The Cooperative Society Newsletter November 2020, Issue 25 by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D.
Those of you who live in the U.S. are probably familiar with a series of inane TV ads featuring an emu and his intellectually challenged human partner. The ads are for Liberty Mutual, a Boston-based insurance company that is one of the largest in the world.
It turns out that the company not only insures coal, tar sands, and other fossil fuel projects. It also owns at least one coal company in Australia. Among environmentalists, Liberty Mutual is considered both a bad actor and a sleazy one. Bad because for years it has contributed to worldwide carbon emissions, and sleazy because it pretends to be “sustainable” while continuing major involvement in fossil fuel projects.
As many of you know, I am a big proponent of cooperatives. Mutual insurance companies are close cousins of co-ops because they are (in theory) democratically controlled by their policyholders, very much like the one-member, one-vote control that cooperators have over their cooperatives. Thus, I am reluctant to badmouth members of the co-op family.
But, Liberty Mutual is no longer a mutual, and hasn’t been since 2001. At that time it changed its corporate status to a mutual insurance holding company. Without going into the down-and-dirty details, the company is no longer controlled by its policyholders but rather, primarily, by corporate executives and stockholders.
Mutual insurance companies can’t own non-insurance businesses, but mutual insurance holding companies can. Thus Liberty’s ownership of the Mount Ramsay Coal Company in Australia, which is drawing major criticism from local community residents for its environmental irresponsibility.
Closer to home, Liberty is also under fire for insuring Keystone XL, Trans Mountain, and other tar sands pipelines. In both the Australian and the North American projects, Liberty is not only a climate change villain, it is also harming indigenous people through its fossil fuel projects.
The Cooperative Society Newsletter May 2019, Issue 15
by E.G. Nadeau
This paper provides a brief overview of recent and prospective changes in access to electricity in developing countries. These changes can contribute to the goal of worldwide electrification by 2030. One of these changes is the increasing development of community solar cooperatives that provide electricity through mini-grids, and installations on individual homes and other buildings. These co-ops are the primary focus of this paper.
There are almost a billion people who have no access to electricity, living primarily in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. That’s one-seventh of the world’s population. There are hundreds of millions more whose energy is unreliable, dirty, unhealthy, inadequate, unsustainable, and/or expensive – for example, kerosene, diesel, wood, and candles.
Almost every country in the world has made a commitment through the United Nations Paris Agreement to significantly cut back by 2030 on their use of energy sources that emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (Note that the Trump administration is planning to withdraw the United States from the agreement in January 2020.)
These same countries have made commitments through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals program to dramatically improve the quality of life around the world by 2030, in part by ensuring “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”
There are many ways in which universal access to electricity will improve the quality of people’s lives – for example, creating job opportunities, reducing the workload of women by saving, on average, an hour a day that is currently spent searching for firewood, and preventing almost 2 million premature deaths per year from household air pollution. There would also be a net reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions because of lower use of biomass fuel for cooking, and the virtual elimination of kerosene and other dirty fuels as sources of heat and light.
How can the ambitious goal of “electricity for all” be realized? The broad answer is to dramatically increase the use of decentralized, renewable energy to meet the world’s unmet and under-met needs for electricity. Since most people without electricity do not have access to transmission lines, the most feasible approach to providing them with electricity is through community solar mini-grids and single building installations, many of which could be organized as cooperatives.
Recent and projected progress in electrification According to the World Energy Outlook reports of 2017 and 2018, there has been a pattern since 2000 of accelerating access to electricity for unserved and underserved populations. As alluded to above, almost 1 billion people were still without electricity in 2017, but that’s a marked improvement over the 1.7 billion without access in 2000. Unfortunately, during this time period the “vast majority (97%) of new electricity connections” was through primarily fossil-fuel-based grid extensions. Less than 1% of new electricity access was provided via decentralized, renewable energy systems.
On the bright side, the 2017 report goes on to say that between 2018 and 2030, fossil fuels will largely be replaced by renewable energy – especially solar energy – as the primary source for electricity. “The rapidly declining costs of solar PV [photovoltaics], battery technologies, and energy-efficient appliances (especially light-emitting diode [LED] lighting) are making decentralized renewable energy systems more affordable. This is particularly the case for rural and dispersed communities not served by a main grid and where it may take years for one to arrive. Decentralized systems can also be attractive in areas with grid access but an unreliable power supply.”
Despite the dramatic progress during the first part of the 21st-century, future “trends on energy access . . . fall short of global goals. The New Policies Scenario sees some gains in terms of access, with India to the fore. However, more than 700 million people, predominantly in rural settlements in Sub-Saharan Africa, are projected to remain without electricity in 2040, and only slow progress is [being] made in reducing reliance on the traditional use of solid biomass as a cooking fuel.”
Growth of solar and other renewable sources of electrification Back on the bright side, there are a number of exciting renewable-energy options that are becoming increasingly available to rapidly expand the electrification of the world. For example, large solar arrays are being developed across northern Africa that could eventually replace much of the remaining fossil-fuel energy of Europe. One analyst estimates that putting solar panels on 2% of the Sahara Desert could meet all of the world’s electricity needs. Building underwater transmission cables from the Northern Africa to Europe is quite feasible. The same is not true for transmission to the Americas. There are other examples of desert-based, large-scale solar projects in Saudi Arabia, China, the Navajo reservation in the United States, and elsewhere. Together, these systems are likely to provide a huge addition to affordable, renewable energy by 2030.
Wind turbines are cheaper than solar panels in many situations and will continue to be a critical part of any future mix of renewable-energy sources.
Because of the intermittent generation of electricity by solar and wind installations, they must be supplemented by other sources of energy, energy storage, and/or long-distance transmission. Lithium-ion batteries and other means of storage are an important and increasingly cost-effective way to expand the use of renewable energy at every level, from individual buildings to large power plants.
Community solar energy Many of the close-to-a-billion people who don’t have access to electricity live in fairly remote areas that are not easily connected to major power grids. As a result, large-scale renewable options don’t apply to them and are not likely to in the near future because of the high cost of transmission lines.
In these off-the-grid locations, households and businesses, and clusters of electrical consumers at the village level, can be most economically and efficiently served by electricity generated locally.
In projecting future expansion of access to electricity, the 2017 World Energy Outlook report lays out an “energy-for-all” scenario that is based on the goal of universal electrification by 2030.
