This is a movie which is probably worth seeing, but while it makes some important points it is also so obviously out of date, it can’t be recommended completely.

Another reason for not recommending it is that it is blithely depressing. The film gives no way forward, other than the useless fantasy of population reduction…

So onto the Bad Things.

All the data on real renewable energy is at least six years out of date, some of it is 10 or more years out of date. One of his main sources, Ozzie Zehner, published his book on the subject in 2012 and, going by his website, has not published anything else since 2014. Anthropologist Nina Jablonski is a physical anthropologist interested in the development of skin colours or pigmentation, not an energy expert or a student of technology.

No decent solar panels nowadays will be 8% efficient, or decay in 10 years. If you get panels like that now you have been defrauded. The Cedar Street Solar Array he instances for these figures and for being able to power 10 homes, was apparently built in 2008. Not the most recent farm and far smaller than more recent solar farms owned by the same organisation, which can supposedly power far more homes.

It is true that Renewable Energy (RE) technology does not last forever, but neither do coal or nuclear energy stations. Machines break down, wear out and in the case of nuclear become dangerous. The question is about life cycle emissions.

A study in Nature Energy in 2017 found that over the lifetime of the technology, the carbon footprints of solar, wind, and nuclear power are about one-twentieth of those of coal and natural gas, even if CCS worked. Another study from 2014 argued that:

a wind turbine with a working life of 20 years will offer a net benefit within five to eight months of being brought online…. It is likely that even in a worst case scenario, lifetime energy requirements for each turbine will be subsumed by the first year of active use. 

The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded (in an ongoing study probably started in 2012?) from a study of many publications on emissions life cycles that “The central tendencies of all renewable technologies are between 400 and 1,000 g CO2eq/kWh lower than their fossil-fueled counterparts without carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).”

So, all this is not recent, obscure, or pathbreaking research, its been out there for some while. The obvious point is that there is plenty of reason to replace coal and gas with Renewable Energy (RE) – and gas emissions are usually underestimated because fugitive (escaped) emissions often seem much higher than recognised – largely because gas pipe systems, especially in cities, are old and complicated and hard to police.

While I personally am uncomfortable with the ways that the grid works, it is usually the case that companies who are claiming to be 100% renewable buy renewable energy, but do not have it connect directly to their places of work. They buy the power from renewable sources, which put it into the grid where it gets mixed up with other energy and the companies get their power from the grid. In other words, this is simply the way it works. It is not hypocritical to pay for renewable energy and take the energy from the grid, as long as the renewable supplier, and the system, is working.

The film does not interview any people about contemporary renewables, their costs or their consumption of materials. Its a bit like saying “with 64K memory, personal computers will never let you do anything like write a book,” and refusing to talk to anyone in computing to find things have moved on.

Not surprisingly the film’s discussion of electric vehicles seems to be set at the launch of the General Motors Chevy Volt in 2010. It is now no longer made. Not a Tesla, or anything else, in sight.

Generally people seem to agree that Electric cars, even if powered by electricity provided by coal, are now less polluting (particularly in terms of particulates) than petrol cars when being driven, and over the life cycle. [1], [2], [3], [4]. Even the US Department of Energy seems to agree. And it could be argued that you have to start somewhere to get better. However, as many have suggested, it would probably be better to work on a radical revision of the transport system to remove the need for millions of cars and the road systems that ruin cities.

Mining is not just a bad problem when it involves renewables. Coal mining, fracking, and oil and gas drilling are all deeply problematic and destructive of land, but this is not mentioned, perhaps just to make renewables look worse – with speeded up film no less. Another problem is that over the last 30 years the amount of coal and oil being burned has massively increased – partly this is because it has been encouraged and subsidised by Governments all over the planet. It takes a lot to replace that increase. Again there is no exploration of this, just an attack on renewables.

Despite the implied claims of the film, there is no evidence solar panels create deserts, or “solar dead zones”. Indeed there are suggestions that the shade of panels might be useful for farm animals and for growing plants, etc and the place were he made this point is now apparently generating electricity again.

