"Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but for the first time since the Industrial Revolution began we are investing in energy sources that can last forever." –Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.
Some time ago, I had a call from my son Brian, who had come across a huge new wind farm as he was driving on one of the interstate highways in west Texas. He described the rows of wind turbines receding toward the horizon. Interspersed among them were oil wells. The wind turbines were turning and the oil wells were pumping. My son was fascinated by the juxtaposition of the old and the new, the past and the future. I said, “If you return 30 years from now, the wind turbines will still be turning, but it is unlikely that the oil wells will be pumping.” What he was looking at in a nutshell was the energy transition, the shift from the age of fossil fuels to renewables.
The energy transition is gaining momentum. When the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1997, the proposed 5-percent reduction in carbon emissions from 1990 levels in industrial countries by 2012 seemed like an ambitious goal. Now it is widely seen as an outmoded, grossly inadequate goal. National governments, local governments, corporations, and environmental groups are coming up with plans to cut carbon emissions much further than was agreed to in Kyoto by turning to renewables and raising energy efficiency. Some individuals and groups are even beginning to think about how to cut carbon emissions by 70 percent, the amount that scientists say will be needed to stabilize climate.
In July 2005, the European Commission proposed a new plan to cut energy use 20 percent by 2020 and to increase the renewable share of Europe’s energy supply to 12 percent by 2010. Together, these two initiatives will reduce Europe’s carbon emissions by nearly one third. Among the long list of measures to boost energy efficiency in these countries are replacing old, inefficient refrigerators, switching to high-efficiency light bulbs, and insulating roofs. Reaching the renewables goal requires a rather conservative addition of 15,000 megawatts of wind power, a fivefold expansion of ethanol production, and a threefold increase in biodiesel production. The Europeans’ proposed 20-percent cut in energy use by 2020 contrasts sharply with the projected growth of 10 percent under a business-as-usual scenario.
The proposed plan, which is scheduled for final approval in 2006, is designed to save 60 billion euros by 2020. It is also designed to stimulate economic growth, create new jobs, and, by reducing energy outlays, enhance European competitiveness in world markets. The 25-member European Union is second only to the United States in energy consumption.
In 2005 the Japanese government also announced a national campaign to dramatically boost energy efficiency in its economy, already one of the world’s most efficient. It urged its people to replace older, inefficient appliances and to buy hybrid cars. The New York Times described this as “all part of a patriotic effort to save energy and fight global warming.” It noted that the large manufacturing firms were jumping on the energy efficiency bandwagon as a way of increasing sales of their latest high-efficiency models.
Beyond this initial effort, Japan has set goals for boosting appliance efficiency even further, cutting energy use of television sets by 17 percent, of personal computers by 30 percent, of air conditioners by 36 percent, and of refrigerators by a staggering 72 percent. Scientists are working on a vacuum-insulated refrigerator that will use only one eighth as much electricity as those marketed a decade ago.
At the nongovernmental level, a plan developed for Canada by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Climate Action Network would halve carbon emissions by 2030 and would do it only with investments in energy efficiency that are profitable. And in early April 2003, the World Wildlife Fund released a peer-reviewed analysis by a team of scientists that proposed reducing carbon emissions from U.S. electric power generation 60 percent by 2020. This proposal centers on a shift to more energy-efficient power generation equipment, the use of more-efficient household appliances and industrial motors and other equipment, and in some situations a shift from coal to natural gas as an energy source. If implemented, it would result in national savings averaging $20 billion a year from now until 2020.
In Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, the ministry of energy plans to phase out the province’s five large coal-fired power plants by 2009. The first, Lakeview Generating Station, was closed in April 2005; three more will close by the end of 2007, and the last will be shut down in early 2009. All three major political parties support the plan to replace coal with wind, natural gas, and efficiency gains. Jack Gibbons, director of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, which endorses the ministry’s plan, says of coal burning, “It’s a nineteenth century fuel that has no place in twenty-first century Ontario.”
Corporations are also getting involved. U.S.-based Interface, the world’s largest manufacturer of industrial carpeting, cut carbon emissions by two thirds in its Canadian affiliate during the 1990s. It did so by examining every facet of its business—from electricity consumption to trucking procedures. Founder and chairman Ray Anderson says, “Interface Canada has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 64 percent from the peak, and made money in the process, in no small measure because our customers support environmental responsibility.” The Suzuki plan to cut Canadian carbon emissions in half by 2030 was inspired by the profitability of the Interface initiative.
Although stabilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is a staggering challenge, it is entirely doable. With advances in wind turbine design, the evolution of gas-electric hybrid cars, advances in solar cell manufacturing, and gains in the efficiency of household appliances, we now have the basic technologies needed to shift quickly from a fossil-fuel-based to a renewable-energy-based economy. Cutting world carbon emissions in half by 2015 is entirely within range. Ambitious though this goal might seem, it is commensurate with the threat that climate change poses.
Excerpted from Chapter 10, “Stabilizing Climate,” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), available for free downloading and purchase at www.earth-policy.org/books/pb2.