All That Glitters Isn’t Green, or Renewable

Green energy, green cars, green jobs, green policies, cleaner and greener — notice how making everything green is good? Today, “green” is not just a colour, it has become a synonym for “good”. And so has “renewable”. But all that glitters isn’t green. Or renewable.

The central problem with our obsession with green and renewables is that these words are never defined. These loose, borderless categories include and exclude a lot of different things. The loose language permits governments, when it is politically expedient, to treat technologies as renewable that are clearly not renewable. For example, The EU’s executive during the week of Feb 4, 2022, expanded its “taxonomy” to include nuclear and natural gas-fired power in its green finance criteria,[1] despite objections from NGOs, investors, member states, and its own expert group. That is why if we really care about the global environment we need to look through the green and renewable slogans to see what lies underneath.

All energy sources have some adverse effects on the environment, including wind and solar:

  • extensive use of scarce minerals supply, largely controlled by China;
  • massive concrete bases and steel towers of wind generators require extensive use of coal in manufacturing;
  • low energy density requires huge amounts of land (some 25 per cent of the US land area if all electricity was to be generated by solar panels);
  • wind turbines kill birds and bats;
  • both solar panels and wind turbines create huge amounts of un-recyclable waste
  • China dominates solar panel and wind turbine manufacturing by burning a lot of coal.


Green as an Obedience Button

Today, “green” is being used as a political obedience button. For example, Canada’s 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan uses the word “renewable” 150 times, and the word “green” 216 times.[2] When government ministers say that their proposed policy is green, they are pushing your green button to turn on your obedience algorithm. We are expected to agree, without closely examining the proposed law or policy. After all, how could it be bad if it’s green? We are not expected to ask “green in comparison to what?” Or “green at what cost, to whom?” If you were to ask these questions, it is unlikely that government officials would provide any useful answers.

Presenting oneself as a green leader in the “fight” to save the planet from the “climate crisis” is a source of political power, money and social acclaim. The political benefit of this panic-generating strategy is to convert scientific and economic issues into moral and tribal issues. The virtuous are on “our” side, clean green, so join us and be good too.

American and Canadian politicians exaggerate the dangers of climate change and then, egotistically, pretend that they are the leaders in fighting the planetary crisis. Sorry, America, at a mere 13 per cent of global CO2 emissions you aren’t the planet and you can’t do much to fix it. Sorry Canada, you are roughly 1/10 as able to affect planetary climate change as are the Americans.

At a long string of global climate conferences (number 26 was recently held in Glasgow), we see displays of green ego competition among politicians, to out-promise each other on being more green, without any discernible reduction in emissions over the years. Greta Thunberg was right to call this just “blah, blah, blah.”

Green Jobs

In the rapid transition to net-zero pledged by Western countries, we are usually promised a “just transition” from fossil fuel jobs to “clean green jobs”. What is a green job? There is no clear definition, which is why government promises of such jobs will be virtually impossible to verify.

In the US, when the Obama administration was enthusiastically praising its record in creating green jobs, the definitions used for green jobs, when exposed, became hilarious.[3]

The government agency doing the classification admitted that it would have described an employee of a used bookstore or of an antique store as having a clean green job because their work involved recycling; likewise, a cleaner in a school mopping the floor had a clean green job. Of course, these or similar employees may well have been doing this same work for decades. But they were only classified as green employees when it became politically desirable to give the impression that the incumbent administration had “created” millions of new green jobs. These were supposed to replace the two to three times greater number of jobs lost through cancelling pipelines and off-shoring to China and India manufacturing jobs that weren’t “green” enough.

Green as a Sign of Corporate Virtue

Pressing our green button is profitable, and not just for politicians. When a corporation announces that it already has, or soon will have net-zero emissions of CO2, it is expected that it has achieved this through restructuring its operations. But usually it is either through off-shoring production and the resulting emissions, or purchasing “carbon credits” or other financial investments, while its operations, wherever located, continue to emit CO2 at almost the same level.

