What are we waiting for?
The forecast is predicting 40°C in London today. The Met Office has issued an unprecedented red heat warning. Photos of sunbathers flood the news and the media downplay the severity and significance of these events. Thousands of hectares of forest are burning all over Europe. In the meantime the culprits carry out their business as usual, dodging regulation, lobbying our political systems, shirking off the externalities of their activities and turning grotesque profits.
In the words of General Secretary Antonio Guterres — “The facts are undeniable. This abdication of leadership is criminal. The world’s biggest polluters are guilty of arson of our only home”. The Environmental and Climate challenge we face is not only a technical one but also, very much a political and economical one.
Research by Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi from Stanford University, dating as far back as 2009, lay out roadmaps to achieve 100% renewable energy globally. They posit that running on 100% renewable-power globally, would require less land than currently allocated to power generation. As an example, the footprint of the required 3.8 million onshore turbines required to achieve this, would be less than 50 square kilometres which is smaller than Manhattan. To put this in perspective, Brasil deforested 7 times the surface area of Manhattan in the Amazon in 2021 alone, i.e. 1% of Earth’s surface.
Since the 1990’s the free-market has been directly at odds with the environmental movement, often actively hindering renewable energy ventures under the guise of fighting protectionism. Free trade, globalisation and low taxation have always appeared as powerful tools which have allowed us to prosper and increase our standards of living. What we ignored was the extent to which the success of our economic model was hindering environmental action. To quote Naomi Klein — “Free market ideology continues to suffocate the potential for climate action.“.
When viable and peer reviewed solutions to 100% renewable energy using available technologies, land and policies are clearly laid out, made public and promoted, one can only despair at our continued addiction to fossil fuels and wonder how powerful the forces working against this endeavour truly are.
If we have the technology then the fight must be in giving renewables the advantage. They must be incentivised through generous land allocation, subsidies and smart grids whilst dis-incentivising or even blocking the trading of fossil fuels. Could hardcore, profit driven, capitlistic ideaology be applied to renewables, if only to transition, in order to put us on the right path?
Research into exploiting further and harder to reach places for the extraction of oil is booming. Why not heavily tax or make financially prohibitive said extraction and prevent the expansion of new carbon frontiers such as in the Arctic?
The damning IPCC report released last month, 4 months after COP26’s pledges of rapid climate action, further stresses the urgent need of a concerted and drastic global climate effort before our window of opportunity closes and we miss our chance to prevent the worst consequences of climate change.
When we finally agree on a globally coordinated course of action towards sustainability, that endeavour will bring its own set of challenges. For example, one could argue electric cars are nothing more than a seized opportunity by the automobile industry to carry on pushing their product. Even if we can accept them as a “transitional technology”, the redoubling of mining efforts for rare metals and minerals will bring further environmental damage and devastation. It must be strictly policed and it must be managed. Perhaps policies and economic incentives can be placed to encourage a shift to hydrogen cells rather than electric batteries. Renewable-powered electrolysis may be incorporated in other processes such as desalination and may have much smaller environmental impacts. Electric cars encapsulate the problem with our current collective thinking: more of the same, more business as usual, whilst hoping for a drastic fix.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Nordstrom 2 has been cancelled, the cost of oil has risen to $130 a barrel and 60 million barrels have been released from emergency stockpiles. This war is absolutely tragic, atrocious and an unbelievable situation and as we look on in horror one can’t help but wonder whether our obvious and noxious dependence on oil and gas imported from other nations has been sufficiently exposed as unsustainable, not just environmentally, but economically and politically. Might this finally be what it takes to push us towards renewable power and energy autarchy? It’s not looking likely. Drilling efforts have redoubled, the US proposes new oil projects from the Gulf of Mexico to Alaska, the EU declares fossil fuel gas as “green” and the UK’s leadership race threatens the counties net-zero commitments.
Renewable energy has the power to truly democratise energy production. Our consumption of fossil fuels extracted from the “Commons” by big corporations pursuing enormous profits whilst giving nothing back at all, is all the more criminal when you consider it is in fact, unnecessary.
Historically we’ve been dependent on our food, energy and goods from external sources but perhaps it is time for a more self-sufficient organisation. Vertical farming in urban settings would reduce the carbon footprint of our foods. Renewable and local power plants could be run as co-ops by the very communities that consume their energy. We could establish smart grids with other communities to ensure energy continuity and even extend energy trading across borders with international power agreements such as the one in between Denmark and Norway. Industry could be held accountable for the waste of their products and processes and taxed accordingly. This may incentivise a shift to less polluting materials.
A few months ago the EU began drafting up a global plastic treaty which aims to manage and eventually end plastic pollution but how can this happen when so many of the products we consume are made of it? The Back to Blue Initiative predicts our dependence on plastic and chemicals will only increase as does population and wealth. We live in the Age of Plastic. Plastic will become to us what Lead was to the Romans. There is a clear need for regulation and policy in these fields. These wrongs must be tackled aggressively, at a legislative and regulative level by determined and unwavering policy-makers who are unafraid of entrenched and powerful industries.
With so many challenges there is no shortage of causes to take up. It is time to act forcefully and purposefully. It has reached the point where we must no longer stand by. The age of light touch regulations must end and the polluter must pay. We must call out and oppose the wrongs in our society. We must all put our energies, drive and ambition to good use by actively and professionally fighting to mitigate the biggest threat to our existence.
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