The nuances are often argued in political rows, across academic papers and strained dinner parties, but there are a few indisputable truths about the climate and the political sphere it exists in that provide a baseline for such: Modern global warming is caused by human activity; the temperature rises parallel to the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; and that the rise must be limited to 2°C to avoid armageddon level catastrophe.
Regardless of your environmental or political persuasion, the consequences are already starting to be felt. The previous decade was the warmest decade on record, surpassing the two prior that also held the title. Today, at less than 1°C temperature increase from the pre-industrial baseline so far, climatic conditions are ramping up our susceptibility to extreme weather patterns. This summer has seen a devastating heatwave scorching Japan, Greece, California and Sweden, leaving wildfires and a climbing death toll in its wake. Even the UK’s typically mild climate is just 0.1°C off its hottest registered summer of 1976 and has been setting off wildfires and melting motorways.
If we continue with the business as usual approach of pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it won’t just be a bleak weather forecast. The extreme heat will dry up agricultural land and threaten food security, and what water hasn’t been evaporated will be reserved to put out raging wildfires. Political power won’t be enough to appease riots and pleas from a hungry and thirsty populace, and diseases like Ebola and malaria will spread to the North as the temperatures get more tropical. Even a 2.5°C rise will cost the global economy $33 trillion as governments attempt to repair areas ravaged by extreme weather, manage food shortages, provide healthcare at rates that cannot be met.
With such extreme and devastating environmental, human, and economic complications on the horizon, you’d assume we’d be taking every step possible to circumvent it. There has been grand openings of renewable plants across the world, courageous speeches promising for a cleaner future, and ambitious targets set. Emissions have been slowing as renewable technologies roll out across Europe, North and South America, and China. And the energy efficiency of light bulbs, cars, buildings and whole economies has been rapidly growing a new sustainable industry. But just last year, 3 years after 195 country representatives signed the Paris Agreement to keep global warming under 2°C, over 80% of the worldwide energy supply came from fossil fuels, about the same percentage as in 1997.
Fossil fuels seem to be something we just can’t quit. The most prominent catalyst in our massive global development since the 1800s, energy produced from coal, oil and natural gas has been the gateway and expansion of the economy for virtually every nation. Massive amounts of capital have been poured into the industry for over 200 years, with its infrastructure as deeply embedded into our landscapes as it is our lifestyles. The sweetheart of governments, trade centres, and corporations, traditional carbon spewing fuels are responsible for over $5 trillion US Dollars equivalent of global revenue, 6% of the world’s economy, annually.
Fossil fuels are not burnt without merit. No other energy source comes near the amount of energy coal, oil and gas produced in the same time scale for a similar installation cost. Unlike renewable energies like solar and wind that are dependent on the right weather conditions and location; fossil fuels are available whenever and wherever they’re needed. And Donald Trump’s favourite factor of all: Jobs!
Because fossil fuels still have massive value in our industries and economies, even countries who implement strong anti-carbon legislature won’t denounce their access to a valuable asset.
In the same year that Australia introduced a carbon tax, they signed a deal with Adani, an Indian coal mining company for a series of “mega-mines” that would massively increase its coal exports. The UK, despite promises to be ‘cleaner and greener’ in the next 20 years and committing to an 80% reduction in Co2 emissions by 2050, still offers massive tax breaks to oil and gas companies, and has been increasing its carbon footprint by importing carbon heavier products from manufacturing nations. Even Norway, renowned for its 99% clean energy provisions predominantly from massive hydropower infrastructure, affords such installations because it is one of the global top 5 exporters of crude oil which constitutes around 22% of Norwegian GDP and 67% of Norwegian exports. These nations are simultaneously pledging to reduce the demand for fossil fuels while propping up the supply.
Even if our reliance on traditional energy sources was switched with cleaner supplies, there are enough proven reserves of oil, coal, and gas to emit more than 2700 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions, five times over the amount that would keep us below 2°C warming. And those in the tall spires of the industry will not let that earner go to waste. Far from the conspiracy theories of hidden triangles, the fossil fuel lobby is a well-paid group of representatives of electric utilities, gas, oil and coal who influence government policy on fuel regulation. A study published in the journal Climatic Change revealed that between 2000 and 2016, lobbyists spent over $2 billion trying to influence climate legislation in favour of fossil fuel businesses in the US Government. In 2016 in Europe, gas companies from all parts of the supply chain spent €104 million. Due to the sheer size of their industry, the coal, oil and gas corporations spend significantly more on climate change lobbying than environment groups and renewable energy companies, so secured far greater influence on energy policies. Tamar Lawrence-Samuel of Corporate Accountability International, author of the report on lobbying in America put it best; “With so many arsonists in the fire department, it’s no wonder we’ve failed to put the fire out,”
In the American government, with friends all over the dying industry, the anti-renewable crusade is coming straight from the top. Last month, wrapped up and presented as a ‘threat to national security’ Donald Trump made good on his promise to ‘bring back jobs!’ to the dying coal industry. In a strange deviation from his extreme-right party’s belief of free trade without government interference; the proposal is to bolster ailing coal and nuclear-power generators by forcing electricity-grid operators to buy their energy. Sold by the Energy Secretary Rick Perry as ‘the cost of freedom’, the impact such a policy will have on citizens of the United States will transpire more like a nation-wide assault on the right to clean air. Of the 790 coal-mine jobs the intervention would produce, for every 4.5 employees, one American would die from the surge in air pollution. Even conservative predictions estimate an additional 353 to 815 premature deaths from sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions just in the 2 years of the scheme.
