The transition challenge

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By RICARDO ABRAMOVAY*

We live in an ecological, social and democratic crisis

The goods and services that make up the basis of contemporary societies are based on four materials: cement, steel, plastic and ammonia. It is they who gave rise to the great transformations that have revolutionized social life over the last 150 years, from basic sanitation to electricity, from automobiles to television, passing through x-rays, antibiotics and the spectacular increase in the global food supply, thanks to the combination of seeds whose high productive potential is revealed with the application of nitrogenous fertilizers.

These materials make current societies unrecognizable when compared to any period of human history prior to the mid-nineteenth century. What is often not taken into account is that each of them only exists thanks to capacity – which was formed in England in the XNUMXth century with coal and intensified in the second half of the XNUMXth century with oil and gas – removing from the subsoil the fossilized organic matter that solar energy gave rise to over hundreds of millions of years.

Our dependence on fossil fuels therefore goes far beyond gasoline, diesel and electricity generation or home heating. As great as the changes brought about by the digital revolution (which also depends on these materials) are, they are negligible in the face of the transformation brought about by technological innovations from the mid-nineteenth century onwards and which, all of them, only exist thanks to the large-scale use of fossil fuels.

It is true that modern renewable energies in electricity generation have made spectacular advances and massification in the last 20 years. In mobility, the European Union announces the end of the manufacture of cars with internal combustion engines by 2035. But although the offer of modern renewables (solar, wind and new biofuels) has increased 50 times in the last 20 years, the global dependence on fossils only dropped from 87% to 85% in this period. And among the non-fossil sources of electricity generation, the primordial role belongs to nuclear power plants and hydroelectricity – and much less to those considered modern renewables.

It is unavoidable, therefore, an uncomfortable conclusion: with the exception of the important advances achieved in the generation of electricity, globally, the transition to a low-carbon economy has barely begun.

The challenge of the transition to decarbonize more than 80% of final energy use by industries, households, transport, commerce and agriculture is unprecedented and much more difficult than the transition from the use of human, animal and animal energy was. from biomass to fossil energy on a large scale. This is what the most recent book by Vaclav Smil shows with an astonishing amount of information, How the World Really Works (How the world really works). Vaclav Smil is professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, Canada, author of forty books and more than 500 articles on food, energy, consumption patterns and countless other decisive topics for sustainable development.

Vaclav Smil's conclusion is that there is no chance that the global economy's decarbonization targets will be achieved within the deadlines in which international agreements establish them, that is, 2030 or 2050. His final chapter offers arguments that show the superficiality of optimistic forecasts about the future and ends up placing hopes in the uncertainty that remains as “the essence of the human condition”.

But it is possible and necessary to go beyond the timidity of this two-way conclusion. The first is the urgency of speeding up research on replacing the materials on which the wealth of contemporary societies rests. As important as decarbonizing the energy, transport and home heating matrix is ​​accelerating the use of wood as a substitute for steel and cement, using organic materials to obtain bioplastics and generalizing successful experiences around agroecology.

It is essential, as the recently released report by the World Transforming Technologies (Bioplastic futures have roots in the Amazon), guide scientific research itself by missions, that is, with funding and mechanisms so that, within certain deadlines, alternatives to the materials that are dominant today can be obtained. The idea of ​​nature-based solutions, increasingly widespread in multilateral development organizations, is an inspiration in this regard.

But none of this has any chance of success if the heart of the global fight against the climate crisis is not occupied by the drastic reduction of inequalities and the recognition that this reduction is the basis for the recovery of democracy and the fight against bigotry worldwide. Recent document from a major French government agency (France Strategy) makes a characterization of the nature of contemporary urgencies that escapes the conventional “social, economic and environmental” tripod. The robust report France Strategy (Soutenabilités: orchestrar et planifier l'action publishe ou Sustainability: orchestrating and planning public action) begins by stating: “we are going through a triple crisis: ecological, social and democratic”.

The democratic crisis goes far beyond the architecture of government organizations. At its heart is the idea that “there is no way to achieve the ecological transition in all its dimensions if it is not recognized by citizens as necessary and fair”. And the director of France Strategy he complements with the urgency of reducing inequalities and, particularly, “the most unacceptable of them all: the inequalities of destiny”.

If the issue of inequalities and citizen participation is central to a developed country like France, in Brazil it is even more important. Preventing fundamentalist fanaticism from dominating public policy and seriously attacking “inequalities of destiny” is a precondition for consistent responses to the climate crisis.

*Ricardo Abramovay is senior professor at the Institute of Energy and Environment at USP. Author, among other books, of Amazon: towards an economy based on the knowledge of nature (Elephant/Third Way).

 

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