A cure for impotence

That the world can do something serious about global warming without inflicting noticeable pain on either the global economy or national economies is the topic of the moment. Denmark is already setting a shining example by using wind power to reduce its CO2 emissions, while at the same time maintaining growth in the economy. The UN says the world can and must do likewise. But George Bush, president of the United States, doesn't believe it can be done. Without the integration of energy and environment policies on a global scale, it will certainly be difficult.

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Denmark is doing it. The Netherlands is trying to. Britain is beginning to realise it can do it. Canada is experimenting with it. The UN says the world can and must do it. But George Bush, president of the United States, doesn't believe he can do it -- and he apparently doesn't believe that others can either.

The "it" being referred to here is breaking the vicious circle between economic growth, increased energy consumption, and emissions of greenhouse gases. That the world can do something serious about global warming, without inflicting noticeable pain on either the global economy or national economies (thanks to the device of emissions trading), is the topic of the moment.

The first indication of this powerful message emerging on the energy and environment scene came last month with the release of the third in a trio of alarming reports from the UN's International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Then came Denmark's annual pollution statistics (page 20), news from the Netherlands of wind's share of its CO2 fund (page 26), encouragement from Canada on wind's value in carbon credit trade (page 32), and a forthright speech on green energy, backed by money, from British prime minister Tony Blair (page 21). Less than a week later came President Bush's shocking backtrack on a campaign promise on reducing carbon dioxide emissions (page 36), promptly followed by a warning to America that something had to be done from Europe's leaders at their Stockholm summit.

In the midst of all this political furore, wind power has suddenly gained important new ground. It is finally being recognised -- far further up the political and commercial hierarchy than ever before -- as the technology which already today can unlock the dirty loop of growth and global warming; with the notable exception of President Bush, that is. He seems to be suffering from a problem of perceived impotency on the issue. But when more than 900 scientists (many with "Doctor" before their names) produce a report which says the economic benefits of reversing the trend in global warming "may exceed the costs of mitigation" (page 40), Mr Bush should take heart in the discovery of a cure. Not that we are asking the president to put his faith in doctors alone. If his handlers would just let him escape from the clutches of big oil, coal and gas for long enough to get home to Texas, he'd find some welcome Viagra in the economic activity to be seen on the vast western plains of the Lone Star State (page 36). There he can witness the erection of 850 MW of wind power plant, all going up this year -- and at a price which has power industry competitors sucking their teeth.

It is wind's drop in price that has prompted the IPCC to flag it as part of a solution to global warming that will cost the world no more than 0.2% of projected GDP. When such an august body makes statements like that, it will have an impact on policy making. So, too, will the British report saying that a shift to using renewables (mainly wind) to meet 30% of the country's power needs by 2030 will not burden the economy (page 41). Denmark is already setting a shining example. It is using wind power to reduce its CO2 emissions, while at the same time keeping the economy on a 2%-plus growth track.

Not all countries will have the right mix of raw resources to achieve that feat internally, which is why the concept of emissions trading is so crucial. Indeed, trading mechanisms which harness market forces to achieve the turnaround necessary in the energy market are seen as the only way forward, at least to judge by the IPCC's pronouncements and the body of opinion at an international conference in London last month which posed the question, Can Renewables Deliver? Yes, they can, agreed a broad range of speakers and delegates alike (page 38). But speed is of the essence.

How incongruous it was, then, that wind power -- the only renewable that can deliver today at the price demanded by markets -- was all but ignored at the mainly academic gathering at Chatham House. Ironically, it was left to power giant ABB, without a wind turbine to its name, to be the warmest wind protagonist of the two day event. That might well turn out to be a sign of the times. Giants of the power industry already dabbling in wind, like ABB and Shell, are better equipped than most to achieve the market structure changes needed for us to step off the path of climate disaster.

Time to be useful as well as clever

Where to start and how to go about it are questions not so much in dire need of answers, but in dire need of decision making. At one end of the scale is a crucial requirement for energy and environment policies to be integrated globally. To achieve that, we need academics to pride themselves on being useful as well as being clever. Getting together to revel in renewables at Chatham House is not facing up to the real world, as Robert Priddle of the International Energy Agency acidly pointed out at the time. At the other end of the scale, attention needs to be turned to micro-policies and getting the details right, whether it be Britain's NETA (page 20) or the state Renewables Portfolio Standards in America. Meantime, it is in the US, a nation led by a man who believes that cutting CO2 emissions will damage the nation's economy, that wind is demonstrating it can deliver on carbon abatement and price. Market forces, it seems, are proving an admirable vehicle for the cure to impotence on global warming.

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