Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Lomborg – Right Analysis, Wrong Conclusions

Economic Times carried an article by Bjorn Lomborg on 3rd August 2010. This is my response to it, sent to ET, but I am not sure if they will carry it or not.

Bjorn Lomborg’s Affordable Green Energy (Guest Column, ET 2 August 2010 correctly brings out the seriousness of the climate change problem and the enormous difficulty of tackling it. He points out how we would have to build many nuclear plants, several hydro power plants the size of Three Gorges and a vast array of other generating stations every year to replace the carbon emitting power generation by “clean” power.

While his analysis is correct, his prescription is widely off the mark. His advocacy of investing money to bring down prices of solar and other renewables is by itself faultless. However, the underlying assumption that is that this (ultra) cheap solar energy will allow us to replace the coal based electricity and maintain the same level of energy consumption. This is the fatal flaw in his prescription. The reality is that any energy source has an ecological (and livelihood) footprint. Any energy source – over its life cycle – will have an impact on the environment. In some cases this will be terribly destructive, and in other cases, it would be more benign. However, the cumulative impact of millions of benign cases can itself add up to be terrible. A small hydro plant is far less impacting than a massive dam, but if one builds a thousand small hydro in a single basin, the ecology of the basin and livelihoods of the people there would be severely impacted.

The same will hold at the global level for energy sources like solar. For example, a huge solar array say in the desert (a typical scenario often advanced) could suck up the energy in that locality, creating an “energy vaccum” or a “energy depression”. This could lead to changes in the atmospheric pressures, wind directions, speeds etc. We don’t know the consequences yet of large scale disruptions to the global solar energy flux.

So even if Lomborg’s idea of making solar ultra cheap is realised, we may escape the impact of climate changing carbon emissions, but are sure to end up with other, hitherto unforeseen impacts. The simple logic is that while the planet’s environment - a complex and till a few centuries back, a balanced system – can take relatively small interventions without losing the equilibrium, interventions on a massive scale can destabilise it.

This is not to argue against making solar and other sources cheap. This is indispensable in any case. But the real – and only solution is to cut down on the total consumption of energy – and then also have cheap and more benign sources like solar. If we want that countries like the US continue with electricity consumption of 13,000 KWH per capita per year (India is 550) and 7800 kg oil equivalent of total energy per capita per year (India 439) – already the burden on the environment is unbearable. If we want others (India, Asia, Africa) to have a chance to better their levels of energy consumption, then we can only imagine the huge amounts of generation that will be required. Even if these were to come from solar, it would still cause massive disturbances to the environment. In sum, we cannot move towards a solution to the climate crisis until the countries like US and others cut down their consumption (remember, billions of their fellow human beings are living with much lesser consumption of energy, minerals, metals etc), in the process creating space for others to move a little higher up on the scale, but still keeping in mind that they too would have to set limits to how much energy they can consume. Only when this fundamental restructuring is in place will other solutions like cheap solar be meaningful.

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