What changes to current patterns of energy production and consumption can help us progress towards sustainability?

Current patterns of energy production and consumption are shaped by the greed and power of the fossil fuel industry and the relentless consumerism of late stage Capitalism. The resulting carbon emissions have risen exponentially and are causing catastrophic global heating, destabilising our climate and destroying the ecosystems we depend upon to feed ourselves and survive. In order to save our Earth from passing critical ecological tipping points there must be a deep adaptation of our energy production to renewable, low-carbon, localised sources. Consumption of energy must be dramatically reduced, necessitating a rejection of Capitalism in favour of a new societal model based around care and resilient local communities. Further research is needed into the impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic on the production and consumption of energy, and whether mutual-aid groups could be a prefigurative forum for transcending Capitalism in favour of a sustainable localism.

Word count: 3000

Since the Industrial Revolution the amount of energy that humanity consumes has grown exponentially. Coal, oil and natural gas have been ruthlessly and destructively extracted from every ecosystem on the planet, justified by the Capitalist logic of the “profit motive”. This glut of cheap fossil fuels has fuelled explosive growth in manufacturing and industrial output; enabled more intensive exploitation of natural resources; allowed us to consume more energy in our buildings; enabled cheap and fast transportation of goods and people; and fuelled ever expanding consumption of luxuries, services and products (Wall, D., 2015).

The cost has been an exponential growth of Carbon Dioxide emissions, which have had an increasingly irreversible and devastating impact on the stability of our global climate. The Earth’s teeming multitudes of life all exist within one planetary biosphere, a network of ecosystems held in balance in staggeringly complex synergy; yet we are only beginning to realise how little we understand these fragile interdependent systems as they break down before our eyes. Temperature rises caused by fossil fuel emissions are causing entire ecosystems to breakdown, leading to the fastest mass extinction event in the history of the planet (IPBES, 2019). We are rapidly approaching, or have likely already passed major ecological “tipping points” at which the temperature rises already locked in by current emissions will in turn likely cause vastly greater and more destructive heating. If heating is allowed to rise above 1.5 degrees these processes will accelerate exponentially – rendering our efforts to slow the rate of heating by reducing anthropogenic carbon emissions futile (Maslin, M. 2019).

This essay outlines how our current patterns of energy production and consumption are driving climate breakdown. It is concluded in the context of the imminent unraveling of the Earth’s biosphere “progress towards sustainability” cannot be defined as a gradual market-driven increase in renewable energy capacity. In order to maintain a habitable planet there must be an immediate transformation towards renewable, local, and carbon-neutral energy production. Crucially, energy consumption can only be understood through the hegemony of Capitalist consumerism as the prevailing imperative of society. A sketch is made of how reorganising our society around the care principle rather than the profit motive would necessitate reduced, redirected, and redistributed energy consumption whilst meeting the needs of all of humanity within the ecological capacity of the planet.

For the purpose of this essay, “current patterns” is taken to mean a pre-Covid-19 world. In the light of the Coronavirus Pandemic emerging data shows an unprecedented collapse in demand for fossil fuels, with potentially huge consequences for the future of energy production. I suggest that further research is needed into the prefigurative role new mutual aid networks could play as new forums for the transition to a climate resilient, care-oriented society.

The Paris Climate Accord commits the nations of the world to keeping global heating well below 2 degrees to avoid catastrophic consequences: an increase in deadly extreme weather; ocean acidification and the extinction of coral; soil erosion and pollinator extinctions destroying agricultural yields; coastal flooding displacing millions – these and countless other impacts are recognised as an existential threat to humanity (UN, 2015). However, In 2018 global energy consumption grew to 157,000 Terawatt hours, with 87% percent of this supplied by coal, oil and natural gas (Fig. 1). The UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2019 found that in 2018 global CO2 emissions from energy use and industry grew 2.0 per cent, reaching a record 37.5 Gigatonnes of CO2 per year (UNEP, 2019). The concentration of atmospheric CO2 has risen from a stable level of 350 parts per million (ppm) to over 420ppm rising, already causing an increase of 1.1 degrees in the average temperature of our oceans and climate above preindustrial levels (IPPC, 2018).

