THE BIG STORY
Unless the transition lifts up the majority, no one will be on the streets fighting for system change renewable energy’), a way to turn sewage into energy by farming microbes that produce methane, which can be burned for electricity. She’s been running her own biodigester in her back garden for eight years. ‘It comes from the world’s most renewable source!’ she laughs. ‘But it’s not toys for boys, not sexy. It won’t employ engineers and you can’t steal from it. So, it probably won’t take off’.
Coupled with a consciousness-raising campaign in the style of the fight against apartheid, she thinks renewables can take off. ‘If people have power over technology they can see how it works for them – that insulation keeps their kids warm and saves them money – they will adopt it,’ she says. ‘Middle-class people with their bellies full can tell someone they face extinction in a couple of decades. But a decade can be hard to imagine,’ she says. ‘In South Africa, 49 per cent of people are food insecure, seven million have HIV. They are thinking –how do I feed my hungry child?’ Unless the ‘zero-carbon transition’ brings immediate benefits to the majority, no-one will be on the streets fighting for system change.
But affordable energy alone won’t be enough. Abrahams believes any transition will also hinge on drawing on the resilient indigenous knowledge systems, which have survived ‘slavery, apartheid, then neoliberalism’ to date, without ever threatening to destabilize the planet. An increasing number of studies suggest that this idea – long put forward by Global South movements – is gaining currency. In particular, agro-ecology and traditional farming methods, which nurture biodiversity, prioritize nutrition and land rights, are obvious successors to extractive profitdriven farming, which currently accounts for 20 per cent of greenhouse gases (mostly methane and nitrous oxide).14
Vaishali Patil a grassroots leader from Maharashtra state in Western India, says economics lies at the heart of the problem. ‘Climate change is bound up with our development paradigm – it flows from that,’ she says. In the Western Ghats mountain range she works alongside tribal peoples who are resisting all encroaching mega-projects, which range from coal-fired power stations and dams to nuclear power plants. ‘How can you go for these huge damaging projects when clean is an option?’ she asks. All pose an equal risk to the land, sea and rivers that people rely on for survival. It’s a timely reminder to be on guard against any solutions to climate change that come at the risk of wrecking yet another fragile, threatened ecosystem and its custodians.
Simple economics The call from the Western Ghats for clean energy is being strengthened by downward pressure on technology prices. In India, the plummeting cost of production means that clean energy is not only the least polluting, it’s also the cheapest. The price of solar and wind energy, and the lithium-ion batteries used to store it, is coming down a massive cost curve. Just 10 years ago, it cost $400 per megawatt hour to generate solar, now it’s $30.
‘If renewables carry on at this rate,’ explains Kingsmill Bond from British thinktank Carbon Tracker, ‘within four years they will make up 100 per cent of the growth market. Mathematically, that means they are going to push fossil fuels out of the system.’
Bond – a financial analyst who has worked his whole career in energy markets across Europe and Russia – believes companies and petro-states are underestimating the speed of a transition that he equates with that of horses to cars and canals to trains. ‘Just five years ago, it was all about do-gooders and Greens – now it’s just simple economics,’ he says.
Market mechanisms may be on our side, but time is not. Any transition to zero-carbon requires a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels. By Carbon Tracker’s calculations, we need to close one coal-fired power station every day until 2040 to achieve the Paris accord target.
Meanwhile, new coal-fired power stations – the most polluting fossil fuel – are still being built. By Bond’s calculations solar will be cost-competitive everywhere by the early 2020s but banks like HSBC will still finance coal projects while it’s marginally cheaper. Once built, fossil fuels are ‘ locked in’ as they are likely to be run to the end of their lifespan.
Chinese companies and development banks are also aggressively promoting, financing and building a new generation of ‘young coal-fired plants’, primarily in Asia, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. China is ambivalent on the climate. No wrecker like the US, its private sector, aided by generous state subsidies, is behind the collapsing cost of renewables and ever-cheaper electric buses, but this innovation is mostly driven by private companies and is not its major export. Sam Gaell, Executive Editor at chinadialogue.net, explains that the infrastructure plan to connect up Asia acts as an ‘escape valve’ for Chinese companies in a slowing economy, where choking smog has prompted air-quality regulations and the shutting down of coal plants. (Australia and the US are also seeking export markets as domestic controls squeeze coal out of their national grids.) Gaell believes that only a co-ordinated pushback from southeast Asian countries will cause a rethink in Beijing. Movements on the ground will need to oppose every plant, using strategies that connect local concerns about pollution to the increasingly powerful divestment movement, which is applying moral pressure to all sources of finance.
As the clock ticks down, there are some nascent shifts in policy that foster hope. Tentative experiments such as a carbon tax in places such as British Columbia have yet to be set high enough to have an impact. But legislation to keep fossil fuels in the ground – long the headline demand of climate activists – is slowly permeating into policy, as Germany
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