To save nature, humanity must decouple from the natural world, not attempt to live in harmony with it. This is the provocative tenet at the core of a new “Ecomodernist Manifesto” released this week by a group of leading academics, scientists, and writers.
Decoupling means severing the link between natural resources or ecosystems and human well-being. This will come not by returning to a pastoral agricultural lifestyle “in harmony” with natural material flows, the authors argue, but by harnessing modern technology and intensifying energy production, agriculture, and urbanization to “shrink [humanity’s] impacts on the environment to make more room for nature.”
The manifesto codifies a growing and important new brand of environmentalism, one that just might be equipped to tackle the real, global challenges facing the planet this century. The authors outline an aspirational vision that aims to secure a future where seven-going-on-ten billion humans can live secure, fulfilled, and prosperous lives on an ecologically vibrant planet. Everyone should read the Manifesto.
Yet for a group of authors who claim to embrace modern technology and brandish the mantle of “ecopragmatism,” there’s one surprising, disappointing, and decidedly un-pragmatic section of the document that prevents us from embracing the Ecomodernist Manifesto in full.
This vision of an ecomodern energy system excludes wind power
When it comes to how to harness the plentiful energy needed to fuel an ecomodern world, the authors embrace “energy technologies that are power dense and capable of scaling to many tens of terawatts.” Nuclear power is their model (and fusion “in the long run”), but:
“Most forms of renewable energy are, unfortunately, incapable of doing so. The scale of land use and other environmental impacts necessary to power the world on biofuels or many other renewables are such that we doubt they provide a sound pathway to a zero-carbon low-footprint future.”
The authors go on to make “an exception” for “[h]igh-efficiency solar cells produced from earth-abundant materials.” Hydroelectric power and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage are tentatively embraced as transitional bridge fuels.
With biofuels and biomass explicitly (and probably correctly) cast into the “doubtful” category, and solar the only “exception” mentioned, what are these “other renewables” that have such widespread land use or environmental impacts that we should cast them aside on our path to an ecomodern future?
While the authors don’t come out and say it, wind power is the only logical target of this unfortunate passage.
It is hard to envision geothermal, with its minimal surface impacts and reliable baseload power as the target of these ecomodernists’ ire. Wave and tidal power are so tiny as to barely warrant mention.
In contrast, wind power is the largest source of renewable energy behind biomass and hydropower worldwide—and it is growing fast—and it is hard to read this passage as anything but an omission of wind energy from this effort to codify an ecomodernist worldview.
Why wind energy should—and will—be part of a high-energy, low-carbon world
Let’s begin with where we agree with the authors of the manifesto. Wind energy cannot, and will not, provide all or even a majority of humanity’s energy needs. And large-scale wind farms do span wide areas (more on that later).
As Professor David Mackay of the University of Cambridge has shown, countries such as Britain, Germany, Japan and South Korea would probably need to wind farms spanning across at least half of available land if they were to move to 100% wind energy. More importantly, there are real economic and technical limits on the penetration of any variable energy source in the global energy mix.
It is simply not possible to power densely populated modern economies with wind energy alone. And the same will be true of a modernized India, the densely populated eastern provinces of China, and elsewhere, in a prosperous ecomodern world.
Yet no single source of energy today provides more than a third of global energy needs. If land use considerations eventually constrain the energy production from wind farms to levels seen by individual fossil fuels such as coal or oil today, that would clearly be no reason to reject wind energy. We do not stop drinking water because of the inadequacies of a water only diet.
More to the point, nuclear power provides only about 3.5 percent of global primary energy today, yet nuclear energy is (rightly) embraced whole-heartedly by the Ecomodernist Manifesto.
The world now consumes final energy at a rate of about 12 terawatts equivalent, and this may easily double or even triple in an energy-intensive, ecomodern world. Clearly only truly scalable energy sources are worth the embrace of ecomodernists.
Yet wind energy is imminently scalable to the multi-terawatt-scale.
One study in PNAS concluded that “a network of land-based 2.5-megawatt (MW) turbines restricted to non-forested, ice-free, non-urban areas operating at as little as 20% of their rated capacity could supply >40 times current worldwide consumption of electricity, >5 times total global use of energy in all forms.” That estimate excludes offshore wind potential entirely.
While we cannot vouch for that particular study’s methodology, it is worth noting that even if the authors are off by an order of magnitude, wind power can clearly scale to become a significant component of a modern energy mix.
Embracing wind energy is pragmatic
Indeed, wind energy must play a key role in fighting climate change. There is little choice.
In many parts of the world, wind farms are now cost-competitive with or cheaper than nuclear power plants. They are also increasingly competitive with fossil fuels.
Rejecting wind farms will almost certainly increase the costs of reducing carbon emissions. This is already happening in Britain and New England, where we each live, and where rejection of wind farms is resulting in the expansion of more expensive forms of low carbon energy.
Furthermore, unavoidable political realities must be recognized, especially by anyone who claims to be an ecopragmatist. All of Europe, most of the United States, as well as China, Brazil, and several other emerging powers have firmly embraced wind and other renewable energy sources.
