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Brave green world

By Darryl D'Monte

Things are not all doom and gloom on the global environmental front. In France, 1,000 homes are being renovated every day to make them more energy-efficient. And California has a comprehensive plan to reduce emissions by 29% below 1990 levels, by 2020

In a scenario where there is a great degree of scepticism about the outcome of the Copenhagen meet and whether there will be any meaningful denouement in Mexico City this December, due in no small part to the legislative impasse in the US Congress, it is easy to feel disillusioned about the possibility of a breakthrough on the global environmental front. When this is coupled with the sustained and often motivated attack on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the prospects look altogether bleak.

However, as speakers underlined at the recent Delhi Summit on Sustainable Development (DSSD), organised annually by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), several sectors have forged ahead, either outstripping domestic climate legislation in their countries or proceeding in spite of it. Indeed, even in the US, several cities and some states have shown that they are far more concerned about climate change than their recalcitrant Congressmen.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California said as much in his video conference with the summit. California accounts for one in every eight Americans and is also, astonishingly, the eighth largest economy in the world. Its 38 million people produce half the US’s food output; agriculture comprises a $36-billion-a-year sector. This ‘sub-national government’, to employ the American term, accounts for 60% of US investment in clean technologies, more than that of the other states combined.

It has a comprehensive plan to reduce its emissions by 29% below 1990 levels, by 2020 -- a far cry from President Obama’s offer of 4% for the economy as a whole. If what Jeffrey Sachs, who heads The Earth Institute at Columbia University and is a top UN advisor on the Millennium Development Goals, said at the summit is right, there will be no national cap-and-trade system in the US due to various vested industrial interests that exert considerable political clout. Still, California has initiated the Western Climate Initiative with a few US states and Canadian provinces to introduce a cap-and-trade mechanism by 2012.

Premier Jean Charest of Quebec, who was also present in Delhi, is another dynamic regional leader who is joining in such initiatives. Schwarzenegger has also elicited a favourable response from regional leaders in France, Nigeria and Algeria.

This September, he will launch the Club of 20 Regions (R20) initiative to carry his plans forward. At Copenhagen, Schwarzenegger said: “R20 will help pave the way in the transition to a green economy that will clean the environment, create green jobs, and respond to the unavoidable impacts of climate change. Action is needed at the national and international levels to reduce the effects of global warming, but California has shown that state and regional governments can also institute policies on their own that will see real environmental improvements and grow green jobs. R20 will continue that sub-national leadership around the world by recognising that meeting the challenges of climate change requires an unprecedented level of cooperation and collaboration through all levels of government.” California is collaborating with Brazil and Indonesia to help those countries tackle deforestation and reforestation.

Similarly, North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, whose representative attended the Delhi summit, is the 17th largest stand-alone economy in the world, with some 18 million people. The region was, paradoxically enough, the focal point of Germany’s ‘old’ economy, comprising heavy engineering industries and coal mines. Of course, Germany is no laggard when it comes to environmental standards, and so this region doesn’t stick out like a ‘green thumb’ as California does in the US. By 2009, Germany had already reduced its carbon dioxide levels to 29% below 1990 levels because, as its leaders see it, it was in their national interest to do so.

A recurring theme at the Delhi summit was that the global environmental crisis can prove to be an opportunity, something that President Obama has also said in relation to the US economic crisis though it does not have the same resonance that this belief evokes in Europe. Germany has already created 1.7 million green jobs, which is expected to rise to 3 million by 2020. The EU has its own carbon trading scheme in place for industry, which is expected to cover power plants and the airlines industry by 2012.

Germany has a thriving renewable energy industry, which contributes 16% of its electricity at present. This sector has trebled since 2000 and is expected to treble again by 2020, to provide 47% of the country’s power. The green sector has, in recent months, provided 280,000 jobs despite the financial crisis. Germany has imposed ‘eco-taxes’ which, for instance, make it compulsory to insulate homes with double-glazed windows and the like, thereby cutting down on power usage. Its solar industry has witnessed a $3 billion investment and there are now as many as 50,000 housing estates in the country that employ this form of energy.

As part of its ‘eco-profits’ initiatives, which have attracted more than a thousand companies, Germany has been able to cut down on waste and water resources. North Rhine-Westphalia has banned land filling, the practice of dumping rubbish at sites. As a consequence, emissions of methane, the second biggest greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, have dropped by 27 million tonnes a year. The region has stopped construction of new coal-fired plants, and slowly the energy supplied by windmills is proving competitive.

In Japan, by contrast, action is taken at a far more decentralised level since the country has some 30,000 ‘prefectures’ or local government bodies. Many of these have entered into pacts with local enterprises to meet environmental standards which are often more stringent than national standards. Tokyo, with 15 million inhabitants, has an emissions trading system in place. Japan is convinced that money isn’t the panacea; what is, as the country describes it, is “actions coming from the ground”. These include a huge range of local initiatives that display ingenuity coupled with the right incentives. Japan has committed to reducing its emissions by 25% below 1990 levels, by 2020. But there is a sting in the tail: “depending on a fair and effective global framework”, which appears to be begging the question.

