The Limits of Green Energy Under Capitalism

David Klein | | July 20, 2018

Renewable energy is expanding rapidly all around the world. The energy capacity of newly installed solar projects in 2017, for instance, exceeded the combined increases from coal, gas and nuclear plants. During the past eight years alone, global investment in renewables was $2.2 trillion, and optimism has soared along with investments. “Rapidly spreading solar technology could change everything,” announced a piece in the Financial Times, which also explained that, “there is growing evidence that some fundamental changes are coming that will over time put a question mark over investments in old energy systems.”

But can renewable energy grow fast enough in the market economy to pinch off the use of fossil fuels and help fend off climate catastrophe? Unfortunately, it’s not likely. Even as the percentage of global energy generation from renewables increases, so too does global energy consumption, which means that fossil fuel emissions are also increasing.

The world’s energy-related carbon emissions rose by 1.7 percent in 2017 and energy consumption grew by 2.2 percent, the fastest rate since 2013. For the past decade, primary energy consumption increased worldwide at an average rate of 1.7 percent per year. Power generation rose last year by 2.8 percent with renewable energy providing 49 percent of that increase and most of the rest (44 percent) coming from coal. Globally, oil consumption grew by 1.8 percent, natural gas by 3 percent and coal consumption increased by 1 percent. The key point is that greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels are increasing even as renewable energy use is growing.

To visualize the relationship between the growing percentage of green energy and increasing total global energy production, imagine a “dynamic energy consumption pie chart.” A growing portion of the pie represents green energy sources, so that piece of the pie is getting wider, but the radius of the pie chart also increases with time to account for the increase of global energy consumption. The pie is getting bigger and bigger while the fossil fuel slice is growing longer (which is bad) but thinner (which is good). Which process wins out? As long as fossil fuel use is not decreasing, it doesn’t matter for the climate.

People often get confused when fossil fuels and renewable energy are discussed together, but the climate only cares about the former. The latter has no effect. Solar panels, wind turbines and the like neither help nor harm the climate. The only thing that matters, in terms of climate disruption, are greenhouse gas emissions. 

It is not enough for the percentage of green energy to increase each year — unless it reaches 100 percent of global energy production very quickly. Even if the rate of greenhouse gas emissions decreases, but doesn’t decrease fast enough, we face disaster. What is required is that global greenhouse gas emissions decrease rapidly to zero by midcentury in order for the biosphere to stand a chance of survival. Unfortunately, even a rapidly increasing percentage of green energy production is unlikely to achieve that under capitalist market forces.

What About the Carbon Bubble?

Falling prices for renewable energy have led academics, activists and investors to warn of a “carbon bubble” of overvalued fossil fuel assets in the global economy, which could lead to a major capitalist crisis. A recent economic study, published in Nature Climate Change predicted that a sudden decrease in the value of fossil fuels — triggered by low renewable energy prices — would cause the carbon bubble to burst, and under the assumption of continuing trends, such an event will likely occur before 2035.

Economic crises notwithstanding, could the bursting of the carbon bubble at least prevent or significantly delay environmental collapse? Unfortunately, no. Lead author Jean-François Mercure warned, as reported by the Guardian, “that the transition was happening too slowly to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Although the trajectory towards a low-carbon economy would continue, to keep within [2 degrees Celsius] above pre-industrial levels — the limit set under the Paris agreement — would require much stronger government action and new policies.”

Capitalism or Survival

Capitalism requires perpetual economic growth in order to avoid economic crises such as the Great Depression. More specifically, in order to stave off mass unemployment and economic misery, capitalism requires increasing commodity production, escalating resource extraction, increasing trash and toxic dumping, and ever increasing energy production. Capitalism, by its very nature, must expand unendingly and it has already surpassed the limits of sustainable growth in the sense that global consumption now exceeds the planet’s bio-capacity to regenerate the resources consumed. According to the World Wildlife Fund, 1.6 Earths would be required to meet the demands humanity makes on nature each year. Capitalism is not only incapable of responding adequately to the environmental crisis, it is the very cause of the crisis and can only make matters worse.

As Richard Smith points out in Green Capitalism: The God that Failed, the scale of change needed to achieve a sustainable civilization is staggering. The rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions together with resource conservation requires that we radically reduce or close down large numbers of power plants, mines, factories, mills, processing and other industries around the world. It means drastically cutting back or closing down not only fossil fuel companies, but the industries that depend on them, including automobile, aircraft, airline, shipping, petrochemical, construction, agribusiness, lumber, pulp and paper, and wood product companies, industrial fishing operations, factory farming, junk food production, private water companies, packaging and plastic, disposable products of all sorts, and above all, the war industries. The Pentagon is the single largest institutional user of petroleum products and energy.

The loss of jobs from the de-industrialization required to save ourselves would not be just a few coal mining and oil drilling jobs but millions of jobs in the industrialized world. Mainstream environmentalists argue that the jobs versus the environment dichotomy is a false one, but they are wrong. Within a capitalist framework that is exactly the choice. What we would need to do within this framework to save the biosphere, including ourselves, would result in total economic collapse.

It is not enough just to oppose capitalism. We also need to create something better: An alternative system of human relations along the lines of eco-socialism is not only desirable, it is imperative. Included in such a vision are free health care, free education, free mass transportation, and since most jobs under capitalism are pointless or destructive, we need a drastically reduced workweek.

Polluting industries will not voluntarily shut down. To accomplish what is needed requires socializing virtually all large-scale industries. The only way to rationally reorganize the economy sustainably is to collectively and democratically plan most of the world’s industrial economies.

While all kinds of useless, wasteful and polluting industries must be eliminated, we cannot contract the entire economy. We need to expand some industries, including renewable energy, public health care, public transit, long-lasting energy efficient housing, durable mass transportation vehicles, long-lasting appliances and electronics, repair shops, public schools, public services, environmental remediation, reforestation and organic farming.

It is essential that environmental activists begin to focus on ending the economic system of capitalism itself. The survival of life on this planet depends on it.