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Documentary paints a negative picture of renewable energy – but is it accurate?

Planet of the Humans is an environmental documentary, by Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 producer Michael Moore. The controversial film makes a damning case against renewable energy sources, arguing that instead of being positive for the environment, they are simply new sources of environmental destruction.

Environmentalists are concerned that the negative portrayal of renewable energy in the film, which has had over eight million views, could do untold damage to the climate change movement. They believe the film to be a wildly inaccurate and one-sided portrayal of renewable energy and its role in replacing our reliance on fossil fuels.

However, prominent climate change deniers are already widely supporting the film. 

So, what are the major claims made in the documentary, and is there any truth behind them?

Renewable energy is no better than fossil fuel

In the film, co-producer Ozzie Zehner claims; “You use more fossil fuels [manufacturing renewables infrastructure] than you’re getting benefit from. You would have been better off burning the fossil fuels in the first place instead of playing pretend.”1

This isn’t true.

Scientists have shown that burning natural gas for electricity releases between 0.6 and 2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (CO2E/kWh); coal emits between 1.4 and 3.6 pounds of CO2E/kWh. Wind, on the other hand, is responsible for only 0.02 to 0.04 pounds of CO2E/kWh on a life-cycle basis; solar 0.07 to 0.2; geothermal 0.1 to 0.2; and hydroelectric between 0.1 and 0.52.

A research paper published by Nature Energy has shown that the carbon footprint of solar, wind and nuclear power are many times lower than coal or gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS). This remains true after accounting for emissions during manufacture, construction and fuel supply.3The most important finding [of our research] was that the expansion of wind and solar power…comes with life-cycle emissions that are much smaller than the remaining emissions from existing fossil power plants, before they can finally be decommissioned” says  Dr Gunnar Luderer, Energy System Analyst at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research1.

Moores’ documentary appears to assert that because there are still some emissions from the production of renewable energy sources, they are not a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Summing up the narrative, Dana Nuccitielli from Yale Climate Connections concluded; “The film’s case is akin to arguing that because fruit contains sugar, eating strawberries is no healthier than eating a cheesecake2”.

Solar panels and wind turbines are inefficient energy sources

“As we suffer through one health and environmental crisis after another, it is clear we can no longer simply solar-panel-and-windmill our way out of this emergency”1 said Planet of the Humans author, Jeff Gibbs.

Throughout the film, both solar and wind energy are hotly criticised. Both for the impact they have on the environment though their manufacture and installation, as well as their sustainability credentials and over-reliance on coal-fuelled electricity networks to meet demand.

However, it has been widely commented that the information portrayed in the film is outdated and the efficiency of renewables has improved vastly compared to what is shown in the documentary.

In fact, renewable energy overtook the use of fossil fuels in the UK for the first time in 2019,2 and Germany produced more than half of its electricity with renewable power in the first three months of 2020.

It’s difficult to take the film seriously on any topic when it botches the solar portion so thoroughly” comments Eric Wessof, Editor of PV Magazine. “Although the film was released in 2020, the solar industry it examines, whether through incompetence or venality, is from somewhere back in 2009” Ian Lowe,Professor at the School of Science at Griffith University, agrees. “The claim that solar panels generate less energy in their lifetime than that taken to manufacture them has long been disproved. It would not be true even if, as the film says, solar panels converted just 8% of the energy they receive into electricity. But that 8% figure is at least 20 years old. The solar panels now installed on more than two million Australian roofs typically operate at 15-20% efficiency”1.

Wind turbines are even more efficient – typically 30-45% – rising to 50% at times of peak wind. In the UK, they are producing electricity 70-80% of the time2.

Further proof of the reliability of renewable energy has come from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time of writing, Britain’s electricity grid will not have burnt any coal for 67 days and the National Grid were not expecting to turn on a coal generator anytime soon3.

