Daily life is now laced with a palpable sense of fear for the planet’s future. This sense remains relatively new. Just a few years back, the climate crisis sat on the periphery of mainstream media. True, you would have been hard-pushed to find someone who was not at the very least somewhat aware of the topics of global warming, pollution, carbon footprints and their risks – but, these days, the subject is largely unavoidable. It dominates headlines even when the world is in the grips of another crisis – although, admittedly, these crises often share their own links with global warming.
From natural disasters – flooding, snowstorms, and hurricanes – to the biggest headliner in recent history – the Coronavirus – all roads lead back to human life, and its untenable ways.
There is, unfortunately, very little that the average individual can do. Governments, corporations and businesses are feeling pressurised to put forth solutions – but, as is growing increasingly obvious, so much is swayed by the drive toward profit, market dominance, and a willingness to sacrifice long-term successes for short-term gains.
As such, many of the solutions that are being put forth are not as they appear to be. They offer false promises and reassurances in place of progress, and need to be hindered wherever possible.
This is a subject we have touched upon frequently since the government unveiled plans to construct a new ‘Sizewell C’ power plant in Suffolk. Despite significant pushback from locals and climate action groups across the UK, work has begun to move forward.
The UK isn’t the only country looking to expand its nuclear power capacity. A year on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, governments are still scrambling to sever their dependence on the country’s significant fossil fuel exports, and diminish the risk posed by prolonged conflict.
In that regard, nuclear energy offers more stability than fossil fuels like oil and gas, but the trouble stems from governments’ eagerness to pose nuclear fission as a sustainable alternative – one that will help countries take significant steps toward their net-zero carbon target.
Unfortunately, nuclear power is far from sustainable. Compared with renewable energies like wind, wave, and at-home and commercial solar, the carbon footprint is significant – not to mention the risks posed by active nuclear plants, which are well-documented. From uranium extraction to toxic waste, posing nuclear as the key to a healthy and sustainable is simply indefensible. Nevertheless, it was recently announced that nuclear power would receive a green status in the UK – something that will usher in a new age of investment into nuclear power. The UK is at risk of seeing many more developments unveiled over the coming years.
For businesses, the solution to the spiralling climate crisis is relatively simple: reduce carbon emissions wherever possible, and invest more into restorative technologies and projects like soil regeneration, tree planting, and renewable energies.
Of course, the reality is trickier than that – companies still need to turn a profit in order to survive, after all, and allocating time and resources without harming the bottom line is a tricky balancing act.
It’s no surprise, then, that some companies are looking to the simpler alternative – the path of least resistance, that enables them to continue on without disruption while still being able to demonstrate a stronger sense of social responsibility without flat-out lying to customers.
In this instance, the ‘path of least resistance’ appears in the form of carbon credits. Rather than actively reducing their own carbon emissions, companies can ‘buy’ a permit for carbon production in the form of credits. These credits will ideally decrease over time, meaning companies need to work gradually toward lower emissions.
Defendants claim just that – that carbon credits actively contribute toward lowering carbon emissions – but doubt has been cast over their ability to make a positive difference.
The term ‘phantom credits’ has attached itself to one of the world’s biggest certifiers, Verra. Investigation made by the Guardian, Die Zeit and SourceMaterial found that almost 95% of Verra’s credits did not benefit to the climate, and that projects were infringing on human rights.
The benefits of recycling – of reducing the daily influx of non-compostable and, at times, toxic waste making its way into the world’s oceans – need no introduction, and plenty of initiatives have been undertaken to minimise an individual’s impact on the environment.
However, this area is not without its false promises. The term ‘bioplastics’ itself is a vague term with no specific definition. It’s akin to those common marketing buzzwords – ‘natural’, ‘environmentally friendly’, and ‘conscious’.
But numerous studies have discovered toxic chemicals in a long list of bioplastics. What’s more, a single ‘bioplastic’ single-use cup, for instance, is likely to have a significant carbon footprint. Creating bioplastic is an energy- and resource-intensive process – one that may, by some estimates, be doing more harm than the production of standard, single-use plastics.
Carbon Capture, Use, and Storage (CCUS)
This is, perhaps, one of the most noteworthy examples we have of the energy sector seeking to profit off of their own carbon footprint.
Put simply, it is the practice of using captured carbon (carbon emitted by the industry’s oil giants, during extraction) to aid in enhanced oil recovery – a practice that requires large amounts of CO2 to be pumped into near-depleted oil wells, in order for further oil to be extracted.
This was not how it was presented to the public, however. Oil companies merely stated that, with public funding, they would work to capture their own CO2 emissions and prevent them from leaking out into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.
The practice was first introduced in the 1970s, but remains a significant problem today – and offers all the proof we need of the industry’s interest (or lack thereof) in protecting the planet from its own damaging practices.
This is a topic we covered recently, and has one of the most direct impacts on consumers looking to do their bit for environmental reform. Companies looking to take advantage of the large (and growing) demographic of consumers who want to make more ethical, eco-conscious choices – and who are willing to invest more in order to make those choices – are taking advantage of a wide range of vague terms, marketing ploys, and rebrands that hint toward a heightened sense of social responsibility, without the legwork or investment.
You can read more about greenwashing here.
Fracking has seen its fair share of the spotlight in recent years. It is the practice of capturing natural gas buried deep underground by means of highly pressurised ‘injections’ of liquid.
If that sounds like a risky endeavour, you’d be right. Nonetheless, fracking has made a considerable mark on the landscape in recent years – and the government has remained relatively taciturn on the risks voiced by many groups and individuals. Tens of thousands of wells have been erected in the UK alone in a bid to collect useful natural gases like methane.
The proposed benefits are cheaper gas and better employment opportunities.
But fracking can easily pollute water supplies, and its ability to ‘unlock’ massive amounts of cheap, natural gas threatens to derail the shift toward renewable technologies. It means that the focus remains on fossil fuels, and depleting natural resources of potential pollutants, rather than investing those millions into increasing the UK’s capacity for sustainable energy production.
Given the fact that technologies like solar PV are far less impactful on the environment and work by harvesting a free, infinitely available, and non-toxic source of energy, it is baffling to an outsider why the government would so doggedly pursue fracking over its healthy alternatives.
How Do We Spot False Solutions?
False solutions come in many forms, as evidence by the different projects and technologies listed above. False solutions often seem too good to be true – but that doesn’t prove a useful yardstick when plenty of genuinely useful solutions are also able to make big promises.
False solutions so often come in the form of ‘alternative alternatives’. By now, we all know the cornerstones of a green recovery. Renewable energy derived from solar, wind, wave, and biothermal technologies need to replace our dependence on fossil fuels. Resources derived closer to home must be used more wherever possible. Single-use must be avoided as much as is realistic. Nature must be supported in healing.
So many of the false solutions seem to have been dreamed-up in an attempt to avoid these simple solutions. The government, in their move toward nuclear energy, have failed to put forth a compelling argument as to why it is superior to the many truly sustainable alternatives.
They also depend upon terms that have no clear meaning. ‘Net zero’ carbon emissions is not the same as ‘zero’ carbon emissions, for instance – but, to the layperson, what does it mean? Bioplastics is a portmanteau that makes use of a popular buzzword in (supposedly) green circles.
There will always be ways of cutting to the core of supposed solutions to the climate crisis – but, for that, we need to remain open-minded to counter-arguments, and focused intently on the technologies and solutions that, by now, we all definitively know to work.