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Home arrow Political science arrow Sustainability of Agro-Food and Natural Resource Systems in the Mediterranean Basin

Working Toward Energy Democracy

Sean Sweeney

We face an energy emergency of global proportions. Projected massive increases in fossil fuel use in the coming years will make efforts to control climate change virtually impossible from a practical standpoint. Fossil fuel corporations are using their growing wealth and power to assert an “extreme energy” agenda; this includes using far-riskier extraction methods to get to difficult-to-reach and highly polluting “unconventional” fossil fuels (such as oil from tar sands, natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, and coal through mountaintop-removal mining). The extreme energy agenda has serious implications for communities, workers, the climate, and the environment. Fossil fuel corporations are also using their wealth and power to oppose or delay efforts to address climate change and to create a more equitable, democratic, and sustainable energy system.

Although proponents of the fossil fuel agenda argue that it will create or save jobs, the promised employment gains have not emerged: new technologies allow companies to produce the same amounts of fossil fuel with fewer workers. In the United States, more than 400,000 miners mined nearly 600 million tons of coal in 1943; in 2010, less than 90,000 miners produced nearly 1.1 billion tons, and union membership has fallen to barely 15,000 working miners. Moreover, many workers in the energy sector do not have union representation and lack basic workers' rights, a problem that has become more severe as both exploration and extraction have shifted toward developing countries and the former Eastern bloc. In general, neoliberal energy policies have caused working conditions in the sector to deteriorate, particularly in relation to wages, health and safety, and employment security.

The energy emergency encompasses other serious social issues as well. Even though more energy is being generated and consumed with each passing year, more than 1.3 billion people worldwide are without electricity access and another 1 billion have unreliable access. At least 2.7 billion people lack access to modern, non-polluting fuels. In many countries, privatization of energy has caused price increases, declining quality and service, and underinvestment.

A transition to a clean, renewables-based, low-carbon energy system that meets essential social and environmental priorities needs to occur as quickly as possible. Between 2004 and 2011, global investments in renewable energy (excluding spending on mergers and acquisitions) surged sevenfold, from $39.5 billion to $279 billion, and a growing number of countries are adopting policies to mandate, guide, and support the deployment of renewables. But 2012 saw a 12 percent fall in investments, to $244 billion, and the decline continued in 2013, with third-quarter investments that year 20 percent lower than in 2012. Michael Liebreich, chief executive officer of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, concludes that the “loss of momentum since 2011 is worrying.”

Both installed capacities and production of renewables have expanded substantially, although in some cases starting from a very small base. In the case of hydropower, most of the current capacity was built over the past half century, and the bulk of production occurs at huge facilities that hardly deserve the moniker “sustainable.” Geothermal power, too, has been used in a small number of countries for some decades. But the wind, solar, and biofuels industries have all risen to prominence within the last one or two decades. (See Table 20–1.)

Table 20–1. Global Capacity or Production of Selected Renewable Energy Technologies, 2000 and 2012

In their own right, these are impressive rates of growth; however, renewable energy use is not growing fast enough relative to the world's enormous, and expanding, appetite for energy. The growth in renewables merely supplements the use of fossil fuels, which itself continues to increase. Today, “modern renewables” such as wind and solar contribute just 9.7 percent of global energy consumption (while traditional biomass, used by the world's poor, accounts for 9.3 percent, and nuclear power for 2.8 percent). The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that world energy consumption will surge 56 percent between 2010 and 2040, and that fossil fuels will still account for nearly 80 percent of total energy use by that year. The current regulatory and market-based approaches to promote renewable energy and energy conservation are totally inadequate given the challenge of climate change and the need to reduce emissions dramatically.

So far, the kind of global political framework that is needed to drive a truly green transition has failed to emerge. Few observers expect international negotiations to produce a global climate agreement that is both equitable and capable of meeting science-based emissions reduction targets. The political paralysis in the face of environmental degradation and the climate emergency also extends to the incapacity of most governments to even begin to address the problems of unemployment, precarious work, and persistent poverty in many regions of the world. They are symptoms of the same problem: a clash between the priorities of political elites and corporations on one hand, and the needs of the masses of people for a truly socially and environmentally sustainable society on the other.

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