At the same time, several nations have cooled to nuclear power, or outright banned it. Consider Germany. We fundamentally disagree with that nation’s decision to phase out nuclear power plants while building new coal power plants. This was an undeniable mistake. But this mistake will not be undone any time soon, and even if it is, there is no reason to expect Germany’s support for wind and solar energy to end with it.
Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, and it appears Sweden and France, have also effectively banned any future expansion of nuclear energy. New nuclear reactor construction in the United States has stalled and virtually the entirety of the existing American, Japanese, and European reactor fleets will have be retired over the next thirty years.
Nuclear power can and should play a central role in global decarbonization, but it is just as foolish to think nuclear alone (or nuclear and solar alone) will power the planet any time soon.
In short, the only credible way the world can decarbonize includes a large-scale expansion of wind energy.
Indeed, for a group of authors who have oft-decried “energy technology tribalism” and chastised those who omit nuclear energy from their vision of a low-carbon future, it is striking to see wind and “other renewables” cast aside in this otherwise expansive vision of the future.
Embracing wind energy is consistent with a vision of a high-tech future of intensified land use
All of this does not address the core reason the Ecomodernist Manifesto appears to reject wind energy.
The argument can be put simply: wind farms require much more land than solar or nuclear energy, and therefore wind energy has much greater environmental impacts. From a scientific point of view, this is a valid hypothesis to propose. It is also a hypothesis that has very little foundation in the evidence.
It is true that wind farms do span wider swaths of land than the “high efficiency” solar farms the study embraces. A wind farm located in the middle of America will take up approximately four times as much land area as a solar farm in the California desert. But there is no reason to assume this will inherently lead to greater impacts on ecosystems or wildlife.
Wind farms take up a lot of land, but only a small fraction of this land is actually occupied by the turbines themselves or covered by access roads. In contrast, solar farms are made up of tightly packed solar arrays, which effectively blanket whatever land they are built upon.
If we consider land actually covered or taken out of otherwise productive uses, wind farms actually require on the order of one-fifteenth as much land as a well-sited solar farm.
Simple land use metrics are also a poor proxy for true environmental impact. The truth is we simply do not know if wind farms have greater impacts on wildlife, nature or biodiversity than solar or nuclear energy. There has been very little scientific research (at least that we are aware of) systematically comparing the ecological impacts of different energy sources. More to the point, the authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto provide no evidence themselves to justify the implication that large-scale wind energy development is inconsistent with an ecomodern energy future.
We fundamentally question the view that wind farms leave “less room for nature” and argue that smart use of wind energy is wholly consistent with the ecomodernist’s call to intensify land use.
Anyone who has visited a wind farm will know that there is in fact a lot of room for nature within the area spanned by the wind farm.
The claim really seems to be that wind farms leave less room for nature without obvious signs of human interference. We can only agree that there are few more obvious symbols of human interference than a skyscraper sized mass of concrete, steel and fiberglass extracting energy from winds to power urban civilization.
Yet this is an aesthetic question. The animals that supposedly are being given less room by wind farms do not have aesthetic feelings. With the exception of the western Sage-Grouse, most species are perfectly happy to live alongside wind turbines, and that’s assuming we choose to develop otherwise undisturbed land.
Clearly, cattle or corn care even less about sharing space with some giant turbines, and that’s where building wind energy goes hand in hand with intensifying agriculture and other land uses.
Image source: Shutterstock
A vast amount of land is now devoted to agricultural purposes worldwide. In America, China, India, France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain, and many other countries, over 40 percent of land is agricultural. Much of this land can and should be shared between wind farms and farming. In fact, the dual use of agricultural land and wind farms is most likely wholly preferable to the conversion of agricultural land into exclusive use as solar farms.
The manifesto’s reasons for ommitting wind power from its energy vision therefore appear to be on remarkably shaky ground. There is little scientific justification for rejecting the large-scale expansion of wind farms on the grounds of biodiversity impact. The case may exist, but the authors of the manifesto have not made it.
Furthermore, no matter how intensive agriculture becomes in an ecomodern future, there will be vast areas of land already actively managed and disturbed for human purposes. Populating these landscapes with wind turbines would further intensify their productive activity with minimal direct land use impact.
Why we can’t yet embrace the Ecomodernist Manifesto
In the end, climate change is a war that must not be lost, and we have limited weapons. Yet, the Ecomodernist Manifesto appears to want to limit us to two: nuclear and solar energy.
We do not believe this is a wise strategy to be embraced by humanity or by a fledgling ecomodernism movement. Every available effective tool—and wind energy is certainly one of them—must be used to combat climate change.
The omission of wind energy from this first attempt to create a modern environmental movement is thus an unfortunate and un-pragmatic decision. It makes it difficult for us to embrace what is otherwise a compelling document. We imagine we are not alone.
Anyone attempting to build an inclusive new brand of environmentalism would do well to embrace a wider, and more well-reasoned, set of modern energy technologies. Until they do, we cannot endorse the Ecomodernist Manifesto.
Jesse Jenkins is a researcher, consultant, and writer who helms the Full Spectrum column at The Energy Collective. You can follow him on Twitter @JesseJenkins. Robert Wilson is a researcher in ecology and writer on energy who runs the Carbon Counter blog. You can follow him on Twitter @CountCarbon.