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Climate Change: Bittersweet Choices

Climate Change: Bittersweet Choices

Sunday, 16 January, 2022 - 05:45
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

Those who were under the illusion that the transition to a green economy and cleaner production would be a simple matter, discovered upon implementation that the issue is complex, tantamount to fixing a problem only for a new one to arise. This is because addressing the accumulated environmental problems requires action on multiple fronts, a long-term commitment, and a willingness to change consumption patterns. During implementation, policymakers will discover that they must adjust their plans in light of experience, while maintaining the overriding goal of protecting life and preventing the collapse of the ecosystems. Governments will also discover multiple faults and deal with the failure of some of their policies, but the important matter is to make necessary adjustments without reverting to old practices. What is required is to devise alternatives that balance between environmental protection, economic growth, and human needs, without invoking the failure of a specific program to abandon the principal goal.

While the European Commission was circulating proposals that considered some methods of producing natural gas and generating nuclear energy to fall within the scope of clean energy and thus warrant support on this basis, Germany was closing three of its six remaining nuclear plants. The European Commission's argument is that achieving zero emissions in 2050, in parallel with providing consumers with affordable sources of energy, requires short term transitional measures. It considered that achieving this goal is possible by introducing cleaner methods to extract and use natural gas, alongside producing electricity from nuclear reactors that have strict operational safety conditions during operation, and apply safe methods for the disposal of radioactive waste. It is known that natural gas is the least polluting among other traditional fuel sources, if it is produced and used according to strict standards.

It is noteworthy to recall that some countries still view the nuclear option as an indispensable tool for a smooth and timely transition to a zero-carbon economy. France is at the forefront of European countries that depend on nuclear reactors to produce the bulk of its electricity needs. South Korea's green economy program is based specifically on nuclear energy, which it considers safe, efficient and emission-free, and classifies it within the green energy category. But Germany is leading a campaign to prevent the approval of the European Commission's proposal to provide support for nuclear power plants, whatever their specifications might be. The new German government is confident that the country is able to secure its entire needs for energy, by 2050, from clean and safe renewable sources, led by wind and solar, as well as hydrogen as a carrier fuel.

The Netherlands is no different, with the debate raging over the best policies to reduce pollution and emissions, without causing an economic meltdown. The Netherlands was, until recently, a large producer of natural gas, from huge fields in the north of the country that were discovered sixty years ago. But excavations and pumping from the largest field among them, located near Groningen, began to cause earthquakes and tremors in recent years leading to cracks in thousands of homes, and prompting the government to reduce production by about 70 percent, in preparation for completely halting operations. This coincided with shortage in supplies and a significant rise in international gas prices, leading the Netherlands, who is bound by long-term contracts to supply gas to neighboring countries, to rely heavily on importing gas at inflated prices, mainly from Russia, for domestic consumption. The Netherlands is among the countries that decided to completely stop nuclear reactors and swiftly shut down coal-fired plants. However, despite the doubling of investments in renewable energy by manifolds, especially wind, production still fell short of bridging the deficit. Therefore, some parties are pressing to reconsider the production of electricity from nuclear energy, under strict standards, as an interim option. Other Dutch parties have also proposed easing the restrictions on gas production from the northern fields, despite the geological hazards.

Paradoxically, successful projects to produce electricity from wind and sun also face obstacles, mainly caused by conflicting consumption priorities. Fifty kilometers east of Amsterdam, private companies are building hundreds of huge wind turbines, up to 100 meters high, to produce electricity. But it turned out that Meta, the American company which owns leading social media platforms including Facebook and WhatsApp, had obtained the approval of local authorities to build a huge data center in Zeewolde, a municipality of 22,000 in the same region, occupying millions of square meters of agricultural land. This center, which is designed to serve large areas across the world, will consume more electricity than the entire production of the new wind farms around it, equivalent to the electricity used by the city of Amsterdam's 800,000 residents.

The local authorities approved the project on the basis that it creates job opportunities and generates income for the area. But the new governing coalition is now trying to block it, after popular protests that considered its harm to be far greater than its alleged benefits. In addition to causing the loss of agricultural land and its need for large quantities of fresh water for cooling, the center competes with local residents for clean and reliable electricity at a moderate-cost.

These developments reaffirm the need for rational and balanced policies resulting from realistic compromises. Transformation does not happen overnight. Enhancing efficiency, applying cleaner uses of available energy sources, and developing technologies for carbon capture, reuse and safe storage remain main pillars for successful transition. But the priority remains to rationalize consumption patterns, regardless of the source of energy.

The environmental options we are facing are tough and bittersweet, because each of them comes at a high cost; but the more lethal the disease, the more bitter the cure.

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