Renewable Energy as a Panacea? Examining Ecological Modernization and Ecologically Unequal Exchange Processes in Global Wind and Solar Power Systems

Shakespear, Mark
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University of Guelph

In this study I examine ecological modernization (EM) and ecologically unequal exchange (EUE) effects surrounding solar-panel and wind-turbine systems. EUE effects are analyzed by examining the material composition of these technologies, the top extractors of these materials, and socio-environmental disruption resulting from this extraction. Meanwhile, EM effects are analyzed in the examined countries by reviewing installed capacity for solar-panels and wind-turbines, as well as policy and regulatory arrangements that support implementation of these technologies. The results are used to assess the relationship between EM and EUE processes and the uses of EM and EUE theories, and to posit whether renewable energy implementation, and EM more broadly, without fundamental socioeconomic restructuring, is a sufficient path to sustainability. A trend was found, whereby developing countries tend to suffer the most socio-environmental disruption from material extraction for solar-panels and wind-turbines while exhibiting lower implementation of these technologies, and developed countries show opposite effects. This indicates that EUE effects constitute global solar-panel and wind-turbine systems, and that developed countries displace socio-environmental disruption from energy innovation onto developing countries. Critically assessing sustainable development and EM within the capitalist system, I conclude that universal sustainability is not possible within such a framework, and that instead a global non-growth, steady-state socio-economic framework is required, in which the costs and benefits of utilizing natural resources are distributed equitably.

Solar-panels, wind-turbines, ecologically unequal exchange, ecological modernization, sustainability