energy wealth

We can afford renewable energy

To transition from our fossil fuel addicted energy system to a clean and sustainable one, the world needs to find hundreds of billions of dollars every year. In 2011 global investment in clean energy was $240 billion. In a time of financial insecurity, say the critics, this is simply too much – we can’t afford it.

They’re wrong. All big numbers look daunting in isolation, but put them in context and the bill for renewable energy isn’t so extraordinary.

There are a couple of things to note here. First, bear in mind that the clean energy figure here is investment and not just spending. That $3.2 trillion spent every year on oil is literally burned, while renewable energy investment is an up-front cost that then starts paying for itself and turning a profit.

Secondly, consider how much we waste on subsidies, which are market distortions and almost entirely perverse. Cancel just half of the subsidies for fossil fuels and agriculture, and you’ve got most of the $360 billion that the UN estimates we need.

In other words, don’t let anyone tell you we can’t afford clean energy. It’s not a matter of affordability, but of priorities.


  1. Hi Jeremy,

    Been enjoying your posts – thanks. I invite you, however, to consider an alternative perspective. Ted Trainer – long time radical ecologist – has been researching and writing on renewables for a while. He argues they cannot replace fossil fuels at tolerable cost. To do so, he estimates, would cost around 15 times world GDP currently spend on energy. It needs to be stressed Trainer is an ecologist and supporter of renewables. He just thinks we have to move to a different socio-economic system – what he calls the simpler way…in other words, there is no way we can make consumer/capitalist society sustainable. Link below – thanks.

  2. Hey Jeremy / Jonathon,

    Not sure if this is the same paper Jonathon refers to, but the following link will take you to what I think is Trainer’s most up to date analysis on this question.

    The question is not so much “can we afford renewable energy” but “how much can we afford.” I feel Trainer’s analysis needs to be taken into account when discussing this.


  3. That’s my belief too, and the key is in the title of the Energy Bulletin post – can we sustain a consumer society? The answer to that has to be no, not at the current level of energy consumption. We use far too much, and we waste far too much. Fossil fuels are cheap enough for us to get away with that, but renewable energy can never be a straight swap.

    Thanks for adding that perspective, that’s worth another post entirely, I should think.

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