Posts Tagged ‘solar energy’

Misinformation in Planet of the Humans

April 30, 2020

Jeff Gibbs’ new documentary, Planet of the Humans, is raising a lot of hackles. Strangely enough, the documentary appeals to pseudo-skeptics as well as anti-capitalists and neo-Malthusians, but of course for very different reasons.

Pseudo-skeptics love the film’s indictment of renewable energy and the environmental movement, especially since a left-wing icon like Michael Moore is associated with the film as its executive producer.

Some fervent environmentalists, on the other hand, applaud the film’s underlying message – that overpopulation and capitalism are the source of all evil – and apparently turn a blind eye to the many falsehoods it contains.

Because the documentary is full of it. To give an example: they claim that it takes more energy to produce solar panels than they produce during their lifetime. That’s not true. The energy payback time is a few years. Many of the clips and numbers mentioned (such as the efficiency of solar panels) are already 10 years old.  And contrary to what is argued in the film, electric vehicles emit less CO2 than their gasoline counterparts, even if the electricity is derived from the grid. The unsubstantiated attacks on renewable energy probably originate at least in part from Ozzie Zehner, author of the book “Green Illusions” and producer of the documentary, in which he features as an expert while spouting untruths.

The film also takes aim at some high profile environmentalists, such as Bill McKibben of 350.org. McKibben responds here to the allegations made against him.

Despite all the misinformation, is there also something positive to say about the documentary? Valid points are certainly being raised, but they are barely elaborated on and any nuance or context is sorely lacking. Yes, using wood pellets as an energy source in power stations can be legitimately criticized, but no, that does not mean that all biomass energy is ‘bad’ by definition. Contrary to what is insinuated in the film, many environmental organizations are in fact extremely critical – and sometimes downright dismissive – of biomass as an energy source. The sustainability of biomass critically depends on how and where it is produced.

The documentary doesn’t seem to be primarily concerned with mitigating climate change; it’s chiefly an indictment of the capitalist system and its reliance on economic growth. There is certainly a good discussion to be had about this, but unfortunately this film doesn’t contribute to such, due to the many inaccuracies and the lack of any depth and nuance.

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To see this in context, the Kaya identity is a useful tool:

In the Kaya identity, the CO2 emissions (left hand side) are decomposed into various factors, namely (in order of appearance on the right hand side) the number of people; economic productivity per capita; energy intensity of the economy; CO2-intensity of energy. This is essentially a specific form of the I=PAT equation: Impact = Population × Affluence × Technology.

In order to bring CO2 emissions to zero, we will have to use CO2-free energy and use it more efficiently. That is what we aim to achieve with the energy transition. Population growth and economic growth can only be controlled to a very limited extent, aside from the question of its desirability.

The effect of economic welfare and population can be clearly seen in the world map below, where the size of each country is scaled according to their CO2 emissions. It is clear that the richer countries emit many times more CO2 than the poorer countries. The difference is in some cases more than a factor 100. Population growth is highest in poor countries, where the per capita emissions are only a fraction of those in the rich part of the world. Pointing to population growth as the most important factor behind the climate crisis, as argued in the film, is therefore very cynical.

Yes, there are good reasons to question over-consumption, but no, limiting economic growth is not going to keep warming below one and a half degrees. I don’t think poor countries will be enamoured by rich white men from the West (“Stupid White Men” by Michael Moore is on my bookshelf) denying them of their economic development. After all, how else do the filmmakers envisage that CO2 emissions will be brought down?

Low-CO2 energy sources are indispensable to achieve that goal, no matter how you slice it. The pros and cons of different energy sources certainly need to be discussed. But as with the discussion about climate science: please leave out demonstrable untruths. Misinformation, as this film provides in truckloads, does not contribute to the discussion. To the contrary.

Zie de Nederlandse versie op ons klimaatverandering blog.

Other sources:

Planet of the humans: A reheated mess of lazy, old myths

Michael Moore produced a film about climate change that’s a gift to Big Oil

Moore’s Boorish Planet of The Humans: An Annotated Collection


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