It has been 55 years since the social ecologist Murray Bookchin argued that “wind, water, and solar power” (hereafter, WWS) could “amply meet the needs of a decentralized society” and eventually replace all fossil, nuclear, and bioenergy sources. The alternative, he warned, would be a future of “radioactive wastes,” “lethal air pollution,” “rising atmospheric temperatures,” “more destructive storm patterns,” and “rising sea levels.” Having declined to tear down its smokestacks, society has entered Bookchin’s dreaded scenario and, according to today’s scientists, accelerates toward “hothouse Earth,” “doomsday,” and even an “annihilation of all life.”
The urgency for reaching 100% WWS can’t be overstated. Leading climate scientists report that “tipping points could be exceeded even between 1 and 2°C of warming,” and today’s level is already at 1.2° and rapidly climbing. Moreover, society has pushed Earth past four other “planetary boundaries.” While all energy sources have an impact, small-scale WWS sources are by far the cleanest option available, and they also don’t involve nuclear power’s existential weapons proliferation risks.
It’s no wonder, therefore, that many Green New Deal supporters call for 100% WWS by 2030 or sooner. Activists in the United States and the United Kingdom are calling for zero emissions nationally by 2025, a stringent deadline that requires a very rapid phase-out of fossil and bioenergies and that necessarily excludes the lengthy construction of new nuclear power facilities and large-scale hydroelectric dams. The journalist Hazel Healy has even written about achieving zero emissions worldwide by 2025. To be sure, these targets are mind-bogglingly ambitious compared to, say, Joe Biden’s mid-century target. But if anything, 2025 is already pushing our luck from a climate and ecological perspective.
Wondering about the potential for rapidly reaching 100% renewable energy, I reached out to two of the most optimistic and two of the most pessimistic scholars on the technologies. Based on these conversations, I offer the following suggestion. Achieving 100% WWS within five to ten years, if it can be done at all, would likely require slowing down the industrialized world. It would mean abandoning what Michelle Boulous Walker calls today’s “culture of haste” and “relentless demand to decide, respond and act.” Instead of a frantic construction of hydrogen-powered airplanes and concrete-intensive high-speed rail, it would mean making most production local and most travel leisurely-paced. It would mean switching from full-time jobs to part-time crafts and hobbies, from patenting technology to sharing it, and from GDP to something like the Indigenous Environmental Network’s proposed “Index for Living Well.” While it’s common to read of “roadmaps” to WWS, we would probably get to the destination sooner with maps of biking trails and bus routes.
The Solar Optimists
Probably the most well-known roadmap author is Stanford University’s engineer Mark Jacobson. I asked Jacobson when is the soonest he thinks 100% can be reached within the United States. “Ideally 2040 to 2045,” he told me. “Here’s how.” He sent me his article published in December in One Earth, that envisions 100% WWS worldwide by 2050: “The roadmaps call for countries to move all energy to 100% clean, renewable wind-water-solar (WWS) energy, efficiency, and storage no later than 2050 with at least 80% by 2030.”
A close look at Jacobson’s paper, however, suggests that achieving 100% doesn’t absolutely need to wait decades: “[T]ransitioning the world’s all-purpose energy to 100% WWS energy by 2030 could be technically and economically feasible, but for social and political reasons, a complete transition by 2030 was unlikely and could take up to a couple of decades longer.”
I also wrote to a roadmap expert named Benjamin Sovacool at Denmark’s Aarhus University. He has analyzed ten historical energy transitions and concluded that “there have been many transitions—at varying scales and sectors—that have occurred quite quickly—that is, between a few years and a decade or so.” For example, it took Denmark only five years, from 1976 to 1981, to switch its electricity from 90% oil to 95% coal. Also in five years, from 2004 to 2009, Brazil increased fuel-flex vehicles from 17% to 90% of new car sales.
Although history’s global energy transitions have tended to be much more gradual, Sovacool warned against expecting future transitions to closely resemble the past. “Luckily, future transitions could be driven by active governance (phase-outs), scarcity, and demand pressures, rather than supply, markets, or abundance. The past need not be prologue; history can be instructive but not necessarily predictive.”
Sovacool also sent information on the “solar dominance” hypothesis, “the idea being that solar becomes so cheap it basically pushes out all other energy resources, similar to the way the conventional car pushed out all alternatives a century ago.” Global solar power capacity has already been doubling every two to three years. If trends continue, according to Eban Goodstein and L. Hunter Lovins, at least half of the world’s electricity will be solar-powered by 2030. Stanford University instructor Tony Seba even predicts sunlight will replace all fossil, nuclear, and biofuels this decade.
