Green energy won't save the earth without social change

by Ian Angus

The most popular techno-fix for global warming is green energy. If energy companies would only deploy wind, hydro, solar, geothermal or nuclear, then emission-intensive fossil fuels will eventually disappear. But will that actually work?

A new study by Richard York of the University of Oregon shows that it isn’t that simple. Rather than displacing fossil fuels, green energy sources have proven to be mostly additive.

“Do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels?” published this month in Nature Climate Change, discusses what happened when alternative energy sources were introduced in countries around the world, over the past fifty years.

Contrary to the accepted wisdom that new green energy replaces fossil-fuel use,  York found that on average each unit of energy use from non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than a quarter of a unit of energy use from fossil-fuel sources.

The picture is worse with electricity, where each new unit generated from green sources displaced less than one-tenth of a unit of fossil-fuel-generated electricity.

York writes:

“Based on all of the results presented above, the answer to the question presented in the title of this paper – do alternative energy sources displace fossil fuels? – is yes, but only very modestly. The common assumption that the expansion of production of alternative energy will suppress fossil-fuel energy production in equal proportion is clearly wrong.”

Why don’t the new sources replace the old? York identifies two key reasons: the inertia of a huge existing fossil-fuel infrastructure, and the power and influence of the coal and oil corporations.

“The failure of non-fossil energy sources to displace fossil ones is probably in part attributable to the established energy system where there is a lock-in to using fossil fuels as the base energy source because of their long-standing prevalence and existing infrastructure and to the political and economic power of the fossil-fuel industry.”

In other words, eliminating fossil-fuel as an energy source is at least as much a social and political problem as a technical one.

“Of course all societies need energy. So, obviously, if societies are to stop using fossil fuels they must have other energy sources. However, the results from the analyses presented here indicate that the shift away from fossil fuel does not happen inevitably with the expansion of non-fossil-fuel sources, or at least in the political and economic contexts that have been dominant over the past fifty years around the world….

“The most effective strategy for curbing carbon emissions is likely to be one that aims to not only develop non-fossil energy sources, but also to find ways to alter political and economic contexts so that fossil-fuel energy is more easily displaced and to curtail the growth in energy consumption as much as possible.

“A general implication of these findings is that polices aimed at addressing global climate change should not focus principally on developing technological fixes, but should also take into account human behaviour in the context of political, economic and social systems.”

The evidence shows that simply introducing green energy isn’t enough: the introduction must be accompanied by “explicit policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions.”

The article is published in a scientific journal, where political and social conclusions can only be expressed in muted form. But Richard York’s research and conclusions reinforce the argument that he and his co-authors (John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark) made more explicitly in their recent book, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet.

“We are confronting the question of a terminal crisis, threatening most life on the planet, civilization, and the very existence of future generations. … attempts to solve this through technological fixes, market magic, and the idea of a ‘sustainable capitalism’ are mere forms of ecological denial, since they ignore the inherent destructiveness of the current system of unsustainable development – capitalism.”


Posted in Energy, Featured


3 Responses to Green energy won't save the earth without social change

  1. Ben Courtice March 25, 2012 at 8:00 pm #

    The basic implication of this is that we need to campaign to shut down the fossil fuel sources (coal, oil etc) and simultaneously to campaign for clean energy to be rolled out.

    It’s true that just calling for renewable energy is not good enough. However, I’d caution against labeling renewables as a “techno-fix”. Right now, around the world, the growth of the renewable energy sector is threatened by conservative governments and the lobbying power of the fossil fuel companies – who recognise it as a threat.

    Renewable energy is not a “techno-fix”. Renewable energy is an opportunity, and one that we must mobilise to defend and promote against the coal barons and oil moguls.

  2. Editor March 22, 2012 at 2:57 pm #

    Thanks Jeff. As originally posted, the sentence was confusing. I have fixed it.

  3. Jeff White March 22, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    I am not able to read York’s article online for free, but from the abstract that appears at the link Ian posted, it’s evident that the key message is that “each unit of total national energy use from non-fossil-fuel sources displaced less than one-quarter of a unit of fossil-fuel energy use.”

    Unfortunately, Ian left out the word “use” in his comment, thereby perhaps giving the impression that York was saying that if we got rid of fossil fuels we would have to generate over four times as much energy from non-carbon sources to replace it.

    Rather than saying that “green energy” – as a set of technologies – is less than a quarter as efficient as fossil energy, it appears York was saying that social and political forces under capitalism conspire to perpetuate the use of fossil energy rather than adopting available green alternatives.