“The energy transition won’t succeed without fundamental cultural change,” explained Oliver Richters at the Sustainability and Renewable Energy workshop held at the University of Oldenburg. The physicist and chairman of the Vereinigung für Ökologische Ökonomie (society for ecological economy) focuses on the ‘post-growth’ society.
Are renewable energy technologies and their further development sufficient for a sustainable energy future?
Oliver Richters: I doubt it. Renewable energy technologies in Germany are being installed alongside and in addition to conventional methods of energy production. On the whole, we haven’t reduced CO2 emissions from electricity production. There are even some new coal-fired power plants being built. We’re just not ready to seriously reduce electricity production.
At least technological advances allow for more efficient energy consumption – does that help?
Oliver Richters: In principle, technical advancements led to the enormous resource use and environmental damage to begin with. We may succeed in becoming more efficient, but our resource consumption and CO2 emissions won’t decrease if we use, for example, more efficient motors to travel faster and farther.
What has to happen in addition to the focus on renewable energy?
Oliver Richters: Certainly energy efficiency does not hurt, and renewable energy can help us improve eco-effectiveness by way of closed-loop natural and industrial systems. But we cannot forget the third aspect, which is very unpopular in current political debate: eco-sufficiency, or frugality. In the public discourse we need to seriously consider the idea of reduced consumption as an absolutely essential strategy, and we really need to begin answering the question: how can we reduce need and demand for energy and raw materials?
What about economic growth?
Oliver Richters: The goals of real, honest energy transition and the change to a sustainable society are simply not compatible with an ever-growing economy. Abandoning this logic of continual growth is a difficult cultural issue. But we are already experiencing lower growth rates in industrialised countries, which makes it necessary to develop financial systems and social security systems that are no longer dependent on growth. The question is how we can arrange a ‘post-growth economy’ that can also function without economic growth.
What does that mean for developing countries?
Oliver Richters: I am convinced that we can learn from each other, for example when it comes to reducing energy consumption. Developing countries and emerging economies are able to keep their societies going with relatively little resource use – for example with help from subsistence farming and regional supply systems, which can even be more efficient in terms of yield per acre and resource consumption, but which remain more labour-intensive and therefore unable to compete on the global market.
How can we stimulate the debate on energy consumption?
Oliver Richters: Let’s take the example of engineers, who today, in effect, shoulder all responsibility for the future of the energy sector. We need to recognize that technical advancement alone will not save us; we cannot build more and more efficient machines at will. We have to broaden the scope of engineering studies. The pioneering post-graduate programme on renewable energy at Oldenburg is a good example of this. It teaches students about ecology; it is a multifaceted programme that trains their awareness of how technological advancements can perform, and what kinds of environmental impacts they can have. That is why the dialogue and exchange with students from the so-called developing lands is so valuable, because we need a broader perspective on these common problems.