by Hannes Swoboda

Five Turnarounds 

The latest report to the Club of Rome is called “Earth for All”. The title says it all. We need an Earth in which everyone can participate equally and on which everyone can feel comfortable and develop. And, of course, this includes ensuring that our planet continues to exist in its diversity and offers livable conditions – on all continents. 

The authors of the report make it clear that this requires a decisive turnaround as part of a giant leap forward (Great Leap). However, as the authors of the last World Energy Outlook also state, we are on a path of “too little – too late”; in other words, our measures are too little and come too late. In this context, too late means that they do not prevent the Paris climate target of a maximum of 1.5 degrees global warming from being exceeded. We are moving more in the direction of 2.3 degrees global warming. And this will have catastrophic consequences, particularly in southern regions, which will lead to increased migration, among other things. 

The five necessary turnarounds in the latest report to the Club of Rome are “ending poverty”, “eliminating glaring inequality”, “empowering women”, “building a food system that is healthy for people and ecosystems” and “transitioning to clean energy”. If you take a closer look at these turnarounds, it becomes clear that they involve radical or disruptive changes to our economic and social system. According to the authors of the report: “Our analysis clearly shows that the fastest economic transformation in history must take place in the coming decade.”

German sociologist Sighard Neckel comments on this in his article “The dilemma of socio-ecological simultaneity” (Merkur, November 2023): “In the age of the Anthropocene, the causes of global warming are so comprehensively and multi-layeredly interwoven with human activities that hardly any sphere of action can be exempt from the rapid pressure to change.” And he adds the rhetorical question: “When have modern societies ever been in a comparable situation in which everything from the rules of economic activity and technical infrastructure to personal lifestyles are at stake at once?” Above all, this also involves a radically redefined relationship with nature. It is no longer just a disposable raw material in the service of humanity.

Energy as the linchpin of climate policy

As mentioned above, the transformation of our social and economic system requires five turnarounds. One that immediately springs to mind as particularly urgent is certainly the energy transition. It has been the focus of political attention for several years now, not least in connection with the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. Have we learned from our strong and sometimes one-sided dependence on Russia? Have we moved with sufficient vigor towards a sustainable energy system? 

The latest World Energy Outlook assumes that we are already experiencing a temperature rise of 1.2 percent above pre-industrial levels. And the measures being taken worldwide are in line with the concept of “too little – too late”. However, it is still possible to pursue a strategy that achieves the 1.5 degree target. But this will require increased efforts. Above all, increased investment in solar and wind energy is needed. A lot has happened and in some cases expectations have been exceeded, but there is still not enough investment in the expansion of solar plants and the installation of wind turbines. 

Increasing storage capacity 

But it’s not just about investing in the production of electricity from wind and solar power. It is also crucial to expand the grids and systems, especially batteries, in which the electricity can be stored. This is because alternative energy production in particular does not always generate electricity when it is needed – and vice versa. 

Batteries are a decisive factor in establishing and maintaining a sustainable alternative energy supply system. According to the current state of technology, this – and also for the solar cells and wind turbines themselves – requires many rare earths and metals that are not available everywhere. The corresponding mines for copper, cobalt, lithium, nickel, silicon etc. and even more so the refining and processing of these raw materials is highly concentrated, especially in China. In recent decades, China has also gained a huge competitive advantage in terms of the extraction, preparation and processing of critical materials. However, this brings geopolitics into play. Above all, the disputes between the USA and China, but also between China and the European Union, make the supply situation uncertain. Geopolitical tensions are jeopardizing the supply of these raw materials, especially for the countries of the European Union. They are struggling to build up the necessary capacities. 

The direct supply of these critical raw materials and the expansion of corresponding processing facilities within the European Union is certainly taking a long time. However, due to global uncertainties, there is also too little investment in the extraction and processing of these important raw materials. 

At the same time, however, research into the development of alternative storage options must certainly be driven forward. In addition, greater efforts must be made to recycle batteries. Only if progress is made here can we achieve the desired electrification of our lives. 

The critical situation regarding batteries naturally also affects electromobility in particular. Here, too, there is a positive trend away from the combustion engine and towards the electric car. However, the short range – due to the low storage capacity – is still an obstacle to the necessary increased expansion of electromobility. 

Stronger support from the population 

However, the energy transformation also requires a sufficiently qualified workforce. We also need enough land for solar panels and wind turbines and accelerated procedures for the approval of the corresponding plants. Above all, however, we need the support of the population. Strong support from the population is necessary for increased measures as part of the energy transition. 

