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Technology won’t save us

Foto: RO Photography

‘The possibilities are overrated’

Technology won’t save us

Electric cars and using biomass for co-fuelling is intended to decrease the emission of greenhouse gases. But as Jan Hessels Miedema points out in his thesis, that’s not going to happen.
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

He was so optimistic. When Miedema started his research into the impact of technological innovations on the reduction of greenhouse gases, he was still looking for solutions to fix the problem. But over the course of his research he started losing hope. ‘The possibilities of technology are chronically overrated’, he says.

He looked at three types of technology that Europe – and our own government – is using to combat global warming: electric cars on lithium batteries, using biomass to co-fuel coal-fired plants, and green gas to heat houses. Our government has already realised that the second tactic doesn’t work: biomass co-fuelling might produce less CO2, but harvesting and using it also places a burden on the environment. ‘All in all, it might even be worse for the environment than just the coal-fired plants.’

150 million

Lithium batteries in cars seems like a better idea. There’s good reason our government wants to stimulate electric driving. But there are issues here, too. Between now and the year 2050, the year our emissions need to be reduced to zero according to the Paril Climate Accords, another 150 million cars will be produced, Miedema calculated.

There simply isn’t enough lithium in the world to make batteries for each and every one of them. At least 50 million of these cars will have to be fuelled some other way. With hydrogen, for example. But people will also still be driving today’s cars. In short, we’ll be driving so much that the emissions will continue to increase.

Our last hope was ‘green gas’ produced by burning biomass. ‘But because it would take so long to implement these new techniques, it won’t start mattering until 2035 or 2040’, says Miedema. ‘That means it’s not a solution to our current problems.’

‘We’re heading towards a crisis of materials’, says Miedema. ‘Our entire society is carbon-based. We don’t just use it to fuel things; it’s in plastic, medication, anything you can think of. So what happens when we run out? We can’t afford to simply burn out. We also need resources to build the other technologies, such as solar panels and wind parks, and we simply don’t have enough. Prices will rise. We might be able to pay for it in Europe, but this is a global issue.’

Legitimise

Miedema admits he’s only calculated the impact of three technologies out of several. But no matter how much he looked at other innovations, he always ended up with the same results: every inroad we make is negated by our need for economic growth. ‘A hundred years ago, the internal combustion motor used a litre of petrol for every three kilometres. That’s evolved to 1 in 30. There’s a limit to how efficient we can make it, but we keep pretending we can beat the consequences in an effort to legitimise what we’re doing.’

So we will not be solving this problem by 2050, he says. Nevertheless, he refuses to give up. In his new position as an environmental physics teacher at Van Hall Laren university of applied sciences, he is trying to figure out how to deal with the consequences of consumer behaviour. ‘We have to start using a different system’, he says. ‘We have to start recycling and design things to last beyond their first life to their second, third, or even fourth life.’

So what about growth? We have to stop prioritising growth, because it’s becoming impossible. We have to think about what we want and what’s truly important to us. ‘We can make do with less and still be happy.’

He fantasises about a service economy. As long as Philips makes money on light bulbs, it’s in their interest for those bulbs to break easily. But if manufacturers start ‘renting’ light for a small fee, light bulbs can be made to last up to twenty years.

He is worried, though. ‘The discussion is taking much too long, and no one is making any decisions. The question is how much time we even have left to talk about it.’

Nederlands

09 January 2019 | 9-1-2019, 12:01
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