Energy transition: No solutions for first world problems
19 Mar 2023
"Apocalypse on your mind? Climate catastrophe cancelled!". This is the topic psychologist Katharina van Brownswijk1 and blogger Jan Hegenberg2 discussed at the Leipzig book fair3. About climate emotions and energy transition.
During the 2023 World Economic Forum, Al Gore described the climate situation like this: "The accumulated amount [of CO2] is now trapping as much extra heat as would be released by 600,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs exploding every single day on the Earth."4 In the US, the dramatic rise in wildfire smoke triggers a decline in US air quality.5 News like these trigger feelings like anxiety or anger. How to deal with these climate feelings?
In "The Dragons of Inaction" psychologist Robert Gifford described "Psychological Barriers That Limit Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation".6 He outlines why there is a gap between knowledge and action. People know about the environmental crisis, but they don't act and consume more sensible.
During the 2019 World Economic Forum, climate activist Greta Thunberg called out this inaction. "I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. [...] I want you to act. I want you to act as if the house is on fire. Because it is."7 Thunberg speaks of her own climate feelings here. She asks the audience - the rich and powerful - to not hide behind wrong success stories of innovative ideas.
Thunberg uses emotions here to trigger action. Humans are not rational, as van Brownswijk outlines. Why are we trying to leave feelings out of business and fight against our human nature? Why don't we listen to our valuable feelings? Feelings like anxiety, sadness, anger and disgust protect us from potential dangers. Maybe we should start listen to our climate feelings and act upon them.
Either climate change mitigation or prosperity. Many people are under the impression we can only have one. As Hegenberg puts it: People are afraid we have to move to caves and eat oat bran everyday. But we can actually keep our prosperity, if only we exchange a few machines.
At the moment we exploit our prehistoric energy resources, like oil and coal, in stunning speed. Not only do these not regenerate, depots are getting more and more unaccessible and the extraction gets more and more expensive. On top, we emit emissions: The energy sector is in fact the most energy-intense sector. While people are fighting about plastic bags and local agriculture, energy supply is the real issue. Nearly 75 percent of emissions come from the energy sector8:
This means two things:
- We need to supply energy different.
- Regenerative energy needs to compensate this.
Both is possible. While these 75% look intimidating, it shouldn't be forgotten: All this energy is used to heat things, to move things or to let electricity flow through things. We can already do all this without prehistoric energy resources.
"In 2020, renewable energy sources (including wind, hydroelectric, solar, biomass, and geothermal energy) generated a record 834 billion kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity, or about 21% of all the electricity generated in the United States."9 Sadly, electricity is only one part of our energy supply. We use a lot of prehistoric energy resources for heaters, cars, blast furnaces, ships and airplanes. Even if our electricity would come from renewables only, we couldn't drive a car with a Diesel engine or make pancakes with a gas stove. Energy transition is much more than electricity from renewables. It's the complete rebuilding of our society, so we can do with electricity all the things we do right now with oil, gas and coal.
The good news is: Renewable energy solutions are getting better, more efficient, more robust and cheaper over time. We can achieve a lot with new technology. With energy transition alone we can avoid 70 to 80% of emissions. Which means we can save our prosperity. So: The world is saving itself, because it can make money with it.
One example where this can be seen is Texas. The deep red state, where Governor Abbott wants to gut the Environmental Protection Agency10 and campaigned against the Green New Deal11, is a leader in both solar and wind power12. Because energy transition is a profitable business.
It's not that easy. For example, climate neutral technology for airplanes could be much more expensive than it is now in the status quo. More expensive for the individual at least. Right now society pays for the pollution. Flying was never cheap, the costs right now are just carried by all of us. Cheap flying is an impossible thing: The first law of thermodynamics is in our way: Energy can't be created from nowhere. And flying needs a lot of energy per passenger and mile. It will always be expensive. Many people will not be happy about paying higher ticket prices for flying and ultimately flying less. First world problems.
A bigger problem is this: While 75% of emissions come from the energy sector, 25% of emissions don't (agriculture, waste, industry). Which means, energy transition will change nothing about these emissions. Here, a more climate neutral lifestyle could indeed be necessary and this will affect prosperity.
However: There is no reason not to start with energy transition right now. Crucial technologies are wind turbines, solar panels and batteries. How to deal with airplanes and non-energy sector emissions is something we can figure out along the way.
We have the know-how and the tools and machines for energy transition. Climate feelings like anxiety shouldn't stop us from energy transition.
The event from Leipzig book fair took place March 16, 2023.
Jan Hegenberg: https://graslutscher.de
Katharina van Bronswijk: https://www.psychotherapie-van-bronswijk.de/vita
Psychologists for future: https://english.psychologistsforfuture.org
Carbon Footprint Calculator: https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator
Good news: https://goodnews.eu/en
Schlemmen for Future: https://www.parentsforfuture.de/de/schlemmen-for-future