What all these roadmaps share is the assumption that economic growth will continue, and high levels of energy consumption will prevail globally. They argue that, whether it’s a matter of a few years or a few decades, humanity can achieve 100% WWS without the need to reverse economic growth. This is an especially bold claim because extensive research suggests a deep link between economic growth and energy consumption. As a 2016 study argues, based on historical data and modeled projections, “GDP ultimately cannot be decoupled from growth in material and energy use.” A more recent review article concludes, “Growth increases energy demand, making the transition to renewable energy more difficult, and increases emissions from land-use change and industrial processes.”
The Solar Pessimists
Some analysts do not think that renewable energy can power a growing economy. “I looked into this and relied on some of the papers published in response to Jacobson’s and others’,” the Land Institute’s lead scientist Stan Cox explained. “Even for a [U.S.] 2050 target, the annual increase in wind and solar capacity would have to be 15 times the rate of growth in energy capacity from all sources over the past half-century or 11 times the highest rate of increase in wind and solar capacity, which occurred in the renewable-boom years of 2015 to 2018. I don’t see that happening.”
The Australian researcher Ted Trainer also lamented, “We must go renewable, but you won’t be able to go close to 100% in anything like this society.” He urged me to “disregard Jacobson and Sovacool,” claiming that their roadmaps “overlook critical issues or make wild assumptions.”
Both Cox and Trainer cite a 2017 critique of Jacobson, by Christopher Clack and numerous co-authors, that rejects the viability of Jacobson’s proposed hydrogen-powered aviation industry and widespread adoption of underground thermal energy storage. (Jacobson has responded that these technologies already exist and that Clack’s claims are “demonstrably false.”)
Despite their sobering critiques, even the solar pessimists support a strong role for renewable energy. What struck me the most about Clack’s critique was the opening sentence: “A number of studies, including a study by one of us, have concluded that 80% decarbonization of the US electric grid could be achieved at a reasonable cost.” The referenced study, co-written by Clack, proposes that WWS can affordably power 70% of U.S. electricity by 2030. And that’s without considering the deep energy consumption cuts that Cox and Trainer propose.
Cox proposes a cap-and-ration policy—which, unlike cap-and-trade, does not allow trading or offsetting—that would eliminate the United States’ fossil fuel use “by, say, 2035 or 2040 at the latest.” (As recently as August, he has described 2031 as a reasonable end date.) But he emphasized to me: “We have to begin adapting our economy now to living on a smaller energy supply. That will mean maintaining production of essential goods and services while eliminating all wasteful and superfluous production.” For example, this would mean giving up on visions of widespread electric car ownership, a “non-solution” according to Cox because the vehicles require massive amounts of mining for materials, as non-electric cars do. Cox urges refurbishing existing rail rather than using massive amounts of concrete to build new rail.
Trainer, who runs a website titled “The Simpler Way,” proposed an even more radical social shift: “I am very confident that we can run a marvelous simpler way society on renewables, that includes all the high tech stuff we need, e.g. in medicine and R&D.” With most production localized, there would be an “extremely low need for energy use in food provision, negligible transport demand, a few electric vehicles for rental in the town, [and] very little travel/tourism or centralized entertainment industry (because we crank up local sources of holiday, leisure and entertainment activity, via town leisure committees).” While this society would have much lower levels of consumption than in today’s Global North, it would also have much more leisure time thanks to a massive dismantling of today’s wasteful industry and bureaucracy.
Trainer told me, “I have no doubt that the kind of community I argue for could be 100% renewable energy easily and quickly, including the small amount of high-tech and energy-intensive industry needed.”
Defining a Lower-Energy Future
Part of the challenge in measuring the necessary transition’s speed is estimating how much energy humanity needs. Much of the world’s poor lives in energy poverty, whereas the rich live in energy abundance. I’ll examine a “contraction and convergence” approach that shrinks the rich world’s consumption levels so that the Global South can increase theirs to an egalitarian world standard. Immediate debt forgiveness, an abolition of patents, and a worldwide decentralization of production would enable the South to focus its resources and labor on installing green industrial technologies, to the extent that communities democratically choose to industrialize.
It’s clear that reducing energy consumption should start with the world’s rich. According to a recent paper, “The top 10% consume ~39% of total final energy (nearly equivalent to the consumption of the bottom 80%).” Rich peoples’ higher energy use has primarily to do with their higher frequency of travel and with the speed of this travel. They are flying and driving, rather than taking trains, buses, and bikes. The top 10% used 75% of the energy associated with air travel. But while reducing energy should start with the rich, it can’t necessarily stop there.
Fortunately, evidence suggests that a very high quality of life can be achieved at relatively low levels of energy use, thanks to a combination of energy sufficiency and energy efficiency. Energy sufficiency measure might include, according to Low Tech Magazine editor Kris De Decker, “smaller TVs or lighter and slower cars, or less TV watching and car driving.” Going further, it might mean that a neighborhood shares a few televisions and cars so that not every household needs one.
