Q & A: Why Switching to Renewable Energy Sources is No Longer a Matter of Morality, But of Economics

By Carmen Arroyo, a journalist and regular contributor to Inter Press Service. Originally published at Inter Press Service

When the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) was founded eight years ago, the general public thought that renewable energies would never replace oil and coal. Today, the tables have turned.

Dr. Frank Rijsberman has been the director general of the institute since 2016, and for him, green growth is no longer a matter of morality, but of economics. Renewable energies are now cheaper than fossil fuels. They create employment, do not pollute and provide countries with the amount of energy they need. Last week he joined several side events at the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

GGGI is an intergovernmental organisation that works with over 60 countries. It seeks commitments among governments and private companies to switch to green growtheconomic growth that takes into account environmental sustainability.

The organisation, based in Seoul, South Korea, works mainly with governments that express an interest in sustainable growth. Its work does not directly depend on changes in administrations.

Under Rijsberman, GGGI has consulted with Colombia on their protection of the Amazon rainforest, the United Arab Emirates on how to diversify its economy, and more recently with New Zealand. Rijsberman is especially proud of the organisation’s work in Ethiopia and Rwanda, with its president Paul Kagame, who he considers a “champion of green growth”.

Rijsberman is not only very knowledgeable, he also calls his job “his passion”. When he describes GGGI’s presence worldwide, he jumps from Australia to Ethiopia, from South Korea to Mexico, and from Norway to the Philippines.

He talks slowly, like a teacher giving his first class, or a father trying to get his point through. And when he talks about GGGI’s achievements, he smiles in the affable way most Dutch people do. His excitement is justified: renewable energies are the present. And public opinion cares. Excerpts of the interview follow:

Inter Press Service (IPS): Why has green growth become relevant?

Frank Rijsberman (FR): A variety of countries are already convinced green growth is their only option for pollution and climate reasons. For example in Asia, air pollution is a strong driver of investors in green growth. In Seoul, everybody checks the air condition in the morning, because it is a real issue. We have to decide whether we are going to wear air masks or not. In the West, last summer we saw fires and heat waves. And in Africa, the average farmer is convinced the climate has changed.

I’ve been involved in climate change for a long time, and it used to be something we talked about that would happen in a 100 years. Then for our grandchildren. Then our children and then… it’s today.

Before, ministers of finance used to say they wanted first to develop and then they would care about the climate. Now, they also care about the quality of growth.

IPS: Has that international public opinion changed since United States president Donald Trump’s election?

FR: The truth is that the U.S. government was very influential in making the Paris Agreement exist in the first place. We have to thank them for that. They brought China to the table.

And after Trump was elected, the Chinese government did not back out, because solar and wind has become cheaper than coal. Wind energy prices have dropped by 66 percent and solar by 86 percent. In the last three years, the atmosphere has changed. There is a stronger belief that renewable energies are making a breakthrough.

Apart from the prices, the second big deal is batteries.Generally, you need a grid or a diesel generator to back solar and wind up. But instead of using diesel generators, now we can use batteries that store energy. Battery prices have also gone down by 80 precent. And over the next five years, batteries will be cheaper than the diesel backups. The investment recommendation we make is to buy batteries now, not diesel generators.

IPS: Where have renewable energies impacted the most?

FR: For example, in electricity production, we’ve seen a huge disruption. Most of the investments go to renewable energies. However, electricity is only 20 percent of energy use.

The other 80 percent is transportation and buildings. But I am confident that in some years, electric vehicles will be cheaper than normal fuel cars. These autonomous vehicles could reduce the number of vehicles in cities by three, which would reduce pollution, traffic, and costs.

IPS: The institute must also face challenges when promoting green growth. Is shifting investment patterns its biggest challenge?

FR: Yes. The hardest has been convincing Southeast Asian countries with fast-growing economies. They still invest in coal. Convincing those governments that solar and wind are cheaper remains the biggest challenge.

