Written by Robert Pollin
This is the third part of an exchange between Robert
Pollin and Don Fitz carried in Green
Social Thought (GST) and ZNet. The
first portion consisted of two articles by Pollin which originally appeared in
Truthout on 7/3/21
The second portion was a response by Don Fitz which appeared in GST
and ZNet. The final portion will be a closing statement
Robert Pollin is a Distinguished University Professor
of Economics and Co-Director, Political Economy Research Institute (PERI),
University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Don Fitz’s response to my two interviews that Z
generously republished makes two major assertions: 1) Reducing overall consumption and working
fewer hours provides a viable path on its own to stabilizing the global
climate; and 2) Renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, are not
really “clean” even though they supply energy without generating CO2
emissions. I will address these in turn.
As I state at the outset of my first posted interview,
on “degrowth,” I strongly agree that “a significant share of what is produced
and consumed in the current global capitalist economy is wasteful, especially
much, if not most, of what high-income people throughout the world consume.” Fitz is merely setting up a straw-person in
suggesting that I think otherwise.
More pertinently, Fitz seems to believe that that we
can move the global economy onto a viable climate stabilization path if we all
consume less, work fewer hours, and eat less meat, while also shortening global
supply chains and making cities more walkable.
This appears to be the case, in his view, even if we do not transform
our global energy system from one dominated by fossil fuels to one dominated by
sources that are CO2-emissions free. He
offers no evidence to support his position.
In fact, there is no evidence that supports his position.
To get into some specifics: the world economy emitted about 34 billion
tons of CO2 into the atmosphere as of the most recent 2018 data. Most of these emissions result through
burning oil, coal and natural gas to produce energy. The IPCC has said that we need to cut these
emissions from burning fossil fuels by about 50 percent as of 2030—only a
little more than 8 years from now—and to be at net zero emissions by 2050.
I myself have always strongly emphasized, including in
both the interviews posted at Z, the centrality of investments to raise
energy efficiency standards throughout the world. That means, among other things, significantly
upgrading the heating, lighting, cooling, and insulation equipment in
buildings, greatly expanding public transportation systems, and producing much
more efficient private vehicles.
However, even if we make these critical investments to
raise efficiency standards, at best we will be able to reduce global energy
consumption in the range of 5 – 10 percent.
This assumes, as I said in the degrowth interview, that “people are
still going to need to consume energy to light, heat and cool buildings, to
power cars, buses, trains, and airplanes and to operate computers and
industrial machinery, among other uses.”
In particular, I strongly favor, as part of any
minimally decent global egalitarian program, a significant increase in
access to energy for lower-income people in all regions, to enable them to
raise their living standards. I do not
think that Fitz’s claim that “humanity does not need more crap” applies to the
roughly 70 percent
of the world’s population—5.5 billion people—that lives on less than
$10 a day. It is critical to
be able to provide, for example, warm, well-lit living spaces, high-quality
public transportation, and access to the internet as efficiently as possible
for this overwhelming majority of humanity.
Fitz appears to believe, without providing evidence,
that we can cut global energy consumption by far more than 5 – 10 percent
without cutting the living standards of low-income people. But let’s note that even if we were to cut
global energy consumption by, for example, an implausible 50 percent by
consuming “less crap” and working fewer hours, we would still be only half way
to bringing CO2 emissions down to zero, as long as we maintain intact our
current fossil fuel-dominant energy infrastructure.
In short, there is simply no getting around the fact
that we need to supplant our existing fossil-fuel dominant energy system that
is the main cause of the global climate crisis with an alternative system that
delivers abundant energy without generating CO2 emissions. This is where renewable energy becomes
critical. Of course, there are
significant challenges to address in building out a global renewable-dominant
energy system. But none of these
challenges are insurmountable, as Fitz suggests.
For example, Fitz cites the obvious matter of
intermittency with solar and wind power—that the sun isn’t always shining and
the wind isn’t always blowing at any given location. But this problem can be solved through
continuing to make advances in battery storage and electricity transmission
systems. It is also the case that other
renewable sources—geothermal, hydro and low-emissions bioenergy—are not
intermittent. They can serve as
supplemental energy sources in combined renewable energy systems.
Fitz also asserts that building the renewable energy
infrastructure can only be accomplished by consuming more fossil fuel
energy. This is not true. As the supply of renewable energy expands, the
full range of industrial machinery, transportation equipment and computers can
all be powered through renewable energy sources just as well as if not better
than, through fossil fuel energy.
Fitz cites examples of renewable energy projects being
built in ways that disrupt communities and natural habitats. Such concerns are valid. The land-use issues around building a
renewable energy infrastructure need to be addressed with great care and
But as a general proposition, it is useful to start
from the calculations of the Harvard University physicist Mara
Prentiss that with the U.S. as a high-efficiency economy, more than
half of this necessary surface area could be provided through locating solar panels on
rooftops and parking lots throughout the country. Beyond this space provided by rooftops and
parking lots, solar energy sources using existing technologies could supply 100
percent of U.S. energy demand while consuming somewhere between 0.1 and 0.2
percent of additional U.S. land area.
If Fitz is convinced that renewable energy unavoidably
produces “devastating consequences,” then it is incumbent on him to present his
superior alternative. Does he favor
maintaining the existing fossil-fuel dominant syste
m? Would he
prefer a global transition to a nuclear-powered energy system? Does he think that having everyone consume
“less crap” will wipe out most of the world’s demand for energy from any and
As a final note, I think it would be constructive if
Fitz could restrain his rhetoric, along with filling in the major gaps in his
analysis that I have noted here. For
example, Fitz writes that I claim that the resolution of the climate crisis
“may require strengthening capitalism.” Here
is what I actually said at the end of the degrowth interview:
“The Green New Deal… is, in my view, the only way
through which climate stabilization can become fully consistent with expanding
decent work opportunities, raising mass living standards, and fighting poverty
in all regions of the world.” In this
spirit, it is encouraging that 20 labor unions in California—including the
state’s oil refinery workers’ union—endorsed the Green New Deal program for the
state that I co-authored and describe in the second posted interview.