20 December 2022 – The transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a clean energy economy is underway. In 2021, wind and solar accounted for 10% of all electricity production in the world, compared to just 5% in 2016.1 Doubling at this pace means wind and solar could account for half of all electricity supply in the early 2030s.
The key issue is not whether the world’s energy systems will transform, but whether the change will be rapid enough and whether it will be fair. If the energy transformation perpetuates historic injustices within countries or between different regions of the globe, it will have a destabilising effect on societies and create deep resistance.
The renewables industry has a hugely important role to play in charting the road ahead. Solar and wind energy companies should be clear from the outset that they are not content to simply reap the financial rewards of replacing oil, coal and gas, but that they are ready and willing to lead a broader societal and economic transformation.
Moving away from fossil fuels is not just an opportunity for new industries to benefit or even simply a way to rise to the challenge of climate change. The transition is also an opportunity to reset the economy and society, decrease inequalities and create a cleaner, better and fairer world for people everywhere.
50 years ago, the Club of Rome, the network of incredible thought leaders of which I am co-president, published the seminal The Limits to Growth report. For the first time, its authors used computer models to demonstrate that the earth’s resources were finite and that continuing to push for ever more economic growth would be to the detriment of planetary and human health.
Humanity took little heed of this warning. Until very recently, the favored modus operandi of most heads of government and business was based on ever more economic growth powered by the burning of fossil fuels, the endless extraction of minerals and the intensive use of land.
Today, change is starting to happen. The growth of the solar industry is a clear indicator that the old technologies and means of working are beginning to lose their mighty grip. If humanity is, however, to stop greenhouse gas emissions from rising and avoid the worst impacts of global heating, this change needs to urgently speed up.
Our latest book, Earth for All: A Survival Guide for Humanity, published by the Club of Rome this September, is a roadmap showing how we can move forward and meet the significant and multifaceted challenges facing the world today in a timely fashion.
Authored by a team of climate and economic experts, including myself, and stress-tested by thought leaders from around the globe, the book sets out two scenarios.
The first — the too little too late scenario — is where societies keep boasting and bumbling about sustainability while muddling through and refusing to change course.
The second scenario is the giant leap. For this to happen, we describe five extraordinary turnarounds to reboot society. These include ending poverty, addressing inequality, empowering women, making food systems healthy and regenerative for people and ecosystems, and transitioning to clean energy.
None of these turnarounds can happen in isolation. For example, take the combination of ending poverty and acting on the energy transition. With the right choices, a post-carbon system offers tremendous new ways of creating economic value for everyone without hurting the Earth.
Significantly lower emissions mean significantly less harm to the planet and people. Renewable technologies require, in the longer term, much fewer resources than fossil fuel incumbents. Solar electricity requires 2,000 times less material by weight than coal generation, according to an analysis by Carbon Tracker, a United Kingdom-based NGO.
It is true that the clean energy transition as a whole will require an increase in the production of certain minerals over the next two decades, but this demand will taper off dramatically after 2040. And if we optimise our use of materials, we can reduce potential negative impacts from extraction and use.
Once built, the components of the clean energy system will have a lifetime of at least 50–80 years. Indeed, a 2017 Nature Energy study found that the lifetime carbon footprints of solar and wind are about 1/20 of coal and gas, including manufacturing and construction. The study shows that the use of extraction machinery and fuel for the transport of oil and gas, in addition to methane leaks from pipelines, well heads or coal mines, contributes to lifecycle energy uses and emissions being higher for fossil fuels than for renewables. Solar and wind installations also produce 26 and 44 times more energy respectively than the energy used to build them.
And there are other benefits. Solar energy, in particular, will shift the ownership of energy assets from a centralised to a decentralised system, allowing more people to produce their own energy, taking the profits out of the hands of the few and sharing the gains more fairly, helping to ensure energy access, end poverty and reduce inequality.
Any lingering suggestion that clean energy competes with food production must be also put to rest immediately. Research from 2021 shows that significant numbers of countries in Africa and Latin America could meet all their power needs by covering less than 0.1% of land with photovoltaic panels. And smart solutions, such as regenerative agricultural practices using renewable energy sources, bring benefits for farmers, the clean energy industry, local citizens, and the planet.
To bring about such systemic changes, however, we will need the support of everyone.
If we get our policies wrong, “axe the tax” opposition will arise, as we have seen with the French Yellow Vests Protests and similar ones in Iran, Turkey, Nigeria, Mexico, Jordan, and Kazakhstan.
In our new book, we advocate for a fee-and-dividend approach — charging a fee for carbon emissions and extraction and distributing the fees back to every citizen. Coupling carbon fees with progressive taxation and wealth redistribution policies, where the wealthiest 10% take no more than 40% of national incomes, would reduce inequality.
It would also benefit the clean energy transformation by shifting capital away from fossil fuels and guaranteeing capital flows to those suffering the most from a lack of energy access or from energy poverty.
We need to push governments in the United States and the European Union to at least triple annual domestic investments in renewable capacity and energy efficiency at high speed and encourage change that will make it easier for finance to flow around the world.
The U.S. Inflation Reduction Act is a fantastic move in the right direction. But we also need to ensure that as the European Union and the United States wean themselves off fossil energy, they do not push their neighbors in the South toward further dependency on stranded assets as a short-term transition guarantee for the North.
We also need stricter regulation on private financial markets to prevent any more carbon-intensive investments by private lenders and bondholders. We must likewise hold high-income countries accountable for green investment in their own countries and outside their borders.
We need to better share the knowledge and technology of Global North companies with those in the Global South and support a green technology revolution by ending the World Trade Organisation’s system of intellectual property rights for critical green technologies. The system stymies invention and innovation. Low-income countries seeking to encourage renewables through subsidies to their own producers quickly face cases in the WTO. Preventing the dissemination of critical clean technologies is deeply dangerous for all.
Global energy costs do not necessarily need to be higher if we optimise current solutions and decouple the electricity market from gas prices to reap the full rewards of the lower prices of renewables.
We also need to ensure that we transfer current perverse subsidies from fossil energy to renewable and energy efficiency solutions. Government subsidies will be important to bring down upfront investment costs, but these will be paltry in a long-term global perspective of delivering energy security and planetary stability.
If we don’t make the right choices now, our civilisation could collapse like those before it amid a perfect storm of self-induced crises. The path ahead will not be simple or easy, but it is exciting.
Over the coming decades, we have the opportunity to design an economy that services people and the planet: an economy anchored in well-being economics, rather than GDP growth at all costs, and one that provides not just for high-income countries or households, but that enriches the lives of the majority and ensures a thriving earth for all.
First published in Solar Today