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CLIMATE CHANGE: 100-Percent Renewables Not a Pipe Dream

Stephen Leahy

KINGSTON, Ontario, Jun 25 2008 (IPS) - North America’s abject failure to meet the challenge of climate change has been “un-American”, environmentalist and scientist David Suzuki told delegates Tuesday at the World Wind Energy Conference, the first ever in the region.

“We’re facing an ecological crisis, a crisis far, far worse than Pearl Harbour,” Suzuki said.

Twenty years ago this week, one of the United States’ leading scientists warned Congress of the imminent danger of climate change and said that waiting decades to take action was too risky. Now James E. Hansen of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has published new research indicating that greenhouse gas concentrations have pushed the climate near a dangerous tipping point that will unleash far-reaching changes in the atmosphere and oceans that could take millennia to reverse.

To prevent a climate crisis, Hansen calls for deep reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, beginning almost immediately, including a phase out of coal-fired power plants by 2030.

A difficult challenge, experts say, but not impossible.

Suzuki reminded delegates that the U.S. responded to the enormous challenge of World War II and to the scientific and technical challenge 50 years ago when the Soviet Union put the first satellite into space, and then the first human. “The U.S. was so far behind, all its rockets were blowing up on their launch pads, but the country didn’t give up,” said Suzuki, a Canadian who attended college in the U.S. during the 1950s.

The U.S. has greatly benefited from that investment in space research many times over with new technologies such as satellites, cell phones, fuel cells, and many others. It also created the atmosphere that led to U.S. supremacy in scientific research. Taking on the climate change challenge would not only reduce the risk to the global climate, it would dramatically reduce dependence on fossil fuel energy, generate hundreds of thousands of new jobs and bring many technological benefits, he said.

And here’s the thing: Germany has already done the heavy lifting in terms of technical research and policy development. More than 14 percent of its energy is renewable, mainly solar and wind with some biomass. By comparison, 3.4 percent of the world’s electricity is renewable. Germany is a growing industrial powerhouse with 85 million people and will get nearly one-third of its electricity from renewable, non-nuclear energy in a decade, said a representative of the German Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.

“Germany has more than 240,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector,” said Hermann Scheer, general chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy, an industry association based in Bonn.

“The two biggest problems the world faces – energy and climate change – can only be solved by renewable energy,” Scheer told IPS.

He is broadly acknowledged as the driving force behind Germany’s renewable revolution. An energy policy expert, Scheer came up with the widely adopted idea of the “feed-in tariff law” that provides guaranteed prices for green energy, and “Scheer’s law”, that enables German households and businesses that generate renewable energy to sell it back to the grid at more than triple the normal market price.

Energy prices will climb as fossil fuels decline but global energy use has increased 50 percent in the last decade. This endangers the global economy and dooms developing world countries to spend all their money on ever-more costly fossil fuels. Scheer notes that energy is the world’s biggest user of water and says it is pure fantasy to think most African countries or other developing countries could build new coal-fired or nuclear power plants because they simply don’t have the water resources.

“Without energy, nothing works so humanity is inevitably headed for an era of bloody conflicts,” Scheer said.

That future can be avoided if governments make renewable energy their first priority. But nearly all believe “the energy lie” that renewables could never provide enough energy.

“It’s entirely possible that a country like Germany have 100 percent renewable energy,” he added. “We have done the studies to prove it.”

Canada could eliminate its fossil fuel dependency by simply installing about four times the number of wind turbines that Germany currently has, said Paul Gipe, a U.S.-based renewable energy expert. “Because of Canada’s large use of hydropower, it could be the first country run entirely on renewable energy,” Gipe told delegates.

That’s not going to happen with the current Canadian government firmly wedded to fossil fuel and the Alberta oil sands development. Canada’s federal government refused to participate or support the wind energy conference. It was up to other countries and institutions, including Germany and the United Nations, to provide funding for delegates from the global South to attend.

“I’m embarrassed and ashamed,” Volker Thomsen, one of the chief conference organisers, told delegates at the opening of the meeting.

Governments fail to vigourously switch over to renewables because the way things are works for them, said Scheer. The extremely powerful fossil fuel lobby also wants no changes so they can continue to profit from their investments in the current energy infrastructure. And that’s why letting the conventional power companies, utilities and experts take charge of renewables will lead to very little change, he warns.

Not only is 100 percent renewable energy possible, it can be done much faster and cheaper than building coal or nuclear power plants, said Scheer. Multi-megawatt wind turbine farms and solar arrays can be up in running in 18 months. But when energy is needed, the first thing most governments want to build are big, expensive power plants.

“The public and renewable energy sector must push governments and push them hard to change this,” Scheer stressed.

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