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28 mai 2019 2 28 /05 /mai /2019 00:01


by David Hammerstein


“… the main lesson to be learned from the collapses of past societies
is that a society's steep decline may begin only a decade or two after
the society reaches its peak numbers, wealth, and power.”
Jared Diamond, Collapse 1


One of the fallacies in our unrealistic thinking about the future is the
idea that renewable energy can substitute the fossil fuels that have
been the basis of economic growth over the last two centuries. The
“100% renewables” slogan suggests that all we have to do is change
energy technologies in order to go on with business as usual. This
techno-optimist marketing spin reinforces a certain social
complacency, leading us to grossly underestimate the great
challenges that a real energy transition would pose. The global
collapse of our environment and our climate demands much more
than a change in our energy production model. It requires us to
question the basic premises of our extractive models of agriculture,
industry, tourism, transport and construction. 2


A simple ’tech-fix’ approach to renewables is promoted to avoid
structurally challenging the basic premises of our growth-dependent
and extractive economies that cause most of the current lifethreatening
climate disorders and extinctions. We can only approach
100% renewables in a socially fair and environmentally sustainable
world if we substantially reduce our use of energy and resources by
shrinking our physical economies, especially among the wealthiest,
most consumerist 20-30% of the global population. This de-growth of
our economies is not possible only by means of technical efficiency
measures. It requires major political change and state regulations in
favor of sufficiency and the preservation and regeneration of the
global natural commons. This is a daunting task. 3


Today, solar energy and wind energy represent only around 2% of
our global energy mix, while fossil fuels supply over 80% of our
energy needs. A rapid substitution of fossil fuels by these renewable
sources would demand a war-like mobilization of people and financial
means that today is nowhere to be seen on the political horizon. Our
energy transition has not even begun in earnest while our window of
opportunity for slowing catastrophic climate change is rapidly closing.
Today 98% of global trade, 100% of aviation, 99% of vehicles, 99% of
construction, over 90% of agriculture and the vast majority of
household heating are powered by fossil fuels. The increase of
renewables, which is around 5% of current energy production (mainly
hydroelectric power and biomass), is almost exclusively focused on
electricity, even though electricity only represents 18% of global
energy use. The other 82% is used mainly for heating, transport,
industry and agriculture, among other activities. In total contradiction
to what is now needed, global energy demand grew 2.1% in 2017
while CO2 emissions rose 1.4% amidst growing and more desperate
calls for drastic CO2 reductions from the scientific community.4,5
To be realistic about our energy crunch, we must first exit the denial
consensus. Due to ecological constraints, our present growth-driven
and expansive economy based on cheap fossil fuels cannot be
maintained. We are living the beginning of the end of a historical
anomaly of sustained economic growth based on access to
abundant, easily accessible fuels and other raw materials. But it is
precisely this economic growth that has facilitated the growth of
liberal democratic societies and the consolidation of individual
freedoms and human rights. The structural lack of sustained global
economic growth, coupled with climate change, resource scarcity and
ethnic conflicts are stressing our democratic liberal societies. These
situations are increasingly exploited by extreme right-wing
authoritarian and populist movements.


Major political, economic and cultural shifts towards sufficiency,
self-contention, sharing, social equality and redistribution of
wealth need to take place to avoid violent societal collapse.
Nevertheless, we can still try to mitigate or prevent this crisis. We
need to consciously slow down and re-orient our economies toward
re-localization of production and the regeneration of communities
and nature. If we start now, the down-scaling of our economies can
be done in a relatively organized and fair way, with relative social
acceptance.

 

Major political, economic and cultural shifts towards
sufficiency, self-contention, sharing, social equality and redistribution
of wealth need to take place to avoid violent societal collapse
.

