Below is the draft introduction to the book Sustainable Transitions in Energy. I have been co-writing this with an energy economist, and I hope to complete it and find a publisher next year. It outlines my broad position on the Energy Transitions that will need to be put in place, sooner rather than later, to ensure a sustainable future for the planet:
Earth’s climate is changing, and science suggests that this is almost certainly due to human activities, notably due to the rise in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.
Despite growing public concern, however, the amount of coal, oil and gas being used continues to rise, and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached levels that are close to the levels that most scientists believe will have a serious impact on life on planet earth. Depending on what actions are taken, the level of emissions could double by 2050. Widespread public protests, particularly in advanced western economies, reflect many people’s despair that not enough is being done to slow global warming.
Progress has been made, but it remains limited. This is doubly worrying given that the greenhouse effect has been known about for around a century, and that it is in part anthropogenic (associated with human activity) has been regarded as scientific fact since the 1960s.
The Paris Agreement, drafted in December 2015 and ratified a year later, finally set out pathways to mitigate global warming for the 197 countries that signed up. Since then, the United States has said that it will pull out of the agreement. Two steps forward, one giant leap back by the country that led the world (under the leadership of Barack Obama) in building a consensus that had been impossible to reach in the earlier rounds of talks which led to the Kyoto and Copenhagen agreements.
Building a consensus for action on the Paris framework is proving more difficult than building a consensus of intent, particularly after the accession of Donald Trump as president of the United States.
Despite signing up to Paris, resource dependent countries such as Russia and Saudi Arabia have been reluctant to translate words into deeds. Environmental activism has become inextricably muddled up with other issues such as human rights and democracy, resulting in a backlash as liberalism has given way to authoritarian populism in countries such as Brazil and the US. The waters have been muddied further by the competing agendas of rich countries, whose development has been fuelled by oil, gas and coal for the last century or more, and poor countries who want to fund their own economic development by exploiting these resources.
The scientific consensus is also under threat from “post-truth” politics and the use of social media to muddy the waters of evidence-based research.
Crisis? What crisis?
The scientific evidence supporting the theory that climate change is anthropogenic is clear-cut but conspiracy theories and paranoia abound on both sides of the argument. The language used is often loaded and unscientific, and language itself has become part of the battleground. The phrase “climate change denial” was deliberately coined to associate climate sceptics with denial of the Nazi Holocaust of World War II. Strong language. But the deniers of climate change also use strong language, not least in their misogynistic insults against activists such as Greta Thunberg.
This degree of polarisation makes it difficult to reach common ground on how much should be spent on trying to mitigate climate change. The spectrum ranges from those who deny the problem even exists to those who want to mandate use of the phrase “climate crisis” rather than climate change. The populist Right in the US, which purports to support the fossil fuel industry, propagandize this by eliminating references to climate change on government websites. Meanwhile, the protest group Extinction Rebellion has advocated breaking the law to increase awareness of the climate problem and wants to ban all forms of fossil fuel no matter what the economic cost.
It’s difficult in this situation not to think of John Bunyan’s early novel Pilgrim’s Progress, with its pit of Despond and the visit to Vanity Fair. “The townspeople discussed their impending doom, but few took it seriously enough to leave”. Or more simply, “When in doubt, do nothing”.
Less publicised in the Paris Agreement are the plans by each country to adapt to the impact of global warming, rather than to mitigate its onset and severity. As it becomes evident that climate change is a present reality, rather than something that might happen in the future, adaptation strategies have become a pressing challenge.
But even here, any consensus quickly falls apart.
The agenda for climate mitigation seeks to limit global warming to 1.5 to 2 degrees C. The agenda for adaptation recognises that a temperature rise of 2-4 degrees will have an enormous impact on our habitat and biodiversity. Whether to spend the money on mitigation or adaptation is controversial. Those who argue for adaptation can be pummelled for treating the symptoms rather than the cause. Kicking the can down the road is often easier than taking a strong stance on either one side or the other.
Recent scientific articles suggest that global warming of 3 degrees C is the most likely scenario, and that this will occur gradually over the next century.
Climate change is a global issue, but not all countries will be equally affected. Northern countries such as the UK may benefit from a warmer climate, whereas small islands may no longer even exist if sea-levels rise. Who should pay for adaptation is therefore controversial. It’s reasonably clear that most of the emissions that are the cause of global warming come from the industrialised countries of the northern hemisphere – certainly if you look at the record of the last century or so. China is the biggest source of emissions globally, and with India will be the biggest source of future emissions.
But the public backlash against refugees and fear of immigrants in rich western countries makes it difficult to imagine that mass migration due to climate change will be absorbed by the rich countries that have contributed most to the problem historically. Populist governments seek to create a climate of fear that accentuates xenophobia and enhances their own control over people. It seems not to be a coincidence that the rise of populism has come about at a time of mounting concern about the habitat.