Recent renewable developments tend to have storage, so they don’t need coal generators on all the time. Storage is being improved and researched. We may not need batteries; the New South Wales government suggests that by 2040, NSW could get 89% of its local power from solar and wind, backed by pumped hydro storage. Others suggest there are “22,000 potential pumped hydro energy storage (PHES) sites across all states and territories of Australia.” And, apparently surprisingly, back up coal, or gas, generators do not produce anywhere near the amounts of pollution produced by fully active generators – a point left unmade.

While it is absolutely correct that we are not replacing dirty energy with really clean energy at anything like the rates we need to survive, it now seems fully possible for Australia to get up to 75% renewable, or more, by 2025 if we wanted to, without huge amounts of trauma, and even cost savings to ordinary consumers. Even in 2017 some people (Andrew Blakers, Bin Lu and Matthew Stocks) from the ANU argued that it would be cheaper to replace Australia’s entire aging coal generation with renewable energy, than to build new coal.

Without massive government support, coal is largely collapsing. In Australia, coal stations are aging and uneconomic to run. It is only the Coalition parties who are interested in building coal energy stations, and no power company will do this without subsidy.

There is nothing obviously inherent in renewables which is stopping them from replacing gas or coal. That largely seems to a matter of established convention, politics, financial support from States, and regulations which expect the system to have the characteristics of coal supply. Consequently, we probably need a change in the economic system, and its power relations, to do this. We certainly need a change in government, and a willingness to stand up to well funded fossil fuel companies and their scare campaigns, and to films like this. However, it is not surprising that to build a new energy system, that initially we have to use the old one.

One of the problems that remains undiscussed by the film, is that the more renewables we have, the less economic fossil fuels become, and the more subsidy or price hiking they need to survive. And the more likely they are to try and kill off renewables.

The percentage of energy which is currently generated by real renewables across the world is tiny, but increasing in many countries with considerable apparent success. For example, in the third quarter of 2019, the UK’s renewables generated more electricity than their coal, oil and gas plants combined. Researchers at Stanford say they were:

surprised by how many countries we found had sufficient resources to power themselves with 100 percent wind, water, and solar power….

The entire renewable energy footprint [. . .] is on order of 1.15 to 1.2 percent of the world’s land. … In the United States, if you just look at oil and gas, there are 1.7 million active oil and gas wells and 2.3 million inactive wells. Collectively they take up somewhere between one to two percent of the U.S. land area. And that’s not counting the refineries, the pipelines, or coal and nuclear infrastructure.

Another study suggests that Europe’s untapped wind energy potential amounts to approximately 52.5 terawatts, or about 1 million watts for every 16 European citizens. 

We are learning from the forerunners in the transition. Again you have to start somewhere, and the first in line will be the clumsiest.

The film does not make any useful comparison of renewables with coal, just vague assertions that it is as bad as coal and oil for climate, which is frankly no longer true, if it ever was. The points could have been made that renewables will not save us by themselves, or that there is a lot of capital sunk into opposing energy transition. It also could have clearly stated that not doing renewables will not save us either; indeed staying with fossil fuels will speed the destruction.

Good points in the film

The film is absolutely right that bio-fuel, woodchip burning, or waste burning is not renewable or green. It is frequently counted as renewable as you might eventually regrow trees or whatever, but this is now clearly false. Most people advocating non-algal biofuels are not interested in solutions to the problems we have. Current biofuels are net greenhouse gas emitters, displace people from land, produce deforestation or lower agricultural production; they are a complete waste of time. Alligator fat is an obvious waste of money and research, which I guess is why it was mentioned….

Biofuels are a problem in Germany, and the UK has “become the largest importer of wood pellets in the world in just five years,” and it is using biofuels to claim growth in renewable energy. However, according to the US Energy Information Administration in 2019, biomass apparently provided about 1.4% of US electricity. This is just less than solar which provides 1.8% and wind which provides 7.3%. So there is too much biofuel in comparison. However, if you wanted to complain surely we should complain that gas still provides 38.4% and coal 23.5% of the electricity, and that no green energy challenges these fossil fuels which are leading the world to disaster?

