Saturday, January 8, 2022

COP26 and Geoethics

by David Ovadia*

David Ovadia is an IAPG member, former coordinator of IAPG-UK. He was the Director of International at the British Geological Survey and is currently the Chairman of Golden Metal Resources Ltd., but writes here in a personal capacity.

Picture credit: Photo by Max Harlynking from Burst.

David Ovadia
I was asking myself about the implications from COP26 on Geoethics. The main message from Glasgow was that much of the world has agreed to move to net carbon zero during the next few decades as the main way of mitigating anthropogenic climate change. This will reduce the use of fossil fuels and increase renewable power generation. Given that the raison d'être of many geoscientists, directly or indirectly is in support of the natural resources extractives sector, is it ethically right to promote the elimination of coal and oil and other minerals, and the jobs they pay for, including those in their related academic fields? Of course it is …. but wait, is it that simple?

Let us look for a moment at wind generation of electricity. Love them or hate them, our hills and offshores are becoming covered by more and more wind turbines. During their operating lifetime, we can look forward to them producing wonderful carbon free electricity to heat our homes, power our factories and fuel our electric vehicles, provided the wind is blowing, of course. So we can calculate the total number of gigawatt hours of green energy that each one will produce over, say, a 25 year period of operation. Except that we have to subtract from that number the gigawatt hours equivalent of energy that is required to mine the bauxite, convert it to aluminium and then manufacture the blades for use in said wind turbine. And then there is the very significant amount of energy required to produce the massive concrete base to which the turbine is fixed, and mine the tons of copper to make the miles of copper cables that are needed to connect it to the grid and deliver the power, and fuel the helicopters and boats and trucks needed to service and maintain the turbine. You will get the idea …. a lot of mainly hydrocarbon energy has to go into the equation to get green energy out of it. But how much goes in and how much comes out? I do not know and nowhere I have looked seems to tell me, probably because it is politically expedient to avoid such awkward calculations that might, or might not, reveal that wind power is not so green after all. And geologists employed to find (or to give university lectures on) copper or bauxite or rare earths might not be too keen to ask these questions either. But if ethics are about honesty and transparency, should not the matter be looked into, and if so, by whom?

Let us consider the matter of nuclear power. The ethical considerations relating to this get very interesting and go well beyond Geoethics themselves, although geoscientists should be taking and publicising a position on it. Is it morally and ethically correct if an economically developed, democratic western country turns its back on nuclear energy under pressure from the green lobby only to replace the energy by sourcing natural gas obtained from potentially undemocratic places where human rights are compromised. Should not the geoscientists be presenting an honest and fair picture of the risks and rewards of nuclear power, including micro-nuclear, that include proper and full explanations of how and where to source uranium and how to dispose of nuclear waste in geological settings?
Similar considerations apply to electric vehicles. Aside from the true greenness of the electricity that fuels them, geoscientists are pivotal to the supply of lithium, nickel and other minerals essential to the batteries, and the disposal or recycling thereof at their end of life.

I suspect that most people reading this will think that it is all very obvious but not the business of geoscientists to comment, because it is political rather than scientific. In my view, not commenting is unethical and dishonest. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that, in many countries, governments have made difficult decisions based on clear, open and transparent science. The maxim “scientists advise, ministers decide” is often said and seems to be acceptable to the general public. But I am not seeing anything like the same level of clear, open and transparent advice going from geoscientists to decision makers on the other important matter of 2021, climate change. From what I saw of COP26, everyone who attended, including the media, went in with more-or-less the same opinions and left with those same opinions strengthened. There was little true scientific debate, only arguments about time scales and how much money should be flowing from one place to another to pay for it. Geoscientists should be at the forefront of providing evidence based advice, yet seem strangely muted. Our ethics are about telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so I look forward to hearing more loudly from the geoscience community on all aspects of the outcomes from COP26.


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IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics

1 comment:

  1. WRT wind power: A quick web search brought me to, for example, this publication:
    In general, for current wind turbines, energy payback times seem to be between a couple of month (good locations) and a year (more conservative estimates, worse locations).