 

If we maintain our present expansive course we might very well be
condemned to an abrupt and chaotic economic stagnation that
protects the privileges of the most powerful and locks out the
majority of the population by means of violence and repression.
Most political leaders have placed all their money on one very
improbable bet: the world economy will continue to grow indefinitely
thanks to some miraculous technological inventions that have yet to
be invented. This flies in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence
of humanity’s tremendous overshoot of the Earth’s carrying capacity.
Our leaders cannot act responsibly because they cannot escape their
world view of never-ending global competition, extraction and
economic growth that is impossible on a finite planet. They are
ideological prisoners of a diabolical pact: in exchange for a few
generations of intense economic growth with relative social wellbeing
and democratic freedom, we shall all be forced to accept some
form of autocracy in the context of environmental demise and
scarcity.


The energy transition to confront climate change is not mainly about
increasing renewable energy production but about quickly reducing
CO2 and other greenhouse gases: it is not principally about doing
good things but drastically and urgently reducing the bad. More
renewables does not necessarily mean less use of oil or gas nor less
ecological destruction of our life support ecosystem. More electric
cars does not mean less oil consumption by conventional cars, more
organic food production does not mean less use of pesticides by
intensive agriculture, more recycling and re-use does not mean less
resource extraction. A “circular economy” that does not reduce the
total volume of resource extraction can create an illusion of
sustainability as explained by the “Jevons paradox”. 6  To make a
difference, renewables must substitute fossil fuels quickly and to the
greatest degree possible, while overall energy and resource
consumption must be reduced drastically. This is a monumental task
that most politicians would say is totally unrealistic. But today’s
political realism has little to do with the needs of our future social-ecological
well-being. No political negotiation is possible with the enviornmental red-lines of physics, chemistry and biology.


 

More electric cars does not mean less oil consumption by
conventional cars, more organic food production does not
mean less use of pesticides by intensive agriculture, more
recycling and re-use does not mean less resource extraction.


 

Any positive energy transition also needs to take into account in its
cycle of life and value chain the preservation of biodiversity, fertile
soil, rivers, forests, oceans and aquifers. The production and use of
energy in industrial, agricultural and urban extractive activities
contributes heavily to the destruction of our basic life support
systems. It would be a horribly pyrrhic victory to finally achieve
plentiful, cheap renewable energy while our systems of life-support of
water, soil and biodiversity are fatally depleted and over-used in the
very process of constructing an energy transition.

 

Relative decoupling of economic growth from CO2 emissions is also a
false path. Today there is no decoupling of economic growth from
environmental destruction in absolute terms 10  and even the relative
disassociation of economic growth from the growth of CO2 emissions
is usually a statistical manipulation that does not count the emissions
produced or accumulated in imported materials, products and
services from every corner of the Earth. 7


The EU and the Tragedy of the Energy Anti-Commons


Climate change and many other ecological problems caused by the
use of fossil fuels are an example of the tragedy of the commons,
because the essential common resources of air, water, soil and
biodiversity are under-regulated, over-used, over-extracted and overexploited.
These problems are also paradoxically an example of a
tragedy of the anti-commons, because they are caused by unbridled
and intensive enclosure, extraction and privatization of common
resources. The influence of enormous energy companies on the EU
and its member states through corporate regulatory capture,
revolving-door corruption and strong lobbying strategies prevent
stronger regulation of our climate-energy commons and protect the
private rights of companies with dominant positions over key energy
infrastructures and services. Today there are still legal barriers to the
blooming and dominance of community-based or municipal
renewable energy.


While large, centralized energy companies are starting to invest more
and more in renewable sources, they are often not best suited for
alleviating our social-ecological dilemma, primarily because they have
little incentive to reduce overall energy consumption or to prioritize
the social engagement of local communities in their commercial
operations. The more energy they sell and the more energy is
consumed, the more profits they make. The more centralized and
rigid their physical and governance infrastructures are, the more
vulnerable and less resilient they are to crises.

