Beyond the Oiloholic Society

Ross Gelbspan, 12/22/2003

'Rewiring' The World's Energy

By Ross Gelbspan

December 21, 2003, The Boston Globe

CLIMATE CHANGE isn't just another issue in this complicated world of proliferating issues. It's the issue that — unchecked — will swamp all others. Unfortunately, the urgency of the climate crisis is overwhelmed by competition from other major problems. We are under attack from terrorists. We are apprehensive about the aftermath of the Iraq war. Our trick-or-treat economy is as unnerving to investors as it is cruel to workers. These diverse challenges may be susceptible to a common solution — a rapid worldwide transition to clean energy.

A clean energy revolution would reduce our dependence on oil and our exposure to the political volatility in the Middle East. Conversely, since it generates a quarter of the world's carbon emissions, America's continuing indifference will likely guarantee more attacks from people whose crops are destroyed by weather extremes, whose homelands are going under from rising seas and whose borders are overrun by environmental refugees, according to the head of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri.

Any meaningful deterrent to anti-US terrorism requires a major change in our posture toward developing countries. Energy investments in poor countries generate far more wealth and jobs than equivalent investments in other sectors. Transferring clean energy to poor countries would begin to address the economic desperation that fuels most anti-US sentiment. A public works program to rewire the globe with clean energy would accelerate economic development around the world.

Our coal and oil burning attack the systems that have made this planet hospitable for 10,000 years. We are heating the deep oceans, melting ice caps, triggering a wave of chaotic weather, and changing the timing of the seasons. We are living on an increasingly narrow margin of stability. Nature's non-negotiable demand requires humanity cut its use of carbon fuels by 70 percent in a very short time, according to more than 2,000 scientists reporting to the UN panel.

One approach involves three interactive policies which, while cutting emissions, would simultaneously create millions of jobs around the world:

Redirect energy subsidies in industrial nations. The United States spends $20 billion a year to subsidize coal and oil; industrial countries overall spend about $200 billion. If those subsidies were phased out and equivalent subsidies created for renewable energy sources, oil companies would use them to retool and retrain their workers to become aggressive developers of fuel cells, wind farms, and solar systems.

Create a fund of $300 billion a year to transfer clean energy to poor countries. Virtually all developing countries would love to go solar; virtually none can afford it. The fund could come from a small tax on international currency transactions, which total $1.5 trillion every day. A tax of a quarter-penny-per-dollar on those transactions would yield about $300 billion a year for windfarms in India, solar assemblies in El Salvador, fuel cell factories in South Africa, and vast solar-powered hydrogen farms in the Middle East.

Alternatively, financing could involve a carbon tax in industrial countries or a tax on airline travel.

Establish a binding fossil fuel efficiency standard that rises 5 percent per year. Starting at its current baseline, each country would raise its carbon efficiency 5 percent — producing the same amount next year with 5 percent less carbon fuel or 5 percent more with the same amount of carbon fuel — until the 70 percent reduction was attained.

Because no economy grows at 5 percent for long, emissions reductions would outpace economic growth. Domestic emissions trading could help countries meet the progressively more stringent goal. Nations would initially meet the goal through low-cost efficiency measures. When those cheap efficiencies become exhausted, countries would meet the rising efficiency goal by drawing progressively more energy from non- carbon sources. That, in turn, would create mass markets for renewables that would lower their costs and make them economically competitive with fossil fuels.

A plan of this type would propel the metamorphosis of oil companies into energy companies. The progressive efficiency standard would make renewable energy a central engine of global economic growth. Competition for the new $300 billion a year market in clean energy would power the process.

A real solution to climate change has the potential to begin to mend a fractured world.

[Ross Gelbspan is author of "The Heat Is on: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, the Prescription" and the forthcoming "Fevered Planet.]"

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