Environment and development: a Copernican revolution to shift from 'defensive' environmentalism to propulsive ecological transition

Commentary: There are currently the conditions and instruments to reconcile the needs of progress and growth with the sacrosanct need to improve the protection of the ecosystem in which we live

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On November 17, 2018, at 7.30 a.m., near the Paris métro station of Porte Maillot, several hundred people - all wearing the motorcyclists’ yellow reflective vests and waistcoats - started a protest demonstration against President Macron’s government. The protest then spread to the entire French metropolitan territory and lasted almost a year with a toll of 15 deaths and several hundred injuries.

It was the protest of the so called 'gilet jaunes', employees and workers of all levels who took to the streets, after a mobilization via Facebook, to protest - at least initially - against the increase in fuel prices decided by the French President to curb carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere and hence try to reach the threshold of CO2 emission containment provided for by the 2012 Paris Agreements aimed at combating global warming and the climate emergency.

The decision taken by President Macron and his Ministers to protect the environment by increasing taxes, thus triggering the violent demonstrations of the "gilet jaunes", is a classic example of what we could define as "defensive environmentalism". It is the kind of approach - unfortunately very much linked to an outdated environmental ideology, which, faced with the actual or potential damage caused by man to nature with the tools essential to the development of the economies in the third millennium, attempts to curb the negative impact with bans, controls, barriers, taxes and excise duties.

It is a type of environmental 'protection' which, far from leading to the 'happy degrowth' so dear to Rousseau and his modern followers, is inevitably bound to lead to 'unhappy degrowth' and the inevitable collapse of highly industrialized economies, without which it would be impossible to ensure the survival of the seven billion inhabitants of this planet.

This is not to argue that economic progress should proceed regardless of the environmental damage that its pursuit causes.

Quite the reverse.

There are currently the conditions and instruments to reconcile the needs of progress and growth with the sacrosanct need to improve the protection of the ecosystem in which we live.

For centuries man has fed and heated himself using the first available energy sources, namely wood and coal.

Coal was the protagonist of the first industrial revolution, when it was used not only to heat homes, but above all to power the steam turbines that drove textile machines, ships and trains.

Coal as a source of energy also played a leading role in the second industrial revolution, mainly with oil and its gaseous derivatives and, lastly, (dangerous) nuclear energy, thus contributing to lay the foundations of the world in which we currently live - a world in which population growth and the impressive rise in population’s average life expectancy bear witness to the undeniable success of science and human enterprise.

All this has had a cost: in view of growing and getting better, we have progressively impoverished and damaged the environment in which we live. This has increased the drive to protect the environment with the approach described above.

Protection through bans and prohibitions.

Cutting down on the use of polluting energy sources by increasing taxes on their production, without taking into account the related negative economic and social effects which then lead to political and subversive consequences such as the 'Gilet Jaunes' protest.

In recent years, however, thanks to the commitment of good researchers and 'brave captains' from small, medium and large enterprises, the idea that the environment can be protected without bridling and holding back progress with costs and bans imposed authoritatively, often on the wave of anti-scientific ideological pressures, has gained ground at global level.

This major paradigm shift is based on the discovery that natural renewable energy sources such as sun, wind and sea waves can not only reduce world pollution levels, but also contribute to healthy and 'clean' growth for all mankind.

It is no coincidence that, at the end of last year - after three decades of whirlwind growth which, while significantly improving population's living conditions, have nevertheless led to environmental and atmospheric pollution rates that are sometimes incompatible with human life, and in any case deadly for flora and fauna - China decided to launch its 14th five-year plan that envisages cutting CO2 emissions by 65% within 2030 compared to 2005.

With a view to reaching these results, the Chinese government has promoted cooperation agreements with Europe. Furthermore, thanks to the commitment of the young Minister of Natural Resources, Lu Hao, it has boosted research and development in the field of renewables for the production of electricity from water and hydrogen.

Hydrogen can become the link between progress, development and protection of the ecosystem, as well as the driving force behind the 'ecological transition' that many governments, including Italy’s, now consider a fundamental factor of economic growth based on 'propulsive environmentalism', i.e. environmentalism that is no longer paralyzing and anti-scientific, but is the source of an industrial reconversion aimed at 'clean' growth and global development.

Hydrogen is not only the first element in Mendeleev's Periodic Table, but also the most abundant one on the planet and in the entire universe.

However, it is not available in its gaseous form in nature, as it is always bound to other elements, such as oxygen, in water (H2O) and methane (CH4). 

Therefore, in order to be used as a gaseous form of energy, hydrogen must first be 'separated' from the other elements that bind it - a process that requires energy and, as far as separation from methane is concerned, can produce environmentally harmful and polluting greenhouse gases, the so-called 'grey hydrogen'.

But why is hydrogen used? The answer is very simple: because it is a lighter-than-air, non-toxic gas that - if properly extracted and stored - can be used as a source of energy for heating, for propelling cars, trains and rockets, and for replacing all non-renewable and polluting energy sources in industrial production processes.

The best way to produce clean hydrogen, the so-called 'green hydrogen' to distinguish it from 'grey hydrogen' coming from methane, is to extract it from water through electrolysis, a chemical process of water splitting which, however, has the defect of requiring a considerable amount of electricity –currently produced with traditional systems, i.e. with non-renewables - to obtain significant quantities of storable and usable gas.

In short, the paradox is that in order to obtain a clean source of energy that is abundantly available in nature, expensive and polluting systems and equipment need to be used.

This paradox has held back the production of industrial hydrogen until the idea of creating a sort of 'circular economy' has taken shape in the hydrogen production cycle. It is a cycle that plans to use the electricity produced by natural or artificial sea waves to activate the electrolytic process that, by separating hydrogen from oxygen in seawater, produces a renewable energy source that is practically inexhaustible, with ever lower costs and in any case competitive with those incurred for the production of traditional and highly-polluting energy sources (coal, oil and gas).

Using renewable sources such as sun, wind, and above all sea waves, to produce an energetic and clean gas such as hydrogen may represent the solution to the development-environment equation in an acceptable and assertive manner.

If properly supported by politicians’ attention, motivation and momentum, hydrogen can be the basis for Italy’s recovery at the end of the pandemic crisis and be not only a source of non-polluting energy, but also of scientific, economic and political cooperation between Europe (with Italy in the forefront, owing to the level of its applied research), the United States and China, thus contributing not only to the recovery of economies and the environment, but also to the improvement of international relations.

 

Professor Valori is President of the International World Group

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