Sometimes we also find resistance in the utilities, companies that work with fossil fuels. We’ve had one government for which we did a plan for renewable energies, and then they told us they had already signed with fossil fuels. There are also countries where hotels want to put solars on their rooftops, but utilities say: “we will cut you off the grid.”

However, once the government agrees, it can take a short amount of time for them to transition to sustainable energies. In India it took two years. India had coal fired power plants. But as soon as the price of renewables decreased, the coal fired plants went down.

The example of Canberra (Australia) is also enlightening. They decided they wanted to be renewable by 2020. So, they put solars in schools, and they made it accessible so people could also put it on their homes. People got used to it and then they moved to utility-scale renewables.

IPS: Does this resistance in transitioning have to do with the loss of jobs?

FR: In the end there are gonna be more jobs with renewables than with coal. Trump talks about the job losses in coal, but he doesn’t talk about the new jobs with renewables. It’s true they may not be the same people, so you need some formal training. But that is normal. One industry dies and another is born.

IPS: You have been director general for two years, what have you achieved so far?

FR: GGGI has been strong in policy for a number of years. My predecessor saw there was a gap in developing bankable projects, and he started green investment finance services.

In 2017, we mobilised half a billion dollars in green and climate finance for the first time. I increased our goals to mobilise a couple billion dollars in our strategic planning. We raise it by investor commitments. Although our clients are governments, sometimes they can’t find investment themselves for renewable plans. We help find projects, we bring investors to the table, they sign a letter of intent, we hand it to the government and they decide over it.

IPS: And what do you want to accomplish in the next two years?

FR: We want to demonstrate that we can do it. Our goal for 2020 is to raise more than two and a half billion dollars in green and climate finance. And then convince more governments that this is crucial. Not only renewable energy, also waste management, pollution, and green jobs. We want to get more evidence that this works, and scale it to more countries. Our goal is to transform countries’ economies to green growth.

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    1. juliania

      What is so bad about lobbying? It’s only when the intent is to defraud the public that lobbying should have a bad name. Maybe it is time for lobbying to be a force for good instead of for evil. The point of this article, and I think a sound one, is that government influence is needed before the overall policies that support instead of subvert the infrastructure changes are put in place. The US is rapidly becoming a lower class nation that desperately needs such overall policies. People would come out to vote for any politician who ran on such a program because it would affect every aspect of national life in a positive way.

      1. Kyle

        Lobbying is the equivalent of bribery. The politician who spends the most wins. Politicians recieve most of their money in large dollar donations and PACs, not from your average citizen. They have no incentive to listen to their people because that will not let them win next election. Lobbying needs to be limited to around $200 which is the maximum to be considered a small dollar donation. The politicians should be held accountable to their constituents, not their money source. Lobbying inherently undermines democratic values by influencing a politicians vote with money rather then persuasive argument.

  1. Phillip Allen

    The thing that surprises me is that people, like Dr. Rijsberman, seem to think there’s time for these gradualist schemes to be effective. They may have been, had they been instituted in the 1970s. Everything I see, in terms of data coming in that’s consistently in excess of worst case projections from the most trusted models, suggests that there absolutely is no time before these relatively miniscule attempts at melioration are swamped by the emergent catastrophe through which we are living. We can’t prevent a catastrophe that’s already underway. When the house is on fire, it’s time to think about what can be salvaged, not about figuring out how to apply fire resistant patches to odd bits of the already-burning structure.

      1. a different chris

        Me too, but — what do you guys want Dr. Rijsberman to do? Sit in his bedroom with the lights off (or on, since it would make no difference?).

        Maybe I am even more negative than you because I truly believe that the truth is probably just too scary, and instead of everybody getting together it will tear everybody apart. Do you really think that the world is going to respond with “oh yeah, right gonna push my Prius right over the hill here and walk to work” because we say they have to?

        Just holding on and hoping for a breakthru..

        1. Paul

          Presumably there is a great deal that could still be done without proceeding from the premise that renewables can even potentially be swapped in for fossil fuels at current and future levels of energy consumption and ecological destruction, and then that there will be time for the (im)possible to happen.

