Environmental costs of worldly virtue

Now, my problem is that if somebody talks about a sure-fire and simple way of saving the environment, I’ll immediately ask how it works (in detail), what the down-sides are and, of course, the rather obvious one of whether it even works behind the green hype. For some reason, that seems to be an uncommon thing to do, even for governments.

So, today I learned the “good news” that the Baptist Union has divested from all fossil fuel interests, which means that our own church funds invested with them are now rendered much cleaner and greener. Only I’m not sure how that works: if I sell my shares in Mars Ltd to reduce sugar in the national diet by bankrupting them (but only if everyone else also sells), while I keep eating Mars Bars and therefore creating consumer demand, it’s at best useless, and at worst transparently hypocritical.

“Divesting” means no more than cashing in your own oil profits at a certain point, and thereby presumably marginally reducing the share price for the person who buys them from you and carries on the support. That worked particularly well for the Rockefeller family, who gained kudos and cash whilst simply diverting their oil portfolio to faceless hedge funds now operating in China.

The oil companies prospect for oil and gas because there is a public demand for energy for heating and electricity, for vehicle fuel for cars, trucks, ships, planes, and space rockets, for making concrete for most of our infrastructure including wind turbines, and of course they are the source of petrochemicals for the plastics that make everything from food packaging to solar panels. Oh yes – don’t forget the fertilizers that feed the world and depend on oil. That’s a lot of dirty activity to divest from, and doesn’t leave a lot to keep society going.

I’ve written a little here – and there are plenty of sources elsewhere – to show how utopian the idea of a prosperous world free of fossil fuels actually is. For example, even in the sphere of renewable energy it is becoming increasingly clear that, despite the massive subsidies, you still need all the same fossil fuel capacity as reliable back-up when sun and wind fail, as they did in a freezing America earlier this year and a cold Europe more recently. And nobody is pushing hard, either, for all the giant container ships to be nuclear, or rowed by banks of Congolese child-slaves (they can’t be spared from mining cobalt for our batteries, I suppose).

If the oil companies did go bankrupt, all these products would cease to exist, but as that point approached there would be no way for the BU to control whether the increasing shortages would hit essential pharmaceuticals, Baptist Times packaging or food deliveries first. What would limit the prospecting for fossil fuels, albeit minimally, would be for all Baptists to refuse to buy oil to heat their houses or fuel their hybrid vehicles, to turn off their mains electricity, to refuse on principle to own plastic-containing goods such as smart phones, cars, solar panels, polycarbonate double-glazing, cavity-wall insulation, synthetic fabrics, or baby-bottles, and of course never to buy anything with plastic packaging. They might do better to hire some energy economists to work out a carbon-free world that doesn’t involve totalitarian government and mass starvation.

Now it is true that oil companies are no better than other corporations in how they rack up demand. Though it seems to me that most of that market-creation happened in the early twentieth century. It’s hard to find nowadays the kind of lobbying for oil that vaccine companies are putting into pushing annual experimental vaccines on the whole world, without any Baptist protest.

But the corporations are cleverer than the average Baptist, who has no idea that oil interests are behind much pro-renewable, anti-nuclear lobbying. For the corporations have studied the economics and know that renewables will always require fossil fuel backup, to which nuclear is the only alternative, and therefore worth demonising. Additionally by providing back-up for renewables, they can collect government subsidies (see Michael Shellenberger’s revealing Apocalypse Never). All they have to do is keep the real work reasonably quiet behind a barrage of “Big Oil Bad” messaging, which does them no real harm at all.

In other words, divestment is ineffective virtue-signalling, communicated to the world by electronic communications fuelled by fossil energy and operating on plastic i-Phones. It is like travelling to climate conferences on private jets, or carbon-fibre catamarans, only less fun.

No, rather than forgoing the benefits of fossil fuels oneself, it’s easier to denounce oil companies, and particularly Exxon, because Greenpeace‘s habitual policy is to choose individual scapegoats to target – not a practice entirely compatible with biblical justice.

