Unlike the US and China, the reaction of most European countries to the crisis has been to issue stimulus programmes focusing on traditional industries like car makers, power utilities and perhaps foremost banks, many of which are in fact the main originators of current global environmental problems. This clearly is a lost chance to engage with new, sustainable economic models. In fact, we owe this missed chance to the lobbyist armies of established industries and the reluctant conservative politicians of EU member states who still refuse to accept the challenges posed in today’s world.
Germany is a good example of this trend. Despite its miraculously progressive development of the renewable energy sector since 1999, Germany has opted to counter the crisis by supporting classical industries. Parallel to this, lobbyists for conservative energy industries are seeking to take the lead again, pushing for the next generation of coal and nuclear baseload power plants. This is in sharp contrast to the first boom of the renewable sector in the country.
For decades, power utilities all around Europe and the world have been lobbying for specific power business issues and politicians have been naÃ¯vely following their arguments and policies. This is even though 50% of the European energy demand is for heating and cooling, a sector which has been kept out of the energy discussions so far. The consequence is that energy policies revolve around power issues, which account for just 20% of European energy consumption and CO2 emissions. It is, however, obvious we are not going to solve energy problems by only addressing a reletively small fraction of the energy pie chart!
The year 2009 ended with the ‘Hopenhagen’ Conference that will probably be viewed by historians as the greatest failure of climate politics. Since 1992, politicians have taken to the habit of postponing concrete measures against climate change to the next conference. Although important financial promises were made in Denmark, ‘Hopenhagen’ made no significant difference as it voted once more for the delay of vital decisions. Again, the logic of national egotism, stingy haggling and short-sighted ignorance prevailed.
But there is also hope, since financial markets teach us that reaching the bottom often means standing at the beginning of the next upswing. Most of us would bet the next ‘real’ economic boom will belong to renewable energies, provided global economics are not taken hostage again by irresponsible bankers, preventing emerging green industries from becoming healthy businesses. Nonetheless, looking at the end of the new millenium’s first decade we must admit that all the main statistical curves related to consumption persist in rising sharply. And, it still seems that despite mounting evidence societies will only adjust their behaviour significantly in the face of huge catastrophic events, seemingly unable to prevent them beforehand.
Lessons learned from Copenhagen
With renewable energies providing power and heat by the gigawatt today, the renewable energy industry is already in a much better position than most conservative policy makers would care to admit. Following climate conferences should therefore look less obsessively at the problem itself but rather at its solution. Policies restricting CO2 emissions are much less popular than policies that roll out renewable energy infrastructures. This trend is clearly visible in countries such as Germany, which set many inspiring examples, spurring a motivating climate of positive competition and international partnership.
Besides many procedural modifications which are clearly necessary following Copenhagen, the psychology of climate conferences must also change. Our policy leaders need to switch from a perception of crisis, to one of opportunity. The progressive, optimistic and straightforward approach which led renewable industries to providing sustainable energies is proof of feasibility and a perfect example of the type of spirit which needs to be spread. While mitigating climate change, these industries already demonstrate their ability to substitute the fossil and nuclear energy base, thereby creating jobs and improving energy security, as well as welfare.
If global civilisations want to avert the looming energy and climate crisis in time, then all societal forces need now to be convinced, entrained and practically involved in the sustainable energy vision. The concept of sustainable energy infrastructure has to be vigorously pushed through now.
It is therefore up to progressive politicians, industries and civil societies to convince irresolute conservative capitalists and other doubters of the tremendous potential that is in reach. Inspired by the rapid and successful deployment of renewable energies in Germany and Spain, a growing number of national governments are begining to put the necessary framework conditions in place which will allow renewable energies to quickly take up and unfold their potential. The alternative to investing in a green energy revolution is the much higher cost of climate change.
I do not personally believe the ‘invisible hand’ of the market will solve problems, for this hand is influenced much more by individual profit maximisation than by public welfare. Sustainable development for the global community’s welfare needs a strong and visible public hand that sets the rules, milestones and targets, steering the course towards a sustainable growth path that will secure and evolve our global civilisation.
With a great majority of people in most countries clearly stating that solar energy would be their first choice and that renewable energies are clearly preferred to fossil or nuclear options if made available, the big question is how to transform this overwhelming approval into a worldwide new energy culture.
It will not be achieved by merely informing people about climate, energy and environment problems and asking them to change their lifestyles by limiting consumption, for that is not how the human psyche works: People want to live comfortable lives and they have a tendency to avoid or fade out depressing information. But most people who experience renewable energies are fully convinced and very enthusiastic about the contribution they can make to the environment.
Once governments set the right framework conditions, it is quite easy to activate the demand that leads to adopting these new energies, as can be seen with the sensational successes of PV and wind energy in Europe, and Germany in particular.
Instead of spending billions and trillions on decadent industries in need of restructuring, it is time we massively invested in R&D for renewable energies as well as supplying broad information and running demand activation campaigns that can spur enthusiasm and trigger green investment. In Europe, we are presently developing an EU-wide campaign worth €500 million in communication performance that can generate a sectoral turnover of €10 billion on renewable energies and energy efficiency – a return of 2000%. This is also where significant shares of today’s stimulus packages should be invested, because these funds help to quickly and efficiently create a green global economic boom and sustainable business for the long run.
Today, the industrialised world holds the key to triggering this boom, not only because it posseses the financial means and skills to do so, but also because it created most of the problems and thus has an obligation to act for improvement.
Olivier Drücke is president of the European Solar Thermal Industry Federation (ESTIF). e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org