/ 24 January 2020

Renewables not a silver bullet for inequality

Demonstrators During The Event "friday For The Future", A
Ticking: Demonstrators are calling on world governments to take action against climate degradation. (Marco Canoniero/Getty Images)


We talk as if building wind, solar and other sources of limitless, clean energy will redistribute wealth and drive social justice globally. We see it as the fix for a system that concentrates too much power in the hands of too few people. But too much hope is being attached to renewable energy.

When the first power plant turned on in London in 1882, and in South Africa that same decade, we accelerated a system that literally concentrated power. Its inevitable outcome is a world where research by multinational investment bank Credit Suisse finds that the world’s richest 1% owns 45% of all wealth and the wealthiest 10% own 85% of it. And we live in the world’s most unequal country with a power utility that can break the economy without consequence.

The global system is about big entities, corporations and investors owning the means of production. When new coal plants are built, the same investors invest and profit. They can profit because a grid built on coal doesn’t pay for its pollution of rivers, people’s lungs and global warming. People and governments pick up the cost. You see that in the Free State, Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces, where people can’t drink the water because it is so polluted, and the air they breathe makes them sick.

For decades, environmentalists and nongovernmental organisations have campaigned to change this. The switch from enormous coal-fired power plants to much smaller, and more geographically dispersed wind and solar farms seemed like a moment to make this happen. In her much-lauded book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, environmentalist Naomi Klein set out a vision for a shift in energy driving a fundamental shift in who gets a say in how the world works — a chance for a functional democracy. I read that book. It had a profound effect on me.

But then last week I went to Abu Dhabi. It is home to the International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental agency representing 160-odd countries that is tasked with researching the state of renewable energy and then use that information to help the transition from coal-based power to renewable energy. The agency paid for me to be there. (Giving journalists access to information, people and events will probably mean your topic gets covered. The fossil fuel industry has perfected this system of influence.)

After attending the agency’s annual meeting I spent a day at the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, held in a giant convention centre amid the towers of a city being built with fossil fuel money.

What I saw there, and in the days before and since, have played a part in reshaping how I think the future will pan out. Sustainability is big business. In that convention centre, hundreds of stalls showcased the best technology from India, China and other countries. On that day at least, the visitors were men and so were the people running the stalls (except for the odd stall where women in tight outfits reminded us that we haven’t moved on from perpetuating stereotypes to sell goods).

Solar panels used to be something hippies stuck on their roofs to try to make a different world, but now they are where the money is. Nearly R5-trillion a year is being invested in renewables. This has seen extraordinary growth in wind and solar energy in the past decade, with their average price dropping 73% and 22% respectively. Car companies’ investments in batteries has seen their price drop 80%, with a further 60% drop predicted this decade.

The International Renewable Energy Agency says annual investments in renewables need to double if global heating is to be kept below 2°C. And, while governments create a framework for investing — South Africa led the world in creating the Independent Power Producers programme (but corrupt people, in particular politicians, broke it — some 90% of all the money going into renewables is from private investors.

Last week, ahead of the Davos gathering of the people who run the world, Larry Fink, chief executive of the world’s largest asset manager, announced that BlackRock is moving to a more sustainable investment model. That company has more than R100-trillion to invest. The founder of Davos, Klaus Schwab, also said that companies need to do more about their carbon footprint, and ensure that they have a social licence to operate.

This is happening in part because having a 16-year-old call you out for not caring about the future makes for bad publicity, but mainly because of the reality of numbers: energy from renewable sources is generally now cheaper than it is from coal and nuclear. It therefore makes no financial sense to invest any other way.

And this means the future is being bought and created by the people who created the past. It largely isn’t being charted by women, minorities or anyone else losing out in the current version of human civilisation. So all our social ills probably won’t be fixed in the change from coal-based power to renewable energy.