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.