Can the world economy phase out fossil fuels by 2050 and still grow?

At the beginning of February, WWF – the World Wide Fund for Nature – issued a major study, The Energy Report, which claimed that a rising global demand for energy services could be met by a combination of greater efficiency and the rapid development of renewable energy sources so that fossil fuel use could be almost entirely phased out by 2050. The report says explicitly “we can supply almost all of our energy needs from renewable sources by 2050 while maintaining rates of economic growth and leading prosperous, healthy lifestyles. Indeed, quality of life for many will improve immeasurably with access to electricity and clean energy.”

It goes on “We will, though, need to make wiser choices about the way we use energy. Lifestyle changes will allow us to reach a renewable energy future while reducing our impact on the planet. Since the anticipated need for bioenergy may push our forests, agricultural land and freshwater ecosystems to the limit, we particularly need to look at what we can do to limit bioenergy demand and land-use while aiming at 100 per cent renewables and make more land and water available to sustain people and nature.”

Are WWF and their consultants, Ecofys, living in cloud-cuckoo land? Many of the more pessimistic members of Feasta think that they are. The Australian writer and university lecturer Ted Trainer has been analysing the ability of renewable energy sources to meet future needs for at least the past decade. Feasta asked him for his verdict on the WWF report. It was damning. You can download it here.  But first you might like to look at the glossy publication he attacks. You can download that from the WWF website.

Please post your own verdict after reading both.

On the day Dr. Trainer’s commentary was prepared for this website, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its own report claiming that 80% of the world’s energy supply could be met from renewable sources by 2050, even allowing for an increase in energy demand as a result of economic growth and the expected rise in population. You can download a summary of the report here and the accompanying press release is here.

We would very much welcome an analysis of the IPCC report for this website.

Ted Trainer is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Social Work, University of New South Wales. His main interests have been global problems, sustainability issues, radical critiques of the economy, alternative social forms and the transition to them. He has written numerous books and articles on these topics, including The Conserver Society; Alternatives for Sustainability, London, Zed, 1995, Saving the Environment; What It Will Take, Sydney, University of N.S.W Press, 1998, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain A Consumer Society, Springer, 2007, and The Transition to a Sustainable and Just Society, Envirobook, 2010. He is also developing Pigface Point, an alternative lifestyle educational site near Sydney, and a website for use by critical global educators,
Social Work, University of NSW, Kensington 2052.

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

One Reply to “Can the world economy phase out fossil fuels by 2050 and still grow?”

  1. The obsession with ‘growth’ is based on ‘Flat earth’ economics, but we live on a sphere and the promise of infinite growth has run into finite resources. Fossil fuels have given us an ease of living and an excess of food which has allowed 6 billion people to be here who otherwise wouldn’t be. And another 3 billion are expected to arrive in the next 40 years, all demanding their share of the oil wealth. It is their future whose wealth we are spending now, by sucking out oil at an ever faster rate. We cannot ‘make choices’ about using energy. Our commercial system dictates that we use as much as we can as fast as we can. We fool ourselves into thinking that the future will be as our past, that the ‘growth’ promised by our leaders will actually happen. It won’t. (check out Professor Bartlett ) he explains growth far more scarily than I can. Our food supply is now so interlocked with oil supply that we are effectively eating oil and burning food to obtain yet more oil while millions starve. Oil has been a one-time anomaly in human history, in 200 years we are burning 200 million years worth of accumulated energy, and despite the frenzied scramble for ‘renewables’ it will not be repeated. We are entering a very different future. We are betting infinite growth against finite resources. Any takers?

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