Fig. 1. (Smil, V., 2017)

This heating is triggering a cascade of feedback loops and tipping points the impacts of which are systemically under-accounted for within IPPC models. For example, as the permafrost melts it is beginning to release millions of tonnes of methane (a greenhouse gas between 30 and 100 times as potent as CO2) which would rapidly increase temperatures. This in turn would cause increasingly severe wildfires to turn the Amazon from a crucial carbon sink into a bigger source of emissions than human activity (Cia, Y., Lenton, T., Lontzek, T., 2016). If this happens then we will be unable to arrest the planet’s spiral into a “hothouse state” that no longer supports the complex web of life (Lenton, T. M., 2019). We have already disturbed the stable temperate climate that defined the Holocene geological era and enabled the corresponding rise to global dominance of Homo Sapiens. A combination of drought, soil erosion, extreme weather and the mass extinction of insect pollinators threatens multi-breadbasket crop failure, which would cause billions of people to die of famine, and lead to the collapse of human civilisation (IPBES, 2019).

A range of actors at the international level have pinned hope for a sustainable future on a transition to renewable low-carbon energy. Investment is rapidly bringing down costs and making the industry competitive with traditional fossil fuels (Ritchie, H., 2020). Over the last two hundred years there have been several revolutions in the makeup of overall energy production, such as in the nineteenth century when coal surpassed biomass in providing the largest share of the global energy supply and in the twentieth century when petroleum overtook coal. However, in these so-called energy “transitions”, the use of the older energy source continued to grow, despite rapid growth in the new source. This is because the total amount of energy consumed rose dramatically (fig. 2). Although renewable energy sources are growing to make up a larger share of overall energy production, they are not replacing fossil fuels “but are rather expanding the overall amount of energy that is produced.” (York, R., Bell, E.F., 2019). York and Bell characterise this trend as an energy “addition” rather than a transition, asserting that even a rapid decrease in fossil fuel energy production would not avert climate breakdown if it were not also accompanied by a significant reduction in the total amount of energy consumed. In order to achieve sustainability, the economic paradigm of Capitalism must be rejected in favour of a new system that drives the energy transition beyond the whims of the market, and consumes energy more responsibly.

Fig 2. (Smil, V. 2017)

The fundamental activity of Capitalism is the exploitation of natural resources and the creation of exchange value by turning them into a marketable form, be it a car, jet fuel, or burgers. This leads to the continual growth of the Global Gross Domestic Product (GGDP): the total value of all of the stuff that is produced. The profit motive of Capitalism dictates that it is rational that a business should reinvest the profits of economic activity into increasing the productivity and efficiency of the business in order to achieve more profit. The existence of highly competitive markets means that businesses that do not continually expand and reinvest lose out to rivals who can produce the same products cheaper and market them more aggressively, eventually leading to the domination of a small number of incredibly powerful corporate monopolies intent on driving up consumption (Raworth, K. 2018). It is in the interest of producers that the consumer’s needs and desires never be completely or permanently satisfied, so the consumer can repeat the consumption process and purchase more products. This is achieved through planned obsolescence, relentlessly advertising new things to buy, employing class-envy and encouraging people to take on debt. Since the 1970s, per-capita consumption has increased by 45%, global economic activity has increased by more than 300% and global trade by around 900% (World Bank, 2018).

Annual growth of national GDP was adopted first by the US during the Great Depression as a metric for assessing the health of the productive economy, but quickly came to dominate the political agenda as nations (particularly the US and USSR) competed to prove their economic system was best placed to achieve it. The growth imperative is reinforced by a range of international actors including the finance industry, banks, and the fossil fuel lobby. Financial speculators make investments on the stock market in companies likely to grow fastest and produce a larger return on investment, regardless of the usefulness or ethicality of their output. Banks underpin the Capitalist system by providing loans to businesses to expand and individuals to take out mortgages, creating value out of the promise that the money will be repaid with interest. Growth is therefore necessary to service these loans and prevent a wave of defaults collapsing the economy (Wall, D. 2015).

