The move to decarbonized energy is a reimagination of who we are.
The following article first appeared on Bill Spindle’s substack.
So the last-chance climate summit to save the world from global warming has concluded in Glasgow. Where did it leave us?
Before my two cents on that question, I wanted to step back with a wider lens on the massive energy transition we’re now plunging ahead with, whether too late or not. It will be a long and complex journey, and also one that needs to be dramatically accelerated right now if we are to (net) zero out carbon emissions by midcentury and head off the worst impacts of climate change.
I think about the energy transition as really three different transitions — overlapping, interrelated, occurring at once but at different speeds. The challenge at this point isn’t making these transitions happen. They are now as inexorable as the march of fossil fuels that replaced wood and dung as energy sources during the industrial revolution. Rather, the challenge is speeding them along.
The first of these three transitions is going amazingly well. The second remains predictably problematic. The third, and in some ways most important, we’ve barely just begun:
- The first transition is technological. We’re making real progress here, surprising even ourselves, repeatedly, with stunning advances in renewable technology and deployment that have relentlessly driven costs down over the past decade. Almost no one imagined that harvesting energy from the sun and wind would become cheaper than any other energy source so quickly in so many places. Yes, challenges remain to turn wind and solar into reliable, around-the-clock resources available throughout the year. But similarly spectacular progress with batteries, along with the traction electric vehicles are finally gaining from this, is set to turn the power and transportation sectors upside down. Even more impressive technologies are in the pipeline, from revolutionary materials for solar to newfangled nuclear power generation that is safer and more manageable.
We’re making real progress here, surprising even ourselves, repeatedly, with stunning advances in renewable technology and deployment that have relentlessly driven costs down over the past decade.
- This gets us to the second transition: the economic and political adjustments to bring these new technologies online. And here is where we currently find ourselves most stuck. Evidence of this log jam — a pile up on the shoals of financing and managing both pains and gains from the technological transition — were everywhere in Glasgow. This is understandable because energy lies at the heart of nearly all human activity. And human activity, for better and worse, is both a competitive and cooperative undertaking. The goal is to improve both our lot overall and our position as opposed to each other. These two aims are in tension, at least in the short and medium terms. The history of energy is, more than anything else, a chronicle of humans leveraging ever better resources and ways of using them to enrich everyone and exercise power over others. What vexes our ability to speed up this part of the transition is the recognition that winners and losers will be created among us even as we move toward solutions we all collectively need.
The tension was most palpable as the conference hashed out a final agreement on the dirtiest of fossil fuels, coal. India’s economy and domestic politics today are as reliant on coal as those in the U.S. and Europe once were (and to a surprising extent still are, judging from the outsized influence of coal-country Senator Joe Manchin in the U.S.). For India, soon to be the world’s most populous nation, likely to require more energy growth than any other country in the coming decades, phasing out a source that currently provides three-quarters of its electricity is an overwhelming domestic adjustment. It is even more challenging for India than for China, which is currently the world’s most populous country and by far the largest global user of coal. At the same time, eliminating coal is also an international challenge for India. In the short run, the only way to realistically slow coal consumption would be to constrain economic growth. That’s a non-starter for any nation, much less a poor one striving to be a first-rank global power.
Now, there is one way India says it could move faster — if the developed world pays for it. This would only be fair and just, it notes. Not only do developed countries have far more money, but they’re also responsible for most of the greenhouse gases accumulated in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, it’s also unrealistic on the scale and time frame needed. Developed countries haven’t even made good on their initial small-time promises to provide $100 billion in funding annually, even as they’ve spent many thousands of times that keeping their economies afloat through the covid crisis. Their own domestic political struggles (see: Joe Manchin, et. al) have so far prevented delivering more faster. At Glasgow, they promised this will change in a big way. We’ll see. For now, the world will have to live with Glasgow’s less-than-screamingly-urgent plea for a “phase down” of coal instead of what’s obviously needed: the full-throated “phase out” that India, backed by China, threatened to spike a deal over.
And the conference made it resoundingly clear that the private sector, more than ever before, sees a path to profits in this energy transition.
Nonetheless, the final agreement named “fossil fuels” as the source of climate problems for the first time. Conferees agreed subsidies for them are a problem. And the conference made it resoundingly clear that the private sector, more than ever before, sees a path to profits in this energy transition. That will eventually drag governments into helping. These are things to hang hope on.
So in this second transition of hard-nosed economics and politics, we’re not yet stuck but are in danger of bogging down. We’ve put off addressing the global greenhouse gas problem for too long now to solve it with the usual machinations of domestic and international politics and economics.
What can change that?
- The third transition. This is the hardest to envision and yet the most important to get seriously underway. That’s because it can cut through the knotty challenges of the other two transitions. It is the sea change a new energy system will foster among regular people in their everyday lives as they think about and understand energy — really in how we imagine ourselves together as humans and understand our relationship to the planet and the universe we inhabit.
For now, new energy sources will largely be from the sun directly, or indirectly via wind. Over the long haul, we may create our own solar-style engine by conquering the challenges of nuclear fusion. In between the technologies of today and the someday, we will reimagine ourselves and reconceive our ways of life. Already, there are glimmers of this transition taking hold. As I’ve noted in a previous post, the increasingly bitter debate over who should pay to replace coal with renewables in India is in a sense deeply misplaced. Renewable energy is already cheaper even than existing coal plants in India. As noted above, investors from developed countries are coming to see they can profit by pouring money into Indian renewables even as Indians benefit from lower cost and cleaner energy. These are psycho-social epiphanies as much as hard-nosed economic and political strategies. They are realizations of new realms of possibility for human activity as much as profit calculations.
As the implications of the clean energy transition become ever clearer, a world of new potential that free energy (on the margins, at least) holds will reveal itself. It’s a world where each (solar-powered) private home is a generator of energy as well as a consumer, and each (electric) car is a reservoir of energy storage as well as user of power. It’s a world where undersea cables deliver renewable electricity across international borders from countries with more solar and wind than they can use to nations with less. It’s a world of new possibilities. We need to get our heads around this expansive future sooner rather than later because doing so will help us embrace new technologies and navigate political and economic log jams.
So Glasgow wasn’t a failure and wasn’t really a success, either. It was another gathering where global leaders owned up further to what really needs to happen and how fast. The fulsome news coverage of the conference indicates the world was listening. The gathering ended with the most clear-eyed official view yet of the enormity of the task before us, and the most realistic plan so far for taking it on.
But we still have to actually move much faster, times three.