The climate problem is an energy problem.
Updated: May 8, 2019
The energy industry as a whole is in the spotlight as it is responsible for two-thirds of total greenhouse emissions. Reducing the carbon intensity of electricity generation is vital, as decarbonising this industry can happen more rapidly than in manufacturing, building or transport. As citizens we wear two hats – as energy consumers and as future producers – and can play a lead role in this transition.
By now it is conventional wisdom (even if it’s not common practice) that switching to renewable energy supplies is one of the most important steps we can take. Achieving the reductions in the Paris Agreement demands that industrialised nations make significant emissions cuts while emerging economies adopt low-carbon pathways. The framework for how different countries should reduce their pollution levels, known as “contraction and convergence”, has the virtue of simplicity: equal per capita emissions from everyone. There are no grounds for defending unequal use of the atmosphere. From the inequitable situation we have now, per capita emissions from each country should "converge" at a more even level in the future, while total global emissions should "contract".
What this means in practice depends on where you live. Countries with higher Gross Domestic Product that typically produce higher greenhouse gas emissions need to make greater cuts. Nation states that are already using more of the atmosphere than others include the usual suspects (USA, Russia, China et al.) as well as those with seemingly better credentials such as Canada and the Scandinavian countries. In practice, it will fall to legacy cities with higher emissions historically to make the cuts while leapfrog cities make less polluting gains. The good news is that cuts do not automatically equate to a lower standard of living for economies that were built on fossil fuels, as there is plenty of evidence that reducing harmful emissions can be decoupled from the health of local economies.
Despite the historical perspective, the industrial revolution has yet to be fully experienced by seventeen percent of the world, with 1.3 billion people lacking access to electricity today. The demand for electricity globally will continue to grow as underserved populations catch up, personal incomes rise and power-hungry cities expand. It is not a trend that is going to reverse in our lifetime. How we meet this future demand determines our future.
Switching to renewable energy supplies is a big step forward in cutting global greenhouse gas emissions by eighty to ninety percent, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is needed. The second step involves reducing our overall demand for energy, by radically improving energy efficiency and by recirculating resources and materials. Cities are the places where we should focus our efforts, as they are inevitably aggregators of raw materials, components and goods. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, cities account not only for sixty to eighty percent of all greenhouse gas emissions but also for seventy-five percent of natural resource consumption and fifty percent of global waste production.
The incredible power behind the idea of circular economies is that it would effectively separate economic growth from resource usage by reducing our dependency on primary materials and energy. We already know that our linear “take, make, consume, dispose” way of life is unsustainable. In a circular economy, we would not necessarily need to consume more stuff for the economy to grow, and conversely we could stop consuming stuff without fear of the economy collapsing. Increasing the frantic consumption of disposable products would no longer be the goal. The revolution in how we use resources more efficiently to create “circular cities” is no less fundamental than the empowerment of cities that are self-sufficient in renewable energy.
As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation outlines, the quest to remake cities as circular cities would support existing urban policies by encouraging an innovative urban economy with a wider distributed manufacturing base and new forums for sharing and exchange. It would boost local employment by creating new work opportunities such as repair and recycling services. Reduced consumption of primary materials and lower material usage would automatically decrease carbon emissions as well as the spending on procurement and waste management.
In striving to create a restorative economy, renewable energy and circularity are two sides of the same coin. We cannot achieve clean growth if the economy depends on burning more fossil fuels, or if growth depends on consuming more primary materials. It is time for citizens to use their power, taking back control and being infinitely more resourceful.