Every Capitalist business seeks to sustain a market for their goods, but the fossil fuel lobby have come to command the energy and economic policy of the entire world through systemic corruption and corporate lobbying, manipulating the entire world into addiction to their product by propagating a fossil fuel economy. Late capitalism is defined by this corruption. At the height of the Coronavirus Pandemic, the President of the United States is removing legal barriers for fossil fuel companies to exploit natural resources in some of the federal governments biggest national parks and environmentally protected areas, whilst the Senate uses the Coronavirus stimulus packages to give billions of dollars of giveaways to multinational oil, coal and natural gas cartels that sponsored republic campaigns (Deaton, J., 2020). This is an example of what Naomi Klein describes as the shock doctrine: whereby “Disaster Capitalists” take advantage of a crisis to push through otherwise unacceptable policies that rebalance power and wealth into the hands of elites (Klein, N, 2007).

Demand for fossil fuel energy has skyrocketed to cater to hyper-consumerism. Whilst domestic emissions have reduced on paper in developed economies in the Global North, this is only through the export of manufacturing to the Global South and the exclusion from official calculations of the emissions from the supply chains that produce and ship the products we consume. Despite the fantasies of global institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, there is no such thing as “sustainable growth”, because growth necessarily demands greater resource and energy consumption (Craig, M. 2017). Therefore, it is sobering, though sadly unsurprising, that the UN Environment Program’s latest emissions gap report state that “even if all unconditional Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement are implemented, we are still on course for a 3.2°C temperature rise by 2100” (UNEP, 2019). In effect, by refusing to recognise the irrationality of infinite economic growth on a finite planet in the Paris Agreement, our leaders have abdicated responsibility for maintaining a habitable planet for future generations. The most important act in humanity’s history must be the transcendence of Capitalism.

Fig. 3. (UNEP, 2019)

“The challenges posed by biodiversity loss and climate change are deeply interconnected and need to be addressed holistically at all levels. Reversal of recent declines – and a sustainable global future – are only possible with urgent transformative change tackling the interconnected economic, socio-cultural, demographic, political, institutional and technological indirect drivers of nature’s deterioration.”
(Dias, H. 2019)

To achieve the 1.5 degree limitation emissions must drop 7.6 per cent per year from 2020 to 2030 (Fig 3.) (UNEP, 2019). The Exponential Roadmap Initiative Report on how to half Carbon emissions by 2050, comprehensively explores the specific policies required to transform our energy, industry, transport, buildings, and food consumption (ERI, 2020). To summarise, in a sustainable society energy will be treated as a precious resource rather than a cheap commodity – instead of being wasted on useless economic activity it will build the low-carbon infrastructure of our future, producing the photovoltaic cells and wind turbines that will revolutionise local renewable energy production. There will be a global network of electric public transport, and we must retrofit buildings with insulation and passive heat pumps (heating used 50% of final energy consumption in 2018) (IEA, 2019). Energy will be consumed in circular flows that mimic natural cycles through recycling, capturing waste energy, composting and carbon soil sequestration. All of this must be accomplished at scale: the energy transition will be defined by international development projects of a scope not seen before, creating millions of highly skilled jobs in the Global North and South and actively working to meet the UN sustainable development goals.

However, in spite of all of the potential for technological advances to increase the efficiency of industrial processes and reduce the impact of energy production, no amount of innovation can change the fact that we consume too much energy. Meeting our promises under the Paris Climate Agreement will necessitate a tangible drop in the energy available to the richest 10% of the global population, who consume 49% of global energy through car and air travel, eating more meat, and buying energy intensive products. Meanwhile, the bottom 50% only consume 10% of energy (Oxfam, 2015). The goal must be a society where life is given meaning not through ever-increasing material and energy consumption but through connection to our local communities. The 21st century will be shaped by new systems that are designed around care, rather than greed and self-interest, necessitating profound change in how energy, food and other material-intensive services are demanded and provided by governments, businesses and markets. These systems of provision are entwined with the preferences, actions and demands of people as consumers, citizens and communities. Deep-rooted shifts in values, norms, consumer culture and world views are inescapably part of the great sustainability transformation.