As just one example, in late 2021, Delta Airlines announced:

“Last year, we became the first carbon neutral airline on a global basis.”[4]

Really, in just one year? So since 2020 have planes stopped burning jet fuel? Are they battery powered? Well, no, their announcement goes on to say it’s still just a commitment:

“We’re committed to carbon neutrality from March 2020 onward, balancing our emissions with investments to remove carbon across our global operations.“

How do you balance two dissimilar things, emissions and investments? How much “carbon” can Delta “remove” across its global operations, from March 2020 onward, while still flying jet aircraft? The answers to these questions exceed my understanding.

Why are bankers and other business leaders competing to present themselves as leaders in fighting climate change? Perhaps because in the competition for climate change virtue signalling a business can’t afford to appear less virtuous than its competitors.

Delta tells us:

“Our commitment to carbon neutrality is rooted in the idea that our customers shouldn’t have to choose between seeing the world and saving the world.”

So if you fly with Delta — the first carbon neutral airline — instead of using another airline flying the same aircraft to the same destination, you are not only seeing the world, you are saving it. But if you fly with another airline, you aren’t saving the world. The world may perish unless you save it by flying with Delta. Too bad United, Air Canada and all the other airlines.

“Green” as a Useless Distinction

In a recent Fraser Institute video interview host Danielle Smith asked her guest, Lynne Kiesling of the University of Colorado-Denver, whether hydroelectric generation is “green”.[5] The answer was “yes” and “no”. It is green in the sense that water flowing over a dam emits no CO2. But it also has some harmful environmental impacts.

Kiesling’s answer demonstrates that whether hydroelectric generation is labelled “green” doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t tell us what the project does or doesn’t do to the local environment. A better question would be: “If a new hydroelectric generating station was to be built at location X, what would be its positive and negative environmental impacts?” There is no need to use the word “green” in asking or answering this question.

Because we associate the colour green with grass, leaves and plants, it fosters warm emotions. But our love of “green” tells us nothing about whether any particular energy technology has acceptable environmental costs compared to their benefits, when compared with alternative technologies. Let’s lose the greenspeak and start talking about what is actually happening.


What Are Renewables?

What are renewables? Whatever you want them to be, it seems. But they are always assumed to be good, green sources of energy.

Hydroelectric generation is sometimes classed as renewable even though nothing is actually renewed. It is just water flowing downhill and through electricity generator turbines. The same can be said of wind or solar generation: when the wind blows the turbine blades rotate, but the wind is not renewed by humans, any more than humans renew the sun when it shines. It would be more accurate to describe the common characteristic of all three types of generation as non-CO2 emitting. There is no need to use the word “renewable” in discussing the positive and negative impacts of these technologies.

Renewables Have a Very Limited Role

Fossil fuels still dominate the global energy supply. In 2019 (prior to the impact of the pandemic), 84 per cent of global primary energy came from oil, gas and coal.[6] Renewables provided 5.0 per cent, hydro 0.3 per cent and nuclear 4.3 per cent. In Canada, 87 per cent of primary energy came from oil, gas and coal.[7]

Of all the energy sources Canadians consume, electricity represents only about 22 per cent (the other 78 per cent is used for heating, transportation, manufacturing and agriculture).[8] Electrical generation by fuel type in 2018 showed that wind, solar and biomass — the traditional renewables — represented only 7 per cent of Canada’s electricity generation (the rest came from hydro, nuclear and fossil fuels).[9] Seven per cent of 22 per cent is 1.54 per cent — the total contribution of wind, solar and biomass to Canadian energy consumption. Renewables won’t get Canada to net-zero any time soon.

Burning Trees is Renewable?

Another renewable is “biomass”, a name few people understand. Although biomass includes a variety of technologies such as energy from waste or geothermal, the vast majority of biomass is wood pellets burned to generate steam, which runs through turbines to generate electricity.

For example, the Drax facility in the UK burns wood pellets imported from the US, Canada, and Brazil (as well as from domestic sources). First, a large, diesel powered machine chops down trees, then diesel powered trucks transport the logs to a facility using fossil fuels to manufacture the wood pellets. The pellets are carried by diesel powered rail or truck to a port, where a diesel powered ship transports them to the UK. According to the Yale Environment 360 newsletter, burning wood pellets releases as much or even more CO2 per unit of energy as burning coal.[10] So why are these cumulatively large emissions encouraged? Simply because through a definitional loophole, burning trees has been treated as renewable, and anything renewable is treated as good.

