Changing the world’s energy map is cheap, especially if we factor in the natural disasters and the cost of treating the diseases it causes. If we simply put a price on the viability of the human species as a whole, it’s clear that pivoting to renewable energy is a no-brainer.
The Economist’s regular cartoonist, KAL, summed it up neatly in his cartoon last week: the battle humanity is waging against the coronavirus is only the preliminary round, and after that, we have a much bigger and stronger opponent waiting for us, called the climate emergency.
That some people still may think that something as objectively and scientifically proven is still up for debate could be seen as one of the greatest achievements of the fossil fuel industry.
Pollution affects us all, very much so.
In addition to being responsible for some seven million deaths annually, it makes us more vulnerable to all kinds of respiratory diseases, including, of course, those caused by viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, which could also become seasonal and repetitive. Not only do we know that we need to fix this problem: we also know that not doing so is killing us, and we now have a pressing example of this.
Electricity generated by fossil fuels accounts for 25% of harmful emissions in the world, while manufacturing and transport, also big consumers, are responsible for 21% and 14% respectively. If one change could have a major impact on the climate emergency, it would be the pivot to renewable energy. And the news in this regard could not be more propitious: the two fundamental components needed to do so, solar panels and batteries to store energy, are subject to economies of scale that make them increasingly efficient and affordable.
The economics of renewable energy are well known. Years ago, it was only competitive when backed by government subsidies. Now, the situation has been reversed: while oil companies receive more than $5 billion dollars each year in government subsidies, they bribe politicians who oppose environmental legislation, and they have no problem finding banks to lend them money, renewable energies are already cheaper than oil, gas or coal, a fact that should consequently change the global energy landscape. Microsoft’s ambitious plan to offset all emissions produced by the company’s activities throughout its history is driven by a desire to implement that kind of change.
Renewables accounted for 72% of new energy sources installed in 2019, backed by investments that could achieve returns of 800%. Coal, on the other hand, is a money-losing machine, and its economics are as toxic as its emissions. Reconstructing the energy supply map of a country, even those in the developing world, has never made more sense. Even a major coal producer like Australia plans to make huge savings from falling costs of renewables, and estimates that 90% of its energy supply could be based on solar and wind energy by 2040 without charging consumers to pay for installation. Norway aims to electrify all its domestic flights by 2040. Some oil companies are now investing in solar energy, partly as greenwashing, but partly just because it is profitable.
The United Kingdom has just gone for a record 23 days without using coal to power electricity generation, while American states like Iowa, Virginia and othersare rethinking their plans, based on using renewable energy. The Democrats want to include action against climate change in the response packages to the coronavirus crisis, and are considering funding 30 million solar roofs across the nation.
Changing the world’s energy map seems like a costly thing to do, but in practice, it is cheap, especially if we factor in the disasters caused by fires, hurricanes, floods and so on. If we include the cost of treating the diseases it causes, or if we simply put a price on the viability of the human species as a whole, it’s clear that pivoting to renewables is a no-brainer.
A post-pandemic economic reconstruction based on restructuring the energy map makes sense. We know we have to do it, and we know the reason we haven’t done it so far is because it challenges the interests of a powerful few. The time has come to abandon outdated concepts, to change our mindset, and to put the use of renewables at the top of our list of priorities.