In the beginning….
…the Universe exploded in a huge ball of energy that blew everything apart and over an unfathomable length of time gave rise to solar systems, and planets, and chemical and biological processes and basic life forms and complex lifeforms and dinosaurs and reptiles, mammals and finally humans!
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And ever since we humans arrived on the scene around 200,000 years ago everything that we’ve ever done that we could classify as “progress” in the march towards dominance of all life on Earth has been driven by one thing: energy.
This ‘energy’ was already abundant in the natural world in many different forms: howling winds, furious storms, lightning strikes and forest fires and celestial forces that we’re so powerful and ferocious we believed it was the work of malevolent Gods are work.
But it was the mastery of one form of energy that enabled us relatively weak creatures to rise to dominance elevating us to the position of the Gods themselves. Fire.
Fire allowed us to clear great swathes of forests, something we’re still doing at scale today and fire enabled us to cook our meat, effectively allowing our bodies to direct more of our energy to developing bigger brains in the evolutionary arms race.
We learnt how to harness the energy of the stars, captured in the photosynthesising trees that once carpeted Earth, and use it for our own interests. And we burnt everything. Hunter-gathers, once thought to have lived in total harmony with their natural environments, are now thought to have been responsible for clearing Europe’s great forests in order to facilitate hunting, and gathering.
Human history is inextricably intertwined with the development and use of fire. Where once forests were burned to clear away plantlife for hunting, they are now burned to make way for farming. The use has changed, but the destruction remains the same.
Since prehistoric times humans went on to discover that burning long-dead trees, and other life, via coal and oil taken from the ground produced more heat and lasted longer and with this new super form of energy, Fire 2.0, we were able to produce energy on a grand scale.
Humans used oil to expand all over the world, develop agriculture, pesticides, plastics, pharmaceuticals and countless other innovations that have hugely benefited humanity more or less at the expense of the natural world. Oil has achieved magical things, it’s literally enriched the lives of every human being on the planet, whilst making some very rich, and has ended the huge famines once witnessed through-out history. It has reduced world hunger, sparked the green farming revolution and provided the opportunity for millions to travel the world at a global level.
The byproduct of this activity has been a fairly innocuous sounding gas that we all know about today. CO2 is warming the world and, like the advent of fire, it goes hand in hand with the development and progress of humanity around the world.
CO2 emissions, as a result of burning fossil fuels, mean that for the first time in human history, the future of the environment is more uncertain that it ever has been. And the world is now rapidly changing with the effects becoming noticeable in less than a human lifetime.
But our intelligence means that we have also become more aware than ever before about the damage that we are inflicting on the environment. The solutions are within our grasp; we just need to apply the right ethics, morality and political willpower to implement them.
The renewables revolution has begun
Coal kickstarted the industrial revolution providing us with the hard material to build and power factories, railways and industrialisation as a whole. This morphed into oil and gas, signifying the 2nd revolution and that brings us up to the present revolution transforming the energy sector.
In the long shadow of the Paris Agreement the world is waking up to the scale of the challenge ahead of us and the need to move rapidly to a low carbon world. And yet 13 countries have not yet ratified the agreement.
But for those that have, renewables are playing a core role in providing societies with the energy they need to keep the lights on at night.
Remember that in the long history of human evolution burning stuff has been the action that has propelled us forward. Fire has been our friend and the controlled incineration of carbon in its various forms has been the very thing we can thank for all of the luxuries we enjoy today. After all, you pretty much ate, slept worked or studied in a society that was, in one way or another, created and sustained by oil.
Decoupling ourselves from this relationship with carbon (and burning it) is going to be a difficult breakup.
We have turned a corner. The implementation of renewable power in countries the world over means that the cost of producing energy from renewable sources has now fallen so much that in many places around the world renewables are in fact cheaper than fossil fuels.
Renewables are making fossil fuels look more expensive than ever before and in the UK alone more of our energy comes from fossil free sources than not, with over 51% being generated from energy sources that are carbon free in 2018. Between January and May 2019, Britain generated more power from clean energy than from fossil fuels for the first time since the Industrial Revolution
A fundamental shift in energy production… with tectonic consequences
The renewables revolution is only the beginning. And at the pace of change we are currently experiencing in countries around the world things are heating up in the race to zero emissions. Governments are realising the huge environmental, economic and health benefits that switching to a renewables energy mix can have for their citizens and places like Bhutan, Costa Rica and New Zealand are leading the way, providing the inspiration, tools and techniques for others to follow.
When we stop and pause to think about the level of investment, effort and energy required in building the infrastructure to pull coal, oil and gas out of the ground it’s easier to see what a truly wasteful form of energy production this is.
Aside from the vast oil rigs and pipelines that need to be built, oil and gas then needs to be transported around the world via a network of huge tankers, trucks and storage installations.
The rise of Pipeline Politics mean that countries, such as Russia, will attempt to use their oil, piped to much of Eastern Europe, as a political baseball bat to bend, or batter, countries to it’s will. After all a society with no energy is not a good place to be and restricting oil to the countries that need it is surely a cheaper way of applying the pressure over sending in the tanks.
But renewables will change this. Wind and solar plants, once built, have very low maintenance costs and they are usually built close to the customers that they will serve.
When we analyse the costs of solar and wind plants, we can’t just take into account the build cost. We must also acknowledge the extraneous costs that fossil fuel energy attracts in order to make a direct comparison.
The oil rig costs, labour costs, the pipeline and transportation costs; the storage costs the power plant costs and all of the associated employment costs. Most importantly of all, we must consider the environmental costs; because the natural processes that put oil into the ground take an unfathomable length of time and those eons and eons are all reversed in mere seconds as we pootle around in billions of cars around the world.
When we replace the fossil fuel energy industry with renewable power plants, located close to their customers, we remove the political clubs that countries can use on their neighbours. But all of the costs associated with the mining, refining and transportation costs are also removed.
Renewables are not only clean; they are simply. And they make sense. The wind blows, the sun shines, waves lap and water runs — this energy can all be captured and use by us to power our civilisation.
Switching to renewables represents more than a simple change in the energy we use. It represents independence and a respect for the environment and the air that we breath.
On a somewhat deeper level the switch to renewables is symbolic of a break from the past; a relationship with burning carbon, in its various forms, that has sustained, no propelled, us to the dizzying heights we occupy today.
We owe everything to carbon; modern medicine, the exploration of space and almost every perk and luxury that modern life affords us. And yet carbon, if we continue to burn and release its gaseous form, CO2 into the atmosphere, will destroy us and all living ecosystems on this planet.
Burning carbon elevated us to the position of Gods but, like the ancient story of Icarus, who used a form of oil, wax, to construct his wings and who flew too close to the sun, we could come crashing back to Earth with disastrous consequences.
It’s time to breakup with carbon and embrace a new renewable future for the benefit of ourselves and all living things on Earth.