Energy is power. It has not only been the driving force for human development – just think of the restrictions of a life without electricity to lighten the darkness or to provide air conditioning in hot regions. Energy production and supply, or rather, the direction these take in the future, is currently a “power struggle” in a dual sense: on the one hand, a power struggle between energy companies and on the other, a contest between different energy (power) systems that will decide the future of Earth and its inhabitants.
Global climate change is gaining speed with drastic negative effects. It is fueled by CO2 emissions that are produced by combustion of the fossil fuels coal, oil and gas. The Paris Climate Agreement aims to prevent climate change impacts from becoming uncontrollable by limiting the global rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Thus far global average temperatures have risen by about one degree Celsius. The maximum threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius can only be maintained if worldwide emissions are reduced radically and fast, to almost zero by mid-century. What does that actually mean? All of our energy must be renewable: sun, wind and water must replace coal, oil and gas.
The bad news is that these emissions are not being reduced sufficiently. After stagnating between 2014 and 2016, it is anticipated that CO2 emissions slightly increased again in 2017. Many countries, including Germany and the other G20 nations, are still subsidizing the exploitation and use of fossil fuels to the tune of billions; and that does not include the cost of the negative consequences of these fuels.
However, there is good news as well: all around the world, renewable energy sources are being expanded. For example, the capacity of solar generation installed in developing countries over the last three years has tripled. About 1.5 million households in Africa now operate domestic solar systems for which they transfer payments by cell phone; two years ago, there was only half that number of solar collectors in Africa. Increasingly more investors are divesting from coal, due to the climate and business risks. New studies show that many countries could shift their energy supply to 100 percent renewable sources which would kill two birds with one stone: The 1.5 degree limit could be achieved while creating millions of additional jobs and dramatically reducing air pollution.
As a result, renewables are already economically competitive in many countries. According to data from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the costs of solar modules, for example, fell by 75 to 80 percent between 2010 and 2015, while the cost of wind energy dropped by about 30 to 45 percent. This makes decentralized solutions in poor regions of developing countries much more affordable, so that clean, renewable energy is increasingly becoming a key factor in combatting energy poverty. The poorest gain “power” in a dual sense, as can be seen in an example of CARE’s work in Niger in West Africa.
Under the umbrella of the “Adaptation Learning Program,” CARE is supporting remote villages in Niger, such as Aman Bader, so that they can prepare themselves more effectively against the impacts of climate change and extreme weather conditions. More and more people in Niger are using mobile communication, also for local business activities. This opens up new opportunities for the people there, but cell phones need to be charged. And classical means of power are rarely available in the rural areas of Niger, and in Africa as a whole. The villages are far from the electricity network and the network itself is often unstable. The CARE project equipped the village of Aman Bader with a solar module that supplies power for the locals to charge their cell phones.
Zennou Boukari explains, “At the general meeting, the women of my village elected me as the person in charge. They trust me. Now I look after the solar module and manage our income.”
Zennou lives in Aman Bader and has long been selling peanut and palm oil for a living. The villagers pay about ten cents (euro) to charge their cell phones; the money goes into a community fund for the local women’s group. The members of the saving group can take out small loans from the income from the solar module. They can use the money to buy food, for example, when a drought reduces the harvests from their fields.
Having a reliable electricity supply also makes communication easier for the villagers. They can now call people from their village and make long-distance calls because their phones are always charged. In this way, they can pass on weather information; for example, they can alert local authorities about the amount of rain so that they can inform others in the region via local radio stations. Knowing how much rain has fallen and where helps people to protect themselves from heavy rainfall and to plan for work in their fields.
“The solar power system brings in money that helps in times of crisis. That makes us stronger,” Zennou says.
Women are often disadvantaged in the energy field. Studies show that in developing countries, it is usually the women who supply the household with energy. They spend hours collecting firewood and then breathe in poisonous fumes over the fireplace. Therefore, it is important that “clean” solutions are particularly designed to meet women’s needs.
Many studies now show that for a long time, the big energy companies that still rely on fossil fuels have tried to present climate change research as not credible. Despite knowing the true situation, they continue to campaign against the implementation of a climate protection policy that would change fuel use in favor of renewable energy sources, thus destroying their business model. The consequences of their lobbying affect the whole planet, but, in particular, the poorest communities around the world that suffer most from the effects of climate change.
Thus, the behavior of these energy companies is subject to growing criticism. Their reputations are suffering and more investors are turning their backs; the companies are increasingly subject to legal action and the suggestion is often heard that those responsible for climate change should pay for their reckless behavior.
In the end, the issue is how to redistribute the power of a few large energy companies to more people. Decentralized renewable energy generation is a crucial factor in this context. Spreading the power more widely is also a key demand of significant civil society actions and demonstrations such as the climate march in New York in 2014 in which about 400,000 people took part, and the November 2017 climate demonstration in Bonn on the occasion of the UN climate conference with about 25,000 participants.
Each individual in Germany in particular has the opportunity to convert completely to power from renewable sources, so taking part in the transition of energy generation – through an individual solar power system, or by switching to a professional supplier that provides green electricity. The economic and technological development of renewable energy generation makes possible a faster transition to renewable power than was conceivable a few years ago, despite all the obstacles that must still be overcome. At the same time, climate change makes it urgent to act fast. We do not have very much time.
If we drive forward a radical energy transition, we could still prevent a much more radical deterioration of our planet’s livelihoods. The power of the many will decide whether our energy systems can be reshaped to become sustainable and renewable.