Anger and after
In a debate where voices are raised angrily, people tend to react in one of two ways. Some people will go silent, refusing to engage with what they feel is coercive hostile and disrespectful behaviour. Others take an opposite approach, raising their voices in retaliation, meeting insult with insult, ready to go the distance no matter what the fallout. Polarisation seems to characterise the current state of debate about how to deal with the issue of climate change.
The need for a conversation about the difficult issues of climate change is urgent, but it is essential that it is a conversation in which each person who contributes is fully heard. Listening is a skill, and requires an open approach. We have sought to interview people from all sides of the climate debate to find ways that groups with different interests can find common pathways to deliver rapid action in the face of the climate emergency.
Make no mistake: it is an emergency. But using such – emergency, crisis, car-crash, disaster — leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
In terms of mitigating climate change, what actions are required to reduce man-made emissions? What will be the role of fossil-fuels in the new energy landscape? How quickly can renewables be scaled up to fill the gap if fossil fuel use is reduced? What regulatory structures will be required to reach net-zero carbon emissions? Who will be the winners and losers? Does the response require social and political upheaval, or can it be managed through the existing economic model of neo-liberal capitalism? And the biggest question of all, who will pay for the transition? Underlying all these questions is the question, who is responsible for mobilising action in the face of the threat? What can we do – each of us, individually – to ensure that the correct decisions are taken quickly enough to mitigate the threat of climate change.
In terms of adaptation measures, the last question above (who pays?) is obviously going to be crucial, as many of the countries that will be most affected by a global rise in temperatures are among the poorest, while some of the richest countries may arguably benefit from a mild warming of the climate (although the reality would certainly be more nuanced, as there would be a significant knock-on impact from the difficulties faced by poorer and worse-affected countries).
The geographical impact will also depend, however, on the severity of global warming: the impact of a 2 degrees C rise in average global temperatures is projected to be dramatically different from a 3 degrees rise, at least based on the best models that we have. The impact of rising sea levels, more severe weather patterns, increasing drought, more frequent flooding, health impacts and mass migration will all need to be addressed – but who will lead the charge, and what economic models will be required to mobilise a response?
Our aim in this book is to find ways to develop ways to implement the consensus for action reached in the Paris agreement. This consensus is incomplete, but its broad parameters are clear cut. We will need to find approaches that respect differences of opinion, that recognise the interests of people and communities with differing needs, but that is built around the scientific consensus and the need for global action.
The goals of climate change mitigation, and the challenge of adaptation, will require investment on a huge scale. It is best to be realistic about this. Even if there is a common interest in saving the planet, economic agendas inevitably will diverge. The challenge now is to mobilise actors to work together to deliver real results, despite these differences.
The word “purpose” will recur throughout this book. There has been a tremendous amount of time taken up in brainstorming and barnstorming, by committees discussing committees, by people and groups of people pretending to explore for solutions when in fact all they are doing is sitting on the fence.
It’s always possible to find reasons not to act, or ways to derail a plan of action. There are often positive aspects to this, helping to avoid precipitate action that is not thought through, stress-testing weak assumptions and fine-tuning vague ideas. But the excuses and delaying tactics can also be used negatively to undermine any consensus, and to kick the can ever further down the road.
The climate activist Greta Thunberg put it well when she talked of “climate delayers who want to do everything to shift the focus of the climate crisis to something else”. She singles out politicians in the quote below, but her scorn applies also to companies and anyone who pays lip service to wanting to stop climate change but is unwilling to act:
“Politicians one second say climate change is very important, it is the most important topic and we are going to do everything we can to stop it. And the next second, they want to expand airports, build new coal power plants and motorways. And then they fly off in a private jet to attend a meeting on the other side of the world.”
There is no point in discussing what we will do two or three decades from now when urgent action is needed. It’s a bit like hypothesising the existence of a hospital when you’re at the scene of a car crash that requires First Aid and triage. That said, we do not believe there is a single silver bullet that will solve the problem of climate change. We haven’t tried to provide a prescriptive approach or to suggest a solution. What we hope is to explore practical pathways for quick, effective action through purposeful dialogue.
This can only be achieved by working together for the common good, understanding the aspirations of others and the limits of self-sacrifice. Not everyone believes in the Greenhouse effect, but nor does everyone believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution or that the earth is round. Just as we have engaged with protest groups such as XR, we have also talked with climate change “deniers” to understand their preoccupations and points of view. But our aim is always to explore pathways for people with different interests to work together with common goals and a common purpose, and perhaps most importantly in a relevant timeframe.
Copyright (C) Peter Stewart