Figuring in population growth, this scenario would mean expanding electrical coverage to more than 1 billion additional people at an approximate cost of almost $800 billion. The report concludes that over 50% of this electricity would be powered by solar energy, and less than 25% by fossil fuels. Furthermore, more than 60% of new electrical energy would be generated by mini-grid and off-grid systems. (“Off-grid” systems are defined as powering individual homes and other buildings.)
Below are five examples that include community solar components, followed by a discussion of how community solar co-ops could be expanded and made more efficient so that hundreds of millions more people around the world could benefit from renewable, reliable, and locally-controlled electricity.
Liberia The recently formed Totota Co-op in rural Liberia began operating a solar mini-grid in 2018. Under a contract from the US Agency For International Development, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and Bandera Electric Co-op, one of NRECA’s member cooperatives, assisted the village to organize the co-op and install solar panels, a battery-storage unit, and other equipment. NRECA is also working with 12 Liberian coastal villages to expand the community solar model to them.
Rural India When Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India in 2014, 300 million households were without electricity. At the end of 2018, every village in India was reported to have electricity, but there were still 30 million households without it. President Modi promised to electrify all of these remaining households by April 2019 through a combination of hooking them up to the national grid and through mini-grid and off-grid installations. There are mixed reports on whether or not that goal has been attained. There are also concerns about the reliability of the national electricity grid, which has a tendency from time to time to leave subscribers in the dark.
Despite these reliability problems and differing assessments of how many households are now electrified, the almost-full electrification of India is a major accomplishment. It is also worth noting that many communities have formed Village Electric Committees to oversee the operation of their solar facilities. According to one observer, “most Indian solar microgrids are democratic, with power controlled by village committees.”
The Caribbean Twenty-seven island countries and other territories, along with private-sector partners formed the Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator in 2017 to create more self-sufficient and sustainable development, including an increased emphasis on renewable energy. “The central objective of the Accelerator is to help transform the region’s economy through fast-tracking sound public and private investment opportunities which support climate action and economic growth, through sustainable development.”
Islands, big and small, face special challenges in meeting their electrical service needs. Most don’t have local sources of energy, although some use wood, other kinds of biomass, hydroelectric, and geothermal energy. Importing fuel, such as diesel, is expensive and polluting. Many islands are also vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes which play havoc with transmission lines and other components of the electrical system. Consider the damage that Hurricane Maria caused in Puerto Rico in 2017, including the estimated loss of about 3,000 lives, and from which the island is still recovering.
Solar mini-grids and single-building solar installations, for example in hospitals, provide protection against catastrophic damage and loss of life in the event of national weather and other emergencies in island communities. Mini-grids can be designed as part of island-wide grid systems that can operate autonomously when the main grid goes down.
The Sahel Region of Africa Along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert is a huge savanna region called the Sahel. At over 1 million square miles, it is one-third the size of the Sahara. “The Desert to Power Program . . . seeks to make use of this massive swathe of territory to develop 10,000 megawatts (MW) worth of solar energy to provide electricity to 250 million people – including . . . 90 million people off-grid.”
Kenya Kenya has a much higher distribution of electricity than most Sub-Saharan African countries. Approximately 75% of Kenyans have access to electricity from grid and off-grid sources, according to the World Bank.  The Kenyan government wants to increase that to 100% by 2022. The Kenya National Electrification Strategy (KNES) references mini-grids, independent solar power plants, and off-grid technology as options to utilize. About 49 million people live in Kenya, and most of them are in rural areas. 
One of the options being pursued is a private sector partnership between Azuri, Unilever, and local community residents. In this program, households and businesses purchase solar kits via a rent-to-buy system. Purchasers make monthly payments for 18 months, and then they own the kits outright. The kits come in various sizes, from a single light set-up, to one that can power multiple lights and other appliances, including a television. Another feature of the distribution system is that local community residents are trained to sell, install, and maintain the kits. Thus, there is a direct, local employment impact, as well as the indirect economic, social, health, and educational benefits resulting from increased access to energy.
This Azuri/Unilever model has excellent potential to be adapted for the development of community solar projects in other developing countries.
An example of a solar home lighting system available in Kenya.
Advantages of, and challenges to, community solar co-ops Listed below are the advantages of, and challenges to, community solar co-ops as means to rapidly expand electrical services in developing countries.
They are relatively inexpensive to install and operate.
They can be rapidly ramped up
As mini-grids and clusters of single building installations, they can operate independent of large-scale transmission grids
Panels and other components are easy to transport, install, and maintain.
Consumer costs can be based on usage.
Decisions are made by locally elected boards.
They generate jobs and new business activity.
They improve the quality of everyday life and health.
There is a shortage of champions for solar community cooperatives in the international community.
Even though they can operate self-sufficiently once formed, there are difficulties in accessing start-up capital for them.
There is often a lack of local expertise for sourcing materials, setting up local systems, and providing ongoing monitoring and support services.
However, none of these challenges are insurmountable.
Despite the success of community solar co-ops in some developing countries, there is not nearly enough support for expanding this approach to help meet the goal of universal access to electricity by 2030. Three of the co-op entities in the best position to promote and assist community solar co-op projects are the International Co-operative Alliance, the US-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and the World Organization of Credit Unions (WOCCU). The former two organizations are clearly supportive of the approach, but neither appears to be taking a strong leadership role in promoting it. WOCCU could also be an important advocate for community solar co-ops by encouraging and assisting credit unions, savings and credit cooperative organizations, and other financial cooperatives around the world to provide financing for these co-ops.
Other potential champions and sources of financing include the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program, and various bilateral development programs such as the United States Agency for International Development, the Swedish International Development Agency, the UK’s Department for International Development, the Canadian International Development Program, and major foundations, and business partners. Despite the fact that many of these organizations are already providing assistance to electrification in developing countries, none are actively championing the expansion of the community co-op model.
As both India and Kenya are demonstrating, national initiatives to provide universal electrification within countries appear to be a very effective strategy for expanded coverage. This is clearly a way to mobilize action for universal electrification, including the development of community solar co-ops. And, yet, there are not enough of these national models. The proliferation of these models would benefit greatly from support by the international organizations mentioned above.
For a historical perspective, it is useful to look at the rural electric cooperative movement in the United States. In addition to the strong demand for electricity by rural residents, the second biggest factor setting the stage for the rapid growth of these co-ops in the 1930s and 1940s was the provision of low-interest loans by the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) established by the Roosevelt administration in the mid-1930s. Today, about 1,000 rural electric co-ops provide electricity to 40 million people in rural and suburban communities throughout the United States. Similar loan programs, both national and international, could be established during the next decade to accelerate electrification in developing countries.
