Mexico is already running the fastest of any Latin American country on wind and solar. But there is much room for acceleration. An economy going renewable fast like the one I advocate for Mexico can show a fossil-mired economy like the one President Trump hopes for where the future lies. Mexico can match Trump’s ignorance with inspiration.
An example. Mexico could build its own wall, made of solar panels. Such a wall, 6 metres high along the full length of the border, would generate well over 2 gigawatts of electricity. It would be a glittering money-maker, making a mockery of Trump’s uneconomic coal mines and the fading debt factories that are his shale gas and shale oil regions.
In a sense, Mexico would be building its own wall, and making America pay for it. Trump fears Mexican migrants, though they contribute so much to his economy. If he and his tribe stay in power and get their carbonaceous way, Mexico would be welcoming skilled American migrants, attracted to its clean-energy industries as America’s shrivel.A Mexico going renewable fast would be far from alone. Middle East oil producers are intent on the same. Dubai wants all roofs solar by 2030. Abu Dhabi intends to be exporting no more oil within fifty years. City governments worldwide see what is coming. More than a thousand target 100% renewable power, some like Canberra as soon as 2020. So do more than 80 of the biggest global corporations, in Google’s case as soon as 2017. New global renewable power generation capacity exceeded new fossil fuel capacity for the second year running in 2016. This is because solar and wind are cheaper than any other form of generation in many markets already, sometimes by a wide margin. Plunging battery and electric vehicle costs ensure this megatrend will spread, displacing fossil fuels not just in the electricity sector but in transport. Investors increasingly understand what is coming, and are beginning to move their money accordingly. Some big energy companies are seeing the writing on the wall. Much of the utility industry has already embarked on 180 degree U-turns in business model, switching from fossil-fuel supply to decentralised renewables. The oil and gas industry, clocking up trillions in debt in dogged pursuit of their status quo, cannot be far behind. Even at $50 oil, the oil majors can’t cover their costs. Some say American shale will help save them. But of the three main oil-producing shale belts, production has already peaked in two against industry expectations. Meanwhile, the clean energy technologies race ahead, surprising even their most ardent supporters - like me - with the speed of their cost reductions. Some Silicon Valley gurus now expect that by 2030 all new energy will be solar and wind, and all new vehicles will be electric. What we are witnessing is a total system change. It has happened before, in not much more than a decade, when the horseless carriage replaced the horse-drawn carriage. And this system change is capable in principle of changing the face of civilisation: much for the better. Renewables have so many social advantages over fossil fuels, from the bottom of the energy ladder to the top. Mexico can be a pace-setting leader in this global transition. In fact, it has no choice.
I speak today about the wider context of all the wonderful innovation and creative disruption we are hearing about from around the world at this inspiring event. My message is about how to maximise its impact, in the singular times in which we live. The first is to inspire allcomers with what that civilization - let us a call it a solar civilization - looks and feels like. The second is to fight as hard for that vision as fossil-fuel diehards fight to keep alive their ruinous status quo.
We bring alive the solar civilization with every kind of renewable and/or efficient carbon-reducing installation we develop, finance, and construct. Each one - whether as small as a watt-scale solar lantern or as large as a gigawatt-scale renewable-energy park - increases climate resilience, air quality, prosperity, health, community, and common security, among other things. We need to instal more and more of them, faster and faster.
We must fight for a solar civilization by recognising the malign forces that are gaining ground in modern liberal democracies and confronting them with our vision. These forces - of nationalist, populist demagoguery, often led by aspiring despots - tend to back fossil fuels, and are often financed by diehard fossil-fuel interests. They tend to make no secret of the fact that they see us as their enemies, and we in return should not seek to appease them.
The business case for refusing to normalise these forces, never mind the social case, is absolutely clear today. The populists ask us to back fossil-fuel technologies that either are, or soon will be, more expensive than most of ours. These technologies will not help the poor in the long term, they will only enrich an elite few in the short term, and then only temporarily.
The duty to shareholders is increasingly clear. The populists ask them to take impossible risks of wasting capital and stranding assets.
The duty to wider stakeholders is axiomatic. When the vast majority of scientists warn the populists that their actions risk the very liveability of the planet, they exercise perverse denial, reject and mock expertise, and deploy what they call alternative facts and we call lies.
