Recent studies suggest that the global advocacy on converting to 100% renewable energy generation by 2050 is feasible. However, as people ignore and underemphasise the underlying problems, the aspiration for a green utopia seems far from realisation.
Converting to 100% renewable energy generation by 2050 using existing technologies “is technically and economically feasible” for nearly every country in the world. So concludes a recent major research project led by Stanford University, which devised roadmaps for transforming existing fossil fuel-based energy infrastructures to wind, water and solar energy across 139 nations.1
This is just the latest development in a growing movement to shift towards a wholly renewable future. Many progressive leaders from the private,2 public3 and Non-governmental Organisation (NGO)4 sectors believe that, if we could quickly transition away from fossil fuels, there’s still a chance we could save the world from runaway climate change. Take, for instance, the “Global 100% RE” campaign – such environmental luminaries as Bill McKibben and David Suzuki are among its “ambassadors” – which states that transitioning the whole world to 100% renewable energy “is technically doable, economically an advantage and socially anyway a better path”.5 All that’s needed is massive investment in wind, solar, geothermal and other technologies.
Leading figures from the world of entertainment are joining the party, with Hollywood actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo teaming up in 2015 to launch The Solutions Project, “a campaign aimed at making energy from renewable sources available to everyone – and making it affordable”.6 In fact, The Solutions Project part-funded the Stanford study which predicts that its “aggressive” 139 roadmaps, if implemented, could keep global warming below 1.5°C. That’s well within the target set at the much-celebrated 2016 Paris Climate Change Agreement.7
So this is all good news, right? Wrong.
For a start, while the Paris Agreement has officially come into force, hailed by many as a huge success and significant milestone,8 there’s a small issue that the commander-in-chief of the world’s largest polluter, egged on by his fellow climate change deniers, has vowed to abandon it. Obviously, Donald Trump won’t be there forever, and sooner or later even the US may sign up to Paris. But there’s a more fundamental problem – many climate experts9 warn that the commitments made at Paris still fall way short of what is required to halt global warming at the 2°C mark, never mind reversing the growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The simple truth is that the Paris agreement is blind to the fundamental, structural problems that prevent us from decarbonising our economies to the radical extent needed.
Worse still, if by some miracle we did manage to achieve 100% renewables in time to avoid dangerous climate change, the social and environmental costs entailed by prevailing approaches could dwarf any benefits.