Conclusions There are two key conclusions of this paper. Community solar cooperatives are already in place in some developing countries and could be expanded rapidly to provide electricity in many more. However, unless the expansion of these co-ops becomes a much higher priority of the international cooperative community and of international development organizations, the huge potential for these local, democratically run, renewable energy providers will not be realized.
The Cooperative Society Newsletter January 2019, Issue 13 by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D.
We’ve written two books about the societal transformation that we believe is taking place. Our hypotheses are based on our research of seven broad sets of variables such as economic power, the environment, quality of life, and more. If this is of interest to you – and it quite possibly is because you’re here at our website – we invite you to download a free PDF of our book, The Cooperative Society: The Next Stage of Human History, Second Edition, or find information on buying the book here. Thank you.
What is a Green New Deal? There has been a lot of buzz recently about launching a Green New Deal in the United States, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (often referred to as AOC), the new congresswoman from New York, playing a lead role in championing this initiative.
However, questions abound. What is a Green New Deal? Can this catchy title be turned into a pragmatic set of new policies? Can there be a global counterpart to this progressive American idea?
What a Green New Deal is depends on whom you ask. In a comprehensive article that appeared in early January in Vox magazine, David Roberts defined it this way:
“It refers, in the loosest sense, to a massive program of investments in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure, meant to transform not just the energy sector, but the entire economy. It is meant both to decarbonize the economy and to make it fairer and more just.”
To elaborate, Roberts’ definition would combine a variety of initiatives to reduce global warming, decrease poverty, create jobs, and effectively implement a green paradigm for the American economy. This new economic model would prioritize human and environmental needs, reduce the economic influence of large corporations, and reduce economic inequality.
Some question the overarching and complicated nature of such a transformation in American energy and economic policy. Some see it as a threat to fossil-fuel-based corporations, and to an entire society that has been dependent on fossil fuels almost since capitalism began. Others worry about the difficulty of implementing such a wide array of changes at the same time. By taking on too much at once, they fear that we may end up with nothing or very little. Effective climate action could get lost in the shuffle.
The same kinds of comments can be made about an international version of a Green New Deal. Some observers laud such a possibility, while others worry about losing a worldwide consensus (we’ve already lost the Trump administration) on the urgent need for climate reform by the addition of too much additional baggage.
When was it first proposed? The “New Deal” part of the phrase originated with the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, whose administration used this catchphrase to encompass an array of programs intended to pull the United States out of the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was not one massive reform, but a series of separate programs and regulations that together constituted major changes in the federal government’s role in creating jobs and increasing economic and social security.
The New York Times columnist and author, Thomas Friedman, is credited with first using the phrase “Green New Deal” in 2007. In early January 2019, Friedman wrote another op-ed, “The Green New Deal Rises Again,” in which he expressed support for the renewed sense of urgency in addressing climate-change problems.
Presidential candidate Barack Obama included the phrase Green New Deal in his platform in 2008.  And in 2009, the United Nations produced a report entitled “Global Green New Deal.” But then, domestic and international concerns shifted to addressing problems created by the Great Recession, and the momentum for a comprehensive approach to climate change temporarily hit the skids.
The phrase Green New Deal reemerged during the 2018 midterm election campaigns of several progressive, Democratic candidates for Congress. This time around, the concept has received a lot of attention – both positive and negative – in the press and among politicians and environmental and social activists. It is too soon to tell whether or not the momentum toward implementing some version of a Green New Deal – at the national and international levels – will stick this time or fade into the background again.
A survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in mid-December shows “overwhelming support for the Green New Deal, with 81% of registered voters saying they either ‘strongly support’ (40%) or ‘somewhat support’ (41%) this plan.”
What might a pragmatic version of this idea look like in the United States? The young progressives in Congress who are championing a Green New Deal for the United States (and for the world) are already being “put in their place” by their congressional elders. For example, AOC and her fellow insurgent colleagues have already lost the fight to have a special committee established to focus on preparing the way for the implementation of Green New Deal legislation.
But that doesn’t mean they have lost the war. They and other advocates are already gearing up for the 2020 presidential and congressional elections. They plan to keep pushing their message for the urgent need to link climate change and positive economic change in order to simultaneously reduce the risk of catastrophic global warming and create an economy that provides well-paying jobs and economic security.
I have one piece of advice for these Green New Deal advocates: Just as the Roosevelt administration did so successfully with the New Deal, think in terms of a set of reforms rather than one massive program. These reforms could include increased federal and state incentives for conversion to solar, wind, and other renewable sources of energy, for electric vehicles, and for energy-efficient buildings. They also could include job training and job creation for a green economy; increased taxes on the wealthy and/or taxes on carbon-dioxide emissions; and economic benefits for the poor tied to climate change, renewable energy, and energy efficiency.
As a global initiative? The reemergent Global Green New Deal has not yet been articulated in any detail, although it is considered by proponents to be an extension of the reform program being articulated for the United States.
What would the global version entail? The United Nations has already established a Green Climate Fund, the primary purpose of which is to assist poorer countries to implement carbon-reducing initiatives, and to adapt to the problems created by global warming – for example, protection against rising sea levels and agricultural practices that are more resilient to droughts and floods.
A key problem is, however, that there is not nearly enough money in this Fund to address the magnitude of the problems. It is not clear at this time how the size of the Fund could be rapidly and massively expanded.
There are also other bilateral, multilateral, and private-sector aid and economic assistance programs to accelerate climate reforms in developing countries. But, again, they do not match the urgency of the problem.
From my own research and my review of the literature, I am aware of a number of initiatives that could provide tens of millions of jobs in developing countries in the fight against global warming. They include forest-based carbon sequestration; installation of solar-panel microgrids; the rapid deployment of low-cost, electric vehicles; accelerated increases in the energy efficiency of buildings; and financial assistance in weaning countries off of dependency on fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable energy.
Conclusion The most recent studies are projecting that we have a little over 10 years to radically reduce greenhouse-gas emissions before the world will be subjected to major increases in climate-related disasters. The proponents of domestic and international Green New Deals recognize the sense of urgency with which we need to mobilize our resources to counter this worldwide threat.
My primary caution is to follow the same type of multi-pronged strategy of the original “New Deal.” Let’s not try to do everything at once in one massive package. We can simultaneously benefit the planet and the economic circumstances of the people who inhabit it by introducing a broad set of reforms that vary by community and by country, rather than by striving for a holy grail, mega-reform that is likely to get snarled in its own complexity.
