Leading environmental activist says cheaper renewable energy provides an opportunity to create a sustainable world economy – but we must do more
April 31, 2016 — Al Gore, former US vice-president, Nobel laureate and chairman of the Climate Reality Project, has led the global discussion about climate change for many years. His multi-award-winning film An Inconvenient Truth (2006) has been widely credited with changing the way world leaders and citizens think about the issue. Don Henry is public policy fellow in environmentalism at the University of Melbourne and is a former director of the Australian Conservation Foundation. He is a long-term collaborator with Gore. Their conversation was recorded for the Griffith Review.
Don Henry: The Paris climate agreement was recently concluded – what opportunities and challenges does it present to the world for the future?
Al Gore: This past December, 195 countries came together in Paris for the 21st conference of the parties (COP21) and reached a historic agreement, which exceeded the highest end of the range of expectations we could have had for it. Now the questions we face are how will we solve the climate crisis, what opportunities are we presented with and what challenges remain? COP21 received an unprecedented level of support from all sectors of society, both public and private, creating a window of opportunity aligning at just the right time for a successful agreement. We have created a major new opportunity by committing to a sustainable future. But we have to steer in the right direction and accelerate our pace because we still face challenges. We simply cannot continue to put 110m tons of global-warming pollution into the atmosphere every day as if it’s an open sewer.
The sum total of the commitments made in Paris – the intended nationally determined contributions – will not add up to what is necessary to keep us under the target set by the agreement. The emissions reductions agreements are not mandatory, which, I believe, was the unavoidable and right choice. But because of this and because we know we must change, it is exceptionally important that we focus on the commitments made by countries and the work nations are doing to implement their commitments, as well as process, visualise and share this information widely.
Moreover, the regular, five-year review and ratchet provision, and the requirement for transparency in reporting, are mandatory, and they will give people who care about our planet and future generations an opportunity to focus on the decisions being made by their leaders. This is really important. The success of Paris was largely due to the fact that global awareness, and the level and quality of global consciousness about the existential threat we face from the climate crisis, has risen to a point where nations that were in the bubble could not go home without having taken substantial action – and we need to keep the pressure on. Significantly, the process of “review and ratchet” set out in the Paris agreement will occur against the backdrop of a continuing sharp decline in the cost of renewable energy, energy efficiency, batteries and storage, and sustainable agriculture and forestry. The practical ability of nations five years from now to say, “we can do more” will be greatly enhanced. So if the people of the world really pay attention and continue to keep the pressure on, it will make a tremendous difference.
The rapidly declining cost of renewable energy, particularly solar photovoltaic (PV) energy, provides a great opportunity for nations around the world to embrace a sustainable, low-carbon economy. Our ability to convert sunshine into usable energy has become much cheaper far more quickly than anyone had predicted. For example, solar energy has been coming down in cost at a rate of 10% per year over the past 30 years.
In many parts of the world, renewable energy is already cheaper than that of fossil fuels and in some parts of the world renewable energy is leapfrogging fossil fuels altogether. These cost reductions are continuing.
But we must do more to help nations make the transition to a low- or zero-carbon economy. India, for example, has more people without any electricity at all than the entire population of the United States. And in order to invest in solar on the scale at which they require presently means borrowing money for solar farms at an interest rate of 8-12%. That is an absurdly high cost of capital in an era of very low interest rates. We need to address this on a priority basis and the public-private partnerships on which the Paris agreement was built need to do more and go farther.
We also need to put a price on carbon and enable markets to more effectively reflect the true costs of sources of energy. Though there is a growing adoption of direct and indirect carbon pricing at local, national and regional levels now being implemented in 40 countries, and 23 large city-states and provincial governments, we must work to make it a universal standard rather than an exception. We need to move faster in eliminating the massive government subsidies of fossil fuels.
Regardless of the challenges we still face, there was a powerful signal of opportunity sent from Paris by business leaders and investors, civil society leaders and society in general. That signal is being received around the world: we can and we will solve the climate crisis.
Henry: In your book The Future, you examine six drivers of global change. With fresh insights from the last two years, do you still see these as the key drivers of change for the future? Would you add, subtract and emphasise any?
Gore: Much has changed since I wrote The Future but the forces that are driving that change have not. For example, our world is becoming increasingly globalised, the biotech revolution is speeding up, the internet has continued to serve as an open public square and there appear to be no signs of these advancements slowing down.
This is evident when we witness the ongoing struggle to balance cyber security and surveillance, and when we see automation changing the way we produce goods and services. It’s clear as we watch countries around the world confront the balance of political, economic and military powers, as they shift faster than we have seen at any time in the last 500 years and as advancements in synthetic biology continue to reinvent life and death.
If I were to emphasise any key driver of global change, it would be the rapid transformation of renewable energy to fulfil our energy needs and solve the climate crisis. Since The Future was published, we have seen the development of renewable energy continue to progress faster than I could have imagined, along with a stunningly sharp decline in the price of renewable energy. In 2000, analysts predicted that wind capacity would reach 30GW by 2010. In reality, that was exceeded by 14.5 times in 2015. In 2002, analysts predicted the solar energy market would grow 1GW per year by 2010. That was exceeded by 17 times; in 2015 it was exceeded by 58 times and it is predicted to be exceeded by as much as 68 times in 2016. And there are no signs of these trends stopping.
I also certainly hoped for, but could not have predicted, the willingness of global leaders to come together so eagerly to chart a path forward to solve the climate crisis this past December. Actors in every part of our global society are recognising not only the challenges we face due to these key drivers but also the opportunities they provide. And they are actively working together to take advantage of these opportunities. We also cannot ignore the speed with which many of these changes are taking place and having an impact on our society as a whole. We can, we will and we are working to minimise their negative impacts and take hold of the opportunities they present us with – but we cannot wait and we must do more.