SolarAid will be seeking to collaborate with any and all who agree with these sentiments in the battle ahead. We would love to hear from you if you think like us.
Picture: Google employees protest against Trump immigration policies.
Blog: A slightly extended version of my latest column for Recharge:
By building on the explosive growth of clean energy in recent years, and triumphs of multilateralism led by the Paris Agreement, a renaissance of civilisation can realistically be envisioned in the decades ahead. So I have argued in my writing since 2013. But how quickly our world can shift on its axis. While my analysis remains feasible, a potential disruptor of it is on the rise in society. A new class of aspiring despot is seizing political ground in America and Europe. This is happening just as it becomes clear that misuse of fast-emerging new technology, notably artificial intelligence and robotics, holds the potential to create the perfect infrastructure for police states.
To ensure such an authoritarian assault does not sweep away liberal democracies, it will be essential for the business world to engage in resistance more than it has been so far. More business leaders must come to the view that fighting for a civilization appropriate for doing good business in is now a matter of responsibility to shareholders, never mind citizens. For their part, shareholders and citizens must pressure companies more, via their investment and purchasing power, to confront the new despotism and otherwise act in favour of appropriate civilization. Increasingly the business case is clear. Ratings agency Fitch has argued that the Trump presidency poses a threat to the global economy, for example.
Nowhere is this imperative for engagement clearer than in the renewables industries. If renewables companies elect to keep a low profile, and in doing so become complicit in a creeping normalisation of Trumpism, the task of aspiring despots everywhere becomes easier. For their part, rightist populists can be sure that the fossil-fuel diehards that tend to support them will be neither quiet nor inactive. We already see this in the cast of White House appointees, and their early actions in power.
Early indicators of resistance are encouraging. A hundred tech companies joined US states taking Trump to court over his Muslim travel ban. Among them were Tesla and major renewables users Apple, Google and Microsoft. Thousands of their employees rallied against the ban in Silicon Valley. Individual companies have spoken out. Siemens employs more than 50,000 people in the US, and has invested more than €30bn there over the past 10 years. But still its CEO felt compelled to criticise Trump’s unpresidential “noise”, attacks on the press, and proposed Mexican wall, making the obvious point that “America has become great because of immigrants”. Individual investors have also spoken out. Trump bludgeoned through the North Dakota Access oil pipeline with an executive order. But major investor Nordea simply banned its fund managers from investing in it.
Others must speak out and use their money like this. There is safety in numbers, and great danger for all in taking the easy option of silence. Down that road lies diminished talent pools, shrivelled business prospects, wasted investment capital, and much worse.
Some readers may think I am overstating a bit of demagoguery in modern politics. But people in the heart of the Establishment share my view. Martin Wolf, Chief Economics Editor at the Financial Times, is among those warning how easily Trump the demagogue can morph into Trump the despot. George Soros calls Trump a “would-be dictator”.
Consider the worrying people the President has appointed around him. Stephen Bannon, his chief strategist, is a far right thinker with an apocalyptic vision of the future who now finds himself and his nationalist, anti-Islamic, views on the National Security Council. He is backed by a “weaponised AI propaganda machine”, as journalists at Scout call it, demonstrably able to manipulate beliefs on an industrial scale. One of the figures Bannon is prepared to cite, as he did in a speech skyped into to a fringe Vatican conference in 2014, is a long dead Italian philosopher named Julius Evola, a man revered as a godfather by many Italian fascists. Evola broke with Mussolini and his supporters because he considered them too tame. His vision involved a bourgeoisie-smashing new order of white supremacists that he called - wait for it - the Solar Civilization.
These days, so much of real life is stranger than the inventions of fiction. And how strange it is indeed to read the tenets of the fascist philosophy of a man known to and cited by the chief strategist of the President of the United States. This is how fast we are all having to relearn the narratives relevant to anchoring our world views in 2017.
The Solar Civilization indeed! That is a most wholly unsuitable label for a hate-filled fantasy of racial purity.
I call upon all citizens in the renewables industries - leaders, employees, and investors alike - to articulate a clear vision of what a true Solar Civilization would look like. And then to fight for it hard in the year ahead.
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