The Cooperative Society Newsletter November 2018, Issue 12 by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D.
As I thought about what to write in this November article, two topics came to mind: critical thinking and the climate crisis.
Choosing a topic
The focus on critical thinking results from my fear that the ability, or at least the tendency, to “objectively analyze and evaluate an issue in order to form a judgment” is becoming an increasingly rare commodity in the divisive, politically charged discourse in the United States, and also in a number of other countries that are experiencing polarization and acrimony around issues such as abuse of power, immigration, gender, ethnicity, religion, race, climate change, and others.
My alarm about the climate crisis increased because of the report just released in October by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), entitled “Global Warming of 1.5° Celsius” [2.7°F]. The reference in the report title is to the goal of keeping the increase in the Earth’s surface temperature less than 1.5°C above what the temperature was at the beginning of the industrial era. The report presents a dire warning of damage that would be done to the world if we exceed that temperature level by 2040 – which we are on track to do.
Then it dawned on me that these two topics are inextricably linked if we are going to avoid a climate crisis in the next 20 years or so. That is, if we as a species don’t think critically and act constructively during this time, we will be acquiescing to a predictable and avoidable worldwide series of climate-related disasters that will last into the 22nd century and, possibly, beyond.
So, these two interlinked topics are the subject of this article.
Back to basics When I was a freshman at Harvard in 1966, I took a course called “Expository Writing.” All freshmen were required to take this seminar, which was taught in small groups by graduate students and junior faculty. An expository essay explains or analyzes something based on factual analysis and/or logic. The course consisted of students preparing a dozen or so brief essays which were then critiqued by the instructor.
I don’t remember the topic of my first essay, but I do remember the result. The instructor’s criticisms were about as long as the paper itself, and I got a D for my efforts. Why? Because I had no idea of how to think critically. My approach to a short essay was to propound a series of opinions and assertions without backing them up with real facts or careful analysis.
In retrospect, Expository Writing was the most valuable course I took as an undergraduate. It taught me to reason, to do research, to analyze, and to present the results in a clear, succinct manner to the reader.
I refer to this personal experience in order to call attention to, what I consider to be, a crisis of ignorance today in the United States, as well as in many other countries. When we don’t think about the causes of, and realistic solutions to, the problems of our day, we leave ourselves open to all kinds of bad results: rule by demagogues, ethnic and racial hatred, cold and hot wars, needless suffering, and a failure to address – and even an exacerbation of – real problems such as global warming, and quality-of-life issues such as hundreds of millions of people lacking access to an adequate diet and healthcare, and living in extreme poverty.
An example of critical thinking Let’s focus on the recent climate-change report to illustrate the importance of critical thinking and constructive action, both by our leaders and by the rest of us.
Ascertain the facts.
There is an overwhelming consensus by the scientific community around the world that the surface temperature of the planet has been warming since the beginning of the industrial era, and that the rate of warming has been increasing in the early 21st century. The warmest four years since the late 1800s, when scientists first reliably collected data on the earth’s surface temperature, were 2014-2017.
The links between human actions – especially the burning of fossil fuels – and climate change have been well researched by scientists for decades. The increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere not only have warmed the Earth’s surface to levels that have not been seen for over 100,000 years, but have also resulted in a range of other negative impacts, such as life-threatening heat waves, droughts, major rain events, flooding, more intense hurricanes, the extinction of animal and plant species, rising sea levels and temperatures, and many other problems.
Determine what can be done to slow, and then reverse the rate of global warming. We know what we need to do. We are just not doing enough of it, nor as quickly as we need to. We need to wean ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels, especially coal, and rapidly convert to sustainable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric. We also need to sequester carbon and other greenhouse gases to reduce their release into the atmosphere. Managing our forests better, reducing deforestation, and increasing afforestation are the best natural means to sequester carbon.
Implement a plan for reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The Paris Agreement is intended to secure commitments from all of the countries in the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It has been signed by 195 countries (although Donald Trump has announced that the United States will withdraw from the agreement in 2020). Aside from the irresponsible actions of the US President and his administration, the biggest problem with planning under the Paris Agreement is that the projected, cumulative impact of national goals related to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not sufficient to keep the increase in the Earth’s surface temperature below 1.5°C by 2040. So, the plans are in place, but in their current form they won’t prevent the climate from reaching a negative tipping point in the next 20 years or so.
Review and revise the plans and implementation practices periodically. The Paris Agreement includes periodic evaluations of its effectiveness, compliance by plan participants, improvements in remediation approaches, and movement toward the goal of no more than 1.5°C by 2040. The first major evaluation is scheduled for 2023, followed by a review and revision in 2028, and, theoretically, every five years thereafter. So, there are opportunities for countries to strengthen their plans during the next decade and beyond, but, according to the IPCC Report, major revisions need to start right away – not in 2023 – if the 2040 crisis is to be avoided.
Given the severity of the climate crisis, the five-year review process isn’t good enough. Instead, each country’s performance should be evaluated and updated every year.
Conclusion Heading off a climate crisis before 2040 is achievable. We understand the causes and effects of global warming. We understand the basic changes that need to be made in our sources and uses of energy. We have developed many of the renewable-energy, energy-efficiency and carbon-sequestration technologies required to make the changes. We even have a worldwide plan to implement these changes. The major missing ingredient is the urgent commitment to action by national, regional, and local governments; by businesses; and by all of us as citizens and consumers.
My son, Luc, and I just published the second edition of The Cooperative Society: The Next Stage of Human History. Our 148-page full-color book is available for purchase through bookstores and Amazon, or download a free PDF of [Download not found]
The Cooperative Society Newsletter September 2018, Issue 11 by E.G. Nadeau, Ph.D.
A little over a billion people have no access to electricity. That’s 1/7th of the world’s population. There are hundreds of millions more whose energy is unreliable, dirty, unhealthy, inadequate, unsustainable, and/or expensive – for example, kerosene, diesel, wood, and candles.
At the same time, almost every country in the world has made a commitment through the United Nations Paris Agreement to significantly cut back by 2030 on their use of energy sources that emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (Note that the Trump administration is planning to withdraw the United States from the agreement in January 2020.)
