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

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)

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