This article appeared in the Irish Times in early May, based around an intriguing paper published in the journal ‘Global Environmental Change’, titled “Providing decent living with minimum energy: A global scenario”. As the abstract begins: “It is increasingly clear that averting ecological breakdown will require drastic changes to contemporary human society and the global economy embedded within it”, it qualifies this by noting that today, despite humanity gorging on stupendous amounts of energy, the basic material needs of billions of people are still not being met. This, as you might suspect, is leading the authors towards the inevitable conclusion that without addressing gross inequality, we are not going to make any real progress grappling with the climate and biodiversity crises either.
MORE THAN any other single factor, the defining characteristic of the modern era has been humanity’s use of cheap, plentiful energy. In the 20th century alone, humans deployed more energy than in all 20 previous centuries – combined.
This trend has continued to accelerate into the first two decades of the 21st century, pandemic notwithstanding, and shows little sign of levelling off, let alone reversing. The dominant form of energy during this period has been via fossil fuel burning, and this is in turn is fuelling dangerous levels of disruption to the global climate system.
While today’s levels of global energy usage are already altering the fundamental chemistry of the atmosphere and placing extreme pressures on the biosphere, the International Energy Agency projects that by 2050, world energy consumption will have increased by around 50 per cent.
Some 17 per cent of total global energy use currently comes from renewables. Even allowing for rapid ongoing adaption of clean energy, it appears implausible that such ongoing increases in energy – and resource – consumption could occur without triggering catastrophic destabilisation of our planetary life support systems.
Yet, despite our staggeringly high energy usage, the fact remains that “the basic material needs of billions of people across the planet remain unmet”, according to a recently published research paper titled ‘Providing decent living with minimum energy: A global scenario.’
The authors set out to see if the basic needs of a burgeoning global population could, at least in theory, be met by mid-century while averting widespread ecological breakdown. Their findings were unexpectedly upbeat.
Nor is this a purely academic exercise. After all, if there appears to be no possible alternative to the current growth-based system, it will almost certainly continue, despite the evident and escalating risks.
World population reached three billion in 1960; by 2050 it will likely have at least trebled, to around 9-10 billion. Despite this dramatic population growth, the paper argues that by 2050, “global energy use could be reduced to 1960 levels” while still providing a decent basic standard of living for every person on Earth.
This dramatic reduction would require a combination of advanced technologies and sharp reductions in energy demand to what it calls “sufficiency levels”, but the authors are adamant that “sufficiency” is far less austere than people assume. In fact, for the bulk of humanity, it would mean tangible improvements to their real living standards, such is the extreme level of global resource and income inequality today.
The research calculated the minimum energy needed to provide all basic needs, from adequate heating and cooling to nutrition, education, healthcare and access to information technology.
“Our intention is to imagine a world that is fundamentally transformed, where state-of-the-art technologies merge with drastic changes in demand to bring energy (and material) consumption as low as possible, while providing decent material conditions and basic services for all”, the authors state. Only through such a radical transformation, they add, can human needs be met within critical planetary boundaries.
At present, those daring to suggest alternatives to our current model of constant economic growth or promoting steady-state economics are likely to be dismissed as new age cultists or “degrowth fetishists” trying to make everyone poor.
The new study, according to lead author, Joel Millward-Hopkins of the University of Leeds, “offers a response to the clichéd populist objection that environmentalists are proposing that we return to living in caves.”
The paper points out that “inequality and especially affluence, are now widely recognised as core drivers of environmental damage.” Consider that in the year since the covid-19 pandemic began, the collective wealth of the world’s billionaires has ballooned by some $3.9 trillion, while hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people were plunged deeper into poverty and financial insecurity as a result of the pandemic.
This further debunks the concept known as trickle-down economics, the notion that tax breaks for the wealthy would somehow flow towards wider society. Resources are instead being rapidly siphoned upwards towards the already wealthy and economically powerful.
The paper points out that current levels of energy usage “underpin numerous existential crises, resource scarcity and the geopolitical instabilities these issues can catalyse, especially in a growth-dependent global economy”. While there have been significant improvements in energy efficiency, these have “largely served to boost productivity and enable further growth”.
Crucially, beyond a certain point, increases in energy use in a given society deliver little or no additional benefits to that society. The study envisages, with the aid of technologies, radical demand-side transformations that largely eliminate excessive consumption and focuses available resources instead on providing the conditions required for flourishing. These include basic physical health and safety, access to clean air and safe water, good quality (largely plant-based) nutrition, and the opportunity for social and political participation.
Resolving the paradox of how to satisfy the needs of all while using far less energy and fewer resources depends on sharp global reductions in meat-eating, down by some 85 per cent in rich countries. A massive expansion of public transport globally would greatly reduce energy and emissions while allowing people to meet their transport needs without the expense of owning and running resource-intensive private cars.
Globally, much of the existing housing stock needs to be replaced over time with modern buildings with very low heating and cooling energy requirements. This would be another vital step in achieving decent living conditions with far less energy than at present.
The paper is “a great contribution that offers a fresh perspective”, according to Brian Ó Gallachóir, professor of energy engineering at UCC. “Rather than emissions per se, it looks at primary energy; as a thought piece around energy justice and citizenship, it has an interesting focus on individuals as agents, not just consumers.”
Ó Gallachóir also finds the timing of the study propitious. “We have just come through a year where things have happened that just 12 months ago seemed totally unachievable. Through the pandemic, we have tended to listen to science, and find political consensus”, factors he feels will be equally necessary in facing the coming global climate and energy crunch.
The new study admits to having deliberately avoided what is likely the most problematic issue: how to we move from a world riven by vast inequalities, excessive and wasteful energy usage and prodigal overconsumption of finite resources to a utopian model where “decent living standards are provided universally and efficiently?”
The authors dismiss what they term incrementalism, as seen in concepts such as ‘green growth’ and ethical consumerism, which they see as little more than rebranding of the very economic system that is driving the ecological crisis.
The notions of sufficiency and economic equality underpinning their modelling are, they concede, incompatible with current economic norms, “where unemployment and vast inequalities are systemic requirements, waste is often considered economically efficient and the indefinite pursuit of economic growth is necessary for political and economic stability.”
Today’s 17 per cent share of renewable energy is around half of what the study estimates is needed to ensure universal ‘decent living standards’ by 2050, and the renewables sector will almost certainly have doubled by mid-century.
This means that, at least in theory, the total replacement of fossil fuels can be achieved without plunging the world into poverty and chaos. While this would entail heavily clipping the wings of the world’s most profligate economic high flyers, that may in time be seen as a small price to pay for a habitable future for all.
John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and co-author of the Routledge International Handbook of Environmental Journalism