Apart from regional initiatives, it is business which is viewing the global negotiations over a climate treaty as more of an opportunity than a problem. For Philips, the Dutch multinational, for instance, lighting is one of the pieces of the puzzle. Buildings account for 14% of global energy consumption, mostly on heating and cooling, but also for lighting. Anyone who has visited a city in the industrial world cannot but be amazed at the profligate consumption of energy in high-rise buildings that are left lit up through the night, even when they aren’t occupied.

But that may become a thing of the past as cities and countries become more aware of global warming. In France, around 1,000 homes are renovated every day to make them more energy-efficient (at this rate it will take till 2050 for all houses to be converted). Philips believes that local governments, city leaders and the private sector “are where the action is going to be”.

Globally, lighting accounts for 19% of the electricity consumed, but three-quarters of it consists of inefficient incandescent bulbs. Since September last year, the EU has banned conventional frosted bulbs as well as clear bulbs over 100 W. In a phased manner, this will be extended to bulbs with lower wattage. It will save 40% of power capacity -- the combined capacity of 600 power plants -- equivalent to savings worth 120-180 billion euro. This amounts to reducing 630 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. Philips, and other companies like Osram, sees a huge global market as the world shifts from incandescent to compact fluorescent and eventually to LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs which are far less energy-intensive.

At the same time, 1.6 billion people in the world have to make do without electricity. Although the proportion is highest in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia has the largest number -- around 700 million, of which 400 million live in India. In Delhi, a Norwegian company, Scatec Solar, cited how it has developed and funded two off-grid pilot projects in Jhansi district, Madhya Pradesh, to demonstrate the viability of stand-alone solar power in villages. On the day the summit opened, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg visited Rampura in Uttar Pradesh. India and Norway have jointly funded the scaling up of the Jhansi experience to 30 other villages in four states, covering 1,800 families.

This public-private partnership was made possible by funding from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), which provided 63%, the Ministry of New and Renewable Sources of Energy in Delhi (30%), and the company (7%). Five NGOs, according to Scatec, were “door-openers into the project villages, and work to mobilise the villagers and analyse the needs of the community. The NGOs work with the villagers to promote the development of income-generating activities which may take advantage of the arrival of electricity to the village”. Village energy committees look after the operation and maintenance of these community power plants. Obviously, the company isn’t undertaking this as an exercise in corporate social responsibility but envisages a market for solar rural electrification. It has built a number of megawatt solar power projects in Germany.

In the one year that the two pilot plants have been in operation there has been uninterrupted power supply, which is a tremendous boon. The company has found that people are ready to pay for power because of the benefits it brings. It has improved attendance in schools. It may lead the way, soon, to the introduction of computer classes, while street lights provide greater security. Villagers have been able to supplement their incomes by running flour mills and spinning silk. Scatec believes that the private sector can engage in demonstrating the viability of decentralised solar technology. It is using its Indian experience to collect data which will help to draw up a sustainable business plan in the future.

According to estimates, the world will be spending $23 trillion on renewable sources of energy by 2020, which underlines President Obama’s statement that the nations that will lead the green economy will lead the world. Even the oil-rich kingdom of Abu Dhabi has seen the writing on the wall and is building Masdar, headed by its Future Energy Company. The kingdom will spend $15 billion on this city, which will house a university affiliated to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It will also be the location of the International Renewable Energy Agency, set out to establish itself as the global base for renewable energy knowledge.

At the World CEO Forum which preceded the Delhi summit, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) issued its Vision 2050 document that was developed by 29 top companies. Business people forecast that with 9 billion people living on the planet within 40 years, “there will be billions of new consumers”. At the same time, it is sanguine enough to realise that the resources to sustain such consumption will be sorely strained. A key message in the document is that at least some societies, midway through this century when emissions have to be cut by 80% by industrial countries, will find that economic growth will be de-coupled from environmental destruction and “re-coupled with sustainable economic development and societal wellbeing”. Indeed, it believes that the very term ‘developing country’ will be rarely used.

The WBCSD, which represents the most progressive forces of global industry, realises that it can’t do this alone but requires government, civil society and the public at large to play their part. This may be wishful thinking, but it does point to a possible future. Just to put the situation in perspective, even the flawed Copenhagen accord is gearing up for funding of the order of $100 billion a year by 2020 for developing countries to cope with climate change. As a TERI speaker pointed out in Delhi, the world now spends $780 billion a year on arms, $400 billion on narcotics, while Europe alone spends $300 billion on alcohol. If there is a will, there can certainly be a way.

Infochange News & Features, February 2010