The energy transition will certainly lead to higher energy prices – also as an incentive to save energy. However, in times of already high inflation, the acceptance of rising energy prices is rather low. We are already seeing a downward trend in the acceptance of climate policy measures.  All the more reason to combat inflation in order to increase the scope for energy transition measures.  

Global responsibility 

All of these challenges affect us in relatively rich Europe. But there is much more relevant to the energy transition in poorer countries. Many people in these countries still have no (regular) access to energy at all, especially electricity. Stable energy systems are often only just being established. And in the interests of the climate, this should be based on sustainable power generation. 

However, this requires large sums of money that these countries cannot raise themselves. Particularly in view of the current high interest rates and high levels of debt, these countries are often unable to undertake the expansion of their energy supply in a climate-politically correct and socially just manner. The promises of support made so far by the rich countries are by no means sufficient to implement the most urgent concerns of such a policy and not even these inadequate promises have been kept. 

It is important to see our own efforts at European and national level in the context of global developments. It is true that whatever we do in Europe, and even more so in Austria, has only a minor impact on the global energy and climate situation. But we must see ourselves as part of a global strategy. We must live up to our responsibility for all the climate policy footprints we have already left on this world. This also includes helping those who suffer even though they have contributed little to the harmful emissions. And it certainly also includes seriously considering whether and how we can capture and safely store some of the CO2 pollution in the atmosphere.

Can the Paris target still be saved?

The latest World Energy Outlook comes to the following conclusion: “Tripling the capacity of sustainable energy generation, doubling efforts to increase efficiency towards 4% per year, increasing electrification and drastically reducing methane gas emissions from fossil fuels would deliver 80% of the emissions reductions needed to achieve the 1.5 degree pathway in 2030. Furthermore, innovative and generous financing models are needed to support clean energy production in developing countries, but also a sharp reduction in the use of fossil fuels and no new permits for coal-fired power plants.” Then there are also measures that ensure strong support from the population through a fair distribution of costs and burdens. Only under these conditions can the 1.5 degree target realistically be achieved.  

And the European Union? 

So much for the global situation, which gives us hope of achieving the Paris climate target, even if the necessary development path is not yet in sight. The situation is similar in and for the European Union. The climate policy targets have even been raised in recent years and the measures tightened. For example, it was decided to include the transport and building sectors in an emissions trading system and a CO2 border adjustment mechanism was also introduced, which in future will burden those imports that were not produced under comparable emissions regulations in the country of production. This could lead to a global increase in climate policy efforts. However, this mechanism is globally controversial and is opposed by many trading partners – especially within the World Trade Organization. 

Despite the increase in climate policy targets and the tightening of measures as part of the “Green Deal” and the “Fit for 55” package, there are also noticeable tendencies within the European Union to weaken the high targets – not least in view of next year’s elections to the European Parliament. 

However, in view of the fact that the post-Covid economic recovery has by no means been as “green” as hoped and that the transport sector in particular is lagging behind the necessary CO2 reductions, there should be no reduction in climate policy efforts. In any case, much remains to be done to achieve an energy transition in the industrial and construction sectors that makes an important contribution to reducing emissions while at the same time ensuring the long-term preservation of Europe as an industrial location. 

What will COP 28 bring? 

COP28 will take place in Dubai in a few weeks’ time. The World Energy Outlook has defined what energy experts expect – see above. The Paris climate target can only be achieved under these conditions. COP28 should therefore set clear priorities. However, the United Emirates itself is much more cautious. They also want the energy transition, mainly because they know that it is unavoidable. But they want to achieve it more slowly and they are relying on the use of fossil fuels for longer than is compatible with achieving the climate target. 

It is understandable that some fossil fuel producers are putting on the brakes. It is understandable that countries that are in a development process towards a middle-income level and have coal or natural gas at their disposal also want to use them for their further development. They cannot be expected to shoulder the costs of the transition away from these resources alone. In any case, the often praised financing agreement with South Africa is not sufficient and lacks implementation. The rich countries must be held accountable here. And not just in terms of promises, but also in terms of actual payments. 

However, it is also crucial to what extent it is possible to achieve a minimum level of cooperation between the main players despite the global tensions. China should be mentioned in particular. On the one hand, it has established a strong position in and for the energy transition. On the other hand, the energy transition in China itself is of crucial importance for achieving the climate targets. The tensions between China on the one hand and the USA on the other – and to a lesser extent with the EU – could lead to significant delays in the implementation of climate policy measures. Responsible politicians should therefore focus on cooperation rather than confrontation in the interests of climate policy.