Those green organisations which supported biofuel and woodchipping were mislead, or distracted. As the film shows, this was not a popular ‘solution’ with ordinary members, who rightly saw it as not green. The odd thing is that this section alone, implies that if the film is making the argument that the environmental movement has been bought out, then that argument is probably incorrect.

While Bill McKibben did once support biofuel, he has not supported it for quite a while – another example that the film is out of date. He was not interviewed for the film other than in passing, or asked to address the question properly or recently. This looks like character assassination.

The film obviously did not bother to investigate those green groups who do not think renewables are the complete answer. In the words of another review

They too wish to ignore the groundswell of radical resistance building all over the world against cancerous capitalism…. this failure played right into the hands of those who don’t give a damn about the planet.

They don’t even look at the Drawdown people. Why did they behave like this? This refusal leaves the film with nowhere constructive to go.

The film points out that businesses lie continually. Absolutely correct. You can make the best ideas in the world totally destructive and false if the profit motive and psychopathic billionaires run everything. They destroy places and then move on, as a matter of course.

As a consequence, this is not a film which gives much leeway for the righteous to self-praise, even if that is what they are trying to use the film to do. However, the critique of business and markets is so low key, and so unintegrated into the argument the right can ignore them completely, or just pretend that environmentalists are corrupt.

Elsewhere the film makers mention the contemporary extinction crisis, and make the obvious point that green tech will not bring them back. But they do not discuss this in the film. And the reason that the extinction crisis exists is not primarily because we are starting to use Renewables.

The main real point of the film is that it is impossible to continue as we are doing. This is undeniable.

The Film’s Proposed Solutions

Degrowth and shut down of economic expansion. The film does not present any way of achieving this, except to imply it requires some kind of change in our life and values. We probably need to try and reduce energy consumption. This is not easy, but it is well worth discussing, and an extra five minutes of the film on this could have been useful. These cutbacks will take planning and research, but even that is not advocated. As a footnote the much maligned Bill McKibben writes:

I’ve written books and given endless talks challenging the prevailing ideas about economic growth, and I’ve run campaigns designed entirely to cut consumption.

But they could not be bothered to discuss this. In reality, the film raises the issue in passing to quickly move on to the second fantasy option – and this is possibly how people manage to ignore the film’s main useful message: infinitely accelerating growth on a finite planet is just not possible.

The film moves into fantasy, and its fantasy solution is:

Lowering population. This gets more discussion than any other solution, which is not much. However, if population decrease is the answer, in the time we have left, who are you going to kill? Without such discussion the “solution” is just words that absolve us of action.

Given that people in Australia and the US consume more resources per head than most other countries, we should probably start culling there…. but I don’t see him volunteering. Neither will I.

Yes, if every Indian and Chinese person comes to consumes like the average Australian we are all dead. But we cannot expect them to stop heading that way, if we won’t stop. Why on earth should people outside our countries take all the burden?

So lets start learning to consume less and work less, to try and prevent culling from happening through climate and disease.

And remember that takes working at changing social relations as well…. We didn’t end up where we are because neoliberals were scared of social engineering, whatever they said to the contrary.

A film like this could have tried to help us deal with the crisis. But it doesn’t. Indeed it feeds apathy, retreat and a sense that the problem is all too much. This is why I think people are so upset by the film. We don’t expect this deadendness from Michael Moore.

So what do we need to do, when we face destruction? How do we act, if our best attempts so far are not working?

That’s probably a topic for another post.

However, a steadily increasing carbon price with the money raised distributed back to the population so they lose little income, is an obvious policy which would incentivise lower emissions and allow business planning. Carbon trading is not so good, as it subjects the price to the vagaries of the market and price fixing.

It is essential to stop:

  • Using fossil fuels
  • Emitting pollution of all kinds (gas, chemical, particulate etc)
  • Having unprocesseable wastes
  • Deforestation
  • Over fishing
  • Poisoning of water supplies
  • Denaturing land through bad agricultural practices
  • Destroying fertile land for housing

[Another venture in a helpful direction:

Zachary King: Unconventional Optimism: Lessons from Climate Change Scholars and Activists ]