Article

How many times must the bell toll?

Most of us believe that a large scale, global deployment of renewables is the future that we aim for. But are we doing this to save the planet or to save our lifestyle?

| 10 min read

Have you ever asked yourself ‘how much time will the human race still have on this planet?’ It’s not the first question that springs to my mind while I am having my breakfast, hence I was intrigued to hear it at the beginning of a documentary (1) about renewables. Most of us (including me) believe that a large scale, global deployment of renewables is the future that we aim for. I was therefore equally intrigued by the second question – ‘are we doing this to save the planet or to save our lifestyle?’ The documentary – unsurprisingly - raised a lot of emotions. I am not going to continue this debate here, however the question per se is rather powerful and interesting to consider.

Renewables – how many shades of green?

Although perhaps infrequent, concerns that Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) efforts and ESG investment do not translate into tangible benefits in the real economy are not new (2) (3). Unquestionable benefits of renewable technologies – which include access to basic services for communities, even those in conflict-struck regions, and the obvious low carbon characteristics of these technologies should shield the renewable sector from concerns about its impact ‘on the ground’. But do they?

As with everything, the ‘devil is in the detail’ and the answer depends on the way we assess the impact. Are we looking at carbon emissions and ‘green’ revenues, or are we looking at the impact of the entire life cycle?

The World Bank estimates that for a single 150-metre wind turbine we need 4.7 tonnes of copper, 335 tonnes of steel, 3 tonnes of aluminium and 2 tonnes of rare earth metal along with zinc and molybdenum (4). And this is just for one 3MW turbine. To meet the growing demand for clean technologies, by 2050 the production of minerals, such as graphite, lithium and cobalt, could increase by nearly 500% (5). This means that the mining industry becomes the enabler of energy transition and carries with it the impact and sustainability challenges related to this sector.

We need renewables. However, there are ever louder warnings of researchers that “mining threats to biodiversity caused by renewable energy production could surpass those averted by climate change mitigation”. (6)(7)

We are getting smarter. Energy efficiency, recycling and reusing of minerals, miniaturisation of components, and increased attention of investors to the entire life cycle of products increase sustainability of the mining and energy sectors. However, many challenges remain for the responsible management of the clean energy transition and include the end of life strategies for designing products for high-value recycling (especially where hazardous materials are used); energy required for mining and production of materials used in the renewable industry (e.g. steel or concrete); selection of sites for renewable energy facilities (as to date more than 2000 of such facilities are built in areas of environmental significance (7)), and the overall impact of mining on biodiversity - to name a few.

We are getting smarter. In the meantime, however, “what the Earth registers is simply more human-induced disordering of matter and energy with no inkling that we describe a growing share of this latest activity as ‘more sustainable”(8).

Our collective and individual role in management and plain appreciation of resources matters. We as individuals can now do far more than only switch off this unnecessary bulb. In June 2019, the European Commission put forward a final text of the Clean Energy Package that encourages decentralised generation and smart cities. This means that you and I are invited to play greater role in production of electricity, making us – as the Package calls it - an “active consumer” or “prosumer” (9). Are you going to be one of them?

To Change or Not to Change our lifestyle?

Perceptions often change when we talk about initiatives that can save our planet and when we are asked to personally participate in any of such initiatives. Not that long ago, I had the pleasure of having a business lunch with a well-spoken gentleman dressed in a luxury brand designer suit. During our conversation, he was controlling emails that were popping up frequently on the screen of his latest apple mobile, undoubtedly well synchronized with his top of the range, watch. Interestingly, when conversation drifted towards natural resources and healthy eating, his first reaction was an outrage by the average price of salmon.

Our choices matter. We often underestimate the power of our everyday vote with £, $, € or any other currencies. Financial analysts see it more clearly. Credit Suisse analyst Robert Moskow, for example, found that the top 25 US food and beverage companies have lost an equivalent of $18 billion in market share in about 5 years due to consumers’ preferences drifting to more authentic and genuine food experiences (10). Monitoring share price movements to see the potential impact of changes in customers’ preferences may not be so easy, as iconic brands aided by an army of marketing specialists are reinventing themselves and their value propositions. We all love innovation. However, the success of such innovations depends to a large extend on what influences you more – a skillful marketing campaign supported by a famous and handsome actor promoting say, neatly shaped coffee-capsules or rather boring statistics indicating that a production of just 1kg of aluminum, used to make these capsules, requires about 14kWh energy and releases around 8kg of CO2 in the process. This may not sound much, if not for the fact that just in 2014 and only in one country – Germany - 2 billion of these coffee capsules were sold (11) and the demand has grown considerably since then.