          Renewables might still have great value in an environment of sharply constrained financial and energy availability.

    1. Phillip Allen

      Come to think of it, thinking about what to salvage when the building is already on fire makes little sense. Stepping out of the analogy, it’s time to think seriously about preserving knowledge and maintaining skill sets useful for post-industrial life. Investing time and resources into that project could genuinely pay off long term.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        To what extent is our present level of Science and Technology related to our prodigious use of fossil fuels? The rapid growth of world populations, beginning in the middle of the previous century. depends on fossil fuels to grow and distribute the food required. Large populations would assure the birth of a larger number of people with the right gifts and inclinations to excel in Science or Technology. The added work done by fossil fuel provides the material support necessary to support the work and workers of Science and Technology. A society built upon burning fossil fuels presents technical problems to solve and a ready means to implement solutions. The competitions of commerce and warfare further drive Technology and Science. Knowledge builds upon knowledge. [At least it did until Science and Technology were made Neoliberal handmaidens of the Market.]

        The fossil fuels, a special legacy gifted to us by Nature, are finite in amount. Though the amount of our gift was enormous to begin with — we have successfully burned through its greater part in couple of centuries. But this great gift is a gift of one time only for the thousands of generations of humankind there might be [or that might have been]. It represents the stored energy of millions of years of light from our star. The store of Knowledge we have built cannot be recovered or built again once the fossil fuels are gone. There are good and bad things about our present Society, but who truly desires to return to short lives as hunter gatherers? Besides, what sort of animal and plant life will be left to hunt and gather? I think those who dream we might return to a 19th Century culture ignore the technological base required for that level of Society. Many of the materials we take for granted require high temperatures for their processing — temperatures not easily obtained, if they can be attained at all, through burning wood or charcoal — and the 19th Century was an age of iron and steel. The great wealth of knowledge we have amassed contains humankind’s best hopes for adapting to a world without fossil fuels and afflicted by the Climate Disruptions our prodigies of consumption and waste have wrought. Preserving Knowledge and maintaining skill sets useful for post-industrial life is imperative.

        Efforts to digitize books and information are underway. Those projects offer at best a very limited lifetime, probably of lesser duration than the lifetime of the paper containing the original Knowledge. These efforts conveniently forget how dependent computers and computer storage are upon fossil fuels and a substantial technical base and manufacturing infrastructure. I have also noticed a pronounced tendency to preserve cultural artifacts in preference to Scientific and Technical literature. A fine novel or play will not help our future generations fashion a useful tool from the resources we leave for them. The deepest and richest studies of Philosophy will not fill their bellies.

        I believe printed books are the best way to preserve Knowledge. The problem is that paper also has a very limited lifetime, especially the acid papers many books and journals are printed on. The better papers have a longer but still very limited lifetime — perhaps a century. I know plastics are not very popular these days but many of the properties that make plastics noxious are properties that recommend plastics based papers and a special ink formulation as a better way to preserve books and the knowledge in journals. Preserving and re-shaping the technologies for making paper, ink, and printing books are also important. The present methods for printing will not survive into a post industrial age and woodblock, or silk-screen, or litho-stones do not seem like adequate substitutes for xerographic or inkjet printing as small scale methods of printing in a time when there will be nothing of large scale. They also suffer from a dependence on fossil fuels and a substantial technical base and manufacturing infrastructure.

        1. Odysseus

          depends on fossil fuels to grow and distribute the food required.

          We could do with a lot less of that.

          Indiana imports 90% of its calories. I’m pretty sure that vegetables can be grown within 50 miles of Indianapolis.

          Just because we do things a certain way today doesn’t mean that way is sane. We need to have a serious discussion of the costs of some of our social structures.

    2. juliania

      What is gradualist about it? These policies can go into effect on a national scale immediately! I don’t see them as miniscule at all, and nature is giving us the time needed to institute them. It all depends on elections and who at the top will be willing to institute them. If the nation were suddenly plunged into war, national programs to affect the situation would arise instantly and have an effect within the lifetime of those being organized for the purpose. This is war. We are at war against those who get rich despoiling the planet. Isn’t it time we said


      1. Odysseus

        What is gradualist about it?

