Translated by – Kavitha Muralidharan, Journalist

Out of the billions of animals that have lived and died on Earth, the human race has developed a voracious appetite for energy far beyond what is necessary for our biological needs. Wherever we go, our eyes are drawn to electrical outlets like hungry predators searching for prey. With each technological advancement, our appetite and dependency on energy grows exponentially. While our individual electronic devices have become more energy-efficient, our overall demand for energy continues to escalate, mirroring our relentless pursuit of boundless economic growth.

Unfortunately, the planet’s fossil fuel reserves, which have historically provided uninterrupted energy, are not inexhaustible. Their continued use has far-reaching consequences, jeopardizing our civilizations and the very existence of life. This stark reality has fuelled humanity’s hunger for ‘clean energy.’ As our energy demands continue to soar, there is a desperate push to harness energy from the air, sea, sun, and even waste sources.

On the flip side, a glaring disparity exists in electricity consumption between those who reap the benefits of this extravagant growth and those who are marginalized. While one side of our planet dazzles with floodlights, the other remains perpetually shrouded in darkness, out of reach of any energy source. More than half of the world’s population labours tirelessly to illuminate another world that seems worlds apart.

In a world hurtling towards a climate crisis, the corporations driving this crisis and the rulers beholden to them have dubbed the ‘alternative energy’ they envision in their dreams as ‘green energy.’ They continuously cloak it in green, both in rhetoric and actions. Even the majority who aspire to maintain their luxurious lifestyles earnestly believe in the existence of such a green, unpolluted, emission-free, non-toxic, and benign energy source that will soon gush forth in abundance.

Is there really such a green energy in the world?

Most alternative forms of electricity generation, often termed ‘green energy,’ are named for their comparatively lower carbon footprint when compared to fossil fuels. However, will merely reducing carbon emissions be sufficient to create a paradise on Earth? Are carbon emissions and climate change the only environmental issues plaguing our planet?

Consider solar energy, often touted as a green alternative. However, the production lifecycle of solar panels and batteries reveals significant carbon emissions. From the extraction, transportation, manufacturing, and eventual disposal of solar panels and their batteries (used to store electricity), each step poses environmental challenges.

Solar panels contain small amounts of precious metals like silver and copper, along with toxic materials such as cadmium and lead. Unfortunately, there are currently no completely safe methods to recycle or reuse these outdated electrical components. Within the next decade, they are expected to pose a significant challenge to solid waste management. Even if technological advancements allow for future recycling, the practicality of this process remains expensive, necessitating the use of affordable labour forces, often from the Third World. There are also unsettling discussions about converting this ‘elite garbage’ into affordable housing for marginalized communities, an unjust concept labelled as ‘upcycling.’

Solar and wind power generation are intermittent, requiring the use of batteries to store and distribute electricity. However, these batteries have a limited lifespan due to their complex chemical composition, making complete recycling impossible and resulting in hazardous waste. Recycling efforts often fall to marginalized communities through ‘down cycling.’ It’s worth noting that transitioning all vehicles to electric would necessitate environmental impacts equivalent to destroying the surface area of Africa. These sheds light on the true nature of green energy. Globally, we’re witnessing the irreversible environmental and social impacts of mining for these resources, fuelling a new geopolitical rivalry among nations.

In the realm of green electricity, the ultimate monopolists are the corporations that have long exploited the earth with their immense power, exacerbating economic inequality. Take, for example, Adani in India, a close ally of the government, who has acquired numerous large solar power projects through dubious means, manipulating licences, environmental approvals, land acquisitions, and subsidies. Such centralized power generation projects are often concentrated in a small area, leading to significant environmental and socio-economic impacts on the local community.

Wind turbines, while utilizing significant natural resources, also pose numerous challenges. They can lead to biodiversity loss, especially when installed in marine environments, and contribute to noise pollution. These impacts are comparable to those of solar power projects. Additionally, it’s no surprise that costly ventures like hydrogen energy are lucrative for corporations. 

Meanwhile, there are calls to categorize destructive nuclear power and waste-burning projects as green energy. This demonstrates how everything is clamouring to be labelled ‘green’ in today’s climate change-focused world, as only those carrying this designation are seen as legitimate.

The IPCC report emphasizes achieving ‘net-zero emissions’ by 2050 as a crucial step to avert a climate change catastrophe. The time for planting trees and establishing forests as a means to combat climate change has long passed. Even the substantial investment in carbon capture plants is insufficient to absorb the massive amount of carbon emissions we currently produce.

Why don’t we reassess our energy consumption in light of this? Why don’t we reconsider our development paradigms?

How can indiscriminate power generation foster sustainable growth on a planet with finite resources, leading to exploitation, unmanageable toxic waste, reliance on marginalized workers, and substantial carbon emissions? Who really stands to benefit from these greenwashed energy projects in terms of sustainable growth?

Amidst climate crisis and heat pushing our planet to the brink, with catastrophic floods, wildfires, and extreme weather events becoming increasingly common, must we continue to drain the earth’s resources for green electricity, only to fuel the production of luxury goods for the elite? Do our cities need to shine like beacons of excess in the face of such overwhelming pressure and compromise? Must our sprawling airports be chilled to bone-chilling temperatures? Can’t we dim the lights of our skyscrapers? Perhaps it’s time we embrace a more measured pace of growth.

 Indeed, this is a crisis of unparalleled magnitude, a crisis between life and death itself.

Isn’t it a profound injustice to consider that even amidst this crisis, in a world where millions lack access to basic amenities like electric fans, we continue to power air conditioners, escalators, artificial fountains, decorative lighting, luxury factories, and environmentally insensitive personal vehicles without interruption?

The seemingly cheaper alternative energy sources often fail to account for the full cost of their environmental and social impacts throughout their entire life cycle. Not everything that appears green is truly environmentally friendly. The true cost is borne by living beings—humans, birds, animals, and the entire ecosystem—far beyond our immediate sight 

‘Development’ by its nature cannot be sustainable. Even the energy fuelling this relentless growth cannot truly be considered green. It would be wise and practical to significantly reduce our electricity demand instead of perpetually increasing the energy appetite of our technologies and societies, and attempting to offset it with unsustainable and unsafe alternative energy sources.

Read this in Tamil here.

Geo Damin is an active volunteer with the 40-year-old Environmental Organization. Poovulagin Nanbargal for the past eight years. He has also authored about 15 books on various environmental issues. He works on problems such as solid waste, plastics, low-carbon buildings, and climate change etc.

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