In a scenario that could only be described as orchestrated, one of Scott Pruitt’s final gifts to his constituents and the world as former-leader of the Environmental Protection Agency was a proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan. The Obama-era plan would have required states to lower carbon emissions from coal plants and invest in renewable energy, it promised to prevent the 36,000 premature deaths and more than 600,000 cases of childhood respiratory disease caused by air pollution. Some proponents of Trump’s plan have asserted that there is an environmental value in the clean power from the support of nuclear plants, though it wouldn’t be unrealistic to assume there may be an ulterior motive for the President by way of the plutonium-rich byproduct that comes from generating nuclear power. There is no environmental argument for maintaining the coal plants, and such a governmental intervention could produce up to 20 million tonnes of additional greenhouse gas emissions over the two years.
Fossil fuels have almost always been the card that governments play when it comes to protecting their own or asserting their dominance over another. It could explain the mysterious presence of global powers like America, the UK, France and Russia in the oil-rich Middle East with the goal of protecting citizens and stopping terrorism, while elsewhere in the world nations without such valuable assets underground endure genocide, no access to water, and extreme terrorism without so much as a headline. The rising tensions between the United States’ blockade on Iranian exports of oil; and Russia’s hold on it’s surrounding nations by being the only energy provider for the vast majority of ex-soviet territories.
By switching to renewables, nations, particularly those not graced with superpower status, can relinquish their subservience to traditional fossil fuel nations, and become energy autonomous. Worldwide, some of the largest countries with the highest GDP in 2017 are also some of the cleanest. Iceland, with the fifth highest GDP per capita, generates 100% of its energy from renewable sources derived predominantly from geothermal and hydroelectric power plants. With the 12th highest GDP, much of Swedens investments lie in solar power, wind power, energy storage, smart grids, and clean transport, and have announced ambitions to eliminate the use of fossil fuels within its borders entirely. The economic outlook of less endowed nations can be improved by through sustainable solutions; Costa Rica has been able to meet a significant amount of its energy demand through hydroelectric, geothermal, solar, and wind sources. The country has set a goal to be carbon-neutral by the year 2021 and in 2017 went 300 days in 2017 using just renewable energy.
These countries aren’t going green to be philanthropic. A reduction in fossil fuel reliance can reap massive social and economic benefits. Renewable energy generators can offer over three times more jobs than fossil fuel plants; coal, oil and gas technologies are heavily mechanised, while solar panels and wind farms are dependent on human labour and engineering throughout their lifetime. Germany’s push towards a greener economy has been attributed to 848,000 jobs in 2013 from employment in renewable energy production and supply, manufacturing power generation hardware, related R&D, and servicing renewables generation facilities. In America in 2016 the solar, hydroelectric and geothermal industries provided over 330’000 jobs, while the entire coal industry employed just 160,000. With climate warming expected to be most felt in vulnerable regions, this social advantage of sustainable energy sources will become even more crucial in the coming decades.
Renewable energy is the most affordable and socially beneficial electricity, it’s unwavering sources can offer security to a world that will be crippled by unpredictable obstacles. Though sustainable facilities are expensive to install, the free sources of the sun, wind, waves and below-ground heat make the operation low-cost, ensuring stable prices. Without the concern of peak oil on the horizon, the guaranteed renewability of sustainable energies means there’s no fluctuation in cost, unlike fossil fuel prices that will be prone to considerable price swings as searching for the fuels gets more fraught. As they become more popular over time, larger mass production will make renewable technologies cheaper; since 2010 the price of solar and wind installations has dropped by up to 70%. And as we head into times that will be plagued with extreme weather patterns, the modular energy generation of wind and solar will prevent power being cut off to an entire region, unlike the centralised fossil fuel plants. After the horror of Hurricane Sandy, millions were left without power in New York when the fossil-fuel power plants were hit, while renewable energy fields in the North East left citizens with minimal disruption to electricity provisions.
Renewable energy has emerged as a true multi-benefit system, combining ecological necessities like climate change mitigation with society’s visions and economic opportunities. We just need to implement it, now. More capital must be invested in renewable technologies to help it grow faster, become more efficient and price competitive. Subsidies, grants, or even by adopting Trump’s national threat policy and force energy providers to buy from the renewable generators. Governments must implement strict taxation on the production, trade, and emissions of carbon-based fuel sources. Investors, pension plans and entire nations must divest from fossil fuels to stop the development of the dying industry. Countries are already starting: This week Ireland made the announcement that they will be selling all of its stocks and shares in fossil fuel companies as soon as possible, some €318m (£282m) shares in 150 coal, oil, peat and gas companies; the first of what will be many nations. Implementing policies like these will cut emissions significantly, give us a far higher chance of surviving the oncoming warming, and provide a sustainable economy not just in energy production but will influence all other industries.
The road to total renewables will not be as dewy as the outcome. Sporadic fuel and power prices combined with international wrangles about how to divvy out the remaining, legal, fossil fuels. Oil, coal and natural gas have been the enduring constant for the last 2 centuries, but they too are not immune to upgrade. As the necessity to enthuse ourselves with renewables creeps closer, we must urge governments to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in renewables. Once the value of fossil assets is removed, the political and social will to leave it in the ground will rise, as will the hope for a less broken world.