How can we deal with the climate emergency?
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This discussion forms part of the day of debates for Battle of Ideas Berlin.
Fridays for Future demonstrations have been making headlines in Germany for months. Tens of thousands of people have participated in the protests in Berlin since January and numerous politicians, including Berlin’s minister of education, have declared their solidarity with the demonstrators. In order to increase the pressure on politicians, members of another activist group, Extinction Rebellion, chained themselves to Angela Merkel’s headquarters, the Federal Chancellery, in June.
Both Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, the initiator of Fridays for Future, argue that the barrier to tackling climate change is a lack of political will. But is that true? Halting our use of fossil fuels will not be straightforward. According to statistics from the International Energy Agency (IEA) for 2017, 81 per cent of the world’s primary energy consumption came from fossil fuels – oil, coal and natural gas. Low-carbon sources made up the rest, but they include both nuclear power and hydro power – both often unpopular with environmentalists. Just 1.8 per cent of global energy usage came from solar and wind, despite costly subsidies and policy assistance from governments in the developed world.
Part of the problem is that energy demand is rising almost too fast for the expansion of renewables to keep up. While the cost of renewables has fallen rapidly and much more solar and wind power is coming online, the world’s demand for energy is also growing fast. As a result, even if renewables continue to be promoted heavily, the IEA thinks that the proportion of fossil fuels used globally will fall (perhaps to 74 per cent by 2040), but overall consumption of fossil fuels is likely to rise, along with greenhouse gas emissions.
Solar and wind are both intermittent and, in the case of wind, unreliable. Burning biomass, like wood, is supposed to be carbon-neutral, but critics – including many environmentalists – say it is anything but. Ecomodernist commentators would like to see far greater use of nuclear power, which is more expensive than fossil fuels, but is at least reliable. Perhaps we just have to accept that, for the moment, global economic development is only possible with fossil fuels. Indeed, it may be that more economic growth, even powered by fossil fuels, will allow us to adapt to whatever climate changes occur.
How can we decarbonise our energy usage? Should we offer even greater subsidies and government intervention to support solar and wind? Is it time for a global rethink on using nuclear energy? Should we prioritise economic growth, particularly in developing countries, and accept that we may have to learn to adapt to a warmer world? Or do we have to face the prospect that we have to drastically reduce our energy use – and rein in our lifestyles – for the sake of the planet?