        Cutting 5% of greenhouse gas emissions is nothing. We need zero-GHG or negative GHG economy, and we need it today.

        It’s true that every little bit helps. But little bits aren’t enough.

    3. Ignacio

      Totally disagree, even when assuming that catastrophe is inevitable. Catastrophe could take tolls of let’s say 10%, 20%,… +90% of human lifes. I’d rather 10% than 95% and gradual things will surely help to reduce it.

      I really hate this “don’t waste your time on this and that we are all doomed” attitude. Defeatism does not help.

  2. Alan

    At a practical level, how does an ordinary reader get clear advice. Currently commissioning the designing of a new build homestay tourism venture in Rajasthan. We wanted fully covered by sustainable power. Architect says technology is not there yet and what we can hope to get the hot water system plus some lighting as the infrastructure for everything will take too much space. There is plenty sun, and plenty wind in the rainy season. We’d like to do all the lighting, air conditioning, cooking using natural. How do we get the solutions that allow us individuals to make our contribution.

      1. a different chris

        >Your architect is talking out of his/her arse.

        Isn’t this always the biggest obstacle to change? The classic “science advances one funeral at a time”. And that’s science, when we are talking commerce it is far, far harder to kill off established thought patterns. Look at the people who literally don’t understand how we could get by with reduced trade from China, like we’ve been trading with them since we crawled out of the trees.

      2. Louis Fyne

        The architect might be limited by budget and/or usage demands. It is a guesthouse/hotel after all.

        Guests expect unlimited hot water and A/C, 24/7/365.

        Solar panels lose efficiency when it’s >78 F. A/C usage tends to coincide with when it’s hot and winds are slack.

        PS, ‘We wanted fully covered by sustainable power’ still won’t cover the jet fuel burned by visitors from the EU or USA. just saying.

        the way “sustainable energy” works right now is more like drinking diet soda but then ordering a sundae for dessert.

  3. jefemt

    Citizen’s initiative would really curtail new oil and gas activity in Colorado:

    My personal view is it doesn’t have a prayer of passing. If it does there would be huge temporary dislocations and huge economic opportunities, both.

    But that is the land of sprawl, vehicle-centric commuting, with an overarching hedonistic Rocky Mountain Way. And Oil and Gas lobbies/ industry are as powerful as bankers, big medical industries.

    One to keep an eye on. David in infancy versus Goliath


  4. jfleni

    Sunning conclusion: If the grease monkeys and other plutocrats can’t STOP screaming GIMME(!), it’s going nowhere!

  5. Asher Miller

    “Green growth” is the manifestation of the bargaining phase of The Five Stages of Grief.

  6. Hilary Barnes

    Most renewable energy sources, notably solar an wind, are intermittent, and there is no way a sophisticated industrial economy can be run on intermittent energy supply, unless, of course, there is back-up carbon fuel generation capacity to take over, but the investment cost of running two complete energy systems will undoubtedly give tax payers something to think about. And take a look at the trouble the Germans are having with their energy transition…..

    1. a different chris

      there is no way a un-sophisticated industrial economy can be run on intermittent energy supply

      Fixed it for you. We don’t have a sophisticated industrial economy, people squint at some badly-sourced supply demand curves, make a ton of crap, and dump the leftover 10% in the garbage. And that’s just hard-industrial goods.

  7. juliania

    Thank you, Jerri-Lynn, and thank you Dr. Rijsberman for what you are doing. There is such a low perception in this country’s elitist structure of ways to move our nation forward that it is easy to wallow in despair and do-nothingness, but it is so encouraging that the rest of the world is leaving us behind. Probably that is a good thing as our policies toward the world as a whole leave a lot to be desired. Let new infrastructure companies develop and become profitable elsewhere.

    It’s time.

