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United States

On Governments and glaciers

For the environmental lobby, June was the month when hope gave way to despair: in Europe, government energy ministers failed to approve the targets for renewable energy set out in a long awaited policy paper; and at the Earth Summit in New York, Japan joined the oil producing nations in blocking04 nt on binding targets for CO2 emission cuts. One campaigner likened the situation to glaciers moving faster than governments.

We know we've reached crisis point when the glaciers are moving faster than the governments." It was perhaps this eloquent statement last month, by the World Wildlife Fund's energy campaigner, Adam Markham, which most succinctly summed up the feelings of the environment lobby around the world. For many of its members, June was the month when hope gave way to despair: in Europe, government energy ministers failed to approve the targets for renewable energy set out in a long awaited policy paper; and at the Earth Summit in New York, Japan joined the oil producing nations in blocking the way for a political statement on binding targets for CO2 emission cuts.

Markham was referring to the awful fact that while glaciers around the world melt at unheard of speed -- and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change now unequivocally puts the blame on mankind's burning of coal, gas and oil for energy -- governments remain idle onlookers. Fine rhetoric from national leaders is not being matched by action. When asked to confirm goals for renewables and extend funding to the Altener programme for promotion of their use, Europe's energy ministers suddenly get cold feet. The goals become no more than a request for "indicative targets" which "could give useful guidance" and the ministers disagree on both the duration and the (conservative) budget proposal for Altener. This sorry tale of creeping political paralysis is repeated in New York. Statements which fired the imagination of the world at the start of the Earth Summit dissolved into C02 laden air at the close.

Disappointed and despairing the environmental lobby might be, but, to revert to the ice metaphor, the world's leaders are at least well aware they are on the Titanic, even if they can't agree on how to stop it. True, the events of June fall far short of catalysing the sorely needed revolution in energy supply structures. But they undoubtedly mark a significant political lurch in the right direction.

When the EU's energy ministers met in late May they not only adopted a resolution on the "Community Strategy for Renewable Sources for Energy," but also a set of conclusions on "Climate Change and Energy Policy." Neither started a revolution, but the climate change conclusions do contain some fairly revolutionary language (page 18). The need for "strong and structural changes in the energy economy," inclusion of external costs into energy pricing and the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies are all explicitly emphasised. Interestingly, renewable energy programmes head the list of seven priorities for meeting the objectives expected to be agreed on at December's climate change convention in Kyoto. It seems that policies for moving the market in the right direction in Europe are being considered, even if promotion of renewables is limited to prodding for national action on green pricing and encouragement of market stimulation programmes. But even a weak strategy is better than no strategy at all. And there is no denying the significance for wind of Europe's already agreed target for 2010 of cutting C02 emissions by 15%. Wind remains one of the only pollution free electricity technologies commercially available today for replacing fossil fuel generation.

That trump card is worth keeping in mind while assessing the significance of Oregon's startling decision to introduce mandatory control of CO2 pollution (page 29). Perhaps the most environmentally conscious of all the US states, Oregon has chosen a path which seemingly flies in the face of the trend towards deregulation of electricity markets. It has calculated the cost of preventing, offsetting or mitigating a ton of C02 pollutant and is requiring all new power plants to pay up front for dealing with 17% of their total life cycle emissions. Thus paying for pollution (albeit just 17%) becomes part of the fixed costs of a power plant, pushing up electricity prices in much the same way as a broad C02 tax. But the inducement to use less polluting technologies is through regulation, instead of through market forces. It will be interesting to hear what the world's economic and environmental gurus have to say about that one.

Meantime, there are two further rounds of climate change negotiations before December's third Conference of Parties under the Framework Convention on Climate change, to give the upcoming Kyoto meeting its official title. Time enough for environmental lobbyists -- and the wind industry -- to close the enormous gap between the technical reality of renewables and the political action needed to put the technology to work. The current political paralysis is undoubtedly caused by a genuine fear that the fossil fuel lobby could be right: that recourse to renewables will bankrupt the world; and that given a chance, burning fossil fuel can become sustainable. The increasing number of economic studies proving the "double dividend" effect of environmental taxation (reduction of C02 plus more jobs and a better tax system) will hopefully do much to allay the economic fear. Plain common sense should do away with the other one.

Perhaps it is not surprising, though, that politicians are having a hard time turning the renewables vision into reality. Blinded by the fossil fuel lobby's glittering promises of "clean" coal and gas and vast stores of undiscovered fuel reserves, it is hard for them to even catch a glimpse of renewables. Even when they do, the tarnished image is one of an expensive and uncertain alternative. The time is long overdue when wind, as the leading renewable, made a major investment in a strategic marketing offensive in the political arena. Kyoto would seem to be a good place to start.

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