Crossing the carbon Rubicon

As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change

January 6, 2017
8 min read

A protestor walks in front of police and National Guard on the site of Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in the US – Photo: Richard Bluecloud Castenada/Greenpeace

What’s in a number? Quite a lot when the last time it prevailed in the sky above our heads was in the Pliocene period, between three and five million years ago, long before modern humans evolved. Last year, 2015, was the first since then that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the principal driver of man-made global warming, stayed above 400 parts per million (ppm). The higher it goes, the worse things get, and it is already a long way past the level considered necessary to stabilise our climate, 350ppm, the number taken for that reason by global climate campaign 350.org.

Nobody knows exactly where the line in the atmosphere lies beyond which the process of warming feeds off itself, inexorably moving beyond our ability to control climatic instability. It’s a game of chance and probability, and we are already playing climate roulette, in which current warming makes life difficult, and in some cases impossible, for many of the world’s most vulnerable people.

It does this in a range of ways, from the sheer impact of increasingly extreme weather events to effects on the price of food, forced displacement and movement of climate-borne diseases. A world of incipient warming is the enemy of everyone, but especially people with the least power, fewest assets, weakest support structures and inability to move. It is the enemy of every social ambition. Unless tackled, it spells out a great reversal of human progress. It is the one problem which, unless solved, unravels every other cause.

Our use of fossil fuel energy is the principal driver, if not the only one. The loss of natural habitats such as tropical and primary forests is another. A global climate agreement, the Paris Accord, has now entered into force. It has many flaws but includes a commitment to prevent warming of more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, and an ambition to hold it to just 1.5 degrees. But add up all the current national commitments, and depending on whose modelling you look at, we’re either missing the two-degrees target by a little, or a lot. In either case only a small, or very small, fraction of the fossil fuels still left in the ground can be burned, even as major oil companies explore for new reserves.

Some argue that to dwell on this unambiguously dire situation leads only to paralysis. But unless we do take in the enormity of our predicament, it is unlikely that we will come up with responses that are remotely equal to the scale or immediacy of action required. As Thomas Hardy wrote, ‘If a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.’

And that action, straightforwardly, is the rapid transition of energy-intensive societies. It requires the illumination of more convivial, low-consumption economies that will allow everyone to lead good lives while operating within planetary boundaries.

Reasons to be cheerful

What are our chances? Many undeniably negative trends are locked in by our infrastructure, transport systems and housing. Others by the prices we do, or don’t, pay for environmentally damaging resource use. Still more by social norms that are daily culturally reinforced, so that we don’t question things like aviation, or the dominance of the private car.

And yet, there are signs of a new consensus being wrestled into existence. The very-establishment World Energy Council, with 3,000 member organisations in 90 countries, predicts that energy demand per person globally will peak by 2030. That’s good news, if too late for the climate, and somewhat misleading because with a larger population by then absolute demand will have grown.

In the meantime, renewable energy is making huge leaps forward. Half a million solar panels were installed globally every day last year, according to the International Energy Agency, and in China two wind turbines were installed every hour. China introduced more wind energy capacity in a single year, 2014, than the UK, the windiest nation in Europe, has in total.

The growth rate of renewables is rising as costs falls. Up to 2021, the cost of solar is expected to drop by a quarter and onshore wind by 15 per cent. In 2015, renewable energy overtook coal to become the largest source of electricity generating capacity in the world, and since 2013 more renewables have been added to power systems each year than coal, oil and gas combined. The sheer range of developments demonstrates that it’s not just a phenomenon of the unique circumstances in China.

Last year Costa Rica generated 99 per cent of its electricity from renewables, and for 285 days its grid was powered entirely by renewable energy. In Europe, Portugal reported four consecutive days when its electricity came solely from wind, solar and hydropower.

In just two decades from 1983, Denmark got to a point where 39 per cent of its electricity was generated by wind. Today, the town and region of Sønderborg, barely known outside Denmark, is like a green Silicon Valley. Work at Stanford University produced scenarios whereby every state in the US could be 80-85 per cent renewable by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2050.

Even Saudi Arabia – the ultimate petro-state – recently signalled an end to oil addiction in its Vision 2030 plan, bringing to mind the Saudi saying: ‘My parents rode a camel. I drive a car. My children fly in jet-planes. Their children will ride camels.’

Opposition and proposition

As positive as this sounds, there are huge problems across the political spectrum. In the UK, from fracking to aviation expansion and tax breaks for big oil, the Conservative government is mocking the climate agreement it approved in Paris only a year ago. As polluters, shipping and aviation are still getting a fairly free ride. In the energy markets themselves the pace and cost of investments is problematic and there are practical problems to overcome to build an infrastructure less centralised and more friendly to multi-scale, multi-source renewables.

The International Labour Organisation calculates that with the right policy and investment, tens of millions of jobs will be created in the emerging ‘green collar’ employment sectors. But, on the left, several unions still tenaciously defend energy (and capital) intensive industries. Not only does this miss the potential for greater job creation through conversion to new sectors, something that Britain faced in the post-cold war period, but represents a broader failure of solidarity with those condemned in a warming world.

For campaigners, the challenge is how to balance opposition with proposition. Against the odds, residents of towns such as Balcombe in Sussex, threatened with fracking, have combined creative opposition with the development of community-based renewable energy alternatives. This matters enormously.

We won’t avert catastrophic climate change or fundamentally compromising our ecological life support systems simply with a massive increase in renewable energy. Alongside cutting fossil fuel use we need energy systems that work for their local communities in a range of ways – different systems carry a different kind of DNA for the economy around them. According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, before its closure by the new prime minster Theresa May in July, community-owned renewable energy projects give 12 to 13 times more value to communities and local areas than those that are privately owned because they create more jobs and the returns from investment stay locally. Germany has over 900 energy cooperatives, which enjoy the right to sell energy directly to third parties – and in Hamburg citizen action led to the grid being brought back into public control.

In Energy and Equity, published in 1973, Ivan Illich wrote that a society based on low energy use and equal access would be more convivial and supportive of democracy. In our bounded world, any utopian vision for an energy system begins here. Can we make such visions real? As the human brain needs less energy to function than an old light bulb, I don’t see why not.

Andrew Simms is co-director of the New Weather Institute, a research fellow at the Centre for Global Political Economy at Sussex University, and author of Cancel the Apocalypse: New Paths to Prosperity (Little, Brown)


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry


43