End of the world canceled

End of the world canceled


Jan Hegenberg has been blogging about the food, energy and transport transition for years. An interview about how misconceptions influence our perceptions and why we should not let media reinforcement of negative prophecies of doom dissuade us.

Mr Hegenberg, you write with conviction in your book: “Wir werden die Klimakrise lösen” (We will solve the climate crisis). Where does your confidence come from?

Jan Hegenberg: There is no single reason for this, it’s more of a mixed situation. The technology required for this is already unbeatably cheap and will become even cheaper in the future. More and more companies and bright minds are entering the competitive field for the best ideas. Society has realised how important the issue of energy is and many understand that we cannot stay with the old system. We can literally watch the global energy market revolutionise itself.

To put the message of your book “Weltuntergang fällt aus” (End of the world cancelled) in a few words: life will be great once we have switched our energy supply to renewable. Is this positive vision being lost in the public perception?

Yes. In general, we tend to be far too modest with our visions, but this is particularly striking in the case of the energy transition! Even without the climate crisis, fossil fuels are not exactly the last word in wisdom: they make us dependent, harm our health and, being a clearly finite resource, are becoming more and more expensive.

Just imagine what would happen if at some point several oil-exporting countries had to cut their production at the same time. Our dependence on a raw material, a dependence that has grown and developed over decades, would lead to chaos and upheaval.

Of course, we need a few more things than an energy transition for a great life, but this is a huge step that solves several problems at once.

A few people, however, deliberately spread the doomsday scenario as soon as they hear the words “energy transition”: deindustrialisation, loss of prosperity and it will all cost a fortune anyway. Why does this minority actually have such a strong perception?

Probably because media amplification makes it seem much bigger than it actually is. The questions that are being asked are perfectly justifiable, i. e. specifically how everything is supposed to work. However, these questions are often not answered in broadcasts or articles by experts in energy technology, but by people who tend to only be superficially informed about the subject, who then go into great detail about actual or apparent disadvantages without putting them into perspective within the current system.

Since no constructive alternative proposal is ever formulated in these discourses, it looks more like a pure delaying tactic. This is quite questionable in principle, but unfortunately also rather effective. Many people are influenced by this, adopt the mantra and then think that you are trying to take something away from them.

Psychologically, this is known as a status quo fallacy: we give the status quo a head start in our assessment, even if there are no good arguments for it. If many media outlets then succumb to this fallacy, and people see many more cautionary reports about the consequences of lithium mining than about oil production, then they are left with the sense that they are witnessing a bad development. And negative emotions are a strong motivation to speak out about it somewhere. As a consequence, the Facebook comment threads on the topic of the energy transition are full of negativity.

What are your favourite prejudices against the energy transition and how do you refute them?

At the moment, the best one for me is the assertion that Germany cannot achieve anything alone, as that can be refuted quite simply by showing what is really happening abroad. The energy transition is really gaining momentum globally and we can name a country that is ahead of Germany in every metric, be it photovoltaic or wind power expansion, geothermal energy, the heat transition, the drive transition or storage technology.

This is especially gratifying when these examples do not match the expectations of the doubters. I like to show in my talks the high proportion of wind power in the electricity mix in Texas, the proportion of heat pumps in Scandinavia or the expansion of solar power in the Netherlands. Invariably, many people look at the slides in disbelief and ask for the source, so huge is the difference between perception and reality.

The technologies are there; the benefits – no CO2 emissions during operation, much lower energy prices and so on – are obvious. Why does it still feel like progress with the energy transition is too slow?

Well, probably because we were much faster before and even manufactured solar modules on a large scale in Germany, only to lose this lead again in the last 10 years. Other countries are currently passing us by, which feels to us like stagnation. But that too is a deceptive perception. Some industries, for example the car industry, have long since decided to change, only the effect cannot be seen immediately when product cycles are several years.

In Germany in particular, we are making things even more difficult for ourselves by increasingly politicising technical progress and assigning it to certain parties. Neither climate-neutral power generation nor e-cars should have political leftor right-wing connotations. Many other countries do not have this. But we do, and that awakens particularly strong forces of inertia and makes people sceptical about new solutions.