In theory, when trees are cut down others can be replanted, but the theory has problems. First, the replacement trees are not the same natural mix of species as found in a forest; they are usually rapidly growing trees of a single species, requiring lots of insecticides (which can get into the soil and water) to avoid crop losses. Second, the seedlings take decades to reach sufficient height, when they are again harvested for combustion. With biomass, the generic label “renewable” actually causes more emissions and greater damage to mature forests, the very opposite of the purpose of environmental policy.

The European Union “Taxonomy” Trick

There is an escalating energy crisis in Europe, exacerbated recently by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This has been largely caused by shutting down many nuclear and gas plants, while creating excessive reliance on wind generation. Then the wind stopped blowing for an extended time. This required replacing the lost wind generation with a gas generation. But this spike in gas demand caused a huge spike in gas prices. It also increased European dependence on gas from Russia. With Russia strategically limiting its gas exports to Europe, several countries have had to burn more coal to keep the lights on.[11] Coal emits approximately twice as much CO2 as gas.

After much debate, the European Union, desperate to increase its electricity supply without burning even more coal, changed its green “taxonomy” to treat both nuclear and gas generation as “green” for investment purposes.[12]

But nuclear technology uses uranium, a limited resource that is not renewable. Likewise, natural gas, another limited resource, is no more renewable than coal. These governments try to conceal the obvious political game: last year nuclear and gas were dangerous and dirty, this year they are green. What has changed? Taxonomy.

Increasing Reliance While Decreasing Reliability

Energy is life. Secure, reliable 24/7/365 electricity is essential to our lives, as Europe is painfully learning through the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The European energy crisis well illustrates what happens when countries increase their reliance on an intermittent generation technology while decreasing the overall reliability of their electricity systems. If more than a certain per cent of electricity generation (around 33–50 per cent, depending on the system) uses unreliable, weather dependent wind and solar technologies, then fossil fuel or nuclear backup will be essential when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. Without that backup, furnaces and air conditioners stop working, as do refrigerators, computers and lights, gas pumps and electric vehicles. By shutting down their own exploration and extraction of gas, Europe has increased its dependency on Russian gas for backup to wind and solar generation.

The Impacts of Widespread Use of Electric Vehicles

As but one example of “clean green” policy, consider the electric vehicle. EVs will become the only vehicles sold after 2035, when Canada will prohibit the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles. The energy that comes down the wire to charge an EV is zero emitting, unlike what comes out the tailpipe from an internal combustion engine. But that’s only one impact of many. There are some questions about:

1. The vehicle itself

(i) How is the electricity to charge the battery generated? If, as in some places, it is mostly generated with coal or gas, you have a fossil-powered car that happens to use batteries to store the fossil-generated electricity. (ii) How are the 1,000 lbs of batteries in the car manufactured? Probably by using fossil-fuelled earthmoving equipment in China or Africa to move tons of earth to extract the small amounts of useful minerals and chemicals that go into the battery. (iii) What will happen to the price of some of these scarce battery materials (the supply of which China largely controls) as more EVs are being manufactured and as older EV batteries have to be replaced? (iv) How will these billions of large, heavy batteries be recycled or disposed of?

2. Its impact on your neighbourhood

EVs require high voltage chargers for quick charging. The wires that bring electricity to your home and those of your neighbours were designed for the much lower electricity demand prior to EVs. As more EVs are charged in your area the capacity of the wires system may be overloaded. Engineers at EPCOR, the large Edmonton-based electric and water utility, conducted a study of the impact of EVs, and concluded, at slide 14, that:

  • Charging demand is what matters
    • Just a single EV can overload a standard service transformer
    • A small number of EVs could lead to circuit overloads[13]

To charge more than a small number of EVs would, long before 2035, require rebuilding the entire local distribution system of every municipal and provincial electricity distribution system, taking years and costing billions. These costs would be borne either by electricity users through higher rates or by taxpayers in higher taxes, or both, even though the vast majority of Canadians would not yet have purchased an EV. In effect, most Canadians will be subsidizing the small minority owning EVs. And, as the cost of electricity rapidly rises, so will the cost of charging an EV.


