Energy transition is also about reforming lifestyles and redesigning the energy market. This is not a job for the energy sector to do on its own. Building partnerships across sectors is crucial for creating impactful solutions for the 1.5 degree world.
It is hard to disagree with the fact that the whole energy system has to go through a holistic reform, and it has to happen quicker than we have ever seen before. Energy transitions are nothing new for us humans, but this time we have an extremely tight time frame and an incredibly tough goal: we have to limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels (IPCC 2018).
Historically, all previous energy transitions have occurred over long periods of time, and they have brought along good things, such as new opportunities to produce goods and an improved standard of living. The use of coal and steam power accelerated the rise of the textile industry and lead to increasing mobility in the early 19th century. In the 20th century, fossil fuels have been increasingly used to provide heating, cheap oil for transportation, and electricity to power assembly lines and refrigerators. Even though the benefits have not been distributed equally on a global scale, past industrial revolutions and energy transitions have always opened up new doors and offered something more.
Over the past few decades it has become clear that the current energy system is unable to simultaneously meet the demands of the growing global population and the strict climate change goals. Unfortunately, there is no time for a slow, gradual transition period like before. Continuing to use fossil-based fuels the way we do poses a risk of igniting unwanted feedback loops in nature that can rapidly stimulate global warming to an uncontrollable state. Take the polar ice caps, for example: if the highly reflective ice melts due to climate change, the resulting darker ocean water will absorb more heat, which in turn will cause more ice to melt. And so on.
What more will we promise?
The tricky part is that this time around we need to rethink what we mean by promising more to people and improving the quality of life. Does it mean the ability to consume more? Will life become more convenient? On one side, we have a growing global population that aspires for a better life, and on the other side we have the energy industry that is looking for ways to meet these growing needs. It is tempting to expect the energy industry to just transform itself and save the day. However, the hard fact is that a much broader transition is required. We cannot focus merely on individual solutions or even only on the energy system.
Instead of taking the growing demand for energy as a given, adopting a more holistic perspective opens up the view. A stronger decoupling of economic growth and energy consumption is required. It puts pressure to rethink and reform whole systems in our societies and whole ways of living. This directs the focus in finding new value in living within the limits of 1.5°C of global warming. This calls for solutions from each domain of the society – including but not limited to the energy sector and its current players and business models.
We at Demos Helsinki think that the question of how the energy industry can transform itself is all wrong. It can’t, and more importantly, it shouldn’t. This is what we see the Committed community is needed for: to offer a way to work across organisational and sectoral borders, to express needs and find solutions to them, and to figure out together what is “the more” a sustainable energy system offers to all parties. It is a vehicle for creating even unexpected partnerships around mutual interests between companies of different industries, cities, governments, startups, researchers, and NGOs that have the potential to generate both new well-being and new business, and shape what the energy market – and the society – of the future will look like.
Jussi Laine & Olli Bremer, Demos Helsinki