Planet of the Humans – Are renewables enough to reverse climate change?

Responding to the controversial documentary ‘Planet of the Humans’.

Writer: Jenny Katsouli
Editor: Lucy Masdin
Artist: Louisa Norton

The climate crisis has never seemed more pressing. Energy powers the heart of this raging war. Evil fossil fuel corporations battle to suppress wind and solar alternatives. Lobbyists from both parties clash to gain power. This portrayal of reality could be the new script of a Marvel film. But are things truly so black and white or are there more layers to our story?

Extreme climate phenomena have become an everyday reality across the globe. 2019 was the second hottest year on record. In Australia alone, bushfires killed more than 1 billion mammals, birds and reptiles. Ancient species went extinct in a matter of days, according to the University of Sydney. As a result, a global green movement which had been brewing for decades has now forcefully erupted. This year, Extinction Rebellion paralysed the city of London with protests. Democrats went head to head with Republicans regarding the Green New Deal in the United States. Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old environmental activist, sailed the North Atlantic Ocean to attend the United Nations Climate Actions Summit in New York, establishing her as the face of the teenage climate strikes. They all cry out in favour of clean renewable energy and the abolishment of the fossil fuel regime.

This spring, Academy award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore decided to add one more layer to our plot, abruptly turning it into a tragedy. Moore is one of the best-known investigative documentarists of our generation. His past influential work has shed light on the corruption of the American healthcare system, gun culture and capitalist greed. Planet of the Humans, his latest work, aims to address the climate crisis. So far, the publicly available documentary has had approximately 10 million views on YouTube. 

Poster for Planet of the Humans, a documentary directed by Jeff Gibbs and produced by Michael Moore.

Utter despair is experienced throughout the film by viewers as the narrator, Jeff Gibbs, argues that renewable energy is a hoax. Electric cars ultimately rely on coal and gas power grids. Solar panels work intermittently and ineffectively in adverse weather and need fuel backup to maintain power. Moreover, their production causes damage to the environment since they rely on quartz and coal mining. With an efficiency of less than 8%, it would require miles of solar farms to power a small city. Likewise, the production of wind turbines is powered by fossil fuels, forests must be cleared for their installation, and their life span is woefully limited. To top this off, the documentary testifies that large environmental organisations such as the Sierra Club are financially backed by corporate capitalists, suggesting that this renewable scam is the fossil fuel industry in disguise. 

These revelations were accompanied by gruesome imagery of dying animals, stripped-down forests and mining explosions. Jeff Gibbs argues that we have turned a blind eye to the climate crisis by resorting to renewables for salvation. The verdict was clear: renewables will not save this planet. Apparently, using more technology to fix the old technology is just a form of denial. But did all of those scientists, journalists, businesses, everyday people really put their faith in a lost cause? Did denial blind us to the truth behind renewable energy?

It was not surprising that the scientific and environmental community were thrown into uproar following the release of the documentary, with some arguing it should be taken down from YouTube. The first major criticism was the use of outdated footage from the ‘90s. Indeed, solar farms may have had 8% solar capture efficiency thirty years ago, but second-generation solar panels have doubled these values. Innovative third-generation multijunction CPV solar cells have reported efficiencies of over 40% in the lab. Nowadays, they are mounted on roofs of buildings in order to avoid wasting land space. Batteries are being developed to capture and store solar energy during adverse weather situations. It is important to consider that green energy is at its infancy and yet is innovating rapidly. Outdated footage is dangerous because it is misleading. You wouldn’t use a 30-year-old Nokia to describe the new iPhone… 

The film was also criticised for its lack of perspective. Indeed, energy and resources are expended to manufacture, transport, install and dismantle wind turbines. Therefore, the film concludes that the life cycle of wind turbines is catastrophic for the environment.  However, it does so before comparing it to our current alternatives. The greenhouse gas emissions of a coal power plant over its life cycle is about 3 times that of  onshore wind turbines and double that of offshore wind turbines. In fact, there are several published empirical outcome reports showing that countries that switched to more renewable energy sources were able to reduce their overall greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, researchers are continuing  to develop mitigation strategies to further reduce the carbon footprint of renewable energy.

That said, the film does raise an important point. Electric cars are only as green as the energy that powers them. But should this be a reason to abandon them and go back to our old ways? Surely it would be better to create a future of power generation dominated by renewables rather than combustible fuels. Germany leads the way in Europe for such reforms. 46.1% of its total energy generation in 2019 was derived from renewable sources, with goals to increase this to 80% by 2050. 

The documentary also deserves credit for unveiling the deceit of greenwashing, which is the wrongful portrayal of an environmentally harmful activity as an eco-friendly option. More specifically, the depiction of biomass as a renewable source of energy is borderline hypocritical considering that it involves the burning of trees and animal products. Indeed, trees can grow back, but not at the rate we burn them. If 54% of British energy was produced by burning biomass, it would require 17% of the country’s land area to produce the fuel needed. Thus, not everything baptised as ‘green’ can live up to its name. Politicians must stop using this unsustainable choice as a convenient way to reach renewable targets and green energy quotas. 

The documentary’s dismissal of renewables raises an important question. Even if renewables are better than portrayed in the film, can they single-handedly reverse climate change? Scientists have been ringing the alarm bell for over a decade. It was unequivocal that if atmospheric CO2 levels exceeded 350 ppm, the consequences would be irreversible. We are now well beyond that point. Speaking in numbers, if we delay taking action until 2030, CO2 levels will remain above 350 ppm until well after 2500. Thus, it is not surprising that scientists have recently calculated that it will not suffice to rely on renewables to save the planet. The harsh reality is that we must make drastic, holistic and meaningful sacrifices to our everyday lives that will change society as we know it. In addition to switching to carbon-free energy production, we must make dietary changes, limit our travel, promote reforestation, renovate our housing, grow our own crops and live sustainably if we can ever hope to limit the global temperature rise to 2oC. In other words, the situation calls for a desperate plot twist. 

Thus, Michael Moore did open our eyes to the most important truth ‒ “constantly craving more is killing our planet”. What differentiates humans from animals is the realisation that our days are limited. Perhaps, this has been our greatest downfall. Past generations, during their short time on this planet, were eager to enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of more food, more travel and more material goods. This fight will have to put an end to ‘more’. This is the reason corporate influence should not exist in political decisions and environmental groups as pointed out in the documentary. Apart from using zero-carbon clean energy, we must restructure society to cut down our overall energy needs as well. 

Art by Louisa Norton

Renewable energy can be found in many shapes and forms; wind, solar, hydro, biomass, nuclear. They are constantly changing and innovating in our effort to reduce their carbon footprint and increase efficiency. Some are even being slowly eliminated through the process of evolution when they fail to show environmental benefit. Conflating them all together in a documentary and implying they are doing more harm than good is dangerous. Despair is the true villain in this environmental fight. It stops us from taking a political stance, prevents investors from funding change and deters young researchers from developing an interest in clean energy. It is up to our generation to urgently rise above ourselves and restore Earth’s balance using both renewable technology and sustainable lifestyles.

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