 

Climate technologies that can play an important role in energy
transition are often not shared as quickly with countries in the Global
South as they could be. This is partly due to intellectual property
protections and a resistance to sharing know-how. In this conflict, the
EU fights to enclose climate technology knowledge, which should be a
common good, within United Nations forums (for example, the Paris
Climate Talks in 2015), giving priority to European private industrial
interests as opposed to calls from the Global South for more
affordable access to climate-friendly technologies.

 

There is a surprising over-confidence that the same centralized
energy model that got us into this mess is also going to get us
out of it.


In general, despite some recent positive legal change, the EU’s energy
strategy has been oriented primarily toward big energy companies
promoting large gas pipelines, giant energy infrastructures, and
modest CO2 reductions (still light years away from fulfilling global
climate needs). Despite the fact that more and more Europeans are
producing their energy locally or at home, most proposed European
market regulations and budgets have not prioritized community controlled
or self-produced renewable energy, they have not offered
sufficient financial support for community energy and they have not
sufficiently defended the right to re-sell electricity among prosumers
(at once producers of energy and consumers). EU policies have not
sufficiently supported community-based feed-in tariffs or micro-grid
infrastructures to support local renewables. Little has been done to
eliminate massive direct or indirect subsidies to large gas, coal and
nuclear projects.


There is a surprising over-confidence that the same centralized
energy model that got us into this mess is also going to get us out of
it. Instead it should be evident that without major social change in the
relations of power between large energy companies and the
common good, there will be no paradigm shifting energy change in
favour of equality, democracy and a radical reduction of emissions. A
much larger part of the EU energy budget should be earmarked for
community renewable projects and compatible infrastructures, with
broad citizen participation. This would help optimize resilient and
more flexible energy supply costs through more efficient, short, and
visible distribution loops while promoting flexible local energy
autonomy. With this approach the EU would “commonify” a
decentralised energy system as opposed to the current principal
strategy of commodifying a centralised one.


The commons approach points at a number of problems and
principles concerning renewables and the fight against climate
change. In order to mitigate and adapt to climate disorder we need to
focus on social and political strategies that prioritize solidarity,
sufficiency and limits. The natural commons is both the source and
the sink of our energy model. No one can claim ownership of the sun,
the wind, the sea or the air. While it belongs to no one, we need to
strongly and democratically regulate its use in a socially equitable
matter with the aim of maintaining a sufficient level of sustenance of
human and natural life.


 

For a successful and rapid transition of our catastrophic energy
model, we need strong political promotion of non-profit,
decentralised, citizen-owned distributed energy systems that
prioritise both consumer and climate profits over extractive
private profits based on more consumption.

 


In the context of global climate collapse, much greater energy
sobriety is a prerequisite of energy justice. Considering the finite
carrying capacity of our climate and biodiversity commons, there is no sustainable
way of alleviating energy poverty of people globally without at the
same time alleviating energy obesity in wealthier countries of the
North. When energy is governed as a common resource that is
pooled by a community that governs semi-autonomous
infrastructures, resilient sufficiency coupled with efficiency can take
priority over expansion, growth and profits. Local stakeholders
usually have very different interests from corporate shareholders.
Large, centralised and privatized energy technology is often not
appropriate for the real needs, the human scale of democratic
control of a visible, circular and resilient local economy. In contrast,
commons-based renewable energy is usually dimensioned to satisfy
basic social needs that respect bioregional limits, boundaries and
universal sharing.


