Loud voices can be heard urging increased investment in green technologies as the way to help world economic recovery.
This sounds good and there can be no doubt that a big demand exists for cleaner and cheaper methods of energy production and consumption, and for a generally greener and more balanced pattern of living and working.
It also chimes with the increasingly urgent warnings from climate scientists and environmentalists that destructive global warming is fast approaching and time for action is running out. Dire predictions have been pouring from the recent global gathering of climate experts at Copenhagen that disaster is on the way. The heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, has also been adding his impassioned voice to this issue, arguing that we have “less than a hundred months to save the planet.”
Unfortunately there are two immediate and substantial obstacles standing in the way of these noble intentions and they are not going to be overcome by prophecies of doom or by visionary appeals, however heartfelt. Nor will there be much progress toward a low-carbon future until they are realistically faced and overcome.
The first of these is that with the world on the edge of economic slump people everywhere are worried about their jobs and their livelihoods and are bound to be less receptive to proposals that they should now shoulder further burdens to stave off catastrophe several decades ahead. The more dismally dogmatic and assertive the experts sound about the future, the less inclined people are to listen while struggling to make ends meet.
For the billions living on the very verge of starvation and wondering how to secure the next meal, this is even more the case. For them a much more compelling and attractive message is required: How to make life a little more secure and easier — and also cheaper — than it now is, and how wise investment and new technology can help them toward that goal. It is a better life they need, not a more expensive one.
The second current obstacle blunting the “save the planet” appeal is that fossil fuel energy — oil, gas and coal — has become relatively cheap, so much so that in economic and commercial terms they still deliver the least costly forms of energy to an energy-hungry world. Many analysts are claiming that this is welcome and that low oil prices may means a shorter recession — a silver lining to the otherwise black economic clouds all around us.
But what cheap oil (and also cheap gas and cheap coal) also mean is that new investments in alternative and higher cost energy sources — in fact in any kind of new energy project — become much less attractive and cost-effective.
This explains why renewable energy projects all round the world are being put on hold, why investors are having second thoughts about big offshore wind farm schemes, why plans for major solar developments are being left on the drawing board and why even plans for nuclear power are being delayed as investors worry when and whether they will ever be competitive or commercial.
It also explains why big new oil development projects are being frozen — in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere — and why smaller oil and gas producers are capping their wells. It means that bold plans for increasing production of oil from tar sands and shale suddenly look dangerously unprofitable.
Even expenditure on using energy more efficiently only looks worthwhile if it is truly low cost and inexpensive; otherwise, goes the feeling, why bother. There are, of course, a number of very cheap ways of conserving energy, through utilizing ground heat and insulation. But it all costs money and money at the moment is very scarce.
Investors in clean energy products have been lining up for bigger government subsidies and tax incentives to bridge the growing gap with conventional fuels. But governments everywhere are already running out of funds and incurring mammoth deficits.
The other route is to raise charges on energy consumption through carbon taxes and other penalties and regulations. But how can governments that want to survive impose these extra burdens and raise energy costs in the current climate? No wonder U.S. President Barack Obama is running into fierce opposition to his plans for extra carbon charges, while in Europe industrialists are determined to resist extra penalties at the very time they are already closing plants. And the last thing ordinary household consumers need just now is bigger energy bills.
It can be correctly argued that this is all a passing short-term phase and that much higher oil and gas prices are bound to return in a few years’ time, making renewables like wind, solar power and wave power economic again. But life is lived in the short term and what people now need is hope and an early prospect of lighter, not heavier, burdens. They want a sweeter cleaner world, but they cannot afford to be further impoverished in the process.
That is what the right new technologies can deliver — lower energy costs, a greener environment and new green products at attractively low prices. This is where investment should be going, even in these hard times, and those who can find the cash to back these genuinely commercial products will in due course make a lot of money.
If the emphasis in stimulating the world’s battered economies now switches to the colossal potential of new technologies and their capacity to create for people a genuinely better, more pleasant and lower cost existence, that will gain appeal during the recession and help lift efforts all round to build, and adapt to, a greener future.
But if those in authority think they can sway people in their present plight by doom-laden warnings and by scares and threats of more restrictions and taxes, then they are gravely mistaken and doing no service to the planet.
David Howell is a former British Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a member of the House of Lords. (www.lordhowell.com)
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