A Renewable World - Energy, Ecology, Equility

A Renewable World – Energy, Ecology, Equality. A Report for the World Future Council. Green Books 2009. £14.95. 256 pages. By Herber Girardet & Miguel Mendanca.

This is a book with a really broad vision but also a book on how to achieve this vision in a way that at the same time creates social equality. As Bianca Jagger says in the foreword: “Justice is the litmus test for any measure designed to combat climate change. This includes justice between countries, within countries and between generations, and justice for Mother Nature."

Social justice runs as a theme throughout the book while explaining how to achieve a transition to a renewable energy system and secure biodiversity. Ashok Khosla starts his foreword by saying: “A Sustainable World must, by definition, be a Renewable World. A renewable world is one in which materials and energy are used without being used up. It draws its substance freely from nature’s resources, but without depleting them to a point where they are no longer available or affordable. A Renewable World must, in practice, be a Fair World. Extreme affluence and poverty are not compatible with imperatives of a renewable or sustainable world.”

To give an example of our present unsustainable world: each year we burn coal, gas and oil that has taken millions of years to create. “We are living off nature’s capital rather than its annual income.”

The book “sketches out what measures are necessary, what is actually possible today, and beyond this, how we can extend the boundaries of what is politically, economically and culturally feasible to achieve the desired outcomes” when addressing the quadruple crises facing us - of climate change, energy, finance and poverty.

The first chapters cover how fossil fuels enabled the industrial revolution and an explosion in agricultural production using fossil fuels to create farm fertilizers (the Haber/Bosch process). This enabled a massive growth in population numbers and in the size of cities – a process that has now spread to most of the world. However, it is important to know that a third of humanity still has no access to fossil-fuel energy.

While the use of fossil fuels has given many benefits to billions of people – benefits we have become dependent on and not inclined to give up – the same fossil fuels have also given us dangerous climate change – that will soon become catastrophic climate change. “The greatest market failure the world has ever seen” as Lord Stern says in his 2006 report on the Economics of Climate Change.

The book presents the scientific evidence of how climate change affects the biosphere, how this will lead to extreme weather systems, droughts and flooding, increased sea levels, loss of biodiversity, drastic impacts on our health, food production, etc.

However, it is still possible to reverse this trend if we achieve a drastic and urgent transition to renewable energy, stop deforestation, reduce our (red) meat consumption, fly less, etc.

The book does not avoid dealing with some of the more controversial questions, like nuclear power, carbon capture and storage (CCS), should Europe produce a large part of its electricity needs from solar panels in the deserts of North Africa, etc. The book presents the arguments for and against some of these solutions – sometimes by letting people with opposite views write a short essay.

However, any energy solution also has to create energy equality. More than 25% of the world population has no access to electricity. Some 2.4 billion people “rely on fuels like dried dung, firewood, charcoal and crop residues to cook their daily meals. … The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 1.6 million woman and children die prematurely through breathing in wood smoke … each year.”

As one would expect the book is a strong advocate of energy efficiency and conservation. It argues how this and a transition to a renewable energy system can create a green-collar economy with huge job creation potentials.

The book is full of case studies – from countries and cities – giving examples of what (local) governments, social movements and businesses are already doing and planning to do. So while the future does look very risky it is also an optimistic book showing how we can create a safer, better and more equal world – if we act quickly enough.