Renewable Energies Are Not Enough

We can do two things to push the biophysical limits to growth further back: increase resource efficiency (do more with less) and replace finite resources with renewable energy and materials – in other words, we need to tap the potentially infinite sources of prosperity.

These are words by Ralf Fücks, the president of the German Heinrich Böll Foundation, derived from a recent commentary in Die Zeit, translated into English for the TripleCrisis blog. Though I generally agree with the author, there are some parts of his argumentation that I am rather skeptical about. One of them is a common error made by people calling for a transition to a “green” economy: the argument that replacing non-renewable with renewable resources will solve the problem.

In fact, this is not so simple. Certainly, we need to dramatically reduce the usage of the non-renewable fossil fuels worldwide. Otherwise we are risking terrible consequences due to climate change: floods, droughts, heat periods, acidification of oceans, biodiversity loss and so on. Furthermore, sooner or later (probably as a matter of 50-100 years) we are going to run out of fossil fuel reserves – the sooner we prepare for adaptation, the better. It seems straightforward that renewable energy sources are the solution. But there are at least two problems to be solved.

First, renewable energies have specifics completely different from those of fossil fuels: their usage presupposes decentralized (but, on the other hand, highly interlinked) systems that are able to alleviate their downside: volatility. This is not as easy a task as some seem to think. I do believe that it is possible, but the necessary initial investments may be very high – both in the developed and in the developing world. New grid structures are needed, not only new generation units. The transition to a so called “green” economy will surely come at cost, even if we are thus going to avoid much higher costs to future generations due to climate change.

Second, maybe even more important: a successful switch to renewables implies that we change our lifestyle (especially in the richer parts of the world). That some resources are renewable doesn’t mean that they are not scarce. Wind energy or radiation of the sun may be almost “infinite” (though steel, silicon or cadmium surely are not). But consider various kinds of bioenergy. Not only is there the problem that by using ever more of them, we use up what could be eaten. The natural resources needed to produce them (e.g., maize) are used sustainably only if they are not overused. They are finite, though they have the “ability” to regenerate – but if we shall use them at too high a rate, they won’t be able to. And then they suddenly become quasi non-renewable.

Surely we must abandon fossil fuels (and other scarce non-renewable resources) step by step, and replace them with renewable resources. But this won’t be enough. What we need is sufficiency. It is something we, people in rich parts of the world, must learn while we are already used to unbound consumption at (ecologically) much too high levels. But people in the developing world will have to learn it as well – otherwise they just replace us as “waster”. The tendency is quite opposite: we are consuming more and more, we tend to take it for granted that we can buy whatever and whenever we want. Meanwhile, sufficiency means that one is able to set a limit, to say “That’s enough”. It is hard to overthrow one’s whole lifestyle, but it may be necessary if we care for our grand-grand-children.

It is obvious that, before preaching sufficiency to the poor, we have to learn it ourselves. The Chinese are now the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world (on an absolute basis). But there are 1,3 billion mouths to feed in China. Despite the unprecedentedly rapid economic growth, the Chinese people still is relatively poor. Not to mention Africa or South Asia. So, if we want them to learn sufficiency (and that is essential if we are to stop climate change), we must exemplify it to them through our own life. Eventually, it is our “Western” consumption patterns that are copied in the developing world.

It is going to be a hard task: changing not only economic systems and infrastructure, but also one’s own lifestyle. But if we really want to save this planet as we know it, there is no alternative.

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