Real environmental leaders don’t promote empty slogans like “clean green jobs” or “Build Back Better”. If, as a country, we are serious about environmental protection, we must stop using the “green” and “renewable” labels and examine the pros and cons of the various forms of energy on their merits, including their reliability and cost.

If all fossil fuels are to be phased out to net-zero by 2050, all heating, lighting, transportation and manufacturing will have to become 100 per cent electric. Western countries all promise to do this, without ever explaining how. Perhaps the most honest government when it comes to admitting that the pursuit of net-zero has to be balanced with economic and social realities is China.[14]

As the European experience has recently demonstrated, energy security is critical, and won’t be undermined by political climate targets. The US and Canada are perhaps a decade behind the Europeans, and haven’t yet learned the reliability lesson the hard way. That’s why I expect that when “The Great Reset” to net-zero inevitably runs into a brick wall, we will see “The Great U-Turn”. Of course it won’t be called that — it will merely be a change in taxonomy.


* Andrew Roman is a recently retired lawyer who has contributed to the development of administrative, environmental and energy law in Canada over the past 50 years. He has recently testified before various committees of the House of Commons and the Senate on environmental issues.

Mr. Roman has appeared as legal counsel before numerous administrative tribunals and courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada. He has authored some 90 published legal articles and a book, and was an adjunct faculty member at four Canadian law schools while maintaining an active law practice from 1973 to 2017.

You can read more of Andrew Roman’s writing on a variety of energy related topics on his blog, here:

  1. Cristina Brooks, “EU Taxonomy adds gas, nuclear despite veto from EC’s own experts” S&P Global (4 February 2022), online: <>.
  2. Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan: Canada’s Next Steps for Clean Air and a Strong Economy, Catalogue No En4-460/2022E-PDF (Gatineau: Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2022), online (pdf): <>.
  3. See “Darrell Issa explore Obama administration definition of Green Jobs – June 7, 2012”, online (video): Youtube <>.
  4. Amelia DeLuca, “An Update on Our Path to Net Zero” (28 September 2021), online: Delta <>.
  5. The Fraser Institute, “Alternating Currents: re-examining electricity markets in Canada” (21 January 2022), online (video): YouTube <>.
  6. British Petroleum, “Statistical Review of World Energy, 69th Edition” (2020), online (pdf): <>.
  7. Statistics Canada, “Energy supply and demand, 2019” (21 January 2021), online: <>.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Canada Energy Regulator, “Provincial and Territorial Energy Profiles – Canada” (last modified 25 April 2022), Figure 2, online: <>.
  10. Roger Drouin, “Wood Pellets: Green Energy or New Source of CO2 Emissions?” (22 January 2015), online: <>.
  11. Todd Gillespie, “Europe Forced to Rely on Expensive, Dirty Coal to Keep Lights On”, Bloomberg (25 January 2022), online: <>.
  12. “EU to keep ‘green’ gas and nuclear labels”, euobserver (27 January 2022), online: <>.
  13. Darren McCrank, “DER Integration – EPCOR’S Experience in Edmonton” (2019), online (pdf): OEB <>.
  14. “China’s Xi Says Climate Targets Can’t Compromise Energy Security”, Bloomberg News (25 January 2022), online: <>.



  1. Robert Lyman says:

    Thank you, Roman, for bringing together in one highly articulate and well-organized article so many of the objections that need to be raised to the “green” mania.

  2. Paul Viminitz says:

    Taxonomical sleights-of-hand are by no means confined to energy-talk. What has always been just quota hiring, and was once called affirmative action, is now relabelled as Equity Diversity and Inclusion. George Orwell understood this far too well. But much worse is virtue signalling patter – indigenisation, decolonisation – which, when pressed, refers to nothing at all.

  3. Thank you, Roman. Very informative indeed, specially as we are in the process of putting together a new nuclear power plant in the Philippines. Green is indeed a conspiracy, and if I may add, to perpetuate poverty. Really sad.

  4. Joyce Amiwero says:

    You say it as it is; very hard these days to see an article like this. Thank you.

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