Can We Live A Zero-Carbon, Zero-Extraction Lifestyle?
Alarmed by West Coast wildfires and Gulf Coast hurricanes, I decided to go carbon-free, and swore off resource extraction. News of Green Recovery coming out of COVID-19 signals we’ve reached a turning point. It’s time for decisive action.
We can agree that creating new jobs, going carbon-free and extraction-free are all necessary steps. We recognize the need to achieve sustainability. Anything less, by definition, is self-defeating.
But, sitting down to assess my new zero-carbon, zero-extraction lifestyle, I hit a few snags.
A full life-cycle cost analysis (LCA) of breakfast options revealed I’d be eating air. Not because food cannot be produced without fossil fuel inputs and metals — it can — but because, in the developed world, it isn’t. Today’s population lives on industrial processes.
Farms are worked with machines made of metal, rubber, plastic and glass, running on fossil fuel. Fertilizers are extracted from mines (phosphate, potassium) and natural gas (nitrogen). Food gets from farm to plate in fossil-powered vehicles. Even the plate is from a mine (ceramic), or oil (plastic).
Turning on my computer, I checked the research on life-cycle costs of renewable energy, and the sourcing of raw materials. Of course, the computer, the wires bringing power to it, the equipment producing the power, all the IT infrastructure came out of mines and oil wells. Even 10 percent of the world’s gold production goes into electronic devices; not to mention copper, nickel, aluminum, lead, lithium, cobalt, silica — and the list goes on. All non-renewable.
Materials aside, energy, itself, can be renewable. Right? Short story: it depends. Production in China, where the majority of the world’s solar panels are made, is mostly powered by coal. Solar panels, large batteries, even wind turbines can have a hefty “embedded” environmental footprint.
Daunting as these material and primary energy challenges are, we need to make this shift. We need to disrupt our dependence on fossil energy and on taking non-renewable materials out of the ground. That’s what Green Recovery is all about; recovery to restart the economy, and green to get it heading in the right direction. What’s so hard about that?
We hear calls to “divest from fossil fuels.” Worldwide, there are tens of trillions of dollars invested in the fossil fuel and extractive materials sectors. Divesting implies someone buys the assets and they remain in use — meaning no environmental benefit; or, the assets are abandoned and their value goes to zero — meaning economic catastrophe.
These investments are tied up in pension plans, sovereign wealth funds, bank balance sheets, millions of jobs, retirement income sources, and so on. The economy is a complex machine, and at present it runs (mostly) on oil and extraction industries.
Data, the internet, apps, tech companies, all create huge value in the economy, but they are secondary to energy and materials. Tech doesn’t work without those inputs.
Back to Earth with my aspiration to live zero-carbon and zero-extraction. How do we wean ourselves off energy sources, installed systems, business models, flows of power, materials, and money, that are so deeply tied into our modern way of life? Is there any hope for a Green Recovery? Yes, of course there is. We need a Green Recovery, but we need to get it right.
It’s not about “what.” Ultimately, sustainability is existential. It’s about “how.” And “how” is more complicated than is easily grasped. It will take all of us thinking and working together.
How do we cover the costs of employment displacement and churn? How do we protect the value of assets that are shifting out of use when the book value of those assets is central to our entire economy? How do we ensure the embedded footprint of new technologies is less than the value those technologies bring? How do we transition fast enough, but not too fast?
The Task Force for a Resilient Recovery has begun to plan the way, as described in their 58-page report, recommending a $55.4B federal investment in Green Recovery. It’s a good start. But, we’ll need a lot more investment and a lot more working together to sort through the challenges to get there, and to minimize our losses along the way.
Green Recovery and a sustainable economy are complex issues. We won’t make it without an absolutely massive, focused, collaborative effort. Are you in? If yes, the tools exist. It’s time we assess our investment options.