On top of all that, these same countries have made commitments through the UN’s Sustainable Development Program to dramatically improve the quality of life around the world by 2030. One of the Program’s goals is to, “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”
There are many ways in which universal access to electricity will improve the quality of people’s lives; for example, creating job opportunities, reducing the workload of women by saving on average an hour a day that is currently spent searching for firewood, and preventing almost 2-million premature deaths per year from household air pollution. There would also be a net reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions because of lower use of biomass fuel for cooking, and the virtual elimination of kerosene and other dirty fuels as sources of heat and light.
How can these divergent problems and goals be reconciled?
The broad answer is to dramatically increase the use of renewable energy to meet the world’s unmet and under-met needs for electricity. This article provides a brief overview of recent changes in electrical access and outlines a path toward universal electrification by 2030 with a focus on community-based solar energy.
Recent and projected progress in electrification There has been a pattern since 2000 of accelerating access to electricity for unserved and underserved populations. Data from the World Energy Outlook 2017 Special Report indicate that in 2000, there were about 1.7 billion people without access to electricity. This number dropped to 1.1 billion in 2016. The “vast majority (97%) of new electricity connections” has been provided through primarily fossil-fuel-based grid extensions. Less than 1% of new electricity access has been via decentralized systems.
The report goes on to say that between now and 2030, fossil fuels will largely be replaced by renewable energy – especially solar energy – as the primary source for new electricity connections. “The rapidly declining costs of solar PV [photovoltaics], battery technologies, and energy-efficient appliances (especially light-emitting diode [LED] lighting) are making decentralized renewable energy systems more affordable. This is particularly the case for rural and dispersed communities not served by a main grid and where it may take years for one to arrive. Decentralized systems can also be attractive in areas with grid access but an unreliable power supply.”
Growth of solar and other renewable sources of electrification There are a number of exciting, renewable-energy options that are beginning to electrify the world. For example, large solar arrays are being developed across northern Africa that could eventually replace much of the fossil-fuel energy of Europe. One analyst estimates that putting solar panels on 2% of the Sahara Desert could meet all of the world’s electricity needs.
Building underwater transmission cables from the Sahara to Europe is quite feasible. The same is not true for transmission to the Americas. There are other examples of desert-based large-scale solar projects in Saudi Arabia, China, the Navajo reservation in the United States, and elsewhere. Together, these systems are likely to provide a huge addition to affordable, renewable energy by 2030.
And, we can’t forget about wind. Wind turbines are still cheaper than solar panels in many situations and will continue to be a critical part of any future mix of renewable-energy sources.
Both solar and wind must be supplemented by other sources of energy and energy storage systems. Lithium ion batteries and other means of storage are an important and increasingly cost-effective way to expand the use of renewable energy at every level, from individual buildings to large power plants.
Community-based solar energy Many of the billion-plus people who don’t have access to electricity live in fairly remote areas that are not easily connected to major power grids. As a result, large-scale renewable options don’t apply to them and are not likely to in the near future because of the high cost of transmission lines.
Households and businesses, and clusters of electrical consumers at the village level, can be most economically and efficiently served by electricity generated right at the community level.
In projecting future expansion of access to electricity, the World Energy Outlook Report lays out an “energy-for-all” scenario, which is based on the goal of universal electrification by 2030.
Figuring in population growth, this would mean expanding electrical coverage to 1.3 billion additional people at an approximate cost of almost $800 billion. The report concludes that over 50% of this electricity would be powered by solar energy, and less than 25% by fossil fuels. Furthermore, more than 60% of new electrical energy will be generated by mini-grid and off-grid systems. (For the most part, “off-grid” systems power individual homes and other buildings.)
Below are four examples that include community-based solar components, followed by a discussion of how community solar could be expanded and made more efficient so that many millions more people around the world could benefit from renewable, reliable, and locally controlled electricity.
Liberia The newly formed Totota Co-op in rural Liberia has just begun operating a community solar co-op. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and Bandera Electric Co-op, one of NRECA’s member cooperatives in the United States, assisted the village to organize the co-op and install solar panels, a battery-storage unit, and other equipment. NRECA is working with 12 Liberian coastal villages to expand the community solar model to them.
Rural India When Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India in 2014, 300 million households were without electricity. Every village in India now has electricity, but there are still 30 million households without it. President Modi promises to electrify all of these remaining households by April 2019 through a combination of hooking them up to the national grid and through mini-grid and off-grid installations. Many communities have formed Village Electric Committees to oversee the operation of their solar facilities. According to one observer, “most Indian solar microgrids are democratic, with power controlled by village committees.”
The Caribbean Islands, big and small, face special challenges in meeting their electrical service needs. Most don’t have local sources of energy, although some use wood, other kinds of biomass, hydroelectric, and geothermal energy. Importing fuel, such as diesel, is expensive and polluting. Many islands are also vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes that play havoc with transmission lines and other components of the electrical system. Consider the damage that Hurricane Maria caused in Puerto Rico last year, including the estimated loss of about 3,000 lives, and from which the island is still recovering.
Forty island countries and other territories in the Caribbean formed the $1-billion Caribbean Climate-Smart Accelerator in August 2018 to create more self-sufficient and resilient energy systems.
The Sahel Region of Africa Along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert is a huge savanna region called the Sahel. At over 1,000,000 mi.², it is one-third the size of the Sahara.
“The Desert to Power Program . . . seeks to make use of this massive swathe of territory to develop 10,000 megawatts (MW) worth of solar energy to provide electricity to 250 million people — including for 90 million off-grid.”
Here are some strengths of the community-based solar model:
Can have its own microgrid, independent of a large-scale transmission grid
Easy to transport, install, and maintain
Costs can be based on usage
Decision-making can be through cooperative or other locally elected boards
Can generate jobs and new business activity
Can improve the quality of everyday life and health
And here are some of the challenges to expanding the model so that it reaches as many communities as possible:
Expertise to source materials and set up local systems
Ongoing monitoring and support
There are a number of international and national programs, both public and private, that are expanding their involvement in the creation of community solar programs. There is still a long way to go to provide renewable energy to the billion-plus people who have little or no access to it now. However, based on the analysis of the World Energy Outlook Report, “energy for all” by 2030 is an achievable goal.
The Cooperative Society Newsletter May 2018, Issue 9 By E.G. Nadeau
Three books by well-known authors hit the shelves in early 2018. Taken together, they make a convincing case that the world is becoming a better place for human beings. In the face of daily bombardments in the media and from dystopian politicians and pundits about how bad things are, it is refreshing to read about some of the many upbeat trends that are occurring in our world today.