That is the case to a certain extent with all issues. People tend not to be big fans of change. In evolutionary terms, our brains are the same as those of our ancestors who discovered the hand axe, and even then someone will have said: “These hand axes are newfangled gimmicks, there’s nothing wrong with working the wood with my teeth. We’ve always done it that way!”

You make it clear early on in your book that we will not save the world just by doing without things. But you yourself have reduced your climate footprint to 4 tonnes of CO2 per year, with some effort and also by doing without things. Do you simply not trust everyone to have this same willpower?

It’s one of those things: we will not solve the problem by doing without on its own, but doing without or saving on things can buy us a lot of time for now. That is why I believe it is our moral duty to cut emissions today to within our means. Not to win the bad-conscience Olympics, but in order to change the system at the same time so that individuals going without things becomes less and less of a critical factor.

The problem with this is that many people cringe at the very words “doing without”. This is also such a failure of communication, because savings are not always associated with blatant deprivation. In fact, I don’t feel my 4-tonne CO2 life is ultra-austere or anything. However, we must recognise that not everyone has the same opportunities to reduce their emissions, as this is highly dependent on housing situation, education, income and occupation. Even when you have the will it takes, this can be a big challenge for some people.

What measures are more effective than individuals doing without?

Changing our systems, because they are full of disincentives. Currently, the more climate-friendly solutions are often the ones that involve more effort or cost for me as an individual. This is the worst possible set-up for reducing emissions, because it means that we are penalising sensible behaviour. If we correct this, it will take much less individual willpower. In that case, a heat pump will be climate- neutral AND cheaper to buy than a fossil heating system, electric driving will always be cheaper than driving with petrol, climate-neutral building material will be cheaper than classic cement, etc.

The energy transition has it a bit better, because most technologies are already cheaper than their fossil counterparts today or in the foreseeable future, even without a CO2 price tag. It is therefore all the more irritating that many people with little desire to do without are at the same time professed opponents of the energy transition.

And do you think that the societies of this world will be able to convince the decision-makers quickly enough to take the necessary steps? Or do we even need the politicians at all, because in the end the market will take care of it?

We need both. Determined politicians need to set up meaningful frameworks and we as a society need to encourage them to support these frameworks, even if they may seem more inconvenient at the beginning than simply carrying on as we are. In the end, we all win, because society, politics and the economy are all better off in a non-fossil system than they are today. The current crisis shows how risky our standstill was.

Take us again to the conclusion: what will our world look like when we have achieved the energy turnaround, the heat turnaround, the transport turnaround, the water turnaround, all the turnarounds?

That would indeed be a utopian situation. We would have reliable access to climate-neutral energy with stable prices and without such strong political dependencies as we have today. People worldwide would have access to clean energy in a system that respects planetary constraints and opens up entirely new possibilities to repair the damage done.

We would no longer have to have a guilty conscience for the purchases we make. There is no guilty conscience for products that come from a climate-neutral circular economy. There will be no more appeals to limit hot showers or to refrain from driving – at least not for climate reasons.

In this world, a lot of people wouldn’t even want to drive a car because it’s too slow for them. Many people think of bans when they think of mobility transformation. Model cities where driving is still allowed show that it simply takes too long for most people because the road system is no longer designed for it.

In short: our lives would be much more pleasant. And if that sounds too good to be true: even in such a utopia, you can have a really bad day, ruin your stomach, fall for trailers of terrible films or be annoyed by your neighbour.

Jan Hegenberg

founded the blog “Der Graslutscher” (Grass Chewer) a few years ago, originally to refute the phoney arguments against plant-based nutrition circulating on the Internet. Today, he is a full-time author and blogger and publishes scientifically sound and equally funny education and media criticism on the topics of the food, energy and transport turnaround. His background in business studies at least helps him now to debunk and refute utter nonsense. Jan Hegenberg is a father of three and lives in Wiesbaden.