Henry: You refer to the beginning of a massive global transformation to re-establish a healthy balance between human civilisation and the future. What could this look like in 2050?
Gore: The good news is that establishing a healthy balance between human civilisation and the future is within our reach but it will require a highly functioning global ideology – and ours currently needs substantial reforms.
Capitalism must incorporate reforms to show complete and accurate measurements of the full spectrum of “value”, including both positive and negative “externalities”, so that we can effectively respond to threatening crises like climate change. As for democracy, which until recent history has served as a beacon of hope and leadership for the world, it has been hacked by large corporations and special interests. It no longer reflects the ideals it was established to embody and instead is dominated by the unchecked influence of money in politics. This must be changed urgently so that we can once again harvest “the wisdom of crowds” in self-governance.
If we are to have the healthy balance that is well within our reach, we’ll need to re-evaluate our current reliance on gross domestic product, fully recognise the value of public goods, redesign growth, agriculture and forestry with sustainability as a guide, and firmly establish leadership based on the deepest human values. But there is hope.
Technology, for its part – particularly the internet – is giving voice to the growing movement for reform. Social media, blogs and digital journalism are leveling the playing field and serving as the foundation for broader participation in democracy, and the elevation of reason over wealth and power. And, as income inequality persists throughout the world, more calls are being made to ensure that our measurements of growth are fair and logical. The Paris agreement shows us that we can do the collaborative work necessary for a healthy, sustainable future. 2050 could be dominated by clean, efficient energy and a zero-carbon, commonsense economy, which utilises a long-term view and protects the planet for future generations. Developing nations like India and Bangladesh, where they are installing nearly two new rooftop photovoltaic systems every minute, and countries in west and east Africa are already embracing a future powered by clean energy. We have all the tools we need to solve the climate crisis and ensure a sustainable future; the only question is how dramatically we can accelerate this transition.
Henry: Reflections for Australia – what could this look like in Australia in 2050? Where are Australia’s strengths and weaknesses for this transformed future?
Gore: Australia is one of the world’s “canaries in the coalmine”, a place where we are already seeing the impacts of the climate crisis. This past year was one of Australia’s five hottest years of all time and annual rainfall was well below average. Hotter temperatures and rising sea-level projections mean that the climate crisis could cost Australia as much as $200bn. In the face of this harsh new climate reality, there have been political forces in your country working to prevent Australia’s ability to act as the global leader it once was in the effort to solve the climate crisis. The most recent example of this is the announcement of major cuts to Australia’s CSIRO, a global leader and reference point for climate science. These cuts will deeply affect the source of valuable research for the entire world at a time when such information is critical to solving the challenge of our changing climate. They should be re-evaluated at the highest level.
In 2014, I was disappointed by the repeal of Australia’s nationwide price on carbon. Despite [Australia’s] legacy as a world leader, this step placed Australia behind other major industrial nations in the growing global effort to reduce carbon emissions. Yet the continued public support for the Renewable Energy Target, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Climate Change Authority are encouraging signs of Australia’s continued effort to solve the climate crisis.
In areas where the national government has failed to act or when political forces work to prevent climate action, Australia’s subnational governments and businesses are, in fact, proving to be a bold force. And despite government cuts in investment, individuals are leading the way by investing in clean energy like solar PV. According to a report last year, approximately 15% of Australian homes were equipped with solar panels. Much of this growth is due to important policy choices in places like South Australia and Queensland. By the end of 2014, more than 1.4m small-scale solar PV systems were installed across Australia. And there are even more encouraging signs. From June 2014 to June 2015, annual emissions were the second lowest since 2000 and per capita emissions were 28.4% lower than they were in 1990. These examples, along with the Labor party’s pledge to adopt a 50% renewable energy target by 2030, show that there is strong support and opportunity for climate action in the country.
Australia has a rich history of beating its international commitments on climate change, beginning with the commitment made under the Kyoto protocol. The country’s business and government sectors must return to the vanguard of solving the climate crisis and remember that political will is a renewable resource.
Henry: You dedicate your book The Future to your mother. What did she and your other mentors give you that has helped you think about change and the future?
Gore: My mother was a pioneer in pursuing the rights of women. She was one of the first women to graduate from Vanderbilt law school in my home state of Tennessee. After graduating, she could not find legal work anywhere in the city of Nashville because none of the law firms there would hire women. She had to leave Tennessee and go elsewhere in order to seek employment. Even in the prime of her career she still faced this kind of discrimination on a regular basis.
When I first encountered the history of women’s suffrage and the long struggle in my country for women’s rights, I imagined the difficulties in those first decades of the 20th century that my own mother faced, not only in finding work in her profession but raised in a society where the right to vote was decided on gender. It hit me like a bolt of lightning. I could not understand how there could be or have been such discrimination against women.
But I took from that realisation a message of real hope because if we could change so much from that time until now, it means that more change is possible. And the women’s suffrage movement is not the only moral cause humanity has had to deal with. We have seen similar struggles in the civil rights movement of my country, the movement against apartheid in South Africa and the movement to remove discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. These examples all demonstrate that the political will to act is, itself, a renewable resource.
They are fantastic sources of hope for all the work that must be done in order to realise a sustainable agenda for the future. As the great poet Wallace Stevens said: “After the last ‘no’ comes a ‘yes’ and on that ‘yes’ the future of the world depends.”