How do we achieve climate justice? It’s a profound and complex question. But in another sense its disarmingly simple. All we have to do is rapidly decarbonise the economy – right? In 2014 it was calculated the global economy needs to decarbonise at 6.2 percent a year, more than five times faster than the current rate, every year from now till 2100. A tall order, but the solutions are simple – right? After all, to dramatically cut our emissions we just have to rapidly move to 100% renewable energy and do things a little bit more efficiently. It’s just those damn fossil fuel companies and their crony fossil addicted governments who stand in the way – right?
If only! How I wish this comforting story was true. At best it’s a simplistic one; at worst its an outright delusion – but one we are all too willing to believe. In truth, to defuse the climate crisis, as well as the wider eco-justice crisis of which it is just one part, we have to engage in a process of organised, egalitarian, de-growth. That is, a historically unprecedented economic contraction and reorganisation of the economy. Obviously capitalism can’t do this. Capitalism has a growth compulsion built into its very fabric. So we will need to embrace some kind of socialism– albeit a totally reconceived version from the industrial-consumer-hierarchical-20th century brand and, we hope, with a strong anarchist twist. But the task is not just to scrap capitalism. Sorry, this revolution is much bigger and more challenging than that. Among other things, we will need to radically localise economies and settlements. Substantially de-urbanize. Embrace simpler, more frugal lifestyles. And, of course, all that implies profound and far reaching cultural change. It need not be a matter of extreme sacrifice to save the planet. There is a strong case the quality of life could be improved for most people within well designed and run new local settlements. Imagine, for example, having a lot of free time, because you only work for money about 2 days a week, thus having much time for arts, crafts, gardening, home-making, learning, personal development. Or thriving within a highly supportive and friendly local community. But while the benefits could be rich, what is certain is that sustainability will not make us wealthier – in fact total wealth and income will be greatly reduced.
How we achieve these huge changes is beyond my scope today. It’s a big subject, which I still grapple with. But, however we do it, that is the task. By the way, do you still want climate justice? Or do people only want climate justice if they get to keep consumer affluence and convenience? I’m challenging you to consider that we cannot have both.
But, I sense some of you are not convinced. Why can’t green-growth, renewable energy, techno-fixes and smarter, efficient practices solve this crisis? Let me, very briefly spell out four fundamental reasons why not.
The first reason why renewables can’t save capitalism is that they won’t be scaled up in time – unless you also dramatically cut energy demand. The experts predict they will need to roughly double energy supply from current use – and, remember, that is assuming a world of grotesque inequality. You will probably need at least six times today’s energy to provide all 9 billion with a Brunswick lifestyle. But let’s take the more moderate goal. How do you double energy demand, at the same time as massively cutting back on fossil fuels, as we so urgently need to do to reach the 2 degree target? Answer: you have to massively, and I mean massively, scale up renewable energy. But here’s the thing: on the scale needed and the time we have, it won’t happen. While the modern renewables are growing fast, they still only account for 1.3% of worldwide primary energy . But big energy transitions take decades; they don’t happen overnight. In their excellent book “the rise and fall of carbon civilization” (2011) Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery show that to meet the 2 degree target and provide for expected energy growth, 2050 wind power would have to supply “twice the most optimistic estimates’ by authoritative bodies such as the Global Wind energy council (Moriarity & Honniery, 2011: 182). Solar thermal would have to scaled up ‘four orders of magnitude over current use,’ (i.e 10,000 times) which would be ‘many times greater than even the most ambitious solar farm schemes being discussed for the world’s deserts’ (Moriarity & Honniery, 2011: 182). And this is even after factoring in optimistic assumptions for take up of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and nuclear energy. Instead, these experts argue that our only hope is to actively reduce total global energy use 9 (from i.e 500 EJ to 300 EJ), from current levels – the exact opposite of what all governments, global institutions and even green NGOs are planning! And remember, capitalism doesn’t like reductions…
The second reason why the renewable revolution is insufficient is that wind and solar, only produce electricity from stationary power – and that’s a small part of the overall GHG problem. Globally speaking, electricity only makes up roughly 1/5 of world energy use. The other 4/5 comes from a whole variety of sources including transport, industry and heating. So even if tomorrow we moved to 100% renewable electricity, we would only have addressed 1/5 of the problem. Well, you say, let’s just electrify everything and run it on renewables! Well, maybe you could do that for some things like cars and heaters, but it will be difficult for big trucks and aeroplanes. And even if we did that, as John Hinkson points out, we would still have only dealt with 70% of the problem. That’s because the burning of fossil fuels only accounts for about 70% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining 30% comes from a number of causes, including deforestation, the degradation of soil caused by industrial agriculture and the methane generated by livestock farming.
Thirdly, even if we address all these issues and move to 100% renewable energy, then there is a very strong case that we are going to have to get by on far less net energy. Why? I am no expert, but from what I understand there are two fundamental reasons. First, because, today, renewables receive a huge, but hidden, fossil fuel subsidy. Think, for example, of all the fossil energy it takes to create a single wind-farm. Oil-based combustion engines are used from start to finish, to mine the material to make the windmills, fabricate them, and deliver the components to the installation site. Then you need to make and pour the enormous amount of concrete needed, and run the required maintenance vehicles. But what happens when we have phased out fossil fuels, as we must? Will renewables be able to reproduce themselves and provide enough energy for society? I think they can, but not as much energy as fossil fuels have provided. Recent estimates suggest that the energy return on solar PV in Spain is only 2.45:1, when reasonable estimates are made of all the energy inputs that go into to making a solar panel. Historically fossil fuels provided us with well above 20 units of net energy – though this ratio is fast declining as we desperately frack and deep sea mine our fast depleting fossil bounty. And there is a second problem with renewables. They are intermittent – the sun does not always shine and the wind blow. This is a big drawback. To overcome it, you either have to build huge amounts of backup plant or work out how to store electricity on an industrial scale – something the science techies do not yet know how to do. In any case, a renewable energy system will be costly. And a costly energy system, means there will be less capital left over for cars, i-phones, big-screen TVs and Pokémon. So renewables won’t sustain “green-growth”.
But my fourth and final point is the real kicker. Suppose I am wrong and we can indeed decarbonise capitalism. What then? I’ll tell you what then – we would still be faced with a huge and ever worsening eco-justice predicament. As Steb Fisher has said, “our sustainability problems didn’t start and won’t stop with climate change”. With all that economic growth, and therefore energy growth, we would still be rapidly deforesting, over-fishing,chemical polluting, degrading the soil and destroying precious habitat. And, according to a report from the CSIRO, there would still be six billion people excluded from the consumer class – you can bet they won’t be peacefully celebrating “green capitalism” to the end of history.
To be clear, and to conclude, we must move to a society run on renewables. We must do this as fast as possible. But for all the above reasons, we will monumentally fail, if we try to do so via mere reforms within our current socio-economic system. Instead we need to build a big, forceful, global, new society movement, demanding de-growth! Demanding a simpler way! And yes demanding Climate Justice! And not just demanding it, but building and demonstrating the new ways at the grassroots. Our chances may seem slim, but we must try. Needless to say, the situation is urgent. We have no time to waste.