There are significant areas of overlap among the three books. All rely on scientific data that show an improving quality of life for most people around the world – in many cases, trends that have been underway for a century or more. Each critiques pessimism and ignorance about what’s really going on in the world. All three provide valuable insights into ways in which human society is improving. But they tend to downplay some of the ways in which things are getting worse or more threatening. This is especially true regarding climate change.
A brief overview of the books and their authors
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress The author, Steven Pinker, is a psychology professor at Harvard. His best-known previous book is The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), which makes the case for a long historical trend of reduced violence in the world. Enlightenment Now extends the argument of Better Angels to include a wide range of other ways in which the quality of our lives is improving.
Pinker’s book wins my prize for the most systematic presentation of the ways in which the human condition is getting better. Pinker devotes chapters to life, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality, environment, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life, and happiness. He relies heavily on both historical graphs and narrative to make his points.
It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear The author, Gregg Easterbrook, has 10 previous books to his credit, including the New York Times bestseller The Progress Paradox (2003), the subtitle of which is: Life gets better while people feel worse. It’s Better Than It Looks is in many ways a sequel to The Progress Paradox. According to Easterbrook, life is still getting better, but many of us continue to feel bad about the present and pessimistic about the future.
In the first part of his book, Easterbrook writes a series of essays on why the world is doing well despite all the doom and gloom in the media. He follows with a second series of essays focusing on the failure of “declinism” as a worldview and asserts that humans are up to the challenge of addressing the problems of climate change, inequality, and whatever other adversities may come our way in the future. Easterbrook doesn’t use visuals but instead provides detailed endnotes to support his analyses.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]A general shortcoming is that all three have a tendency to sugarcoat or downplay some major contemporary problems – in particular, climate change, concentration of economic power, and inequality.[/perfectpullquote]
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things are Better Than You Think The author, Hans Rosling, who died in February 2017 while Factfulness was being written, was a Swedish medical doctor and co-founder of the Swedish chapter of Doctors Without Borders. He is probably best known for his brilliant TED talks on international health and related matters. (Check out some examples on YouTube.) The book was jointly written by Rosling, his son Ola, and his daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Ronnlund, who together also founded the Gapminder Foundation. (In keeping with the first-person singular style of the book, I will refer to the author as Rosling and skip the et al.)
Rosling relies on a combination of charts, graphs, and narrative. For Rosling and his co-authors, the primary aim of the book is to “fight devastating ignorance” and promote “a fact-based worldview [from which] we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.” The book teaches us how to be clear-eyed critical thinkers and to not fall into a variety of traps that prevent us from seeing the world as it is. Examples illustrate some of the distorted views we hold. For example, survey data indicate that most of us think extreme poverty, child mortality, and maternal mortality around the world are increasing. The data show just the opposite. He makes the point that we have to learn to see more clearly and accurately measure what’s happening in order to implement effective solutions.
The books have some pitfalls
A general shortcoming is that all three have a tendency to sugarcoat or downplay some major contemporary problems – in particular, climate change, concentration of economic power, and inequality.
There is always a danger when an author bases his or her book on a particular worldview such as “things are getting better all the time” that the book will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, emphasizing the good things that are happening and downplaying some of the bad things. All three of these authors can justifiably be accused of this kind of bias even though they argue that their findings are “science-based.” But there is still plenty of good, evidence-based analyses in all three books.
I am most forgiving of Rosling when it comes to this criticism. Although he cherry-picks positive examples, his primary purpose is to illustrate how to think and act critically, not to weigh the good and the bad in the world today.
Easterbrook and Pinker, in their own ways, are guiltier of this shortcoming.
Easterbrook is a journalist who has clearly done a lot of research on the state of the world, but his writing is channeled into making the case that: “Optimism is the best argument for reform – and the bow that propels the arrow of history.” Thus, his chapters on climate change and inequality essentially amount to: We’ll figure these issues out. We humans always find a way to solve our problems.
Where I noticed Pinker’s most egregious departure from “factfulness” is in his chapter on the environment. For whatever reason, Pinker is enamored of nuclear energy and feels the need to push it as a better alternative to reducing carbon emissions than solar and wind energy. He makes this case despite the fact that the latter two energy sources are already cheaper than nuclear power. These renewable energy sources don’t require the long lead time and high costs of developing and decommissioning nuclear plants. They also don’t face the danger of catastrophic meltdowns and ongoing safety concerns. Besides, on a purely pragmatic level, only one nuclear plant has been built in the last 20 years in the United States. Germany has decided to phase out all of its nuclear power plants by 2022 in reaction to the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Japan itself initially shuttered all of its nuclear power plants after the 2011 crisis. It is gradually bringing some of them back online, but nuclear energy will never regain the prominence it had in Japan prior to 2011. Despite these setbacks, nuclear power is likely to play an important but decreasing role in meeting the world’s energy needs over the next few decades.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Another characteristic of all three authors is that they take a piecemeal rather than a comprehensive approach to evaluating and recommending improvements in human conditions.[/perfectpullquote]
In his attempt to debunk solar and wind energy, Pinker makes the following outrageous statement: “To satisfy the world’s needs with renewables by 2050 will require tiling windmills and solar panels over an entire area the size of the United States (including Alaska), plus Mexico, Central America and the inhabited portion of Canada.” Several references that I checked, including the 2017 United Nations Emission Gap Report, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and an article in Forbes magazine painted a very different picture of the potential for wind and solar to provide most if not all of the world’s electricity needs without blanketing it in panels and wind towers. One source wrote that a combined area of 43,000 mi.² of solar panels could meet all of the world’s electrical energy needs. That’s about the size of Virginia or Tennessee or a little over 1% of the Sahara Desert.
Although a bit of a digression, Pinker also brings up the old bugaboo about what happens “…when the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow.” The obvious answer is the storage of energy in batteries and by other means. Storage technology has taken off by leaps and bounds in the last few years, including utility-scale projects in Australia, the United States and elsewhere. It’s ironic that Pinker downplays economies of scales and exponential growth when it comes to renewable energy, even though he presents more than a dozen tables in his book that illustrate the fallacy of assuming linear patterns of change over time.
Another characteristic of all three authors is that they take a piecemeal rather than a comprehensive approach to evaluating and recommending improvements in human conditions.
There is a danger in viewing societal change as nothing more than a scorecard tallying up the ways in which life is getting better rather than understanding it as an interactive process in which the various components build on (or tear down) one another.
A dramatic example is the relationship between climate change and the range of other variables that affect our world. One could argue that the harnessing of fossil fuel was one of the most important engines of economic growth over the past 200 years. But now, dependence on fossil-fuel energy is the biggest threat to our quality of life and that of the planet going forward. We need to change our energy paradigm in order to avoid catastrophe.
