There’s nothing easy about being green: Some words on energy

The term “green” guides our thinking about the future of energy supplies. Yet the word stands in the way of rational thinking about protecting the environment and climate. Energy is ready for a new language.


By Mirjam Vossen


Felled trees. Wood and other solid biofuels supply the largest proportion of renewable energy in the European Union. (Photo: Alexander Schimmeck/Unsplash)


Suddenly, massive opposition to biomass broke out. A damning report, published in 2019, showed that a biomass power station emits more nitrogen, particulate matter and CO2 than a coal-fired one.

Over here in the Netherlands, this put Swedish energy company Vattenfall in the spotlight, as it was about to open a new wood-burning plant near Amsterdam. Due to mounting protest, Vattenfall hastily shelved plans for more biomass plants. Never before has biomass caused such media hype, with newspapers and journals filled with images of felled forests and smoking chimneys.

The confusion was considerable. After all, together with solar, wind and hydro, biomass belongs to the so-called “green”, “renewable” and “sustainable” group of energy sources. And more than that: the spectacular growth of “green energy” in our country, as well as others, comes for the most part from biomass. In 2018, biomass made up no less than 61 per cent of energy consumption from renewable sources. Solar and wind trailed far behind at 23 and 8 per cent respectively.

The report showed that biomass is not so sustainable and green after all. It raised important questions: How did biomass end up in the green and sustainable corner? When do we call an energy source sustainable? Are there other energy sources that do not deserve this designation? Ultimately, how useful is this sustainable, green label?

Never before has biomass caused such media hype, with newspapers and journals filled with images of felled forests and smoking chimneys.

In the 1970s, the seeds were sown for what we today call renewable energy: energy derived from natural sources that are replenished at a higher rate than they are consumed. Climate change was not on our minds. We had other concerns.

Those old enough remember the empty streets during car-free Sundays. In 1973, an oil crisis drew our attention not only to our dependence on oil-producing Arab countries, but also to the fact that fossil fuels could run out. Coal, oil and natural gas were finite. We had to look for alternatives. We thought we had the answer: renewable energy sources.

The emerging environmental movement put this theme on the agenda. In 1976, US energy analyst and environmentalist Amory Lovins wrote an influential essay in Foreign Affairs. He argued we needed to move towards soft energy paths: energy from renewable sources such as solar, wind, hydropower and biomass, generated on a small-scale and decentralised basis. These “soft paths” were opposed to “hard paths”: energy from finite fuels, generated on a large scale in coal, gas and nuclear power plants.

Lovins’ plea was successful. Along these lines, the environmental movement brought renewable and small-scale generated energy into the “good” camp. The rest ended up in the “bad” camp.

Green became a symbol for good energy, depicted with photos of leaves. Opposed was grey, a symbol of bad energy, portrayed by smoke plumes from power plants.

In the years that followed, the battle line between good and bad energy was cast in stone. This was especially true of nuclear energy, which ended up on the wrong side. Incidentally, resistance to nuclear power was fueled not only by ill-founded concerns about finite supplies of uranium, but also by worries about the nuclear arms race. Greenpeace was founded in 1971 by Canadian peace activists opposing underground nuclear tests in Alaska. The emerging environmental movement and the established peace movement fused in their opposition to nuclear weapons and nuclear plants.

Green entered the energy story with the name Greenpeace. The colour became an increasingly powerful symbol for good energy, depicted with drawings and photos of leaves, plants and nature. Opposed to this was grey, a symbol of bad energy, portrayed by dirty smoke plumes from the chimneys of power plants – a gloomy colour we should not want.

Today, the future of our energy supply is in peril once more. However, it is not about running out of resources, since new fields of natural gas have been discovered, and new ways of extracting natural gas have been commercialised. Today we are looking for energy sources that can reduce CO2 emissions. The energy debate has moved from scarcity to climate.

But while our concerns have fundamentally shifted, our language remains the same. We still use the same green and grey labels for energy. The division into good and bad energy that served decades ago to draw attention to depletion of energy supplies, today serves as a guideline for tackling the climate problem – and as we will see, this is not a useful measure.

While our concerns shifted from resources scarcity to climate change, our language remains the same.

Meanwhile, a new term emerged: sustainability. “Sustainable development” took on meaning in 1987 in the report Our Common Future by the UN Brundtland Commission. Development is sustainable if it meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. Hence, with respect to energy, environmental aspects such as CO2 emissions should be taken into account.

Soon the terms green, renewable and sustainable became interchangeable. Many use these terms as synonyms. Google “green energy” and you end up with information on solar and wind.

This is not at all surprising, because there is overlap. Sustainable, just like renewable, means that our energy consumption must not exhaust the available raw materials. But sustainability is about much more. Social and economic aspects also play a role. Renewable energy not only saves raw materials, but also emits no air pollution or CO2. Sustainable means clean, reliable, accessible and affordable for everyone.

In the light of sustainability, much renewable energy is highly problematic. Burning wood pellets in biomass plants is anything but clean and CO2-free. According to the Dutch report on biomass, generating electricity in a small biomass power station causes up to 20 per cent more emissions of CO2, particulate matter and nitrogen than a power station that runs entirely on coal.