Appropriate energy technology and knowledge developed with public
money also needs to revert back into the regeneration of the energy
commons by local communities (and with the Global South) through
open source technology transfer or socially responsible licensing
instead of being patented and privatised by private companies.
Personal data on energy consumption and habits also need to be
governed as a commons by local communities and municipalities
without data commercialization or marketing by digital platforms.
For a successful and rapid transition of our catastrophic energy
model, we need strong political promotion of non-profit,
decentralised, citizen-owned distributed energy systems that
prioritise both consumer and climate profits over extractive private
profits based on more consumption. This means lower energy
demand, greater social acceptance of new renewable installations
and a new cultural paradigm that breaks with big centralized market
lock-ins we have today, wherein most citizens cannot even imagine
receiving energy other than from large multinational corporations.
This means turning public investments upside-down with a major
shift toward localization. Instead of investing in giant centralised
interconnecting power lines, the priority should be aiding the
installation of community micro-grids where prosumers, producers
and consumers are allowed to share, sell and buy community-based
electricity production. This paradigm shift favours demand
management, much greater citizen consciousness of saving energy
and the building of flexible resilience. This must happen in the face of
future social-ecological chaos and impending climate breakdown by
investing in pooled district heating, renewable energy storage and
increased local autonomy.8


We need the application of an EU energy subsidiarity principle on all
levels of EU policy. This would mean that EU financing would be
conditioned to support fluctuating renewable energy installations as
close to the energy consumers as socio-economically possible. Large
interconnecting power lines should only be built after implementing
local and regional intelligent energy systems for fluctuating renewable
energy. Majority citizen/municipal ownership of all new energy
facilities should be supported by EU, national and local funding and
legislation. The EU´s trade, international cooperation and external policies should also support the same principles of the renewable energy commons globally.


The EU’s new “Clean Energy Package” approved in spring 2019 now
recognizes citizen energy communities as an essential part of the
energy transition. Now it is crucial that the rights of individual citizens
or citizens collectives are actively supported institutionally on all
government levels for producing, supplying and consuming
renewable energy without any discriminatory treatment in favor of
large private energy companies.9


The renewable energy commons is part of a larger strategy that at
once regenerates communities and the living world through
democratic governance, local control and common good values. The
global multiplication of these energy commoning initiatives can play a
key role in building the resilience, know-how and cooperation we
desperately need to face the enormous social-ecological challenges
of the coming years.

 

1. Diamond, J. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive
(Penguin, 2011).
https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/24872/collapse/9780241958681.html
2. Global Resources Outlook 2019, UN International Resource Panel.
http://www.resourcepanel.org/sites/default/files/documents/document/media/unep_3. ‘Green New Deal’?, qué ‘Green New Deal’?, Luis Gonzáles Reyes,
CTXT Magazine, April 3rd, 2019:
https://ctxt.es/es/20190403/Firmas/25368/green-new-dealtransicion-
ecologica-smart-cities-luis-gonzalez-reyes.htm
4. World Energy Investment 2018, report, International Energy
Agency. https://www.iea.org/wei2018/
5. Renewables 2018 Global Status Report, Renewable Energy Policy
Netork for the 21st Century. http://www.ren21.net/wpcontent/
uploads/2018/06/17-
8652_GSR2018_FullReport_web_final_.pdf
6. Polimeni, J. M., Kozo, M., Giampietro, M., Alcott, B. The Jevons
Paradox and the myth of resource efficiency improvements
(Earthscan, 2008)
7. Raworth, K. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-
Century Economist (Random House Business, 2017)
https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/110/1107761/doughnuteconomics/
9781847941398.html
8. Wolsink, M., Hevelpund, F. et al. Local Communities and Social
Innovation for the Energy Transition, Workshop Booklet, Joint
Research Centre of the European Commission. 2018
https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Maarten_Wolsink/publication/329813977_Local_
Joint_Research_Centre/links/5c1bddb8299bf12be38ee546/Local-
Communities-and-Social-Innovation-for-the-Energy-Transition-
Workshop-Booklet-Event-Organised-by-the-European-Commission-
Joint-Research-Centre.pdf
9. Community Energy Coalition / Energy Cities, Unleashing the Power
of Community Renewable Energy, 2019 http://www.energycities.
eu/IMG/pdf/community_energy_booklet_2018_en.pdf
10. Hickel, J., Kallis, G. (2019) Is Green Growth Possible?, New Political
Economy, April 2019
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964

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