Economic system

Clean Energy Won’t Save Us – Only a New Economic System Can | Work in development

EEarlier this year, media around the world reported that February had broken shocking world temperature records. March also broke all records. In June, our screens were covered with surreal images of flooding in Paris, the Seine overflowing its banks and flowing through the streets. In London, floods sent water pouring into the tube system in the heart of Covent Garden. The roads of south-east London have become rivers two meters deep.

With such extreme events becoming more common, few people deny climate change anymore. Finally, a consensus is crystallizing around a capital fact: fossil fuels are killing us. We need to switch to clean energy, and quickly.

This growing awareness of the dangers of fossil fuels represents a crucial shift in our consciousness. But I can’t help but worry that we missed the point. As important as clean energy is, the science is clear: it will not save us from climate change.

Let’s imagine, just for the sake of argument, that we are able to get out of fossil fuels and switch to 100% clean energy. There is no doubt that this would be an essential step in the right direction, but even this best case scenario would not be enough to avert a climate catastrophe.

Why? Because the burning of fossil fuels only accounts for about 70% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining 30% comes from several causes. Deforestation is important. Industrial agriculture too, which degrades the soil to the point of leaching CO2. Then there is factory farming which produces 90 million tonnes of methane per year and most of the world’s anthropogenic nitrous oxide. These two gases are much more powerful than CO2 when it comes to global warming. Livestock alone contributes more to global warming than all the cars, trains, planes and ships in the world. Another major source of greenhouse gases is industrial production of cement, steel and plastic, and then there’s our landfills, which release huge amounts of methane – 16% of the world’s total.

Jeffrey’s Bay wind farm in South Africa. Photograph: Nic Bothma / EPA

When it comes to climate change, the problem isn’t just what kind of energy we use, it’s what we do with it. What would we do with 100% clean energy? Exactly what we are doing with fossil fuels: razing more forests, building more meat farms, expanding industrial agriculture, producing more cement and filling more landfills, which will pump lethal amounts of greenhouse gases in the air. We’ll do these things because our economic system demands endless compound growth, and for some reason we didn’t think to question that.

Think of it this way. This 30% share of greenhouse gases from non-fossil fuel sources is not static. It adds more to the atmosphere every year. Scientists predict that our rainforests will be completely destroyed by 2050, releasing a 200 billion tonne carbon bomb into the air. The world’s arable land could be depleted in just 60 years, and more will be released. Emissions from the cement industry are increasing by more than 9% per year. And our landfills are multiplying at a tremendous rate: by 2100, we will produce 11 million tonnes of solid waste per day, three times more than today. Shifting to clean energy will do nothing to slow this down.

The climate movement has made a huge mistake. We have focused all of our attention on fossil fuels when we should have pointed to something much deeper: the basic logic of our system of economic functioning. After all, we only use fossil fuels in the first place to fuel the larger imperative of GDP growth.

The fundamental problem is that our economic system demands ever increasing levels of extraction, production and consumption. Our politicians tell us that we need to keep the growth of the world economy above 3% per year – the minimum necessary for big companies to make overall profits. This means that every 20 years we have to double the size of the global economy – double the cars, double the fishing, double the mining, double the McFlurries and double the iPads. And then double them again over the next 20 years from their already doubled state.

Small car factory in China
Current projections show that by 2040, we will more than double global sea, air and road miles. Photograph: Images of China / Barcroft

Our most optimistic experts say technological innovations will help us decouple economic growth from material throughput. But unfortunately, there is no evidence that this is happening. Global extraction and consumption of materials has increased 94% since 1980 and continues to increase. Current projections show that by 2040, we will more than double the world’s sea, air and road miles – as well as all the materials these vehicles carry – almost exactly in line with the rate of GDP growth.

Clean energy, important as it is, will not save us from this nightmare. But rethinking our economic system could. GDP growth has been sold to us as the only way to create a better world. But now we have strong evidence that it doesn’t make us happier, that it doesn’t reduce poverty, and that its “externalities” produce all kinds of social ills: debt, overwork, inequality and climate change. We must abandon GDP growth as our main measure of progress, and we must do so immediately – as part of the climate deal that will be ratified in Morocco later this year.

It’s time to devote our creative power to envision a new global economy, one that maximizes human well-being while actively reducing our ecological footprint. It is not an impossible task. A number of countries have already achieved high levels of human development with very low levels of consumption. In fact, Daniel O’Neill, an economist at the University of Leeds, has shown that even material decrease is not incompatible with high levels of human well-being.

Our focus on fossil fuels has made us think we can continue with the status quo as long as we switch to clean energy, but that’s a dangerously simplistic assumption. If we are to avoid the coming crisis, we must address its underlying cause.

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