Will 'Green' Energy Save the Planet?
We need to stop using fossil fuels because they are destroying the world by driving climate change and polluting the land, water, and air. Therefore, we need non-fossil energy sources. However, despite the fact that the production of non-fossil energy has increased dramatically around the world in recent years, this growth has done little to suppress fossil fuel consumption. In fact, over the course of the last two centuries, a variety of new energy sources have been added to the global energy supply, but these additions never led to a sustained decline in the consumption of other established energy sources. Consumption of biomass energy has grown substantially since the rise of fossil fuels.
When petroleum began to be used toward the end of the nineteenth century, consumption of coal continued to grow. While natural gas production has grown dramatically over the last century, coal and petroleum consumption have continued to expand. When nuclear power production began to grow in the latter half of the twentieth century, consumption of all types of fossil fuels continued to rise. Similarly, hydropower grew throughout the industrial era, without apparently suppressing fossil fuels or nuclear power. Fitting this same pattern, the rapid rise in the production of solar and wind power has paralleled continued growth in the consumption of fossil fuels.
Why has the growth in non-fossil energy sources not substantially suppressed fossil fuel consumption? There are a variety of reasons; an important one is that demand for energy is not independent of the forces that supply energy. Rather, supply and demand, production and consumption, are part of interconnected processes, so that expanding the production of energy from newer sources is part of what allows for continued growth in energy consumption. Capitalist market economies and other modern industrial economies (such as China’s hybrid state-capitalism) are fundamentally growth-centric, as corporations seek to gain profits and state leaders seek to gain power by creating new markets, expanding existing ones, constructing demand, and spurring consumption.
Thus, since there is not a “natural” cap on how much energy growth-centric economies will consume, all energy sources typically are exploited aggressively. Therefore, expanding the production of non-fossil energy is unlikely to do much to suppress fossil fuel consumption in the prevailing global political-economic context. So promoting renewable energy development is an insufficient approach to transitioning societies away from fossil fuels.
How is demand created? Marketing, of course, is one way that corporations seek to manufacture demand, but there are also larger, structural forces that shape consumption. For example, the U.S. government’s project of building the freeway system was, in effect, a giant subsidy for the automobile and oil industries. Car-centric development in the United States and a number of other countries contributed to sprawl and the rise of the suburbs, which served to entrench high-energy lifestyles, including the normalization of large, energy- and material-intensive houses. Additionally, prices of various energy sources—rather than explaining how much of each type of energy is consumed—themselves need to be explained. There is no “natural” price for any particular form of energy because prices of all energy sources are, and always have been, shaped by political and social decisions.
Although fossil fuels are cheap in terms of the price that consumers pay for them, the low price is a product of direct and indirect government subsidies. In truth, fossil fuels are extremely costly, but these costs are not paid for by corporations or at the consumer level; rather, they are socialized. Just as transportation infrastructure is paid for by governments, so is a large share of the costs of oil and gas pipelines, power lines, and other parts of the energy production and distribution infrastructure. Also, military interventions are often aimed at controlling access to energy sources; thus, spending on militaries is an indirect subsidy to fossil fuel corporations.
Geopolitical maneuvering is also often aimed at controlling energy prices and markets, such as occurred with the recent Russia–Saudi Arabia oil-price war in which the United States intervened. Relatedly, to prop up or reduce prices, oil is occasionally bought for or sold from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Additionally, there is the externalization of other costs of fossil fuels, such as those to health-care systems for handling the increased morbidity and mortality stemming from air pollution.
Thus, prices of various energy sources will go up and down, based not simply on resource availability, economic trends, consumer demand, or technological developments but also because of various direct and indirect subsidies connected with changes in government regulations, tax structures, and policies (which, historically, largely have favored fossil fuels). The blunt fact is that energy prices are fundamentally shaped by political processes and power structures, so that the simplistic assumption that levels of energy consumption are the outcome of naturalistic economic laws of supply and demand is wrong.
Besides the fact that the expansion of alternative energy sources has done little to suppress fossil fuel consumption, non-fossil energy sources are not without problems of their own. It is difficult to provide the same amount of energy that is currently supplied by fossil fuels with alternative sources, especially if we do not want to use nuclear power (and there are good reasons to avoid the nuclear option). Furthermore, there is no truly “clean” or “green” energy source, since all sources have substantial environmental consequences.
For example, hydroelectric dams destroy river ecosystems, biomass energy can contribute to deforestation, and solar power and wind power require large quantities of materials (some toxic) to construct and substantial land area and infrastructure to deploy on a large scale. Just about anything is better than fossil fuels, but we are not going to get 160,000+ terawatt/hours annually—the global total primary energy supply in recent years, before the COVID economic crisis—without having serious environmental impacts.
Due to structural drives for growth and the power of corporate elites to manipulate markets and political leaders, demand-side solutions to the destructive reliance on fossil fuels are unlikely to be highly effective. Although carbon taxes are potentially helpful, they don’t challenge the economic inequalities and power dynamics that lead to the continual expansion of production and consumption. And energy taxes, if not tied to thoughtful economic planning, can be regressive—a fact highlighted by the recent yellow-vest protests in France.
Despite the fact that these points suggest that we are on a disastrous trajectory and that current environmental efforts are not working, I believe that there are real solutions available and reasons for hope. The good news is that we do not actually need to consume anywhere near as much energy as we currently do. Due to the extraordinary inequalities that exist in the world, a small share of the world’s people are responsible for a large share of energy consumption.
The dynamics of capitalist systems drive production and consumption to generate corporate profits, not to improve the quality of human life. Thus, a transition to a socially just and equitable society will allow for a dramatic reduction in energy consumption while also improving the human condition. If we transition to an economic system that focuses on human well-being, rather than economic growth for the sake of corporate profits, we will be able to live fulfilling lives with the modest amount of energy provided by renewable sources, and we will not need fossil fuels.
As part of this type of transformation, we need a radical, supply-side solution to our energy and climate crises. Nations around the world should nationalize fossil fuel assets and restrict extraction as part of a program of restructuring the economy. If extraction isn’t limited, fossil fuel companies are free to sell to markets anywhere in the world, so that to a substantial degree they can dodge the effects of demand-side restrictions (e.g., carbon taxes) that may be imposed in any one country. Banning fossil fuel extraction will allow innovation in alternative energy technologies to be applied to providing for social needs, rather than simply spurring growth in energy consumption.
In light of these considerations, the answer to the question posed in the title of this essay—Will “green” energy save the planet?—is: not in the current global political-economic context; however, in a more equitable and just society that is not focused on endless growth, renewable energy sources will be a necessary part of a different, and better, way of life.
Dr. Richard York is a Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon.