The way out

Future workshop on climate and energy

By Kai Kuhnhenn

July 16, 2019

What can an energy supply look like that is socially just, democratic and climate friendly? As part of our project “Future for all – fair. ecological. achievable.”, we developed a vision in collaboration with 10 pioneers.

In 2048 there will be: the 1250-watt society, an international climate council, solidarity-based production communities, the “Good Life” experimental regions in old lignite mining areas, South-North partner communities for the exchange of climate-friendly technologies and lifestyles

In 2048 there will no longer be: CO2 emissions – neither in the electricity sector nor in transport or space heating, the energy and industrial lobby, profits in the energy sector

Our vision

A field report from the year 2048

I think, I’ll quit my job this year. I’ve been an energy service provider (colloquially: e-nerd) for two decades now, 2048 will be my last year!

I am not even discontent with my work. We have achieved a lot in the past 25 years. Back then, after the big protests in 2020, it quickly became clear that governments not only had to give up their rivalry, but the pursuit of economic growth as well, to keep the planet habitable for humans. Of course, there was a lot of resistance from the energy and industry lobby. But a whole generation demanded change and forged alliances with social movements, civil society and science. At the same time, one weather disaster followed the other – governments simply couldn’t come up with good excuses for this anymore and that was costing votes.

These new power relations also changed international climate policy. The competitive climate negotiations were finally replaced by an international climate council in 2030. This consists of 100 members corresponding to 100 world regions. In the world regions, there are again councils of 100 members, and this continues right down to the level of the municipalities. Decisions are always taken at the lowest possible level and the council members are strictly bound by their mandates. This means, that, to take decisions, they don’t follow their own senses, but always need their council’s approval.

Local climate councils make world politics: together against the climate crisis

Of the former climate negotiations, only the targets have remained. We may have broken the 1.5°C barrier, but we are well on the way to limit global warming to 1.8°C. The Climate Council coordinates global efforts and ensures that the emission budgets for the individual regions are adhered to. In case of need, this happens through trade restrictions. But normally, public rebuke suffices. In Northeast Europe we have a slightly higher budget than the average budget of the northern hemisphere, simply because it can get quite cold here. Nevertheless, in the beginning the budget meant a mammoth task: no more CO2 emissions after 2035, neither in the electricity sector nor in transport or space heating.

We energy service providers dealt with the technical side of the task. But we soon realised that we would not be able to do this if energy consumption continued to rise. In response, NGOs proposed the “sinking watt limit”. Based on the model of the 2000-watt society, the energy demand was to be continuously reduced, first to 2000, then to 1500 and finally to 1250 watts. Scientific studies calculated that we would have to consume as much as in 1985. But pioneers from many “real laboratories” challenged this orientation towards the past: they, there and then, already did live an environmentally and socially just economy using fewer watts, living in solidary-based production communities, ecovillages and cooperative enterprises. Subsequently, the search for new ways of living and economic activity gained further traction through the “Good Life” experimental regions in the old lignite mining areas as well as through the forming of South-North partner communities. These partner communities constitute a programme for the exchange of climate-friendly techniques and lifestyles between the Global South and North.

New ways of life and economic systems drastically reduce energy demand

Covering the remaining energy demand in a CO2-free way still posed a challenge, though. But the electricity sector had already started using good alternatives such as renewable energies. Also, in 2020, concepts dealing with power supply fluctuations (created by different sources of wind power or photovoltaics) were as well already in place. The question, therefore, was not so much if, but rather how we could organise the production and distribution of CO2-free electricity. In the end, we took a pragmatic approach. We used the existing power grid where it was suitable and found decentralized solutions for regions that had opted for those.

I am proud to have played a part in this development. And I also still believe my work to be very useful, especially when compared to the past, where my task consisted in securing shareholder profits. The thing with profits was over quite quickly anyway as soon as it became apparent that all of the fossil energy infrastructure had turned virtually worthless due to eco-taxes, emission budgets and the decreasing watt-limit. Companies went bankrupt as a result and the energy supply was in danger of collapsing.

Energy supply is managed locally and without profit orientation

Fortunately, there was already a sufficient number of communities and cities that had re-bought power plants and grids and re-designed them ecologically. This experience led the German government to support municipalities in buying back local energy supplies. The municipalities, in turn, accepted the task, but only under the provision that, in the future, the power supply was to serve the public interest, with free basic budgets for all. I am also pleased about this development because an environmentally friendly, completely renewable energy system is much easier to manage collectively than through hard-to-predict market forces.

I will also miss my nerd collective. We are one of five teams for Northeast Europe and the atmosphere here is great – which has good reasons. On the one hand, the introduction of a women’s quota for e-nerds in 2035 was great for me personally. Before, I always stood a bit alone there as one of the few female e-nerds. On the other hand, with the introduction of the needs-based pay system, all those people who were there mainly for good career opportunities and salaries, dropped out. In the end, they hadn’t really contributed to our work anyway; they couldn’t even tell reactive from active power. Now, in contrast, I can only see colleagues who work out of genuine passion, considering the needs of the 300 million people that form part of our energy system.

Still, I will quit. Simply because I want to do something completely different. In addition, the introduction of public services for all managed to obviate any worries about one’s financial future. So, perhaps I will travel a bit. Perhaps as a passenger on one of those sailing cargo ships to our partner municipality in Tanzania. I am curious to see what all the techniques we have adopted look like in the original.

Kai Kuhnhenn is working at Konzeptwerk Neue Ökonomie in the project “Future for all – just. ecological. achievable.”