There are many ways to get to a sustainable energy future. Each has its winners and losers, promises and risks.
Sustainable energy futures are a complex riddle. There are many ways to get there but each has its winners and losers, promises and risks.
A new paper in WIREs Climate Change looks at the complexity behind possible energy futures. Building upon global reports and expert insights it looks at four “theories of the future” and their potential to support Paris targets and sustainability goals.
The “Big Green Deal” scenario suggests active international collaboration for implementing the Paris Agreement. Fossil fuel divestment would skyrocket and renewables providers would come to rule fast. The scenario also includes support to the Middle East for a soft transition, the achievement of all SDGs and a significant reduction in conflicts.
The second, “Zero-sum anarchy” scenario paints a different picture. Driven by nationalism, it presumes the spread of renewables on a different premise: national security. However, little international pressure to reduce fossil fuel use would lead to a much slower change. The absence of the necessary economies of scale would also lead to higher renewables prices. Get ready for the failure of both the Paris Agreement and the SDGs, paired with growing conflicts around the globe.
The third scenario takes the technology promise seriously. Energy storage innovation and cheaper solar paired with favorable policies in China and the U.S. would make renewables the new normal. Driven by corporate interests and regional economic alliances, the scenario might lead to conflicts over rare metals, uneven distribution of the benefits and progress on some but not all SDGs.
In this scenario, Europe becomes marginalized and Russia ends up failing to transition fast enough. Meanwhile, technologies like carbon capture and storage may allow fossil fuels to stay in the game for a somewhat longer period.
Finally, in the business as usual scenario, the current pace of transition lags far behind the necessary targets. Still, many fossil-based companies fail to adapt fast enough. Both Africa and the Middle East may suffer greatly, with Europe, China, and the U.S. each pushing forward their own agendas. Expect growing energy inequality, geopolitical clubs and little progress on the SDGs.
No matter how the future unfolds, authors suggest that geopolitics will be a crucial factor influencing the energy transition. As competition remains a key driving force behind the transition, suboptimal results are highly likely. Meanwhile, scenarios driven by collaboration are much more likely to generate win-wins, as well as peaceful and just transitions.
Significant changes in what matters may occur depending on the scenario. A sustainable energy trajectory will feature competition over access to clean technology. Fossil-based one will be all about resources. And even though technology can deliver necessary climate goals, the benefits to the general public would remain under question.
Focusing on the state-market-technology tension, the paper doesn’t cover the whole specter of possibilities, leaving action by cities, citizens and other actors largely unnoticed. Thus, the inclusion of a wider range of actors and factors might have led to more elaborate insights.
Authors conclude that a sustainable energy future is the only endpoint we can expect. However, the roads ahead vary vastly in terms of costs and benefits. Find common language beyond markets and technology might be our best chance for success.