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OPINION: climate change is only possible with cheap renewable energy

Let me begin by asking some simple questions. Without economic growth, what is the hope for development? Is it still possible?

Without development, there would be persistent inequality, leading to upheaval and even conflict and militancy. If the international climate change process calls only for cuts in global emissions, without addressing the development dimension, it would be a recipe for a fight. But there is a way to integrate the climate and development agendas, namely, by focusing on renewable energy. The answer is very simple.

In order to achieve climate and development goals together, you have to find a way to bring down the cost of alternative energy. You have to make renewable energy both affordable and competitive. Once this happens, emissions will begin to come down on their own. Everyone knows that the future is renewable energy, even if it is too costly today. Instead of asking how to afford something that is too expensive, we need to ask how to make it affordable. This is like turning a corner and seeing the world before you. Once you turn the corner, the solution to climate change will emerge automatically.

I work in the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), which produces an annual report called the World Economic and Social Survey (WESS). In 2009 the WESS report used this framework to integrate climate and development, and demonstrated that the costs of renewable energy could be brought down to affordable levels within a decade through a coordinated global plan. Several countries are acting in ways that contribute to this result, although to my knowledge China is the only country that has consciously adopted the cost reduction target. Specifically, their plans are to make renewable energy competitive with fossil fuels in five years!

I am happy to note that this cost-based framework was also used by the IPCC in its recent report, the Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN).

I will quote some numbers for you. No matter how many times I repeat them, I still find them to be amazing. Global total energy consumption comes to 55 Units (kilowatt hours) per person per day, but it is distributed unequally. The European average is around 120, for the US it is 246, for Pakistan or India it is only about 16-18, and in Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa), it is even lower (about 10-12). Think how amazing this is. If a person works for a full 8 hour day, they produce a bit more than half a Unit of energy. It is as if every European had about 200 energy slaves working for them, and every American had about 350. Even we poor South Asians have about 30 energy slaves working day and night for us.

How did we get so many slaves? About 200 years ago, Europe discovered how to access huge amounts of concentrated energy in the form of coal. A century later, Americans discovered how to access petroleum. The result is the industrial revolution, not only greater productivity, but also advances in health, social welfare, and human development. But the task is still incomplete.

Developing countries are poor and have low levels of human development because they do not have access to energy services. We need more energy for development, for industry, for transport, for buildings, but also for such basic necessities as clean drinking water and wastewater treatment. Right now the only cheap form of energy comes from fossil fuels. But even this conventional energy is already too expensive for the poorest, and will become even more expensive in the future.

If you want development on a global scale, you need abundant energy. In the future, this will only come from renewables. But today renewable energy is expensive. Its costs need to be brought down – from as much as 30 rupees per unit to 3 or 4 rupees per unit. The good news is that this can be done! If the world community were to treat this as a common goal, they could achieve it in 10 years. Think of what this means for developing countries. A source of energy that is non-polluting, affordable, and abundant!

Tariq Banuri is the Director of the Division for Sustainable Development at the United Nations headquarters in New York. He has PhD in economics from Harvard University and was formerly the founding director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) based in Islamabad.



Image courtesy of Barefoot Doctors.

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3 responses to “OPINION: climate change is only possible with cheap renewable energy”

  1. Fouad Khan says:

    Having bumped into a same glass wall twice, even a Basset Hound will change its direction.

    But not these Harvard economists, no. Bred and raised in the cult of ‘perpetual-growth’, they continue to keep praying at the altar of the “invisible hand”, insisting that the miracle of innovation will save us. You just wait and see, keep dumping more of earth’s precious dwindling resources into pipedreams of an economic-status-quo-powered-by-alternate-energy, and that Mr. Godot, he’ll eventually show up.

    Well guess what, he’s not coming. Neither is any other God from Machine. The truth of the matter is, in the post peak oil era of dwindling natural resources, no combination of alternative energy schemes will be able to sustain the exponential growth of human consumption jamboree. I study and model microbiological population growths and to me or anyone else in the field the parallels are obvious. Our meteoric rise as a species was dependent upon our discovery of the genie of fossil fuel to serve us in every facet of our civilization from food production to transatlantic flight. As the supply of this crucial resource wanes, the operations our civilization will have to come to terms with a contraction. The contraction won’t disappear, despite the numerical abracadabra of umpteen Ivy League economists. We’d either accept its inevitability, prepare for it and save whatever worth’s saving in our civilization, or would find ourselves in a world of pain.

    The reason renewable energy technologies have not really caught on is because of their consistently high (Energy Return on Energy Input) EROEI. Further, widespread adoption of renewable technologies which even are energy positive, will require extensive consumption of resources such as plastic (hydrocarbons again) and water, not to mention many rare metals, all of which are in short supply.

    We’d simply have to come to terms with the fact that perpetual-growth is not possible in a finite system, which is what earth is. The fossil fuel growth fiesta is over.

    Top down implementation of technologies through economic manipulation doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked in the past and it won’t work here. Besides, it’s fascistic and unsustainable.

    While it is true that we might have to direct our remaining resources towards stabilizing as much of a renewable energy economy as possible, the true focus must be on re-organizing society along new paradigms. Embracing a fractal structure of growth instead the exponential growth we’ve become addicted to as a species, imagining walkable communities and smaller cities designed for human beings, not for cars, and shattering false idols such as market-fundamentalism and perpetual-growth.

    But of course trying to explain that to an economist would be like trying to explain science to a mullah.

  2. Tanveer Arif says:

    Nice blog. No doubt cheap clean energy is the essential for plant’s help and manufacturing countries need to pump heavy subsidies in clean energy system. Also let,s start from putting our house in order and remove all barriers in terms of import charges, port clearance charges, jugglery by customs, sales tax, GST etc. to make it affordable for common people.

  3. You’ve got great insights about energy, keep up the good work!