Over the past two centuries, millions of dedicated people – revolutionaries, activists, politicians, and theorists – have yet to curb the disastrous and increasingly globalised trajectory of economic polarisation and ecological degradation. Perhaps because we are utterly trapped in flawed ways of thinking about technology and economy – as the current discourse on climate change shows.
Rising greenhouse gas emissions are not just generating climate change. They are giving more and more of us climate anxiety – public concern over climate change in the UK, for example, is at a record high. Doomsday scenarios are capturing the headlines at an accelerating rate. Scientists from all over the world tell us that emissions in 10 years must be half of what they were 10 years ago, or we face apocalypse. School children like Greta Thunberg and activist movements like Extinction Rebellion are demanding that we panic. And rightly so. But what should we do to avoid disaster?
Most scientists, politicians, and business leaders tend to put their hope in technological progress. Regardless of ideology, there is a widespread expectation that new technologies will replace fossil fuels by harnessing renewable energy such as solar and wind. Many also trust that there will be technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and for “geoengineering” the Earth’s climate. The common denominator in these visions is the faith that we can save modern civilisation if we shift to new technologies. But “technology” is not a magic wand. It requires a lot of money, which means claims on labour and resources from other areas. We tend to forget this crucial fact.
The cost of going green
As much as 90% of world energy use comes from fossil sources. Meanwhile in 2017, only 0.7% of global energy use derived from solar power and 1.9% from wind. So why is the long-anticipated transition to renewable energy not materialising?
One highly contested issue is the land requirements for harnessing renewable energy. Energy experts have estimated that the “power density” – the watts of energy that can be harnessed per unit of land area – of renewable energy sources is so much lower than that of fossil fuels that to replace fossil with renewable energy would require vastly greater land areas.
In part because of this issue, visions of large-scale solar power projects have long referred to the good use to which they could put unproductive areas like the Sahara desert. But doubts about profitability have discouraged investments. A decade ago, for example, there was much talk about Desertec, a 400bn euro (£364bn) project that crumbled as the major investors pulled out, one by one.
Today the world’s largest solar energy project is Ouarzazate Solar Power Station in Morocco. It covers about 25 sq km (9.6 sq miles) and has cost around $9bn (£7.5bn) to build. It is designed to provide around a million people with electricity, which means that another 35 such projects – that is, $315bn (£262bn) of investments – would theoretically be required to cater to the population of Morocco. We tend not to see that the enormous investments of capital needed for such massive infrastructure projects represent claims on resources elsewhere – they have huge footprints beyond our field of vision.
The cheapening of solar panels in recent years is to a significant extent the result of shifting manufacture to Asia. We must ask ourselves whether European and American efforts to become sustainable should really be based on the global exploitation of low-wage labour, scarce resources and abused landscapes elsewhere.
Also, we must consider whether renewable energy sources are really carbon free. Wind turbines and nuclear power remain critically dependent on fossil energy to produce, install and maintain. And each unit of electricity produced by non-fossil-fuel sources displaces less than 10% of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity. At the current rate, the renewable power revolution is going to be very slow.
Meanwhile, our atmospheric CO2 concentrations continue to rise. Because this trend seems unstoppable, many hope to see extensive use of technologies for capturing and removing the carbon from the emissions of power plants and factories.
Of course, it is easy to retort that until the transition has been made, solar panels are going to have to be produced by burning fossil fuels. But even if 100% of our electricity were renewable, electric-powered aircraft and boats are a novelty and not capable of replacing the masses of vehicles in our global transport networks. Likewise, steel and cement production – required for many renewable technologies – are still major sources of greenhouse gases.
Among most champions of sustainability, such as advocates of a Green New Deal, there is an unshakeable conviction that engineers can solve the problem of climate change. Central to the Green New Deal’s vision is a large-scale shift to renewable energy sources and massive investments in new infrastructure. This would enable further growth of the economy, it is argued.