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Not an unmitigated disaster for wind -- Johannesburg summit

Groups such as Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and Oxfam may well describe the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, which concluded last month, as a "missed opportunity" and a "failure to kick-start the renewable energy revolution," but the outcome for the wind power industry was far from all bad.

At face value the summit, which attracted 21,000 delegates from 191 countries, did not cook up the best deal for renewable energy technologies -- over 30 targets were included in the final 71-page plan of action and the four page political declaration, but not one of them was for renewables. The overall flavour was bland, or as the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) puts it, "close to the lowest common denominator." Despite this there was movement towards a more healthy diet -- and wind power is now firmly the renewable energy flavour of choice for the future.

A commitment to "urgently" increase the global share of renewable energy sources and phase out, "where appropriate," energy subsidies for fossil fuels (currently estimated at EUR 250-350 billion annually) was made in the plan itself. With no binding targets or timetables, however, the future for most renewable energy technologies is now largely dependent on what the European Commission president, Romano Prodi, describes as a "coalition of the willing" -- those countries which for now have a good appetite for renewables or are at least willing to have a taste.

Wind power is likely to be the main course on the menu for this newly formed coalition, due to its cost effectiveness and its maturity compared to other renewable energy technologies. Furthermore, while environmentalists argue that the summit has effectively sanctioned a blockade on less mature technologies such as solar power, the wind industry has, EWEA suggests, come out of Johannesburg with a new lease of life thanks to extensive media coverage.

"We have seen wind turbines in virtually every international media," notes EWEA's former acting director, Arthouros Zervos. "Clean power has moved to the top of the political agenda and judging from international news agencies, television and newspapers, wind power is becoming the symbol for renewable energy. The wind industry can now build on this momentum created by the growing desire of progressive countries to increase the share of renewables worldwide." The message outlined in the joint EWEA and Greenpeace report Windforce 12 -- that 12% of the world's electricity can come from wind power alone by 2020 -- is "increasingly catching the world's attention," he adds.

Zervos welcomes the commitment to increase the global share of renewable energy but stressed "targets and deadlines are essential to make it happen." The EU had sought a target of 15% of the world's energy to come from renewables by 2015, while others proposed 10%. All targets were fiercely opposed by the US, Canada, Australia, Japan and the oil producing nations of OPEC. They argued the targets were "unrealistic and arbitrary."

Off target

Targets were also opposed by a series of developing countries. Speaking for the G77/China, Iran said targets would only serve the interests of developed countries and divert attention away from the primary goal of ensuring universal access to energy services for the poor. Along with the US, Australia, Canada and Japan, the G77/China camp also opposed targets and timeframes for phasing out energy subsidies -- they got their way on all counts.

Despite the failure to agree binding targets, summit secretary-general Nitin Desai said there was reason for optimism. "The reality is that with sustained action, we can build up the renewable energy industries to the point where they have the critical mass to compete with fossil fuel generated energy," he said. "We have a commitment to make it happen and now we need the follow through."

Indeed, many countries announced plans to take unilateral action to set targets. The EU's "coalition of the willing," a group of like-minded countries and regions, pledged to increasing their use of renewables through quantified, time bound targets. Although a final list of coalition members is not yet available, the response has been positive, said EU environment commissioner Margot Wallstrom and Denmark's environment minister, Hans Christian Schmidt, who launched the initiative: "African, Latin American, Caribbean and other European countries have all shown interest."

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