  8. Tobin Paz

    In 2006 the world was burning 3 cubic miles of oil per year. This is an astronomical amount of energy. Replacing only one cubic mile would require the following:

    4 Three Gorges Dams,[14] developed each year for 50 years, or
    52 nuclear power plants,[15] developed each year for 50 years, or
    104 coal-fired power plants,[16] developed each year for 50 years, or
    32,850 wind turbines,[17][18] developed each year for 50 years, or
    91,250,000 rooftop solar photovoltaic panels[19] developed each year for 50 years

    Let’s make the unrealistic assumption that that we live in a world with infinite resources i.e. oil, coal, lithium, sand, etc. Let’s also assume that the EROI of these renewable sources are sufficent enough to fuel current and future growth necessary for both our economic and monetary policies.

    Finally, let’s also ignore that wind and solar are intermittent sources of energy. We will still need to rely on fossil fuels to mine, manufacture, transport, install, and maintain the distribution infrastructure for the foreseeable future. This is at a time where levels of carbon dioxide have reached a point where eliminating green house gas emissions is not enough to avoid the catastrophic consequences of global warming.

    If you believe this is hyperbole and that green energy is changing the world, then consider that China and Germany are ramping up coal production while the Trudeau goverment is nationliazing tar sands production.

    In 2012 James Hansen, the Godfather of climate change, made the following statemetment regarding Canadian tar sands:

    If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.

    1. a different chris

      32,850 wind turbines,[17][18] developed each year for 50 years, or
      91,250,000 rooftop solar photovoltaic panels[19] developed each year for 50 years

      Seriously? That’s surprisingly good news!!! 91 million is 6 million short of our yearly world automobile production. A lot harder to make a multi-parted car than bolt on a solar roof.

      I didn’t realize it was actually doable.

  9. Jeremy Grimm

    This post is extremely disturbing. I cringe on reading a term like “green growth”. First it begs the question of the need for growth. Then this post claims glowing reports on how solar and wind energy generation are now cheaper than coal and treats batteries like a minor problem that’s being worked. It follows with a few other dubious claims such as:
    ” The other [energy use] 80 percent is transportation and buildings.”
    “… in some years, electric vehicles will be cheaper than normal fuel cars… ”
    “… autonomous vehicles could reduce the number of vehicles in cities by three… ”
    I think the energy use arithmetic forgot the industrial uses of energy and the rest of the focus on private cars and vehicles ignores some sticky technical problems in powering ships, trains, and 18-wheel trucks using electric power stored in batteries. The notion of a great green economy built on the transition to green growth is at least as lame as the claims made for our service economy, and then information economy, and post-industrial finance economy ….
    Some of the commenters want to keep a happy green face on the combined problems of Climate Disruption at the same time that we are running out of the cheap fossil fuels our society was built upon and cannot do without. I believe we need to look the future squarely in its horrible face and study each deep wrinkle and oozing sore. Painting the ugliness green with a broad brush solves little.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      One does wonder though, just how far (and how quickly) solar, wind, and other renewables (ocean wave energy, etc.), not to mention storage/retrieval advances, will go in the same exponential or similar vein that computer processing power and storage capacity did. It does start to add up.

      Our current technology can be somewhat maintained, for a time at least, with simple electric power. Once we loose that on a large scale, we loose a lot of information and experience probably for good in any functional sense. It’s questionable, however, just how big a society must be for maintaining a given knowledge base and educational level.

      1. John Wright

        But computer power scaled up because one could do more with the same area of silicon as transistors were made ever smaller and packed more densely.

        This was codified as “Moore’s law” but others have simply called it the learning curve for the electronics industry.

        Hard drives were made smaller physically while increasing their capacity as ever more information was squeezed on the magnetic platters.

        The problem is that human desires for a comfortable life, enabled by energy consumption, are not scaling down exponentially.

        Assuming that solar and wind might follow a similar exponential curve may be a false hope as they don’t physically scale as one needs a certain area for them to capture the energy they convert.

        We may be fairly far along the solar energy/wind energy learning curves with little hope for exponential improvement in the future.

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