Protecting the environment should be about being pro-human

Protecting the environment should be about being pro-human

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Blogger: Bill Wirtz
Protecting the environment should be about being pro-human

In figures released by Eurostat this month, it was reported that only 6.4% of energy consumed in the Grand Duchy in 2017 came from renewable sources, making Luxembourg stand more than ten percentage points below the EU average of 17.5%as well as the member state producing the least amount from renewable energy. Granted, this number is up from previous years, rising from 5.4% in 2016, 5% in 2015 and 4.5% in 2014. The government is quick to point this out, particularly as the Green Party has been a member of the government since 2013.

This failure to meet alternative energy production targets  is fuelling the debate on climate change in my home country.

The news has emboldened environmentalists, who say that more needs to be done to avoid fossil fuel energy sources. This is aligned with debates such as the ongoing contentious discussion of pollution limits on diesel, as well as an increasing amount of bans on certain plastic items. These are real policies that affect consumers. But criticism is rarely received well. Challenging the narrative on climate change policy is controversial to the extent that it is no longer politically viable to do so. When disagreeing with environmentalist talking points in public debate, the only choice is to remain silent, nodding along as the mantra of reduced energy consumption is continually repeated. That isn't healthy conversation.

And no,having different policy prescriptions doesn't mean "denying the science", even though questionable scientific stats are constantly being thrown around. Take Luxembourg's Green Youth co-speaker Jessie Thill, who tweeted out this (already debunked) opinion piece by The Guardian:

As the UK-based FullFact.org reveals, the 71% figure cited in the article includes emissions released when fossil fuels sold by the companies were subsequently used by their customers. The number is therefore inherently misleading.

But that's not necessarily the point here. You can recognise verifiable and evidence-based statements and still reach different policy conclusions. Two things stand out: first, you can make the case that the benefits of the use of fossil fuels outweigh the negative externalities; second, you could argue that it is easier to work on preventing the adverse effects of climate change than to attempt to bring emissions down to an absolute minimum. After all, the "Energiewende" (Germany's phase-out of nuclear energy in an attempt to move to renewables sustainably) has failed and increased consumer prices, which is particularly devastating for those with low incomes as well as for energy-consuming industries that employ a lot of workers. The immediate shift to renewable energy hasn’t worked in Germany and the increased use of gas and coal for energy production makes emission targets unattainable. Phasing out nuclear energy, as so often demanded by environmentalists, is increasing carbon emissions.

As far as the benefits of fossil fuel use are concerned, it is difficult to ignore its enormous advantages, making everything possible from the mainstream use of electricity to modern medicine and the revolutionising of individual transportation. We wouldn’t be where we are today without fossil fuels. Phasing them out as soon as possible because of shocking headlines such as “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe” is not only unproductive, it isn’t rational, either.

Humans are adaptable to challenge. Apart from extreme climates in the deserts and the arctic, we have adapted to the entire planet, be it through the ingenuity of traditional craftsmanship or through our effective use of energy. But instead in believing in the power of innovation, we choose to act out of despair. Our policymakers are happy to take the advice of the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who joined the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to tell world leaders: 'I want you to panic'. After all, what historically praised public policies haven’t derived from a state of panic, right?

Polemic policy making won’t lead us anywhere.

Modern-day environmentalists seem more focused on mitigating the effect that humans have on the ecosystem than on how humans themselves are affected by environmental interventions. To put it plainly: they are anti-impact. The difference is everything in regard to public policy: the impetus isn't to find innovative methods of producing energy to make it more affordable, as new nuclear power plants already do, but rather to stick stubbornly to known renewable energy sources, even if the shift necessitates very costly public investment and rising prices. Germany’s energy shift remains the best case study.

The environmentalist narratives do not change. Now that car companies are actually producing electric cars that become more affordable by the day, governments are still doing their best to discourage individual mobility. Making public transport free of charge is just the latest Luxembourgish example. At the same time, people are encouraged to walk or cycle instead of using their car. Low-cost airlines have come under fire because consumers are believed to be flying too much. It would seem the goal is not to increase the comfort and mobility of citizens, but to decrease their overall energy consumption, the accepted narrative being that we need to do it now.

And no, we cannot choose to “degrow” the economy and live humbly for the sake of the environment. The consequences of such a policy would hit everyone, rich or poor, because it reduces the capacity to generate new wealth. Consider the most prominent example of a recent reduction in GDP: in Venezuela, GDP shrank from $334 billion in 2014 to $96 billion in 2018. If this is a model of "post-growth" in the 21st century, then we should be happy to opt out of the experiment.

Our policies should be aimed at dealing with new environmental challenges, as we have always done, instead of trying to reduce our consumption at the expense of those most reliant on affordable and available energy sources. The renewable energy sector needs to grow out of efficiency and through the profit motive. Only then can it can exist without relying on subsidies from taxpayers, which are often footed by those in society who are least able to bear the cost.

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