Fossil fuels are out of favour as climate change struggles bear fruit
But acting together, doing all we can, staying hopeful, not giving in to fear or despondency, are more important than ever. Climate change was always going to have to get worse before society could gather enough collective will to stop the worst. That time is now here.
The difficulty with climate change has always been the politics; how to get an entire economy off one set of energy sources, fossil fuels, and onto another, renewables, when the existing energy order is so profitable for so many, and climate impacts have seemed a long way off.
Sadly, it’s always been true that climate impacts would have to get much worse before there could be a strong enough political counter-weight to the powerful fossil fuel industries. The big question would be whether it would be too late by the time that happened.
The stakes are now as high as they could be possibly be. The next few years to 2020 are truly crunch-time.
Here are the three forces in play:
1. The climate emergency is happening right now
First, climate impacts are truly frightening. To illustrate, here is just one graph – showing what is happening to Arctic and Antarctic ice this November.
This is not all necessarily climate-change. It looks like the Arctic melt is climate-change related, but the Antarctic losses may be related to changing wind patterns.
But the overall trend is painfully, frighteningly clear: the world is warming fast, and we are starting to see unpredictable and unforeseen consequences.
Parts of the Arctic are 20 degrees warmer this summer. Ice is clearly not the only issue or impact. Pakistan and India saw 50 degree heatwaves this summer. There are worse droughts, floods, storms, and crop-failures every year.
2. Fossil fuel companies are fighting back…
Fossil fuel corporations and the politicians in their pockets are mounting a desperate, furious rearguard fight to eke out as many extra decades of coal, gas and oil profits as they can.
Existing oil, coal, and gas production will take us over two degrees warming, and yet Shell continue to drill for new gas, BP continue to drill for new oil in the Barents sea, the British government are signing deals for their corporations to drill in East Africa and Colombia, the American government seems about to be run by climate-deniers and fossil-fuel lobbyists.
After the euphoria of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, late 2016 has seen a shocking lurch away from climate action in the world’s largest economy, and it may spill elsewhere.
3. …but renewables and people-power will win
The momentum towards cutting pollution is now unstoppable. Globally, investment in renewables in 2015 was twice the investment in fossil fuels.
Renewables aren’t ‘alternative’ or niche any more, they are absolutely mainstream, and increasingly dominant. In the UK renewables now supply a quarter of the country’s electricity, up from just a few per cent six years ago.
As this graph shows, renewables are beating fossil fuels two to one:
(Source: BNEF, UNEP via Bloomberg)
Globally, 2015 saw 500,000 solar panels installed every day. Solar’s costs have fallen 90 per cent, since 2009, and keep on falling, as they do for wind.
e are in the midst of an amazingly fast global revolution in technology: one which is connecting renewables, storage, batteries, energy saving, smart grids, and demand-response deployment, all of which is being amplified, connected and made more efficient by advances and use of digital and IT technologies.
Politicians do not realise just how fast the energy world is changing. Fossil fuels are genuinely in trouble: multiple coal mining corporation bankruptcies; coal power-stations cancelled; arctic drilling cancelled; oil exploration projects failing. Global emissions have finally peaked, and hopefully they will start falling next year.
China is going all-out for renewables and rowing back from coal, in part because of its catastrophic air pollution, but also because cities like Shanghai are at sea-level, and extremely vulnerable. There has been a 30-fold increase in annual investment in clean energy in China in the last ten years.
Finally, more and more people are taking action on climate change, and demanding action – from Keystone in the States to Preston in Lancashire, to climate demonstrations in New York and the Philippines; from the millions of people across the planet putting solar panels on rooves and their savings in green investments, to the phenomenal success of the global fossil fuel divestment movement in the last two years.
We’re going to win – but only if we fight, and join with other struggles fighting for people’s interests ahead of the narrow interests of elites.
The next four years is crunch time on climate. A wave of clean energy, climate urgency and people power is pummelling at the cliff of fossil fuel corporations’ hold over our political institutions.
My money is on the surging wave, not the crumbling cliff.
Simon Bullock is a researcher at Friends of the Earth. He Tweets @simonbullockLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.