As we stand peering over the brink of the climate-change abyss, we are at the same time witnessing a renewable-energy revolution, with wind and solar becoming more and more competitive and emerging as the obvious choices for the power sector of the future. Now, "100% renewable" is no longer a pipe dream, with more than 60 countries announcing it as an explicit goal at the recent climate negotiations.
But at the same time, the energy conversation has become ideologically charged, very partisan and extremely polarised in a number of countries. No longer content to ridicule renewables from their position of control, the fossil-fuel lobbies and their clients in the utility industry are fighting back with the same type of misinformation and scaremongering that they used so successfully to confuse the climate debate in key countries, especially in the US in the 1990s.
The first three tranches of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report confirm that the impacts of climate change will be as bad if not worse than a previous assessment reported, and has shown that we have the technology to cope with the problem. Only those with opaque ideological blinders now raise their voices with a contrarian view.
Yet that is exactly what is happening. The new government in Australia, for instance, led by climate sceptics, is systematically seeking not only to undermine the country's climate policies, but also to tear down its renewable-energy industry. Coal is still king in Australia, especially when it comes to money and politics, and the mainstream discourse among the current government and powerful elite is denialist of all things climate and renewable.
The fossil-fuel industry is arguably the most powerful vested interest in the history of the world, and it has certainly been so for the last 100 years. Nowhere is this more true than in the US, home of the original Global Climate Coalition (GCC), whose members, from the Aluminum Association to BP, Exxon and Shell, led the charge against action on climate change in the US, effectively confusing both the public and the debate to the point where political action became impossible.
While the GCC was finally put out of business in 2002, the ideology, money and power that drove it remained alive and well and has resurfaced with the support of the Koch Brothers, obscenely wealthy fossil-fuel magnates who are openly (and not so openly) spending millions trying to undo renewable energy legislation, state by state. They have been mostly unsuccessful, but have by no means given up, and they have kept renewable-energy advocates fighting a rear guard action.
We see less stark examples of the same ideology in places such as New Zealand, Poland, and even in the UK, where any number of so-called experts make up all sorts of nonsense to undermine the development of the country's renewables industry. In Canada, the wind industry is thriving in spite of the federal government, whose only real interest in the energy sector is getting its tar-sands oil to market in the US.
For what is at stake, not surprisingly, is an absolutely enormous amount of money. According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, as much as 60-80% of the fossil-fuel reserves listed on the world's stock exchanges will become stranded assets if we move towards the goal of limiting global warming to a 2 degrees Celsius global mean temperature rise. The value of those stranded assets could hit $6 trillion in the next decade. Even the International Energy Agency has raised the spectre of stranded assets, with a much smaller estimate of $300 billion, although with an enormous upside rise.
So, while Germany is getting on with is Energiewende, and Denmark, Portugal and others continue to break new ground with wind in particular and renewables in general, European momentum is stagnating, and we are downgrading our targets for 2020 and beyond. But China is now leading the world in both solar and wind, and Brazil, Mexico and South Africa's wind businesses are booming. There are more new markets opening up in Asia, Africa and Latin America; but at the same time wasteful consumption continues to rise dramatically in the Middle East, and Russia, the last untapped region of vast renewable energy sources, remains rooted in a fossil fuel-economy, waging proxy wars to protect its fossil interests.
As my friend Mike Eckhart of Citibank is fond of saying: "We're in the middle of a 100-year transition, and we're winning!" Yes, but will we win in time?
Steve Sawyer is CEO of the Global Wind Energy Council