Most people in the world prefer renewable energy to fossil fuels or nuclear power. This is what the opinion polls tell us, again and again, and it’s why communities are standing up to fossil fuel extraction projects and pushing for cleaner alternatives all over the world.
That’s all very well, say the fossil-fuel proponents, and of course we all want clean energy eventually, but for now we need coal, oil and gas because renewables just can’t fill the energy gap, right? Burning carbon is just a necessary evil, so we've just got no choice but to extract those tar sands, or frack that national park, or drill in that frozen ocean, or blow up that coal-filled mountain. It's a shame, but what can we do?
Clean-energy supporters everywhere face this tired argument every day. Even though we know it isn’t true, it isn’t easy to respond without having to refer to some weighty research document or hefty policy report that very few people are likely to read.
That’s why we (the UK Tar Sands Network) have developed our new infographic and website, Two Energy Futures. It boils down all the relevant facts and figures into a visual form, so the viewer can see at a glance that it’s perfectly possible for everyone on the planet to have a good quality of life powered entirely by renewable energy, thus avoiding runaway climate change. By way of contrast, it also shows the (quite frankly terrifying) fossil-fuelled future that the International Energy Agency believes that we’re heading for if governments and industry carry on down their current energy development paths. In this scenario, runaway climate change is unavoidable.
Our model of a cleaner fairer future differs from other ‘low-carbon world’ scenarios in another important way. Rather than starting from the current, inequitable global pattern of energy use, we’ve started from first principles and asked the question: how much energy do we really need for a good quality of life? Luckily, the latest report from the Centre for Alternative Technology, Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future, has an excellent assessment of the amount of electricity, heat and liquid fuel required per person for a low-energy ‘Northern-style’ life (i.e. one with fridges, hospitals, trains and cinemas). This assumes that we do all the sensible things we know we need to do regarding improved public transport, less driving and flying, well-insulated homes and less consumer junk.
We then needed to know how much energy could be generated globally from different renewable sources, so we used the estimates from David MacKay’s well-respected book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air (which seem to be accepted as reasonable by most energy analysts). It turns out that – guess what? – it’s perfectly possible to give everyone on the planet a good quality of life using existing renewable technology, even taking population growth into account.
There are, of course, a few caveats and sticky bits. Just swapping energy sources won’t be enough – we also need a fairer sharing of global energy. Current renewable technology can only power the world if the richest minority reduce their energy use in order to let the rest of the world come up to a sustainable level. We’ve been left with a small, stubborn trickle of fossil oil as an ingredient for plastics and chemicals, and we’ve been forced to include some energy crops for certain irreplaceable liquid fuels and as a back-up power source for periods of high demand.
Overall, though, the picture is a very positive one. Another energy future is certainly possible. But could it actually happen? Well, that depends on whether enough of us take action to make it happen. There are already people all over the world fighting for a cleaner, fairer future. Our website aims to help them by showing that their desired destination really does exist – which is a crucial step in figuring out the route to get there.
Of course, this isn’t the only possible safe future. We’re not pretending that we have all the correct answers. But we can confidently state that the world already has the technology to give everyone a good quality of life without needing coal, or tar sands, or gas fracking, or Arctic drilling; and more importantly, without tipping the world into irreversible climate disaster.
The real future will probably look different from both of the options presented in our graphic. But don’t ever let anyone tell you that we ‘need’ fossil fuels to power the world. We don’t.
Danny Chivers, on behalf of UK Tar Sands Network
Danny is the author of the No-Nonsense Guide to Climate Change