Homo Electric, Part 4: The Sum of Our Choices
Why the clean energy transition is ultimately up to all of us
This article is the fourth in a four part series.
You cannot know which of your actions is the lever that will move worlds. Not even Necessity knows all ends.
Jo Walton, The Just City
It’s Not The Technology
I started this story with the idea that the clean energy transition is the greatest technological challenge in human history. That is still true. We’ve never done anything like it before. Forget trips to Mars or cures for cancer. It doesn’t come bigger than this. And yet, the dirty secret is that the technical side of things isn’t the hardest part.
We’re clever apes, each armed with billions of neurons, written and spoken language, and centuries of knowledge and progress to draw on. We stand on the shoulders of a lot of giants, allowing us to reach ever greater heights. The clean energy transition is being worked on by millions of people around the globe, and there’s a dazzling array of cost effective solutions to every part of the puzzle if you know where to look. The first half of the Trillion Dollar Time Trial, our quest to make electricity great again, has already been solved, technologically speaking, and we are furiously working to make the second half possible too. What I’ve hopefully shown you here is that the technological part of this story is actually overwhelmingly positive. We’re cycling the fanciest contraption ever invented and the dedication pouring into its continual improvement is inspiring.
Take a moment then, to marvel at the clever apes, who figured out a way to replace black rocks and dinosaur juice with burning monuments of molten salt in our deserts and gleaming panels of glass in our cities. Stop, for a second and admire the towering windmills that we’ve dragged into our oceans to harness the power of gales. The story of the clean energy transition is one of human collaboration and ingenuity on an epic scale, a story about our quest to find new minerals in the earth’s crust to bake into energy storing devices, and the alchemy that turns the universe’s most abundant gases into fuel for our flying machines and our wheeled carriages of wonder and light.
The clean energy transition isn’t a scientific challenge any more either. The scientists have done their bit, and will continue to do so for decades, documenting the change, doing the research, giving us better predictive capabilities. It’s science that alerted us to the damage we were doing, and science that’s given us answers for a long time now about where we’re headed. We’re the first generation in history to truly understand that we’re driving off a cliff, and also the last generation that’s able to do something about it.
It’s not a financial issue. We have the money. The risk of under-investment into energy technologies isn’t due to a lack of capital. Global markets are awash with the stuff. Paris was the signal to the market that low-carbon business models, technologies and practices will be the norm in every industry in the next three decades. Those low-carbon systems are in high demand around the world — tens of trillions of dollars-worth of demand — and meeting that demand is by far the greatest economic opportunity in a generation. As long as there is long-term certainty that will allow these systems to participate in the market, the financing will be there to help spread the risk.
The general public aren’t the problem. Globally, support for climate change policies are overwhelming. From the beaches of Vanuatu to the docks of Copenhagen, from the cities to the countryside, across every generation, race, gender, class and religion, the desire to do something is palpable. The cheering crowds are lining the roads, willing us onwards. There is almost no other global issue that brings humanity closer together. Research consultancy Edelman for example, surveyed a whopping 26,000 people across 13 countries in July, ensuring that at least 2,000 demographically representative respondents were reached per country. The main question on the survey was “How important do you think it is to create a world fully powered by renewable energy?”
82% of respondents deemed that goal important.
The problem isn’t technology, or science, or money, or public support. The biggest problem with the clean energy transition is you.
Yes, I know you’re doing your bit. You’ve got LED lighting in your house and your roof is insulated and you’ve bought a new, more efficient washing machine. You invested in some solar panels and perhaps you’ve even taken the trouble to get a home battery. You’re definitely intending to buy an electric vehicle once the costs come down. Those things look great! All of these actions are useful, but you probably would have done them anyway, because they’re cheaper, and they make life better.
They’re lifestyle choices. They’re not clean energy choices.
Perhaps you want to make a real difference. You’re eating less meat, or you’ve switched to a fully plant-based diet. Well done, that’s a good one. It’ll make you live longer, for one. You also take fewer flights these days — and that’s had a bigger impact on your personal carbon budget than a thousand LEDs ever could. You deserve to feel a little smug. Or maybe you’re someone who’s done the most effective thing of all, by going childless or having one less child, which is several times more effective than all of the above added together. It represents one complete lifetime of a carbon footprint plus that person’s descendants forever, or at least, until we reach a zero net carbon equilibrium.
All of those decisions though (even the decision to have fewer children) pale into insignificance compared to the single most important action you can personally take, right now, and for the rest of your life, to help get Homo Electric across the finish line without destroying the planet.
Vote for the politicians who want to solve climate change. And I mean, really solve it. Accelerated decarbonisation can’t be achieved by technical innovation alone, because energy isn’t just a technological system. It represents a complex web of mutually reinforcing financial, social and political elements, each with long histories and entrenched defenders. Major change requires substantial cultural shifts and political struggle. And that doesn’t happen unless people make their choices known.
What’s holding Homo Electric back right now is the way we organise ourselves, and how we transform our preferences, our hopes and our desires into action. The problem isn’t technology. The problem isn’t science, or finance. The problem is politics. We need elected representatives that are genuinely committed to solving the problem. Leaving fossil fuels in the ground is a policy choice. The G7 governments providing at least $100 billion each year to support the production and consumption of oil, gas and coal? That’s a policy choice.
The fossil fuels industry is the most powerful one the world has ever created. Their subsidies are now so deeply embedded into our modern economic system that we don’t even see them any more. Getting rid of them is going to be politically messy, and difficult. As this year’s midterm elections in the United States showed, when big oil wants to, it can spend unlimited amounts of money to prevent change. Every single progressive energy measure on the ballot this year was crushed. Oil and gas companies will not be productive partners in the climate fight. They can and will fight it at every level, tooth and nail.
Creating a favourable environment for investment into renewable energy? That’s a policy choice. Solar panels for example, didn’t get cheaper by magic. They’ve been around for decades, but they didn’t really start plunging down the cost curve until about a decade ago. That was partially due to Germany’s aggressive tariffs, but mostly because the Chinese government threw a boatload of money into production subsidies, scaling the industry up by brute force.
The market didn’t make electricity great again. Politicians did. And that’s why the difference between a clean energy transition that takes 30 years and one that takes 100 years is a question of power and political will.
This is the real kicker. It means that the single most powerful thing you can do is vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Choose the politicians that are willing to take serious action. Search for publicly elected officials with the greenest policies you can find. It doesn’t matter what party they belong to, green or left or right or open or closed. And don’t just vote in national elections. Vote in local elections, on your councils, write ballots, send letters to your MP, give money to the NGOs that lobby government. Appear at local government public meetings and make your voice heard on local planning decisions. Turn out in marches. Attend shareholder meetings, ask the board what their plan is for climate change, turn up at every single opportunity you have to make your voice heard.
Lobby your banks or pension funds to be a bit greener and encourage them to lean on their portfolio companies to do the same. Push them hard. Divest and switch if they don’t. Maybe you’ll incur a few financial scratches. At least you’ll be able to look your children in the eye. It’s not easy. None of us want to do that work, because it’s not glamorous, and you can’t show it off to your neighbour. It’s easy to spend a few more cents on eco friendly dishwashing liquid — it’s a lot harder to do the investigative work and switch to a fund that doesn’t invest into fossil fuels.
What you can do as an individual consumer is far less important than what you can do as a citizen.