At the same time, ecologically minded churches like mine add to the ineffective activism by promoting personal waste recycling. We all go along with that as a civic ritual, naturally, but we ought to be asking what that effort is achieving now that China has been refusing our plastic waste for a couple of years. At best, effective recycling was always more or less limited to plastic bottles. Although other specific plastic categories have been theoretically added to that “Type 1” plastic, in practice the process of waste export was always very opaque, and a majority of what went to China was probably rejected because of poor sorting and ended up in landfill – or in the ocean. If you doubt the lack of successful recycling, ask yourself why even polluting China stopped doing it for good dollars.

What recycling facilities exist here still regularly reject whole batches of badly cleaned and sorted plastics from councils. But their capacity is anyway low, and in practice the alternatives for your milk bottles are mostly the hotly contested landfill or incineration, each of which has its proponents.

Briefly incineration can provide useful local energy (eg for making concrete, or to power small generators), but produces greenhouse gases and toxic products. However, decent plants can minimise the latter, making the dreaded CO2 the thing to avoid if you want to be green. Landfill produces some methane and little CO2, but clogs up the planet with plastics. All the pundits are agreed that the real solution is to produce less plastic. But spurious recycling programmes militate against that by making us feel virtuous as we use ecologically green bins to send our yoghurt pots to be burned or dumped where we don’t see, rather than choose products more wisely or call out the vested green interests covering up the truth. So you’ll go for incineration if piles of plastic are your concern, and for landfill if the climate worries you more. You can’t have it both ways.

Nevertheless today, along with the Baptist Union’s share dealings, I learned that Tesco are now recycling the rubbishy soft and crinkly plastics that the council won’t take. Being me, I wondered how they could possibly succeed profitably where non-profit councils, and even the Chinese, cannot. The answer is that they have made a contract with a company that subjects the plastic to “pyrolysis,” which is essentially burning with minimal oxygen, to create oils, which are then sent to another firm to be refined, and then to a third to be re-synthesized into the plastics that Tesco will include as a small percentage of new packaging. Tesco hope to recoup the cost, I guess, by green virtue-signalling that increases footfall.

A blog post (with a thorough and briskly argumentative comments section), which simplifies an academic paper, explains why this is a bad idea. Another article independently dismisses it as a “greenwashing” delusion.

The core problem is fundamental thermodynamics, and is therefore insuperable. However you approach it, if you are honest about the total energy balance (which companies using it aren’t, either through ignorance or deception), the process is highly energy expensive. Whether the oil you produce is processed, using yet more energy, into more plastics, or burned as fuel, you will have used far more energy obtaining it than you would have gained if you’d simply incinerated the plastics. You’ll have multiplied the CO2 emissions, with just as much of a problem with toxic products, only this time not in landfill or an incinerator, but concentrated in food packaging.

The first article’s author, Andrew Rollinson, with long experience of actually managing pyrolysis plants, estimates they use from 5-87 times more energy than they get out as fuel, the main focus of his interest. This is heat energy, which really cannot be provided in sufficient quantities from your local wind-turbine or solar array. Usually it will come from the grid. So one way or the other, Tesco will be burning 5-87% more fossil fuel to produce their oil, and a whole lot more in the complex endothermic processes of purification and re-synthesis, in order to produce your tokenly-green recycled plastic packaging. That doesn’t include the fuel used in transporting the stuff around the country multiple times.

All that, of course, means that avoiding landfilling your cheese wrapper is only achieved at the price of orders of magnitude more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than if you’d stuck it in general waste and lobbied your County Council for an incinerator. I don’t see any calculus on which that is good for the environment. I don’t have much virtue, but I’d rather have even an ounce of the real thing than 87 tonnes of counter-productive virtue-signalling.

Such recycling does, though, produce tangible benefits for investors in fossil fuel companies – if you haven’t already divested from them.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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1 Response to Environmental costs of worldly virtue

  1. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Late comment: to the extent that divesting from oil has worked, it has hampered exploration and development of resources that resulted in a massive increase in fossil fuel prices even before the West decided to impose sanctions on Russia and blow up pipelines.

    We can therefore see firsthand the benefits of divesting from oil – the destruction of the West, and as a direct result, the reversal of development in poorer countries, which can’t compete with the West which can, at the moment, afford to hog the limited supplies.

    Thanks a bunch, Baptist Union: you’ve helped the human condition no end.

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