Perhaps surprisingly it was the father of Capitalism Adam Smith who said that our species is best defined by our “humanity, justice, generosity and public spirit” (Smith, A. 1776). In order to achieve degrowth a sustainable society will be restructured so that people’s needs for food, security, jobs and purpose are fulfilled by their local community. This would transform the way that people work, and subsequently consume energy. Many of the jobs that employ people today are “bullshit jobs”, that serve no useful function and contribute to reduced self-worth; or otherwise jobs in the service sector that depend on the steady availability of disposable income provided by useless work (Graeber, D. 2018). Citizens of a care orientated society would instead be provided a Universal Basic Income and be free to contribute to and share in the Commons, by volunteering in a community managed food cooperative; teaching a class on how to repair electronics; or providing care work – the opportunities for rewarding and valuable work are endless. The Andean cultural tradition of buen vivir, meaning “a fullness of life in a community with others and with Nature” is just one example of the strong tradition of sustainable regenerative living amongst indigenous communities (Gudynas, E., 2011). As we halt centuries of colonial violence upon indigenous land defenders, we must humbly draw upon the best practices of those who have lived in synergy with their local ecosystems for millennia, and promote education and respect for their long-standing wisdom regarding nature, conservation, and nature’s sustainable use (UNEP, 2019). Rousseau is an early proponent of such a transformed social contract, arguing “that one best realises one’s individuality in and through serving the common need” (Pepper, D. 1984).

Where perhaps several months ago such a vision would have seemed a hippy’s pipe-dream, we are witnessing a seismic shift in the realms of what is politically possible before our eyes. The decisions to impose lockdown across the world were taken on the advice of scientific experts in spite of the damage done to business interests, particularly the fossil fuel industry. This raises the hope that the public and global leaders will listen with renewed respect to the warnings of the IPCC and the IPBES and abandon GDP as a critical metric, instead turning to the expansive research into alternative economics developed since the 2008 financial crash. Kate Raworth presents an inspiring vision of how by abandoning a narrow focus on economic growth the productive and imaginative capacity of humanity can be harnessed to provide for the needs of all within the safe ecological boundaries of our planet, with Amsterdam becoming the first major city to adopt her influential “Doughnut” model of economics (Raworth, K. 2018). Around the world, mutual-aid groups have filled the void left by hollowed-out and dysfunctional states as millions draw together to look after the most vulnerable members of their communities and protect healthcare workers (Rickett, O. 2020). As lockdowns lift neighbours will come together and consolidate this new found solidarity – these forums may prove a historic proto-form of grassroots local democracy. The environmental action group Extinction Rebellion (XR) is already strategising how best to empower mutual-aid groups with the holocratic, self-organising principles that underpin their own internal decision making (Citizens Assemblies Working Group, 2020). Such new democratic forums capable of mandating a just ecological transition represent humanities best hope for effectively transforming our energy systems, and represent a critical research opportunity.

The last three decades of global climate policy have been defined by deep-rooted cognitive dissonance. Even as governments acknowledge the deadly severity of climate breakdown, they continue to hold up the Capitalistic models of energy production and consumption that is driving it. In 2019, the School strike movement and XR sounded the alarm that global elites were lying about how resilient, adaptable and sustainable the current system was. In 2020 the wildfires that devastated Australia and then the Coronavirus Pandemic have exposed how ill-prepared and ultimately disinterested Capitalism is in protecting the majority world from escalating waves of crisis. There has never been a more critical juncture in human history. We stand on the precipice of an apocalypse of our own making, but we have a credible, exciting, beautiful alternative to Capitalism and the political opportunity to demand it. To conclude, we must embrace a transition to renewable, local energy production and responsible, equitable consumption, led by the Global South and democratic grassroots activists. For the first time in decades, perhaps we should dare to hope for a better world. Perhaps then we will have the courage to build it.

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