Today, Pope Francis officially released his encyclical, "Laudato Si (“Be Praised”), On the Care of Our Common Home”, calling on “every person living on this planet” to urgently address climate change, reduce the use of fossil fuels, and transition to clean energy.
An encyclical is a message sent to all the Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church to help inform Catholic teachings. But, Pope Francis made clear that this message is for “all men and women of good will” to “cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.” The Pope cited climate change as a moral crisis we must address to protect the world’s poor from the impacts of climate change such as rising seas, drought, and floods.
The Pope acknowledged that the “bulk of global warming” is caused by human activity and issued a call for our global society to rapidly address this crisis by reducing and ultimately eliminating the use of fossil fuels.
In order to answer Pope Francis’ call for sustainable development, we need solutions that can compete in the economic system and rapidly transform our relationship how we use natural resources. Fortunately, the economics of energy sector continue to move towards sustainable economic development and away from dirty energy sources.
The transformation away from dirty energy has already started in the electricity sector and will accelerate as more investors and politicians assess the real costs of fossil fuels. Here are just a few recent developments demonstrating that an economy powered by clean electricity is possible, and in society’s best interest.
Coal is one of the poorest performing sectors of the global economy, and clean technology is one of the most productive, fastest growing sectors. In April, at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Conference, Michael Liebrieich described how additions of renewable energy have overtaken the additions of coal, natural gas and oil combined and the growth of clean energy will continue to accelerate in the future.
Bloomberg reported, “Solar, the newest major source of energy in the mix, makes up less than 1 percent of the electricity market today but could be the world’s biggest single source by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency.”
In addition, coal companies, Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, and Alpha Natural Resources, are all struggling to compete due to cheap clean energy and natural gas. Since last year, Peabody Energy’s stock price is down 86%, Arch Coal is down 88%, and Alpha Natural Resources stock price is down 89%. The trends all point to the end of coal and the rapid deployment of clean energy sources.
On the microeconomic level, the Southern Mississippi Electric Power Association, an electric cooperative in Mississippi had originally planned to buy 15% of the Kemper Project, a coal fired power plant attempting to implement advanced coal technology. Instead, the co-op recently announced it’s decision to purchase up to 250 MW of wind power, amidst missed deadlines and cost overruns plaguing the Kemper project - making it one of the most expensive power plants per kilowatt in the United States. In response, the State Director of Sierra Club Mississippi, Louie Miller, said, "The record low price of wind energy makes it a good investment that will save customers money and protect the environment at the same time."
How to Continue the Clean Energy Transition
However, in order to hasten the transition to a sustainable economy, we must urgently tackle two priorities: actively confront the economics of fossil fuels (by challenging the political power of the fossil fuel industry worldwide), and take bold action to scale solutions to climate change.
First, regarding the economic reality, the fossil fuel industry continues to benefit from trillions of dollars in subsidies every year. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently reported that fossil fuel companies are receiving subsidies worth $14.5 billion every day, or $5.3 trillion ($5,300,000,000,000.00) in 2015. The cost estimate from the IMF includes the health impacts of pollution, and the costs of floods, droughts, and other disasters caused by climate change pollution.
The Guardian reported that Nicholas Stern, an eminent climate economist at the London School of Economics, said: “This very important analysis shatters the myth that fossil fuels are cheap by showing just how huge their real costs are. There is no justification for these enormous subsidies for fossil fuels, which distort markets and damages economies, particularly in poorer countries.”
That said, politicians and governments will still need to change the legal system to account for these hidden costs of fossil fuels, and once these costs are factored in, fossil fuel energy sources will have a very difficult time competing with clean energy technology. This won’t be easy because of the entrenched political power of fossil fuel special interests. During the debate over the climate bill in the United States in 2009 and 2010, the fossil fuel lobby was estimated to have spent over $500 million on lobbying members of Congress.
Yet, even with all these subsidies for fossil fuels, the clean energy industry is becoming cost competitive in more places around the world. Last year, one-third of all of the European Union's electricity came from renewable energy sources. Deutsche Bank recently estimated that solar electricity may be cost competitive with natural gas, coal, and other forms of electricity in 47 U.S. states by 2016 and many countries have regions already at grid parity, when solar is cost competitive with traditional energy sources.
Second, the world must take bold action and move quickly to meet mitigation goals to avoid the worst impacts of global climate change. The Pope’s message to address this moral crisis adds additional weight to solve the problem, and given the economics of clean energy, we can see a path towards stopping climate change.
However, Michael Liebriech also noted at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance that even though investments in clean energy technology are booming, they still fall short of what’s needed to solve the climate change crisis.
Liebreich stated that cleantech investment must double from the approximately $300 billion invested in 2014 to over $600 billion by 2020 in order to stave off run-away climate change.
We can answer the call to action on climate change, but will take a monumental effort by our social, economic, and political systems to “protect our common home.” The Pope’s message is a call to action for all people on the planet to make haste and implement solutions to solve the climate crisis.