Chilling contrasts on climate change

While there was general agreement on the platform at the 1997 European Wind Energy Conference that the challenge is to stabilise the climate before the climate destabilises the economy, the time frame for doing so was widely divergent.

Climate change loomed large as a political issue throughout the 1997 European Wind Energy Conference in Dublin. A commitment to significant and binding targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions would energise a global market for wind energy, stressed several platform speakers. But the speed at which binding targets should be introduced -- or whether they should be introduced at all -- was a subject of debate, in many ways reflecting the views of political leaders around the world.

At EWEC '97, the contrast was sharpest in presentations by Chris Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington and Michael Jefferson from London, vice president of the World Energy Council. While Flavin enthused the conference with optimism about the outcome of the United Nation's upcoming climate change convention in Kyoto in December, Jefferson preached caution, claiming the targets being discussed by the European Union for C02 reduction were unrealistic.

Flavin said he felt that political opinion in the US was moving in the right direction on Kyoto. It was significant that president Bill Clinton had made climate change a public issue. "I am actually rather optimistic that we are going to get a good result," he said. "I do not think the Clinton administration can afford a failure." Flavin stressed, however, that the battle had only just begun. "The challenge will really come after Kyoto. We are not going to solve this problem without a true energy revolution."

He criticised the wind industry for its cautious "one step at a time" attitude towards gaining political ground. The challenge is to create a new generation of "micro power technology, decentralised generation," he continued. Wind has the potential to supply more of future demand than hydro today. Drawing on China as an example, Flavin pointed out that here was a vast region of the world with wind resources close to large centres of urban population."

The way forward for renewables, concluded Flavin to rousing applause, was to demand fiscal reform -- the removal of fossil fuel subsidies and the introduction of carbon/energy taxes -- and to demand access to the grid and tax incentives.

His impassioned plea was in sharp contrast to the measured delivery of the World Energy Council's views by Michael Jefferson, who discomfited the audience by referring to his roadside sojourn at Princess Diana's funeral, drawing parallels with her quest to "seek change from the inside." Although Jefferson talked of the need for long term vision and a clear strategy for fulfilling it, he reiterated that WEC did not support the targets for C02 reduction being discussed in the run up to Kyoto. "Post 2000 targets of a 25% reduction from 1990 levels by 2005, or even a 15% reduction by 2010 are far removed from what is politically and socially feasible," said Jefferson, adding they were "economically unrealistic." His somewhat defensive presentation of WEC's stance on global warming left the conference with the uneasy feeling they could be facing a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Jefferson described himself, however, as a "shaker and a mover" and even warned about "those who feel threatened by talk of the need for change, who are quick to ridicule those who do" and who "may even wish to silence such talk and block effective action." The World Energy Council, Jefferson made clear, was made of sterner stuff. The council's finding that the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had underestimated the likely extent of global warming in 2100 "was hardly the stuff of an organisation seeking to denigrate the science and the possibility of human induced climate change," he said.

But while making much of WEC's support of the work and findings of the IPCC and stressing the council's support of the ultimate objective of the UN Climate Convention, Jefferson's presentation made it clear that WEC's policy falls far short of the European Union's aim to cut C02 emissions by 15% by 2010. In an apparent reference to Scandinavia and the Netherlands, Jefferson was dismissive of governments which "have seemingly put more effort into raising energy taxes for revenue raising purposes than to ensure there is a clear and well understood link between cause and effect."

Instead of binding agreements on C02 reduction over the next ten years or so, WEC favours the adoption of "precautionary measures" which are "operable and cost effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost." The time frame for this work is set at 100 years. The precautionary measures advocated are mainly concerned with increasing efficiency in the production and use of energy, but include conservation, transfer of technology to developing nations and development of non fossil fuel sources. "What is required is an agreement (to the year 2100), with suitable energy scenarios containing appropriate greenhouse gas emissions trajectories that reflect the different stages of economic development of countries," said Jefferson. Such an approach would not stop industrialised countries from setting a 2010 benchmark, he continued, "but in practice they will struggle to return their aggregate emissions to 1990 levels by 2010."

According to WEC, the industrialised world will overshoot its 1992 Rio target to stabilise emissions at 1990 levels by 2000 by 15%. What's more, the emissions of industrialised countries, on aggregate, are now 8% over their 1990 level. WEC's view contrasts, however, with that of the European Commission, which is now saying it will meet the target set by the 1992 UN Climate Change Convention -- or only miss it by 2-5%.