What Ross is Reading: September 2020

By Ross Douglas, Founder & CEO of Autonomy & the Urban Mobility Company

Should Biden win the US presidential election, as I expect him to, what will it mean for America’s green economy? Biden is proposing to “Build Back Better”, promising a $2 trillion investment package in green energy, jobs and infrastructure. The Green New Deal (proposed by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Markey), which Biden has adopted, reframes climate change as an opportunity to create American jobs. The 14-page framework sets goals for some drastic measures to cut carbon emissions across the economy, from electricity generation to transportation to agriculture. But the framework remains broad and ill-defined. Now that it might become a reality, various writers have attempted to fill out the details.  

I chose to read Jeremy Rifkin’s The Green New Deal: Why the Fossil Fuel Civilisation Will Collapse by 2028, and the Bold Economic Plan to Save Life on Earth. I was curious to find out if the book delivers on its grandiose title. Rifkin is an academic at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, an author of 21 books and president of the TIR Consulting Group. (TIR stands for Third Industrial Revolution). Unfortunately, the book is more concerned with marketing Rifkin’s consultancy services than offering us a road map to save humanity. 

According to Rifkin, a Third Industrial Revolution will give rise to a “Renewable Energy Internet”, which will precipitate the collapse of fossil fuel capitalism in 2028. Trillions of dollars in energy assets will be stranded, while “zero marginal costs of renewable energy” (a term he proudly coined) will lead to massive savings. In Rifkin’s future there are few downsides except for the “$40 trillion in global pension funds of which $25.4 trillion is in the hands of the American Workforce”, which are heavily invested in fossil fuels. When the carbon bubble bursts the funds will lose a large chunk of their value.

Rifkin argues that Europe and China (thanks in part to him advising their leaders) are on the right track and America and Canada are stuck in the past. “There is a way forward. A path has been laid across the European Union and the People’s Republic of China”, he continues; “It is my hope that the United States will join with the European Union and China and lead the world into a zero-carbon age.” He explains how China leads the world in renewables, “In 2017, China accounted for more than 45% of the global total investment in renewable energy”, but omits to talk about how China has become the world’s largest producer of CO2 because of increasing energy derived from coal. The Global Energy Monitor released Out of Step: China is driving the continued growth of the global coal fleet. 

The report, based on plant-by-plant research by the Global Coal Plant Tracker, finds that from 2018 through June 2019, countries outside of China decreased their total coal power capacity by 8.1 gigawatts (GW), due to steady retirements and an ongoing decline in the commissioning of new coal plants. Over the same period China increased its coal fleet by 42.9 GW, and as a result the global coal fleet overall grew by 34.9 GW. 

The UN’s Emissions Gap Report published at the end of 2019 has similar conclusions. Why he omits talking about China’s reliance on coal in these renewable times seriously discredits the book and him as an academic. If you want to save humanity from global warming you need to figure out why the world’s leader in renewable energy and battery technology is also the world’s biggest emitter of CO2. I have little doubt that Rifkin avoids the issue for fear of losing a valuable client – The Chinese Communist Party. 

Unfortunately we now do need “a bold economic plan to save life on earth”. Margaret Thatcher, who studied chemistry at Oxford, raised the alarm of global warming 30 years ago in a public address to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). She argued that “its prosperity that can create the technology to keep our earth healthy”. We have had unparalleled prosperity and technology over the last 30 years yet our planet has never been less healthy. Our CO2 emissions have grown from 350 ppm at the time of her speech to 410 ppm today – the highest it has been for 800 000, and possibly longer. Maybe more prosperity and technology are not the only solutions, but rather a change in understanding and behaviour are also needed – something Rifkin’s book does little to contribute to. 


Check out some more reads found on Ross’ bookshelf:

What Ross is Reading; August 2020 (Nine Lies About Work)

What Ross is Reading: June 2020 (Upstream by Dan Heath)

What Ross is Reading: May 2020 (Slowdown: The End of the Great Acceleration by Danny Dorling)

What Ross is Reading: April 2020 (Frenemies by Ken Auletta)