Soon the terms green, renewable and sustainable became interchangeable. Many use these terms as synonyms.

And sun and wind are certainly not reliable – on a foggy and still day, wind turbines and solar panels are of little use. For solar panels, metals such as tellurium and indium must be mined, and these are not yet recycled. No one yet knows what to do with the growing mountain of discarded solar panels, which are already ending up in African landfill sites. The same applies to waste from wind turbines. Germany expects 70,000 tonnes of rotor blades to be discarded every year from 2024. Recycling is still in its infancy. In Wyoming, the blades are buried underground.

Such a list of disadvantages does not mean we should dismiss these energy sources. If anything, it shows that no single energy source is perfect. An energy mix with a lot of renewable energy is not automatically a sustainable energy mix.

For example, the list of countries that consume the most renewable energy per person is led by Congo, Ethiopia and Chad: poverty-stricken countries where the majority of people cook indoors and warm themselves with smoky wood fires. Massive deforestation is the result, and lung disease is one of the leading causes of death. Traditional biomass is still the most important source of renewable energy worldwide, accounting for 60–70 per cent of the total.

Obviously, biomass plants in the Netherlands have little to do with massive deforestation for traditional biomass in Africa. But there is no doubt that the sustainable label attached to biomass raises important questions.

An energy mix with a lot of renewable energy is not automatically a sustainable energy mix.

These question marks can also be placed at the other end of the energy spectrum. There, nuclear energy, together with coal, oil and natural gas, is stuck in the corner of grey energy sources. Yet when we consider the entire lifespan of nuclear power plants, nuclear energy is one of the lowest-carbon energy sources available. Like solar panels and wind turbines, nuclear plants do not pollute the air. And unlike solar and wind, nuclear power uses very little land area.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states in its 2018 report that nuclear energy is necessary to achieve its climate goals. But in politics, parties who say they’re most concerned about climate change are, along with Greenpeace and other environmental groups, the fiercest opponents of nuclear energy.

After forty years, the “renewable story”, including biomass, is still in the bloodstream of European energy policy. It is taken for granted that renewable energy is also sustainable energy, and that it will contribute to the reduction of CO2 emissions. And that non-renewable energy, including nuclear, does not.

Like solar panels and wind turbines, nuclear plants do not pollute the air. And unlike solar and wind, nuclear power uses very little land area.

For example, the European Commission’s Energy Roadmap states that by 2050, at least 55 per cent of all energy must be renewable. The European Commission’s Green Deal sees a key role for the “development of an energy sector that is largely based on renewable sources”.

The business community follows suit with its own renewable energy agenda. Google, Apple and Facebook want to reach 100 per cent renewable energy, or have already achieved that goal. Where that renewable electricity comes from, and whether it contributes to stopping climate change – those questions are not asked.

For example, countries and companies – encouraged to achieve a high percentage of renewables – can make a good impression by rejecting low-carbon nuclear plants and embracing CO2-emitting biomass plants. The current switch to renewable energy is a 20th century solution to a 21st century problem.

Assuming equivalence between green, sustainable and renewable energy is problematic and a major obstacle to tackling climate change. We need a new language to talk about energy resources. A language that does justice to the most important tasks facing the global energy transition: combating climate change and guaranteeing sufficient affordable and clean energy – including in countries such as Congo, Ethiopia and Chad.

To this end, we must get rid of simple labels such as green and grey, which put energy sources into equally simple boxes of good and bad. Each energy form has its advantages and disadvantages, and each energy source has qualities that are more or less favourable compared to others. The energy discussion should be about the choice we make. We can’t do that with an outdated, deceptively simple format that only uses two words.

Assuming equivalence between green, sustainable and renewable energy is problematic and a major obstacle to tackling climate change.

In short, we need to replace the concept of “renewable energy” with something better. The Finnish researchers Atte Harjanne and Janne Korhonen have made a first attempt. They started with the question of which energy sources have the best properties to combat climate change and keep the air clean. We know that these are energy sources that are low-carbon and that emit little CO2. They are also sources that generate energy without combustion, so the air remains free of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

On a horizontal axis of low-carbon, and a vertical axis of clean air, a quadrant is created whereby four types of energy sources are given a place. In the worst quadrant are the fossil fuels that emit large amounts of carbon and pollute the air: coal, oil, gas and – in the short term – biomass.

The most favourable quadrant contains CO2 energy sources that do not pollute the air: solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal energy and nuclear energy. This means that nuclear, along with solar and wind, ends up in the corner of the climate champions. Biomass comes out as a mid-range instrument at best: it doesn’t make the air any cleaner, and will only become CO2-neutral in the longer term.

The low-carbon and clean air quadrant does more justice to the different qualities of different energy sources. This schedule is not perfect. Because what is good for the climate is not necessarily the energy source that can most quickly provide people in Chad, Congo and Ethiopia with reliable and affordable electricity. Nor does it have to be the best for plants, animals and the environment.

It may be impossible to summarise everything in one model. That will be a disappointment to those used to the clear labels of green and grey. But letting go of these deceptive terms is a starting point for a more informed conversation about our energy future.


Mirjam Vossen is a media framing expert from the Netherlands, and involved with RePlanet Research Institute. This article appeared first in Trouw.


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