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We Actually Can?!

As a researcher and writer, one naturally gets to read a few books. However, I was absolutely astonished to find that it was one of my own, A Renewable World, that actually gave me, for the first time as a professional environmentalist, real hope. I read the new book cover to cover, and when I finished it, was left with an overwhelming sense that "we actually can pull this out of the fire!"

The book originally attempted to put together a concrete plan for decarbonising the global economy. As that became increasingly a numbers game, we decided to look at real examples of proven and emerging policies, practices and technologies that can show the way. The main thrust of the book concerns how to get down to the magic 350ppm, and avoid the catastrophic climate change that our present trajectory would bring. We are on course for over 730ppm by 2100. We made the majority of human living arrangements at ~275ppm until around 200 years ago, when the industrial revolution began turning the wheels which propelled us into the age of carboniferous capitalism.

Given that we’ve already gone down this road further than is safe, we need to transition to a carbon absorbing economy. We therefore need to reduce emissions by moving to a renewables-based energy system, and concentrations through biological carbon sequestration. The book then explores key corollary areas, such as energy efficiency and sufficiency, the green collar economy, cities and energy, renewables deployment in developing countries, the problems of nuclear and biofuels, relocalization, democracy and civil empowerment. The overall picture is relatively optimistic, when one examines the potential in the bigger picture.

I say potential because there are already so many living examples of things we may change for the better. The seeds of change have been sown over the last two or three decades in particular. New ideas, or old ones re-presented, have resonated with many people around the world. In the early 1970s the hippy flight from the cities of the UK to places such as the Welsh valleys, in order to find some land on which to live sustainably should society buckle and break down, was not uncommon in the U.S., Australia and elsewhere.

Since the 1970’s Northern European nations have been developing technologies and practices around renewable energy, energy efficiency, recycling and sustainable resource use; anti-pollution measures were introduced worldwide; cities were made more livable, regeneration projects restored old areas instead of developing greenfield sites; ecolabelling, and organic, local and fair trade foods began to influence consumer choice; documentaries began to emerge describing our limitations, problems, and potential ways forward; companies have raced to be seen as greener than the competition — many even demanding a legislative level playing field to prevent that; international agreements on carbon reduction have been attempted, and scientists have increasingly stepped into the limelight to articulate with urgency the true scale of our challenges.

None of this has happened without the NGOs broadcasting these messages loud and long, and even taking high-risk direct actions to highlight the deeply climate-unfriendly activities that certain parties are engaged in.

Despite the frustrations of what national governments are not prepared to attempt, there are reasons to be hopeful in terms of legislation. When first writing on this site a few years ago, and advocating the feed-in tariff policy for market development of renewables, there were no such laws in Britain or North America. They are now coming into being, and this is in part due to the fact that initially small, but ever-snowballing groups of people, made it their business to push for legislative progress. The key lesson is, if you see a gap and can do something to fill it, do so. You will find allies. There is no area of sustainability that is without experts, advocates, resources and living examples of some kind.

Partly to facilitate the work of feed-in tariff advocates, I engaged in another book project recently that has produced a resource for feed-in tariff proponents that sets out a cast-iron case. It exposes the tactics of the vested interests who seek to block such policies that allow anyone to become an energy company. (No prizes for guessing the kind of interests threatened by that.)

But it is vital that this work succeeds. Why? Because renewable energy must become a socially embedded phenomenon. Take any example of bad practice, such as industrial farming. This has a huge negative impact in areas such as animal welfare, climate change, land degradation, soil erosion, biodiversity, eutrophication and water resources, to name a few, yet it is immensely hard to change because so many people work in it. One could say the same for the fossil fuel industry, and many other industries.

In Germany today, where the new government has lurched to the right, even it, that would prefer nothing but coal and nuclear energy, cannot eradicate renewable energy. Not even the policy support that helps to drive the industry can be tampered with greatly, as over 280,000 people work directly in the renewable energy sector, with many more people being dependent on those jobs, including the service sector and worker’s families.

Making the renewables sector socially and economically embedded will also produce more energy awareness and efficiency, and create a growing stakeholder base for further greening of national and municipal legislation. The democratization of a social fundamental such as energy can help to break monopolies, put power back into civil hands and show what can be achieved in other areas.

Citizen and community empowerment are gaining strength as the world’s grassroots groups find ever-more reason to call for national legislation to raise the political ceiling they have been hitting. The UK’s Transition Towns movement could easily become a ‘reserve army of activists’, grouping together quickly to undertake lobbying when policy change is to be called for or resisted. Local self-reliance can be greatly strengthened, if mobilized effectively, and the emergence of ‘crowdsourcing’, and many other methods of communication and organization via the internet, is already showing signs of success in facilitating effective grassroots action.

Developing countries are increasingly coming to renewable energy as a way out of the trap of fossil fuel dependency. There are many models that can connect electrification, climate and human health protection, and sustainable development. Feed-in tariffs can be adapted to the conditions in developing countries and emerging economies.

Although the root causes of our systemic problems, found in economics and finance, governance and politics, media and culture and so on, still need to be debated, and strategically corrected, we can do a great deal under the present order. To make it truly sustainable, however, it must be innately ethical, or imbalances will impact the whole system. Humanity has never been a great problem solver en masse, but individually, and in small groups, energy, determination and even the joy of it, the fun of power, has produced good things for the many.

A change to a renewables-based energy system is non-negotiable for a thousand well-rehearsed reasons, but if we do it right, we will have a model for change that can be overwhelmingly positive, and accelerate the creation of a truly renewable world.

Miguel Mendonça is an author and advocate, and Research Manager of the World Future Council. A Renewable World — Energy, Ecology, Equality is out now through Green Books. Powering the Green Economy — The Feed-in Tariff Handbook is out now through Earthscan.

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