Even as efforts to promote renewable energy have been accelerated, in part due to fresh warnings from the scientific community and damning reports released by the UN that demand urgency, the global energy mix remains tilted towards conventional forms of energy.
For years on end we have treated our planet like a bottomless sewer, despite signs that we are about to exhaust our resources. From Scandinavian wildfires to broken temperature records around the world, climate change is as real as it gets. Despite the solution at hand, the implementation has been painstakingly slow. We know that non-renewable energy is the primary contributor of global warming, and fossil fuels are the main source of greenhouse gases.
Often, a shift towards renewable forms of energy has been deemed too idealistic or too risky, or both. We’re cautioned against the expensive and complex nature of this transition and an overhaul of the economy that would result in chaos. But this is chaos, right now.
Corporate Lobbying and Political Influence enables the status quo
With multi-billion dollar industries, political influencing is a sidetrack trait that accompanies them without fail. The fossil fuel industry is especially dangerous in this regard. The U.S, for example, heavily subsidizes mining, drilling and electricity generation. For decades, they have received this preferential treatment denied to solar and wind energy, and have systematically funded misinformation campaigns to make people sceptical of anything different from the system we have today.
The risks of climate change were being discussed in the inner circles of fossil fuel companies since 1980’s. The biggest oil company today, Exxon, among others, was part of the industrial giants that covered up research that pointed towards temperature increase as a result of rapid usage of non-renewable energy. Even today, they continue to mischaracterize the dangers of climate change and the role of fossil fuels obstructing the path towards a greener economy.
Top oil firms spend millions lobbying to block climate change policies in the U.S, as in many developed nations, with Chevron, Shell, Exxon and BP leading the field.
From funding political parties globally to PR stunts like sponsoring climate change conferences to manipulate international negotiations. Under mountains of funding, politicians are deputized to vote on key policy issues as directed by lobbyists representing the coal, oil and gas industry’s wishes. The successful lobbying and direct opposition to climate change tackling policy measures have created problems in implementing policies after the Paris agreement to meet climate targets and keep warming below 1.5 C.
Lobby groups also influence media, sponsor think-tanks, and adopt other ways aside from swaying political decisions and governance right at the top.
The myth of expenditure
Let us first acknowledge that the global transition of a well functioning system is not a simple task. But for years we have heard about the costs of setting up renewable energy plants, despite the long term benefits of a longer lifespan and the plethora of societal and environmental benefits. When we look at the highly subsidized nature of the coal industry, we are not looking at prices that are truly representative of what coal and oil cost without the budgetary leniency.
More importantly, we are not taught about the societal and environmental costs. Although we are well aware of them, they do not feature in the economics of plausibility of this transition.
The widely publicized barrier to renewable energy is capital costs – the infrastructure and upfront cost of setting up a power plant. One important factor that is ignored, though, is that once installed, solar and wind are exceedingly cheap to operate – their ‘fuel’ is free and maintenance minimal. The bulk of expense comes from building the technology – expense that can easily be covered by prioritization of industries that do not feed off the limited resources of our planet.
Moreover, if costs over the lifespan of energy projects are taken into account, wind and utility-scale solar can be the least expensive energy generating sources, according to asset management company Lazard. Fossil fuel industry is artificially cheap, because its price does not account for the various externalities like impact on climate and public health.
Loss of jobs have been discussed, but not their creation
In reality, renewable energy investment and development tends to create more jobs than fossil fuel energy because a larger share of renewable energy expenditures go to manufacturing equipment, installation, and maintenance, all of which are typically more labour-intensive than extracting and transporting fossil fuels.
A 2004 UC Berkeley study concludes that green energy has been reported to create more jobs per unit of energy. Although the comparison cannot be taken at face value, because renewable energy is more expensive in general, but the vacuum of jobs that has been projected can easily be poked at. This is not to say jobs will not be lost, due to the skills gap that exist between the two sectors, an area that needs to be worked at and not simply be blamed for more unemployment.
Still, the potential for job creation remains significant. For example, in the USA, solar energy industries employ more workers compared to coal industries. This is a real world contradiction to the kind of fearful rhetoric spread in order to hamper efforts to switch the way we produce energy. India, for example, is a leading global player that has demonstrated strong political engagement in transitioning to a green energy sector, as evident by the growth of manpower in the renewable sector.
Social attitudes matter
Unwillingness to adapt to renewable energy by fear of unreliability and just a general lack of information regarding the benefits that entail this transition is a huge disadvantage. Opposition to expansion of wind and solar power plants, misconceptions about instability of generation are all part and parcel of the problem.
People must be sensitized to the harms of coal and the very real problem of us having to depend on a limited source of energy that has already started running out in some parts of the world.
When we obtain information skeptical of green energy while supporting coal and oil industries as the primary forms of energy for the world, we must keep in mind the source and credibility of the organization or individual. The above listed factors work in tandem to restrict the development of renewable energy and continue to enable status quo, where we refuse to stop exploiting the limited natural resources we have.
Positive change can only come about by encountering risk and adopting courageous attitudes, and this is what is the need of the hour.