Green progress is hitting roadblocks


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

As always, solving one set of problems inevitably gives rise to new and unforeseen challenges. Solar-generated power, which in recent years has become the fastest growing energy source, is running up against the barrier of how to store, transmit and efficiently utilize all that captured sunlight when and where it is needed. The boom of electric car sales is setting off a worldwide scramble for minerals like tin, tungsten and coltan which, among other things, are used in lithium-ion batteries to improve efficiency and durability. Along with cobalt, they are the “oil” of the renewable energy age.

During the centuries-long course of industrialization, the external costs of environmental destruction were not registered on the balance sheet of progress. Now ecological reparation is generating its own externalities, not least of which is the disruption of local livelihoods entailed by cleaning up the planet. For deep ecologists, even the successful integration of the language of “sustainability” into the lexicon of growth turns out to have limited value, as the integral diversity of our ecosystems remain in peril.

To mark the anniversary of the birth of the environmental movement on Earth Day nearly a half-century ago, The WorldPost this week examines these issues with a look around the world, from China to Chile to Congo. We also evaluate the present state and future promise of renewable energy, which is supplanting the oil addiction of the past.

Varun Sivaram knows that solar energy at the global scale “is essential to slash emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases and avert catastrophic climate change.” But he worries that the accelerating dominance of the industry may be getting ahead of itself and undermining its prospects.

“There are troubling early signs that the increasingly powerful solar energy industry and its coalition of allies might not push for the policies needed for solar and other clean power sources to dominate future electricity systems,” he writes. “Factions in the solar industry are focused on policies that narrowly benefit firms in the near term, such as subsidies for deploying solar or trade barriers to prop up domestic manufacturing. And the industry’s political allies, such as environmental groups, often lobby against other clean sources of energy. But if the solar industry hopes to ensure that solar keeps growing — not just next year but for decades to come — it will need to shake up its advocacy and alliances and start supporting systemic policies to create a flexible and diverse energy system.”

Sivaram argues that the subsidies rightly lobbied for in the past that enabled the industry to take off are not only no longer needed in what has become a cost-competitive industry, but “can actually slow the cost declines of solar by distorting market price signals.” He also argues against trade barriers that would protect domestic industry but slow the spread of cost-competitive solar by raising costs for panels and their installation.

The new challenge for solar going forward, Sivaram further maintains, has less to do with production than with capacity for storage in batteries and the integrated flexibility of the transmission grid to maintain a reliable and timely supply. Finally, he calls on environmental groups to realistically recognize the need for a mixed clean energy supply, including from nuclear power plants.

From Kachuba in eastern Congo, Laura Kasinof reports first-hand on the rudimentary and exploitative conditions of Congolese miners who extract the minerals that are under increasing global demand for use in cellphones and computers, as well as for the batteries and solar panels of the renewable energy revolution. Though the U.S., the European Union and China have all sought to ensure only “conflict-free” minerals reach smelters and factories that make the components used in consumer products, the reality of certification on the ground, Kasinof says, is chaotic and patchy, if not fraudulent. “Much evidence points to the reality that minerals coming from mines controlled by militias are still making their way into the global market,” she concludes. A short video accompanies Kasinof’s report that telescopes her reporting and takes us inside the mines.

China’s newfound environmental awareness, backed up with strong policies, is rightly lauded around the world. Yet, the sudden and uneven shift toward an “ecological civilization” from a model of rapid industrial growth at all costs is not going to be an easy one as the consequent trade-offs become apparent.

Regular visitors to Beijing comment these days on how quickly the once familiar smog has given way to blue skies. That is largely due to the government capping the output of polluting steel factories in the greater capital region. Yet, it turns out that successful policy has only shifted production to other areas of the country that lack similar regulations, exporting pollution there and even boosting overall steel production.

On a more human scale, Lu Liu and Peter Mellgard report on the case of disgruntled garlic farmers in Dali, China. In a short video, several local residents tell the tale of President Xi Jinping’s pledge to clean up Erhai Lake, one of the country’s more scenic bodies of water that had become severely polluted by chemical runoff from local businesses and fertilizers used in the surrounding fields. To meet Xi’s pledge, garlic farming was partially banned in the area to stem contamination of the lake. Compensation to the farmers fell well below what they earned when growing garlic, and they now struggle just to make a living.

Former Patagonia CEO Kris Tompkins and conservationist Tim Butler call for a new turn toward deep ecology that goes beyond the now mainstream slogan of sustainability. “’Sustainability,’” they write from Puerto Varas, Chile, “may be a worthy goal, but the word has become cliché, now typically deployed in its adverbial form to modify various nature-exploiting activities like ‘logging’ and ‘fishing’ or the catch-all ‘development.’ So let’s quit talking about ‘sustainable’ this or that and face the overarching question about the future: Can we create a durable civilization in which humans become good neighbors in the community of life? Where our society is embedded in a matrix of wild nature that allows all creatures — from microorganisms to blue whales — freedom to pursue happiness and raise their progeny in a secure habitat?”

Tompkin and Butler’s answer to that question: “The path to that flourishing future for the diversity of life is ‘rewilding’ — helping nature heal by returning missing species and processes to parts of the planet where they’ve been eliminated or diminished by human activity.”

All these challenges are a positive sign that human civilization is making up with the ecosystem that nurtures it but to which we have done much damage. They are the kind of problems we should want to have because they arise only after we’ve gotten this far down the right path.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.