Quo Vadis?

It’s quite interesting that we like to phrase our positive environmental actions as ‘saving the planet’. Doesn’t it make us feel powerful and in control? Our planet will regenerate, it may take many years, but it will regenerate in one form or another. However, human existence and well-being is more connected to nature than we choose to recognise in our busy daily schedules. The United States National Institutes of Health (NIH) commissioned a $170M research initiative, known as Human Microbiome Project, which confirmed that in the human body there are about 3 times as many microbial cells as human cells and surprisingly concluded (among many other results of the study) that microbes contribute more genes responsible for human survival than humans’ own genes (12). It is as if we have ‘outsourced our intelligence to the cloud’ – in this case the ‘cloud’ are the microbes. The ‘quality’ of the ‘cloud’ comes from diversity. And this diversity of microbes needs to be ‘fuelled’ – you guessed it - also by diversity. In this case diversity of fruits, vegetables, fibers, proteins, etc, the quality of which depends on the diversity of complex microbiomes in the soil, which are responsible for nutrient recycling, crop yield and – you probably remember – carbon sequestration! And so, the ‘chain’ of dependencies goes on.

Microbes influence our health and even our behaviour (13)(14). And encouragingly, in recent years, an entire industry has been mushrooming, addressing the growing demand for healthier food choices, cosmetics, household products, you name it. The impact of our lifestyle on our well-being is visible already. Democratisation of medicine make us more aware of the root-causes of our ailments (so often related to toxicants and inflammatory food ingredients). The Human Genome Project emphasises more activities and metabolites as determinants of our health, mental fitness, and appearance rather than our DNA (14). (a finding that was neatly depicted in “A Tale of Two Mice”, which were genetically identical. One was yellow, fat, diabetic and at risk of cancer and the other brown, lean and agile. (14)(15)).

Just as you would not board a plane if you knew that the pilot was going to focus on ‘the altitude of the flight’ only, you don’t want to lose the ‘view’ of the impact of the entire life cycle of our activities – that include your everyday choices.

We are all connected. So next time when you reach for this neatly shaped coffee-capsule, a teabag with plastic particles, or even more so when you invest (via your pension or otherwise), or make decisions for your company, please consider your impact. It matters. Not only to the Planet, but to your own well-being.

  1. “Planet of the Humans” – Michael Moore; directed by Jeff Gibbs.
  2. Work of Preventable Surprises Think Tank on ‘Forceful stewardship”
  3. “Scaling up Sustainable Finance- The Role of Pension Trustees –Part1” Bright Talk debate moderated by Dana Hanby; January 2020
  4. Energy metals: Charging up renewables sector
  5. “Mining for renewable energy could be another threat to the environment” 2 September 2020; University of Queensland; Nature Communications
  6. “Renewable energy developments threaten biodiverse areas” 25 March 2020; Global Change Biology
  7. “Should ESG view sustainability as a quicksand problem?” Duncan Austin; Responsible Investor; October 2020
  8. The Clean Energy for all Europeans Package
  9. Special Report: The war on big food” BethKowitt; Fortune May 2015
  10. “Living Well at Others’ Expense – Hidden Costs of Western Prosperity” Stephan Lessenich; 2019
  11. The Human Microbiome Project
  12. Diaz Heijtz R et al. “Normal gut microbiota modulates brain development and behavior”. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 2011
  13. Dr. Ashton Harper “The microbiome-gut-brain axis:implications for health and disease; IHCAN Conference; London 2018
  14. “A Tale of Two Mice”; Randy L. Jirtle; Geneticist

Nothing on this website should be construed as personal advice based on your circumstances. No news or research item is a personal recommendation to deal.

How many times must the bell toll?

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