Electric vehicles are just as bad for the environment as ICEVs

The film claims that as electric vehicles rely upon the electricity network to run – which is burning fossil fuels – they are not environmentally beneficial. Not only is this becoming less common as we move toward using renewable energy sources for our electricity supply, but EVs, unlike ICEVs, do not emit any CO2.

It is true that there are upstream emissions from manufacturing the batteries for EVs and from some electricity generation, however, analyses of the full life cycle of CO2 consistently show that on average, battery electric vehicles emit less CO2 over their lifetime than diesel cars. A recent meta-analysis of 11 independent LCA studies concluded that a battery electric car, over its lifetime, produces 50% less CO2 emissions than an average EU car today1.

A dangerous argument

Whilst the films premise that humans are destroying the planet is fundamentally true, its assertion that renewable energy isn’t beneficial to the environment is, at best, inaccurate and at worst, dangerous. The documentary appears to rely on outdated arguments and half-truths which are not in line with current climate research and innovations.

“Planet of the Humans’ approach is fundamentally flawed” says Dana Nuccitielli for Yale Climate Connections. “[The film] focuses almost exclusively on the imperfections of technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, biomass, and electric cars without considering their ability to reduce carbon and other pollutants. The film suggests that because no source of energy is perfect, all are bad, thus implying that the very existence of human civilization is the problem while offering little in the way of alternative solutions”1.

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References:

  1. ZEHNER, O (2020) Planet of the Humans (Online) Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk11vI-cE> [Accessed 17.06.20]
  2. UNKNOWN (2017) Benefits of renewable energy use (Online) Available at: <https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/benefits-renewable-energy-use#:~:text=The%202009%20Union%20of%20Concerned,from%20fossil%20fuels%20%5B15%5D.> [Accessed 17.06.20]
  3. PEHL, M ET AL (2017) Understanding future emissions from low-carbon power systems by integration of life-cycle assessment and integrated energy modelling (Online) Available at: <https://www.nature.com/articles/s41560-017-0032-9> [Accessed 17.06.20]
  4. LUDERER, G  (2017) Solar, wind and nuclear have ‘amazingly low’ carbon footprints (Online) Available at: <https://www.carbonbrief.org/solar-wind-nuclear-amazingly-low-carbon-footprints> [Accessed 17.06.20]
  5. NUCCITELLI, D (2020) Michael Moore’s ‘Planet of the Humans’ documentary peddles dangerous climate denial (Online) Available at: <https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/05/michael-moores-planet-of-the-humans-documentary-peddles-dangerous-climate-denial/> [Accessed 17.06.20]
  6. GIBBS, J (2020) Planet of the Humans (Online) Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk11vI-cE> [Accessed 17.06.20].
  7. AMBROSE, J (2020) Renewable electricity overtakes fossil fuels in UK for first time (Online) Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/oct/14/renewable-electricity-overtakes-fossil-fuels-in-uk-for-first-time> [Accessed 17.06.20]
  8. LOWE, I (2020) 3 times Michael Moore’s film Planet of the Humans gets the facts wrong (and 3 times it gets them right) (Online) Available at: <https://theconversation.com/3-times-michael-moores-film-planet-of-the-humans-gets-the-facts-wrong-and-3-times-it-gets-them-right-137890> [Accessed 17.06.20]
  9. UNKNOWN (2018) How do wind turbines work? (Online) Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-52968716> [Accessed 17.06.20]
  10. POLISCANOVA, J (2020) Transport for the Environment: Electric Cars (Online) Available at: <https://www.transportenvironment.org/what-we-do/electric-cars#:~:text=While%20electric%20cars%20have%20zero,their%20lifetime%20than%20diesel%20cars.> [Accessed 17.06.20]
  11. NUCCITELLI, D (2020) Michael Moore’s ‘Planet of the Humans’ documentary peddles dangerous climate denial (Online) Available at: <https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/05/michael-moores-planet-of-the-humans-documentary-peddles-dangerous-climate-denial/> [Accessed 17.06.20]