One could make a similar argument regarding capitalism. The insatiable quest for profit and the concentration of economic decision-making in the hands of a small number of corporations and government leaders may be just as unsustainable as a fossil-fuel-powered energy system.
Looking toward the future
None of the authors take a big-picture approach to economic and political change. Yet if we’re going to continue to improve the quality of life, there’s a high likelihood that we’ll need to change our international economic and political system to do so. It has evolved dramatically over time. The market economy of mercantilism in 16th-century Europe was far different from the internationally regulated, technology-driven market economy of the early 21st century. So, why shouldn’t we expect continued dramatic change in the international economy of the future? In what ways should it evolve in order to better sustain human beings and the planet on which we live?
My son Luc and I are writing the second edition of The Cooperative Society: The Next Stage of Human History to be published in August. Our main goals in the book are to evaluate whether or not we as a species are moving toward a fundamentally different kind of society based on cooperation, democracy, the equitable distribution of resources, and a sustainable relationship with the environment. We realistically assess where human society is getting better and where it is not, and we make recommendations about ways in which we can make a transition toward such a society.
Our book—and those by Pinker, Easterbrook and Rosling—have in common the use of science-based measurement to gauge human progress. However, we differ in three important ways. Our research shows that some things are getting better (such as the quality-of-life improvements cited by the three authors), but others are not (climate change, and economic and political inequality). We take a comprehensive view of the interplay among a variety of factors in determining our future in addition to presenting an item-by-item scorecard. And, most importantly, we stress that humans are not just objects of history but can play active roles in making our society better.
A lot has happened in the last six months – ugly, bad, and good – that affects the trajectory of world climate change. In this article, we chronicle and evaluate some of the most important factors related to carbon dioxide emissions and propose the makings of a successful strategy for reducing them.
Let’s start with ugly At the top of this category are the actions of the fossil-fuel driven Trump administration. With the United States as the second-largest carbon-emitting country in the world – and the largest per capita emitter – the U.S. federal government is doing its best to make carbon emissions even worse. Several key Trump appointees in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Department, the Department of the Interior and other federal agencies are rolling back clean-energy regulations, and effectively providing a license to increase pollution to the coal, gas, and oil industries.
In addition to these specific backward actions favoring fossil fuels, Trump announced the ugliest action of all in June 2017 with his stated intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, thus abdicating U.S. responsibility to shoulder its share of the global initiative’s reduction of carbon emissions (although in late January 2018, he mentioned that the U.S. might consider rejoining the Agreement).
Two bads The planet experienced its third-warmest surface temperature in 2017 since reliable measures were developed in the late 1800s. What’s worse is that, if the lack of El Niño warming last year is taken into account, 2017 was the hottest ever recorded. The warmest temperatures experienced by the planet since the late 1800s have occurred at the beginning of the 21st century. Global warming has shifted from a serious long-term problem to an urgent near-term crisis. There are other indicators – such as the accelerated warming of the Arctic and the rapid melting of the glaciers in Newfoundland – that show climate change proceeding at a substantially faster pace than had been projected just a few years ago.
Also on the negative side of the ledger, The United Nations Emissions Gap Report, published in November 2017, concluded that: “The NDCs [Nationally Determined Contributions] that form the foundation of the Paris Agreement cover only approximately one-third of the emissions reductions needed to . . . [keep the increase in the earth’s surface temperature well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels]. The gap between the reductions needed and the national pledges made in Paris is alarmingly high.”
Several goods There was a flurry of positive actions and meetings in November and December 2017.
As mentioned in our July 2017 newsletter, a number of U.S. states, cities, businesses, and other organizations responded to Trump’s proposed withdrawal from the Paris Agreement by affirming that “they were still in.” This announcement was followed by the America’s Pledge Phase 1 Report published in November 2017, which documents the current commitments of U.S. states, cities and businesses to dramatically reduce carbon emissions by 2025. A Phase 2 Report to be completed later this year “will develop a more comprehensive analysis focusing on bottom-up non-federal contributions to 2025 U.S. emissions outcomes.” 
The U.N. Climate Change Conference was hosted by Fiji and held in Bonn, Germany, in November 2017. This was a follow-up to the 2015 Paris Agreement, in which almost all the countries of the world reaffirmed and clarified their commitments to reduced carbon emissions. Of all the 197 signers of the Paris Agreement, only one country, the United States, has ceased to be active in its implementation.
The One Planet Summit was held in Paris in December 2017. Its focus was on “public and private finance in support of climate action.” A second One Planet Summit will be held in December 2018 in Katowice, Poland.
Thus, it was heartening to see national governments, subnational entities, businesses and other organizations distance themselves from Trump’s dystopian actions.
A race against time The most dramatic information presented above is The Emission Gap Report’s conclusion regarding the inadequacy of the combined national commitments of carbon emission reductions in the Paris Agreement.
The two-thirds shortfall in emissions reductions may appear to be an almost insurmountable gap. However, the Report offers a number of ways to make up the difference through a set of new commitments to be made by the end of 2020.
Under current national commitments, “Annual Global Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GtCO2e)” will rise from about 50 units in 2016 to 53 units in 2030. In order to avoid a trajectory that would lead to a temperature warming of 2° or more Celsius by the end of the century, we will need to reduce the GtCO2e to about 42 units by 2030. (See the accompanying graph.)
In other words, there is at least an 11 GtCO2e difference between the emissions goals we need to set for 2030 and where they are currently set. Missing the 2020 revisions of nationally determined contributions “would make closing the 2030 emissions gap practically impossible.”
So, what must be done? The signatories of the Paris Agreement are scheduled to revise their commitments by the end of 2020. Thus, in a little less than two years, almost all of the countries of the world will need to agree to strengthen their commitments to reducing carbon emissions significantly beyond the goals they have already set.
The good news, according to the Emissions Gap Report, is that:
Emissions could be reduced by up to 30 to 40 GtCO2e per annum, with costs below US$100/tCO2e. It is remarkable that a large part of this potential comes from just six relatively standardized categories: solar and wind energy, efficient appliances, efficient passenger cars, afforestation and stopping deforestation. These six present a combined potential of up to 22 GtCO2e per annum.
A reduction of 22 GtCO2e per annum would take us well below the 42 GtCO2e level by 2030, thus putting the world on a trajectory that would keep us below the 2° level throughout the rest of the 21st century.
