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The Reality of the Green Transition

April 3, 2024

What is the ecological impact of the energy transition? We don’t yet know. But the initial outlook is bleak enough to inspire a growing number of transition sceptics who warn plundering the planet to save human civilisation will only lead to more catastrophe. The chorus is varied. Some scientists warn that we don’t have enough minerals to supply the entire world with renewable energy; geopolitical experts warn that a resource rush in a resource scarce world will fuel more conflicts, and environmental defenders warn against the devastating impact mines have on local environments.

Humanity’s material footprint accounts for 90% of damages to human health and biodiversity, and that material footprint is directly coupled with our economies. There is no way to dematerialise our economies—they are material. Even the digitisation trend is materials and energy-consumptive. Simply, we cannot deny material reality, and “greening” our energy supply massively increases our material footprint.

A bigger material footprint also drives conflict. There are currently 4000 environmental conflicts in the world and the biggest driver of these conflicts is mining. The conflicts are centred around environmental defenders fighting back against these industrial and political forces. It makes one wonder what the world would look like if the only resources we had access to were the ones in our own backyard: would you choose to gouge out the innards of your garden just to send an email?

This is a necessary criticism against the energy transition. However, climate journalists are also warning against the politicisation of the energy transition, with the right wing voicing major opposition to renewable energy sources, equating the loss of fossil fuels to a loss of human rights. It’s why critiquing the mythology of renewable energy must be part of a bigger strategy to critique green growth.

An energy transition without a political transformation is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole with such force the entire structure could come crashing down. It’s why we cannot and must not talk about our political economies without demanding we reflect upon our energy and material needs, and ultimately contracting those needs. There is no reason to lead such resource-intensive lifestyles in the Global North. Substituting one form of energy for another may solve the carbon problem but it exacerbates others, and with six of nine planetary boundaries crossed, we have almost no margin for error. Accelerating down a consumptive path is the wrong emergency response. We need renewable energy, but we need to use far less than the fossil energy we’ve exploited. Yet, in certain circles, this is a more radical suggestion than mining the moon. Having lived through an era of previously unimaginable privilege, it’s almost like the Western world has forgotten the very notion of consequences.

Last week I spoke at Material Dependencies and the Geopolitics of the Green Transition, an excellent conference organised by AMO, a Prague-based NGO. There were panels on security, EU-China relations, mining and the Critical Raw Materials Act. I spoke on the extractivism panel and the four of us concluded that the question was not where to mine, but whether to mine. We discussed mining as a driver of both local and geopolitical conflict, the devastating impacts on ecology, the coded assumption of economic growth as security in policy-making and the inevitable ecological impact in a renewable economy, resource wars and genocide, and we questioned what exactly we are mining for: More bullshit jobs and mental health crises and wealth inequality? Finally, the conversation ended on the connection between energy surplus and political power, and how to build political power bases in communities.

Any conversation about energy must always come back to power, their linguistic synonymity reflecting political synonymity. I have written before about the obvious unwillingness of imperial governments to give up fossil fuels because it would mean giving up centralised control of the energy supply. We live in a world where the taps can be switched on or off, or trade routes of LNG can be disrupted in order to smooth relationships with allies and throttle enemies. Our system is centralised, energy-greedy and fragile. It’s why blown-up pipelines shock the entire supply chain. It’s bad design, but centralising energy systems makes it possible to hoard power. The system is badly designed—in every respect—but fulfilling its purpose.

Right now, Europe is approving more LNG terminals while China is struggling to shift solar panels. LNG—or methane gas, as HEATED refers to it—is as filthy as coal, yet branded as a “transition fuel” because there’s loads of the stuff left and, for the moment, the USA controls the majority of the supply. But we’re entering a period of global boiling and heading for an average global temperature increase of 2 degrees in the next decade. Fascinatingly, despite the majority world being much more vulnerable to climate shocks and on the very frontlines of the climate crisis, Europe is the continent which has experienced the biggest temperature rise. So why on earth are national governments investing in fossil fuels while China has solar panels waiting for a buyer?

Renewable (or rebuildable) energy is fundamentally decentralised. It disrupts the energy system, which disrupts the power system. It’s possible for communities to co-own their own energy supply, or for individuals to produce their own electricity and even offer some back to the grid. It’s kind of like a better version of people owning the means of production: it’s like owning the means of living. It’s like owning the power supply. And centralised power isn’t happy about it.

Barring the tension between Power and People, there’s also the added tension of Power and Rising Power: China’s first 5-year plan that included renewable energy was released in 1996. It is responsible for the biggest innovations in renewable energy and national deployment, and clean energy was the largest driver for economic growth in China last year. It has also spent the past few decades gaining control of necessary material supply chains so that now a renewable future guarantees Chinese ascension. It’s yet another reason why planned degrowth is a responsible political strategy for a panicked and fragile Western front: contracting our energy needs will reduce the amount of capital flowing into China, ensuring a mutual interdependence rather than a flipping of power. China also needs the West to contract its energy and material demands. As the world’s producer, China added two new coal plants every week in 2022. It is “coal-addicted” as one expert put it at the conference, but very vulnerable to climate and financial shocks. Every nation deploying more fossil energy is at risk of creating stranded assets in the coming decades, perhaps much sooner than we think. Planned degrowth as political economic strategies which include the decommissioning of stranded assets rather than suffer the fall-out will likely be the only way through.

That is, of course, unless we remain on the path of short-term least resistance and double down on competition for resources in a zero-sum power game. It is difficult to square degrowth and security when trade relations have been critical to regional peace and smoothing political relationships. Would de-globalisation risk triggering World War III? And how do we defend our borders when militarisation depends on materialism? And if we, in the EU, have limited access to materials, can’t do much with those materials because we de-industrialised, and are dependent on two major rivals for our goods and energy, respectively, whose side do we take? And do we have any political power to avoid taking sides? What even is the value proposition of the European Union anymore, especially when our number one enemy is enacting radical left-wing policies like cancelling debt for developing partners? Oh, and don’t forget, that enemy is also home to one-fifth of the world’s water which is critical to mining and thus the green transition.

We cannot solve this global problem independently. Creating political, economic and ecological interdependencies is critical to stability. We need to take care of the holistic whole, and it will demand sacrificing individual power. Even degrowth itself is not the endgame: decentralising our energy supply will also, hopefully, open up questions around decentralising our power supplies. We don’t all need to have a degree in physics to understand the larger a structure, the larger its energy needs, and the larger the surplus it will need access to in order to secure itself. On a finite planet, it’s just not a viable plan.

Energy is meant to supply vitality, not threaten destruction. It is the flow of life through an ecosystem. The geopolitical relationships or technological demands which threaten that flow are not security guarantees, but security threats. In a planet at risk of boiling over, it is madness to add fuel to the fire. Conflict and competition in a resource-scarce world is a recipe for conflict, as we are already seeing. The only way to protect ourselves is to protect everything, and the only way to do that is to leave most of it in the ground.

Rachel Donald

Rachel Donald is the creator of Planet: Critical, the podcast and newsletter for a world in crisis with 11,000+ subscribers from 163 countries. Planet: Critical connects the dots of science, art, language, politics, media, philosophy and power to reveal the big picture. Rachel speaks internationally on this ecosystem as an independent researcher and writer. Alongside Planet: Critical, her world exclusive investigations into climate corruption have been published in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Mongabay, The Intercept, Byline Times and the New Republic.