Evolution and the Green Economy in the Age of the Anthropocene

Achim Steiner image

Achim Steiner

Never in Earth’s history has one species changed the planet so dramatically and so quickly as man, leading a growing number of scientists to define the current geological era as the ‘Anthropocene’ – the Age of Humans.

The most dramatic and pervasive example of how we have come to dominate our planet is climate change, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has unequivocally linked to CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. In its latest report, the IPCC warns that failure to reduce emissions could exacerbate food insecurity and result in the flooding of major cities and entire island nations. This could cause further refugee crises, mass extinction of plants and animals, and a drastically altered climate that might change life as we know it today for hundreds of millions of people.

All of these impacts are being propelled, to a large extent, by our current linear economic system: we extract, produce, consume, and discard. This has provided some with an opulent lifestyle, but continues to exact a great environmental toll on the planet. Further, the conventional thinking in the 20th century was that our fossil-fuel-dependent energy system would dominate well past the 21st century and underpin development in the world’s poorest countries. We need to change, and we need to start by evolving our economic paradigm in terms of a transition to a green economy.

At its core, the evolution of clean energy is a natural selection based on quickly evolving technologies that are redefining the DNA of human energy systems.

By this I mean an economy that improves human well-being and social equity while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. In its simplest expression, a green economy is low-carbon, resource-efficient, and socially inclusive.

Practically speaking, a green economy is one in which growth in income and employment is driven by public and private investments that reduce carbon emissions and pollution, enhance energy and resource efficiency, and prevent the loss of biodiversity and the ecosystem services of clean air, clean water, and healthy soils.

Clean energy is not just a desirable element of the green economy, it is essential.The development and deployment of clean energy technologies in the past decade has been nothing short of astounding. No one, for example, imagined that between 2004 and 2011, 70% of new power capacity added in Europe would come from renewable energy sources.

At its core, the evolution of clean energy is a logical consequence based on quickly evolving technologies that are redefining the DNA of our energy systems – from the simple viral extraction and combustion of fossil fuels to the double helix of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

The concept of clean energy has now spread to every corner of the globe, replacing the traditional thinking that said our economic future needs fossil fuels, particularly for developing economies. From dirty to clean, and from limited to renewable – we now know it is no longer necessary and increasingly unprofitable to support technologies that damage the atmosphere and biosphere when so many cost-effective and cleaner solutions exist today.

Clean energy is not just a desirable element of the green economy, it is essential.

The facts are powerful and often surprising:

In 2013, the electricity sector added more new renewable capacity than fossil-fueled and nuclear capacity combined. By 2030, new renewable capacity, including large-scale hydro, could exceed new thermal capacity by seven times, without even counting cogeneration.

One of the most surprising trends is the growth of micropower – sources of electricity that are relatively small, modular, mass-producible, quick to deploy, and rapidly scalable. Their capital cost, deployment times, and carbon footprint are the opposite of large-scale fossil-fueled power plants that often cost billions of dollars and can take up to a decade to license and build.

Micropower includes renewable energy technologies, other than big hydroelectric dams, and cogeneration of electricity together with useful heat in factories or buildings (also known as combined heat and power, or CHP).

The startling fact is that micropower now produces about one-fourth of the world’s total electricity. In its 2014 Solar Roadmap publication, the International Energy Agency (IEA) notes that micropower based on off-grid solar systems is now “the most suitable solution for minimum electrification” in sparsely populated rural areas. With proper financing to manage high initial costs, the IEA report says that by 2030, around 500 million people of the current 1.3 billion people with no access to electricity could enjoy the equivalent of 200W of solar PV capacity. This would be equivalent to 100GW of solar generation, not far short of the total solar PV deployment to date, and would be entirely in mini-grid and off-grid situations.

Another important trend is better energy storage. Citigroup estimates a 240GW global market for energy storage worth more than $400 billion by 2030. Its report Energy Darwinism II notes that the global energy mix is shifting more rapidly than is widely appreciated, and this has major implications for power generators, utilities and consumers, as well as for exporters of fossil fuels. Combined with electric vehicles, for example, new energy storage options integrated into smart grids could eliminate the need for peaking power plants.

The transition to a clean energy economy – a green economy – is under way. But sooner is not just better; it will also be cheaper, particularly in terms of global warming and climate change.

In UNEP’s recent publication The Clean Energy Voyage, many examples already indicate that the ‘destination’ of a clean energy economy is already being realized at the local, regional, state and national levels. Examples from China, Morocco, Brazil, Kenya, Nicaragua and South Africa demonstrate the capacity and pace with which developing economies are seizing the opportunity of renewables. And from Denmark and Iceland to Tuvalu, San Francisco and 60 cities and regions in Germany, a growing ‘Club 100’ demonstrates how it is possible to move to an economy based on 100 per cent sustainable energy now.

One of the most significant actions governments can take is to simply remove or redirect subsidies for mature and profitable fossil fuels – a figure estimated to be $600 billion annually, according to the IEA. Combined with a new climate agreement in 2015, the transition to a green economy can be realized more quickly than most imagine today, but only if we direct the estimated $37 trillion that will be invested in energy infrastructure and projects over the coming two decades into accelerating and scaling up clean energy technologies.

As Victor Hugo observed, nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. A green economy based on renewable energy and energy efficiency is just such an idea, and its arrival could very well determine whether the ‘Anthropocene’ will be an age in which human ingenuity and responsibility will allow 10 billion people to have access to electricity without compromising the vital life support systems of our planet.


Achim Steiner is the United Nations Under Secretary General and Executive Director, United Nations Environmental Programme

1 Bloomberg New Energy Finance
2 The term micropower was coined by Vijay Vaitheeswaran in 2000.
3 http://cleantechnica.com/2014/10/03/solar-best-option-energy-poor-says-international-energy-agency/

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