Despite consuming only 15% of the per-person energy that the United States does, Costa Rica’s citizens report higher well-being and life expectancy. Costa Rica’s energy use levels are only half of the world’s average. But maybe even that’s too much.
Based on energy sufficiency and energy efficiency measures envisioned by German researchers, De Decker calculates the living standards of today’s frugal First Worlder can be achieved with only 40% of the world’s per-capita energy usage, meaning 10% of the United States’. But maybe even that’s still too much.
Members of Missouri’s Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, despite consuming about 7.5% as much electricity and 7% as much motor fuel as average Americans, report having much more meaningful and satisfying lives. Their per-person energy consumption amounts to 25% of the world’s average. Maybe this amount would drop even further if some of the energy efficiency measures referenced by De Decker were implemented.
If everyone agreed to live like a frugal German, or a Costa Rican, or a Dancing Rabbit, then we wouldn’t need to repower 100% of today’s energy supply with renewables. We’d only need to repower 25 to 50%. The technical barriers to doing so would be far lower than powering the entirety of today’s supply.
Regardless of which assumptions we accept, it seems the transition could be achieved very rapidly if everyone agreed to live like the solar pessimists are prescribing. By Mark Jacobson’s timeline, WWS can power 40% of the world’s current energy supply by 2025. And recall that Jacobson wrote that even faster growth of renewable energy would be “technically and economically feasible.” Even if the solar pessimists are right, and we accept Clack’s assumptions, then WWS in the United States would nonetheless be able to power some 290% of the world’s per-capita electricity usage by 2030.
To be fair, I am leaving out staunch technical challenges, such as the (often-overstated) challenge of intermittency. But if we made the energy transition into a topmost priority, and used resources accordingly, we’d likely be able to solve some at least some of these problems without too much difficulty. If Trainer’s right that a Simpler Way society would have only a third as much work as we have now, we could use some of our freed up time to learn how to build, install, and repair solar panels and wind turbines. And through open-source designs, we could make them easier to recycle and to build from recycled materials.
Energy Justice Network says of studies like Jacobson’s: “These studies say it can be done by 2030, but with enough political will and a shifting of subsidies from dirty energy and militarism to clean solutions, it can likely be done much sooner.” It’s likely the necessary social changes would need to be even more drastic than the Energy Justice Network suggests, such as overcoming capitalism and decentralizing society as advocated by Bookchin and Trainer. Solar panels and wind turbines are much easier to decentralize than, say, oil rigs and nuclear power plants. This shift, then, can be considered dangerous by elites since it would push communities in the direction of self-reliance. Shifting power would enable shifting power. That might be one reason why capitalist nation-states, described by Aaron Vansintjan as being “in love with centralized forms of energy,” are so opposed to 100% WWS.
Of course, we shouldn’t surrender if we miss a 2025 target or even a 2030 one. As I’ve said elsewhere, I have high hopes in the carbon sequestration capacity of reforestation and rewilding, especially if a largely vegan world could liberate billions of hectares from animal agriculture’s wasteful use. Moreover, it could be the case that the climate’s and ecosystems’ tipping points are further off than we fear.
Nonetheless, there are so many risks and uncertainties that it would be highly reckless to push for anything less than a drastically rapid and just transition, perhaps in five years. While some scholars say 2040 or 2050 is the soonest possible target date, that’s because, as John Bellamy Foster notes, the existing scholarship “remains based on the current system, that is, it excludes the possibility of a full-scale ecological revolution.” And as Christian Holz writes, “None of the studies explores the impact that placing limits on GDP growth could have” on the feasibility of eliminating carbon emissions. To get to 100% WWS at the earliest possible date, we need to slow down the global treadmill of production, converge the world’s consumption levels at a sustainable standard, and cast off the anxiety-provoking hurriedness that rules over many of our lives.
I helped author Promoting Enduring Peace’s position statement, “What Should We Demand?” I would recommend it alongside the “Red Deal,” Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary (Tulika Books, 2019), and 2010’s still relevant “People’s Agreement of Cochabamba.”
 According to Trainer, we in industrialized societies work about three times too much, “and the rest can be converted into enjoyable activity.” This claim, which accounts for the fact that a Simpler Way society would give up some labor-saving technologies for the sake of sustainability, is actually fairly conservative compared to, say, Ken Smith’s 1988 research showing that only a tenth of the United Kingdom’s labor was necessary to provide food, clothing, shelter, medicine, education, and entertainment. Earlier in 1947, Paul and Percival Goodman estimated that a tenth of America’s labor was sufficient to locally produce basic needs, and by 1960 Paul revised the figure down to a twentieth. Most recently, David Graeber has pointed out, based on survey and polling data, that workers themselves consider the majority of their labor to be “bullsh*t,” and that, consequently, “we could probably get the real workweek down to fifteen hours—or even twelve—without anyone noticing much.” And that’s before ending consumer society.