This sort of sentiment is not normally associated with do-gooders. But Rachel Kyte, “chief Executive Officer of Sustainable Energy for All, and Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All” says people need to keep themselves, their food and their vaccines cool. So we guess everyone needs power plants? Sure. But only the ones that run on unicorn dust. See, Ms. Kyte told the puffball UN interviewer that “A clean energy transition is already underway globally that can provide affordable, safe and sustainable energy for all. We must now incorporate cooling for all needs within this transition, while keeping us on track to reach our global climate and energy goals.” But what if these goals collide?
Alternative energy is disappointing its proponents in all kinds of ways. Get rid of subsidies, and people don’t want electric cars. Windmills are brutally lethal for birds. Solar panels are very dirty to make and get rid of. And both have alarmingly huge footprints; so far they’ve been put on the best sites, with the most and most dependable wind and sun. Los Angeles just boasted of a massive breakthrough in cheap solar prompting one anti-nuclear enthusiast to chortle “Goodbye coal, nukes, gas!” But the fine print says solar will now supply a massive 7% of the city’s needs. Which is why this depressing picture gets much worse.
According to a piece by James Temple in Technology Review, “We’ve already built too many power plants and cars to prevent 1.5 ˚C of warming. Unless we begin shutting down coal and natural-gas facilities, and stop building new ones, we’re doomed to miss the targets of the Paris treaty.” Result? Disaster all round. “1.5 ˚C of warming could already be enough to expose 14% of the global population to bouts of severe heat, melt nearly 2 million square miles (5 million square kilometers) of Arctic permafrost, and destroy more than 70% of the world’s coral reefs.” (Coral’s demise has been much overstated, incidentally.)
So, says Temple, “building lots of renewables and adding lots of green jobs, the focus of much of the policy debate over climate, isn’t going to get the job done. We now have to ask a much harder societal question: How do we begin forcing major and expensive portions of existing energy infrastructure to shut down years, if not decades, before the end of its useful economic life?”
The question is unanswerable for rich countries, and for poor countries, it verges on genocidal. Rachel Kyte isn’t just talking about people living in New York, where you’re trying to keep things a few degrees cooler inside than out. She’s talking about Mumbai and Lagos and other places where you’re trying to keep it 25 or 30 degrees cooler or, if you need to refrigerate vaccines, a whole lot more.
So choose: Fossil fuels and cooling, or neither.