The Report cautions, however, that:
To realize the full emission-reduction potential, countries need to implement ambitious policies immediately, to enable and accelerate the implementation of the full socio-economic potential of available measures and technologies. Most of the studies used for the bottom-up assessment of sectoral emission-reduction potentials assume that implementation of measures start immediately, underscoring the urgency of pre-2020 mitigation action.
Avoiding building new coal-fired power plants and phasing out existing ones is crucial to closing the emissions gap. This will require careful handling of issues such as employment impacts, investor interests, grid stability and energy access to achieve a just transition.
Action by subnational and non-state actors, including regional and local governments and businesses, is key to enhancing future ambition. . . . Enhanced monitoring and reporting of non-state actions, and the resulting emissions reductions, will be essential to making pledged actions transparent and credible.
What we as individuals and community members can do Take a look above at the six carbon emission categories identified as high priorities for reduction in The Emissions Gap Report. We can take actions directly related to all of these categories. We can promote solar and wind energy in our communities and organize against the use of coal-fired utilities, for example, through the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal initiative. We can buy energy-efficient appliances and strengthen local codes regarding them. We can buy hybrid and electric vehicles and help to establish strict state and local policies regarding vehicle emissions and the phasing out of gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles. And we can improve forestry practices in our communities that increase carbon sequestration. (On the topic of improved forestry practices, Luc and I wrote an article entitled “The role of forestry cooperatives in climate-change mitigation.” )
Conclusion Problems associated with climate change are getting worse faster than we thought, and the current proposed solutions are inadequate to avert a large increase in the Earth’s surface temperature. It’s not too late for the countries of the world, businesses and subnational actors to ratchet up their efforts to head off catastrophe, but these efforts must be accelerated in the next two or three years for this to happen.
The Cooperative Society Newsletter July 2017, Issue 4
by E.G. Nadeau
I felt physically ill when Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. By doing so, he demonstrated his abysmal ignorance of, or worse, indifference to, the devastating, long-term consequences to the planet from continued global warming. He also gave the finger to the world community and to future generations in the name of a futile, economically irrational effort to support the US coal and oil industries.
But then, the rest of the world and many American states, cities, businesses, and other institutions announced that “they were still in,” and in a number of cases that they would redouble their efforts to achieve the 2030 climate-change goals. Many signs point to their ability to pull it off.
One of seven measures Those of you who have read The Cooperative Society know that climate change is a key measure in the book, indicating whether or not we are moving toward greater worldwide cooperation. (Those of you who have not read the book can download it from our website http://www.thecooperativesociety.org , or purchase it from your local bookstore or from Amazon.)
In the book, my son Luc and I summarized scientific findings that show unequivocally that the surface temperature of the earth has continued to increase thus far in the 21st century – and at a faster pace than it had during the late 20th century. Thus, we rated climate change as a negative in terms of its impact on moving toward a more cooperative society. At the same time, we were encouraged by the passage of the Paris Agreement in 2015 because it signaled a concerted worldwide effort to stabilize the earth’s surface temperature by 2030, thus reducing catastrophic weather-related events in the remainder of the 21st century.
Pulling out and staying in On June 1, 2017, in a major setback to this landmark agreement, the president of the second-largest carbon-emitting country in the world – guess who – announced that he was pulling out of the accord signed by his predecessor and the leaders of 194 other countries.
Just four days later, however, hundreds of U.S. governors, mayors, university presidents, business and nonprofit leaders, and others signed a statement pledging that “they are still in,” and that they would achieve and eventually exceed America’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
In addition, world leaders provided assurances that they were still in too, and that, even without the participation of the federal government of the United States, they would achieve the objectives of the Paris Agreement. On July 8, all of the members of the G20, except the United States, reiterated their “strong commitment to the Paris Agreement, moving swiftly toward its full implementation . . . .” The G20 represents the largest developed and developing economies in the world.
The key question is: Can subnational and private entities in the United States, and national leaders from all over the planet, achieve the reductions in carbon emissions necessary to stabilize the world’s temperature without the support of the Trump administration?
Factors affecting carbon emissions It’s too early to tell for sure because there are many factors that will affect carbon emissions and the world temperature over the next several decades. Following are some key issues to take into account:
The biggest negative in the U.S. is the dismantling of regulations related to emissions by coal-fired plants. Since coal is by far the biggest greenhouse gas emitter of all fossil fuels, the laissez-faire approach taken by the current administration will mean continued massive carbon and other toxic emissions by the coal sector for as long as it is permitted to pollute at will.
On the other hand, just in economic terms alone, coal is not competitive with natural gas (a fossil fuel that emits only about half the amount of carbon as coal), wind, and solar. So, even with Trump’s embrace of the coal industry, there will not be a resurgence of coal mines, coal-fired plants, and the jobs that go with them during the next few years. Trump has given them a reprieve, but not the makings of a resurgence.
Speaking of coal, the three other top carbon polluters in the world – China, India, and the European Union – are all moving away from this dirtiest of energy sources at a pace that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
In the last couple of years, the fastest-growing sources of electrical energy in the United States, China, India, and the European Union have been wind and solar, both because of their lack of carbon emissions and also because their costs have gone down rapidly. This bodes well for a transition to a zero-carbon economy by 2050.
We also have to keep in mind, however, that electrical energy is only one of the “big three” kinds of energy use and abuse. The other two are transportation and energy inefficiency in the heating and cooling of buildings. Increased fuel efficiency for vehicles, a rapid transition to electric vehicles, and increased energy efficiency in buildings are all part of the equation to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
A note of caution: Even though 194 countries have made commitments under the Paris Agreement, the cumulative projected result of these national decarbonization goals falls short of stabilizing the world’s temperature by 2030. There will need to be revised commitments in order to achieve temperature stabilization or reduction by 2030.
Another note of caution: Christiana Figueres, former executive director of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, co-authored an article in the June 28 issue of Nature entitled “Three Years to Safeguard Our Climate.” The article provides a dire warning about the consequences if we as a planetary community fail to ratchet up our commitment to decarbonization by 2020.
In summary, the bad news is the abdication of responsibility by the Trump administration to participate in a worldwide agreement to reduce carbon emissions and global warming.
The good news is that many U.S. states, cities, businesses, and others have affirmed their commitments to this agreement despite the lack of national leadership. More good news is that the other nations of the world have also announced their continued participation.
The uncertain news is whether, despite this overwhelming commitment, we will be able to act fast enough to head off serious damage to our planet and our species.