What is Dirty Energy?

By: 
Institute for Policy Studies and International Rivers
Date: 
Monday, May 12, 2014

The Green Climate Fund must be a vehicle for a fundamental shift in global energy lending to ensure a transformation to low-carbon and climate-resilient energy sources that are universally accessible for all people by 2030. We call on the Green Climate Fund not to finance dirty energy. But what in fact is dirty energy? The primer that follows will help you understand what dirty energy actually is, and what the Green Climate Fund should exclude from its support.

Keep the Fossils in the Ground

In 2012, environmentalist Bill McKibben caused a stir when he revealed the “terrifying new math” of climate change. He calculated that to have a reasonable chance of staying below what climate scientists call the “tipping point” of global warming — a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels — humans can only send 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution into the atmosphere. 

Here’s the catch: The oil, coal and gas reserves currently listed on fossil fuel companies and many governments books account for about 2,795 gigatons of CO2. If they dig up — and we burn — those reserves, we’ll release five times more carbon than the atmosphere can handle.

In addition to the climate impacts of fossil fuels, co-pollutants from extracting, refining and burning coal and oil seriously threaten public health, and we’re only just learning the consequences of air and water pollution from natural gas fracking.

The fossil fuel industry is pushing the idea that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) – pumping CO2 emissions back into the earth – is a way to address climate and still burn coal and oil. But the technology has never been proven at commercial scale and may never be technically feasible. There are significant environmental risks such as leakage, and would require hundreds of miles of pipelines to send carbon to underground reservoirs.

CCS is so expensive that even the government of Norway has abandoned its effort to build a commercially viable CCS system.

Building “carbon capture ready” stations with GCF would impose unacceptable financial risks to the fund and developing country governments, who may be compelled to foot the bill for any future CCS retrofit. With limited resources, public finance is better spent on truly clean energy.

And more importantly, CCS doesn’t address the environmental and health impacts of fossil fuel extraction or clean up pollutants like SOx, NOx and mercury that are released from burning fossil fuels.

Don't Destroy the Earth's Arteries to Save her Lungs

The world's freshwater rivers and lakes are the ecosystem most threatened by species extinction due to the compound effects of destructive dams and global warming. By disrupting natural flows, dams block sediments from reaching wetlands, forests, coastal estuaries, and oceans, preventing them from being replenished by the nutrients ecosystems need to absorb carbon.

The reservoirs behind dams also generate emissions of methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas that is 25 times as potent as CO2. In the case of shallow, tropical reservoirs, these emissions can do more to cause climate change than equivalent coal power plants.

Sinking large investments into centralized mega-dams to provide electricity to the grid also increases countries' vulnerability to climate change. In times of drought, reservoirs will shrink, and electricity shortages will be common. Decentralized, distributed, and diversified portfolios of energy projects are more climate resilient than the large dams of the past.

Nuclear power – Expensive, Dirty and Dangerous [1]

Nuclear energy is far from the ‘clean’ source its advocates claim. After 60 years of commercial operations, there is still no solution for dealing with high-level waste and spent fuel rods, which provide a toxic legacy for up to a million years.

Uranium mining also produces huge quantities of waste and serious water pollution, affecting the environment and livelihoods of local communities and, in many cases, Indigenous Peoples.

The expansion of nuclear power would contribute to further proliferation of nuclear weapons materials, set society up for more Fukushima-scale accidents, and squander resources needed to implement meaningful climate action.

Nuclear energy is also expensive – even more expensive than wind power by some estimates – despite being subsidized with hundreds of billions of dollars by governments. Investment in energy is would be much better spent on energy efficiency and safe renewable energy sources.

Bioenergy is a Bad Bet

While bioenergy – typically produced from agricultural crops like corn, sugar cane, palm oil, soybeans and rapeseed – can theoretically generate less greenhouse gas pollution than conventional fossil fuels, in practice they can cause serious environmental problems and hurt poor people.

When crops that are traditionally grown as food are used instead for the production of energy, there’s an increased demand for these crops, and their prices go up. Consumers have to pay more for food, and when families living in poverty don’t have the money, they go hungry.

High prices also incentivize farmers and multinational companies to convert forestland for crop production. In countries where land is relatively cheap, regulation is lax, and there are large areas that can be converted into monoculture plantations – particularly in the tropics - bioenergy is fueling deforestation and land grabs. Destruction of forests contributes not only to the release of climate pollution, but also to community displacement, increasing poverty and ecosystem destruction.

Don’t Trash Our Future

Some incinerator companies are trying to make the case that burning municipal solid waste, garden waste, wood, agricultural biomass, and waste by-products like refuse-derived-fuels to generate electricity or as alternative to fossil fuels in cement production, bioenergy production plants, chemical industry, or any other industrial process is good for the environment.

But burning trash to make energy – called ‘waste-to-energy’ by proponents – is anything but clean. Incinerating waste actually wastes energy and requires the constant use of energy and raw materials to fuel an unsustainable one-way production and consumption system.

By burning materials that could be reused, recycled, or composted, incinerators destroy the energy-saving potential of putting those materials to better use. Recycling, for instance, saves 3 to 5 times the energy that waste incinerator power plants generate. Incinerators are also net energy losers when the embodied energy of the burned materials is taken into account. And waste-to-energy trash incinerators release lead and mercury at a greater rate than some coal-fired plants.

[1] Friends of the Earth. http://www.foei.org/en/good-energy-bad-energy

*Co-authored with Janet Redman and Oscar Reyes of Institute for Policy Studies

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