Power and choice

Gerd Leipold
says that choosing a massive expansion of renewable energy would increase security, reduce poverty, and restore economic confidence as well as tackling climate change.

As we face up to the increased insecurity and slowing global economy caused by the terrorist attacks of 11 September, tackling climate change may appear to be a separate goal. Yet, as environmentalists, we know all things are connected. These issues are directly and critically linked. If we are serious about tackling any of them we have to tackle them all.

The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, recently asked ‘what is the lesson of the financial markets, climate change, international terrorism, nuclear proliferation or world trade?’ He answered himself: ‘It is that our self-interest and our mutual interests are today inextricably woven together – that power, wealth and opportunity must be in the hands of the many, not the few.’

If we adopt a visionary and robust approach to tackling climate change we will also bring about real security, provide a boost for the economy, reduce poverty and make the world fairer.

Massive expansion of wind and solar power – and other sources of renewable energy – would provide the energy security we so urgently need. We can replace both the fossil fuels that cause climate change and nuclear reactors with their dangerous legacy. In bringing renewable energy to the world’s 2 billion poorest people we would reduce poverty, help fight disease, facilitate education, give hope and independence – and make a better environment for everyone, everywhere.

Politicians, commentators and scientists the world over have described climate change as the most pressing environmental issue of the day. But it is not limited purely to the agendas of environment departments. Of course it has environmental effects – including floods, drought, dying coral reefs, melting Arctic and Antarctic ice and sea-level rise – which will both directly and indirectly affect people and economies. But its causes go to the heart of industrial society and its energy supply, almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels. Tackling climate change means phasing these out.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change committed governments to the ‘stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’. The United Nations also identified ecological limits that are already being stretched, if not broken, as ecosystems show signs of stress.

If we are to stay within these limits, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere must be restricted over the longer term to a maximum of 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent. Present estimates – which depend on the numbers of forests cut down and replanted – allow us a carbon budget of between 145 and 260 billion tonnes.

The central estimate of the ‘carbon budget’ of 225 billion tonnes is only a quarter of existing economic reserves and is a very small fraction (5 per cent) of the estimated resource base of oil, coal and gas.

Even more sobering, at the current rate of fossil fuel use, this budget will be exhausted in less than 40 years. And if energy demand continues to grow at the present rate of 2 per cent per year, it would last for less than three decades.

The deal finalized at Marrakech in November means there should be no further obstacles, real or imagined, to all Parties ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. All – including the United States – should do so now to bring it into force by September’s World Summit on Sustainable Development. But while it is a valuable first step, the Protocol only calls for a cut of just over 5 per cent from industrialized countries; and even this is so riddled with loopholes as to allow emissions to increase.

The timetable for negotiations on the second commitment period needs to be accelerated and targets set to ensure that industrialized countries are fixed on an emissions trajectory that would have them reduce emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050.

The scientific logic of what we have to do to achieve this is inescapable. We must begin a rapid reduction of the use of fossil fuels, leading to a phase-out within a generation. That means that the world’s energy needs must be met from clean, renewable sources.

For 30 years Greenpeace has spread the vision of a peaceful and secure world. This is now needed more than ever to guide the world away from terror and war and towards the kind of security that comes from everyone being liberated from hunger, poverty and disease – with clean water to drink, pure air to breathe, uncontaminated food to eat and freedom to live lives without fear. We plead for a new kind of peace, one that is based on providing people with the basic securities of life so that terrorism can take no hold, and one that strives to build a world where interdependence signifies productive mutual need, rather than fearful apprehension.

We need to discard dangerous technologies such as nuclear power and the production of toxic materials. We must abolish all biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, a massive increase in renewable sources of power would counter the inequality created by gross poverty.

Over 2 billion people have no access to reliable electricity. Millions more live in poverty and squalor. The impacts of climate change identified in the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pose a serious risk to development, particularly in the poorest areas of the world. Basic rights such as reliable access to food, water and health care are likely to become more precarious as global warming accelerates. Extreme weather events are already killing, or rendering homeless, tens of thousands of people every year.

Our dependency on fossil fuels is also perpetuating conflicts over resources. Ongoing and increasing reliance on environmentally destructive energy sources only increases the power of the few over the many, and so increases instability. We have to break the hold which the current energy suppliers have over society.

The G8 Renewable Energy Task Force showed in its recent report that the barriers to the large-scale uptake of renewable sources of energy are not technological, but financial and political. Its principle finding was that ‘renewable energy resources can now sharply reduce local, regional, and global environmental impacts as well as energy security risks, and they can, in some circumstances, lower costs for consumers’.

It concluded that investing $250 billion over ten years would provide renewable energy to 1 billion people – 200 million in the OECD countries and 800 million of the world’s poorest.

Similarly, The Solar Generation, a new report from Greenpeace and the European Photovoltaic Industry Association, predicts that solar could provide 2.3 million jobs globally by 2020, and provide energy to 1 billion people worldwide, given sufficient government and industrial support. A global campaign to convert our energy economies to renewables would create jobs and, with them, the confidence increasingly lacking in the global economy.

We need global political intervention to fight climate change on a par with the massive and rapid commitment of resources and prioritization that the world has recently seen in response to acts of terrorism.

The 11 September marked a moment of choice. Will we finally address the instability and insecurity born out of inequality, or continue down the path to more pain and suffering?

Conventional wisdom dictates that there is no choice but to continue our dependence on fossil fuels with all the instability and damage that it brings.

But there is a choice. Switching to renewable energy would cause a significant shift in power, create millions of jobs, reduce fear and anxiety and effectively combat climate change, the single greatest threat to the planet

Gerd Leipold is Executive Director of Greenpeace International.

PHOTOGRAPH: Mario Infante/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Secure and sustainable | Fuelling multilateralism | Meeting growing needs | Make way for the zero-litre car | Power sharing | Oil and rising water | Energetic challenges | At a glance: Energy | Competition | Power to the people | Cutting carbon | Winds of change | Power and choice | Rising sun | Give us a wave! | Less energy, more wealth

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate and Action December 1998
Issue on Climate change December 1997
Gerhard Berz: Insuring against catastrophe (Disasters) January 2001
Pier Vellinga: Flip-flop to catastrophe (Disasters) January 2001
Jan Pronk: Nature’s warnings (Disasters) January 2001

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Climate change
Air pollution