Capitalism’s fake solutions to the climate crisis

23 May 2021
Emma Black

“Net zero by 2050” (or 2060 in China’s case) has become the new mainstream political mantra on climate change. However, this ambitious-sounding, yet still far from adequate, goal is premised on a series of new technologies that remain untested at best and completely hypothetical at worst.

The name dropping of an array of these high-tech “solutions” to the climate crisis was a feature of US President Joe Biden’s Earth Day summit in April. Among those in which Biden has promised to invest US$35 billion as part of his proposed American Jobs Plan are carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, nuclear, floating offshore wind, biofuels and electric vehicles.

While the disappearance of the outright climate denialism of the Trump era might seem cause for celebration, the new trend for spruiking the magical power of technology to solve the climate crisis is cause for serious concern. When you look beyond the headline-grabbing announcements of increased long-term ambition, the Earth Day summit amounted to little more than another case of government greenwashing of the business as usual of fossil-fuelled capitalism.

Instead of detailing the changes to be made in the here and now to reduce emissions, Biden and other world leaders instead promoted faith in the capacity of science and technology to come to the rescue at an indeterminate point in the future.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was among them. While the media highlighted the supposed gulf between a progressive, “green” Biden and the conservative, fossil-fuel-loving Morrison, they both promoted the same faith in the powers of technology. Like Biden, Morrison has vowed to invest tens of billions of dollars in developing carbon capture and storage technologies, “clean” hydrogen, “blue” carbon and “green” steel—among other colourful innovations.

In May’s federal budget, the Coalition allocated more than half a billion dollars to developing the first two of these technologies—$263.7 million for carbon capture and storage (CCS) and $275.5 million for “clean” hydrogen.

CCS mostly involves capturing C02 emissions at their source—in mines, power stations and so on—and pumping them deep underground (so the theory goes) to be permanently stored in appropriately porous and stable rock formations. But despite politicians and business leaders spruiking CCS as an easy fix for the climate crisis for decades, it has never been shown to work on anything near the scale required.

Australia already boasts the world’s largest, supposedly functional, CCS facility at Chevron’s Gorgon gas project in Western Australia. However, according to the Climate Council, “the Gorgon CCS trial has been a big, expensive failure ... capturing less than half the emissions needed to make CCS viable”. In what is only the latest in a series of problems since it became operational in 2019, Michael Mazengarb reported in Renew Economy earlier this year that pumping equipment required to clear water from the undersea formation into which the C02 is to be injected had become clogged with sand.

However, while CCS may be useless for addressing climate change, it remains an extremely useful political tool for the government—providing it with green cover while it continues to funnel money to Coalition supporters in the coal and gas industries. And of course, it’s also useful for those companies on the receiving end of the government’s “green” largesse.

Bernard Keane was right in his assessment of it as a scam in Crikey. “Fossil fuel interests”, he wrote in 2019, “sense the opportunity to extract some taxpayer funding from a government worried it might have to pretend it believes in climate change”. With this year’s budget, they hit the jackpot.

But if CCS is a scam, what about “clean” hydrogen? In his speech to the Earth Day summit, Morrison vowed to rival US innovation by investing billions in high-tech “hydrogen valleys”. “In the United States you have the Silicon Valley”, he said. “Here in Australia we are creating our own ‘Hydrogen Valleys’, where we will transform our transport industries, our mining and resource sectors, our manufacturing, our fuel and energy production.”

Hydrogen is potentially a clean energy source, but only if it’s produced using renewable energy. And to be produced at the scale required to transform the economy in the way Morrison is implying would require a lot of electricity.

In his recent contribution to the Quarterly Essay, Australia’s former chief scientist, Alan Finkel, calculates that to produce the equivalent volume of hydrogen to what Australia currently exports in liquefied natural gas would require “approximately 2,200 terawatt-hours” of electricity. This, Finkel notes, “is about eight times Australia’s total electricity generation in 2019”.

If Morrison genuinely believes the “hydrogen boom” he envisages will be based on production of renewable energy on that kind of scale, the government would have provided increased funding for renewables in the budget. None was forthcoming.

The reality is that Morrison sees the talk of “hydrogen valleys” as a way of greenwashing the same old “gas-fired recovery” he was promoting last year. The government doesn’t envisage producing hydrogen with electricity from renewables, but rather from gas. The focus on CCS gives the game away. The “hydrogen valleys” of the future will be criss-crossed with pipelines and peppered with gas-fired power stations with (we’re supposed to believe) the magic of CCS ensuring that the whole operation can nevertheless be run green and guilt-free.

“Clean” hydrogen then, just like CCS, turns out to be just another technological chimera designed to greenwash capitalism’s continuing addiction to fossil fuels.

What then of the other technological solutions being touted? Perhaps the most headline grabbing of them has been Biden’s proposed US$174 billion investment in the infrastructure for electric vehicles and their production. On the surface, again, this might sound like a good idea. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world in which we can all drive around in sleek, silent, powerful and “green” electric vehicles like Teslas?

Again, however, this is just another fake technological “fix” to the climate crisis that will help perpetuate the environmentally destructive status quo. A genuinely sustainable society won’t be built around the kind of car culture that exists today. What’s needed, among other things, is a massive investment in public transport and the transformation of cities to reduce the need for long commutes.

The promotion of electric vehicles as part of a technological “green” utopia is designed to forestall this kind of change, to protect as much as possible the car makers and other big business interests that profit from the status quo.

Elon Musk personifies this. In his authorised biography, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Ashlee Vance revealed that Musk’s California “hyperloop” proposal was aimed at quashing plans for a high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco. “Musk had dished out the Hyperloop proposal just to make the public and legislators rethink the high-speed train”, wrote Vance. “He didn’t intend to build the thing ... With any luck, the high-speed rail would be cancelled. Musk said as much to me during a series of emails and phone calls leading up to the announcement.”

For those who can afford it (a base-level Tesla will set you back an eye-watering $73,900 in Australia today), driving an electric car might make you feel like you’re doing something to help save the planet. This is an illusion.

Even if your car is charged from electricity produced by renewable energy, you also have to consider all the emissions produced in the construction and maintenance of the roads and freeways on which you drive. Then there’s the material of the car itself, and the lithium needed for the battery. Already, the skyrocketing demand is causing major environmental problems for major lithium producers like China, Chile and Bolivia. Tellingly, Musk has already devised the ultimate escape plan for himself—moving to Mars. This is not an option for most people.

The long list of fake technological fixes to the climate crisis is nothing more than a delaying tactic, designed to create the impression of change to ensure the profits bonanza of the fossil fuel economy can continue for as long as possible. Only a total transformation of society, in which technological production is rationally designed and democratically organised and controlled, can ensure that we are able, in Marx’s words, “to bequeath the Earth in an improved state to succeeding generations”.

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