Post-Covid-19 ‘Sustainable Development’ Means Little In Precision Or Practice

Guest post by Tilak Doshi. Originally published at Forbes.

Now that COVID-19 is compounding and exacerbating threats to the global economy, including higher public debt burdens, de-globalization and an expanding role of the state, the call for “sustainable development” to recover from the shock is widely proclaimed from all quarters.

“Battered by the pandemic and economic collapse, do Americans have the capacity to care about the environment?”, asks one Harris poll in early August of its panel of respondents. Not much, the poll concludes, and the climate industrial complex, along with Will Johnson, CEO of the Harris Poll, must be surprised and discouraged to discover that devotion to “the world around us” is flagging.

Covid-19 over “Climate Emergency”

Americans find the “climate emergency” to be second to last on a list of a dozen concerns. It is likely that Americans are not so different from their fellow-travelers around the Western world. In the call for “sustainable development” by the Nobel Laureate Joe Stiglitz— who gets hot under collar in reviewing Bjorn Lomborg’s new book on climate alarmism — it seems there is a disconnect between the average man on the street and the policy-making elites around the Western world, perhaps with the exception of President Trump’s team.

Prof. Stiglitz is of course not alone. World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says that even if an effective vaccine is developed, the world cannot go back to the way it was, pre-virus. And so, “In particular, the pandemic has given new impetus to the need to accelerate efforts to respond to climate change. The pandemic has given us a glimpse of our world as it could be, cleaner skies and rivers.”

Everyone is for sustainable development. Governments and companies are all for it and “sustainability” is a central theme in public policy and corporate governance. The term was defined by Gro Brundtland (a former Prime Minister of Norway and appointed by the UN to head its sustainability programme in 1983) as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Few would dispute the reasonableness of this anodyne objective. Like motherhood and apple pie, it appeals to universally-held values across cultures and political beliefs.

Just what is “Sustainable Development”?

We are told that if the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic – or more accurately by government policy responses to the pandemic — means anything, it is that the only sustainable recovery will be a Green one. Yet the more one examines this promise of a Green recovery, the less plausible it seems. When one examines the Green recovery program promised by the likes of the EU, the IEA, or other multilateral agencies or companies such as BP and Shell, it boils down to statements about “low-carbon technologies” by which the Western world will cut down CO2 emissions to zero by 2050 to save the world from what they assure us will be an “impending climate catastrophe”. No matter that the likes of India and China, committed to improving the standards of living of their citizens by the only means available, will ensure that their people have access to cheap energy and electricity powered by fossil fuels.

What are “low-carbon technologies”? Well, curiously, they exclude nuclear power as Germany has decided somewhat ironically to depend on dirty lignite coal as a bridge fuel since solar and wind alone cannot keep the lights on. And as the example of California has shown, the push for renewable energy seems to have ushered in an age of “third-worldism” in America’s most advanced state that can no longer assure its residents electricity 24/7. The “electrification of everything” and the promise of solar and wind, with electric vehicles and battery power storage seems to cover the universe of low-carbon technologies. Together with other piecemeal initiatives such as building insulation and “energy efficiency”, these seem to make up much of the promise of low-carbon technologies which will propel the new age of the Green recovery.

Green Energy as De-industrialization

Green energy advocates propose doubling up on the use of wind, solar power, and electric cars as part of “sustainable recovery” post-Covid-19. Hard-headed economists are known to ask inconvenient questions. Perhaps a fundamental one posed by Mark Mills of the Manhattan Institute is as follows. What about the serious consideration of the broad environmental and supply-chain implications of renewable energy? Among economists, it is well known that the process of economic development over the past 200 years has naturally led to a process of “dematerialization”, as improving technology leads to reduced resource use for every unit of GDP produced. The use of coal saved forests, and the use of oil, the whales. Economic growth via free markets economizes in the use of resources, as Adam Smith would have put it over two centuries ago.

Yet, for every “green” windmill put up now, 900 tons of steel, 2,500 tons of concrete and 45 tons of plastics are required. As Mr. Mills soberly reminds us, the dream of powering society entirely with wind and solar farms combined with massive batteries would require the biggest expansion in mining – powered by fossil fuels — the world has seen and would produce huge quantities of waste. Old equipment and millions of tons of materials including toxic rare earths would need to be decommissioned by bespoke methods.

By 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency projects that up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will have reached the end of their life, and that the world will be generating about 6 million metric tons of new solar e-waste annually. Mega-tons of solar panel trash may be coming to a town near you soon, as the developing countries of Africa and Asia refuse to be the dump for Western  virtue-signaling junk.

And as one observer puts it, “funny, no one seemed to consider what to do with the massive amount of wind turbine blades once they reached the end of their lifespan. Thus, the irony of the present-day Green Energy Movement is the dumping of thousands of tons of “non-recyclable” supposedly renewable wind turbine blades in the country’s landfills”.

Sustainable development in the age of Covid-19 means everything to everyone and hence it means little in precision or practice. In effect, sustainable development is neither sustainable nor can it be called “development”. A Green “recovery” assures us a process of de-industrialization, a first in modern history.

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Tilak Doshi

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August 30, 2020 at 12:55PM

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