Andrew Simms: Choosing the best possible future means considering radical scenarios that align energy use and industry with climate action. The good news – according to the World Energy Council (WEC) – is that, per person, our energy demand is set to peak before 2030. Of course, there will be more of us around by then too, so that total demand will only slow, rather than level out. A heady whiff of technological optimism accompanies the explanation that this will happen because of “unprecedented efficiencies created by new technologies and more stringent energy policies”. The bad news is that under the scenarios drawn up by the WEC, even keeping to the upper target agreed in Paris of global warming no greater than 2C will require an “exceptional and enduring effort” that goes beyond any current commitments and needs a price for coal, oil and gas that is dramatically higher. To sweeten this pill, the WEC gives its scenarios names which must appear funky in the world of energy policy. “Modern jazz” is about shiny, digitally driven markets, the slightly less enthusiastic “Unfinished symphony” is about emerging greener models for growth, while “Hard rock” is a future of both low and grubby growth. The problem with these and many other scenarios that emerge in the mainstream, is the intellectual editing that occurs before they even begin. Most share two overwhelming, linked characteristics that strictly limit any subsequent room for manoeuvre. Firstly the demand for energy itself is seen as something innate, unchallengeable and unmanageable. It must be met, and the only question is how. Secondly, the assumption remains that the principles and practices of the economic model that has dominated for the last 30 years will remain for at least the next 30 years. There is no sign yet of the ferocious challenge to neoliberal orthodoxy happening at the margins of economics shaping mainstream visions of our possible futures. The merest glance at the history of changing ideas suggests this is short-sighted. At the height of the 2008 financial crisis, the UK government promised to “go beyond the conventional thinking” to put things right. It never did, but with the climate crisis there is no choice. Conventional thinking is off-course and contradictory. Without a balanced, comparative assessment of strategies to align energy use and industry with inescapable climate action, we won’t be able to choose the best possible future. I’m glad to say that work like this is beginning to happen at places such as the University of Leeds’ centre for industrial energy, materials and products. It’s going to mean telling better stories of change, rewriting rules and breaking ideological chains all around, but hey, that’s jazz.
Guardian 19th Oct 2016 read more »