyes to the havoc being caused in the developing world. The world’s largest desert, Africa’s Sahara, is rapidly expanding due to climate change and creates severe droughts, making the region drier and drier. This results in people having to give up their livelihood, both agriculture and livestock meaning that they can no longer feed their communities. Some people give up as a result of this. The loss of pride of not being able to feed your family as has been done for generations results in some cases in suicide, others tries to venture into the rapidly growing cities, desperately looking for work and finding some way to be able to provide for their families. But even if they succeed they will have only a fraction of what they had before. Our help to them should not be by providing fossil fuels that they can keep burning so climatic situations will worsen. Shell’s record in the Niger Delta region in Nigeria is abysmal, having driven people into poverty. Several localised oil spills polluted drinking water and stopped people being able to live off their local rivers. Lomborg does acknowledge the critical issue of clean drinking water: “Poor countries should have the same opportunity to develop — so they, too, can have clean drinking water and switch to cleaner energy sources’’  I’m intrigued what he means with cleaner energy sources, I can only think he must adhere to eradicating the dangerous kerosene lights which the UK charity, SolarAid, are doing some great work on; with their solar lights project. By stating that they want to eradicate kerosene lights and replace them with solar lights has enormous benefits, apart from reducing the risk of the deadly carbon monoxide pollution, it also provides several educational benefits and more easily lets people charge their mobile phones, which is the main communication method in Africa helping off grid communities to develop. We need, as Lomborg says, to help poorer countries get access to clean water, to help develop, but where I strongly disagree with Lomborg is that the route to doing this is via fossil fuels. We need to help local communities who are feeling the effect of climate change; which is stronger than we can imagine in the developing world. Projects like tree-planting projects that slows desertification and to protect people from climate change is just as vital as clean water projects. On a development front we need to pay high priority to projects which help communities with local decentralised renewable energy projects that are key to their development.

The one area where I did agree with Lomborg was on green innovation, though only partly, he said: “We need to invest more in long-term research and development for green innovation’’ I don’t think any green advocate can disagree with that, but then he went on to say: “This would be much cheaper than current environmental policies and would end up doing more good for the climate’’. That is where he gets it wrong again. There is no doubt we have to be innovative; coming up with new green technologies and building on existing ones, but that we should stop deploying what we have now is simply utter rubbish. The challenge is to make sure new emerging technologies get the support they need so they don’t die. Technologies like wave and tidal power, biomass from algae and figuring out how we can use waste heat are just some exciting ideas we need to continue to contribute funding, and which could become the energy source of tomorrow. But today, we need to keep deploying renewable technologies like solar, wind and geothermal on a mass scale while investing in making those technologies more efficient.

China gets a lot of bad press on its green record and Lomborg makes no exception here stating: If we could make solar panels 2.0 or 3.0 cheaper than fossil fuels, we could get everyone, including the Chinese and Indians, on board for a greener future.’’  China has now officially overtaken the US as the planets biggest CO2 emitter, but they’re also the most populated country in the world with around 1.3 billion people and per capita they emit a lot less than the world’s second biggest CO2 emitter, the US. On the plus side, China are also leading on the world front for clean energy installations, a title it has also taken over from the US and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Furthermore, it’s starting to introduce carbon taxes in some of it states and is planning to implement a carbon tax covering the whole country within the next few years. This is more than you can say for the US, that even though an Emission Trade Scheme (ETS) is now up and running in California, with a Republican controlled House of Representatives, it remains very unlikely that Obama will get a carbon tax through that covers all of the country as the majority of Republicans oppose it. It’s a gross misrepresentation that China is not on board with a green future – they are.

Are we there yet?

Lomborg is right when he says that investments in renewable energy have so far not reduced CO2 emissions, in fact emissions are rising faster than ever before and last week we reached the milestone of 400 parts per million (PPM) recorded in the atmosphere which no humans have ever experienced before. But rather than criticising renewable energy in itself, it would be more fitting to critically address our economic model of a carbon economy which results in us extracting more and more fossil fuels. The task we need to do is simple: we need to stop extracting fossil fuels and leave them in the ground.

Sub edited by Charlotte Paton

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