Angers that seemed exaggerated and distant even a decade ago -- global warming, ozone depletion, desertification and even extreme weather conditions -- are now at our doorstep.
Even if we stop burning coal, oil and natural gas right now, the world would still continue to get warmer. Stabilising emissions does not stabilise climate, as long as the gases keep rising, even at current rates. So we need to reduce emissions 1% to 2% per year. If we don't start now, we will have to cut 3% to 4% per year, which would be even more daunting, says atmospheric physicist Michael Oppenheimer, Professor, Department of Geosciences at Princeton University.
So how do we strike a balance? The world has been awaiting a dramatic green revolution where countries and individuals begin to change their ways of doing business and change their lifestyles to become more environment friendly and more considerate of the well-being of the planet. However, that has not motivated governments to enter into binding international agreements to address the problem.
Fortunately, the failure of the governments has not rubbed off on the passion and enterprise of individuals and indeed some corporations to envision a greener future. Countries like India and China have always argued that it is the advanced economies that must do more to mitigate climate change. Developing countries, still in the catch-up mode, cannot afford to sacrifice the quest for growth by going green at any cost. There is no waste in the natural system: the same materials have been recycled for billions of years. All we have to do is to relearn the lessons. 'Greenovators' can motivate banks, financial institutions and venture capitalists to put more money into interesting new green ideas. Let us see some examples.
Swiss semiconductor maker ST Microelectronics has saved more than $60 million by cutting its energy usage and $20 million by reducing water consumption below baselines set in 1994. The company issued some environmental goals and empowered its divisions to become creative: the responses include using solar power and finding ways to recycle water. Cargill Dow is manufacturing biodegradable and recyclable plastics from corn sugars. McDonalds, it is learnt, has stopped buying chicken treated with “Cipro-like antibiotics,” and Nike has begun stripping toxins from its shoes.
The key to sustainability is to make the market work for, and not against, the environment. British Oil giant, BP decided in 1997 to reduce its carbon emission by 10% below 1990 levels. In the year 2001 a report by Baxter International, a medical products maker, detailed how reductions in energy, water use, improved wastes disposal and recycling over the past seven years cut costs by $53 million
Experts say wind could provide up to one fifth of world demand of electricity within the next 15 years. The UK government is legally committed to delivering 15% of its energy demand from renewables by 2020. As of 2014, Denmark is generating around 40% of its electricity from wind. But surprisingly, fossil fuel subsidies reached $500 billion globally in 2011 whereas renewable energy subsidies reached $88 billion in the same year. There is no disputing that some energy subsidies counter the goal of sustainable development, as they may lead to higher consumption and waste, exacerbating the harmful effects of energy use on the environment, creating a heavy burden on government finances and weakening the potential for economies to grow.
How soon we reach an era of clean, inexhaustible energy depends on technology. Solar and wind energies are intermittent: when the sky is cloudy or the breeze dies down, fossil fuel or nuclear plants must kick in to compensate. Current from wind, solar or geothermal energy can be used to extract hydrogen from water molecules. In the future, hydrogen can be stored in tanks, and when energy is needed, the gas could be run through a fuel cell, a device that combines hydrogen with oxygen. The result: pollution-free electricity, with water as the only by-product.
Renewable sources can help, from village-scale hydropower to household photovoltaic system to bio-gas stoves that convert dung into fuel. The cost of solar photovoltaics (pv) fell by 50% in recent times, which means that large scale solar electricity is increasingly within our grasp. More than a million rural homes in developing countries get electricity from solar cells. At present, 65,000 solar systems are being installed every month in Bangladesh, and about 3.5 million homes are already using solar energy.
Ultimately, we can meet our energy needs without fouling the environment. “But it won't happen without the political will,” asserts Thomas B. Johanssson, former advisor of UNDP and Professor and Director of Energy Systems at Lund university, Sweden. To begin with, widespread government subsidies for fossil fuel and nuclear energy --estimated at $500 billion per year -- must be dismantled to level the playing field for renewable sources.
On the road to enlightened energy policy, a few countries offer models of reform. More than a decade ago, Denmark required utilities to purchase any available renewable energy and pay a premium price, and today the country gets 40% of its electricity from wind. Germany and Spain have enacted incentives for renewables. India is now the globe's fifth largest generator of wind power. As of March 2014, the installed capacity of wind power in India was 21,136 MW. At the same time, surpassing 20,000 MW of solar power by 2022 that the past government in India wanted to achieve, the present government is trying to add 10,000 MW of solar power target every year.
Global energy demand is expected to triple by the middle of this century. The earth is unlikely to run out of fossil fuels by then, given its vast reserves of coal, but it seems unthinkable that we will continue to use them as we do now because of the potential threat to environment. The world has gradually moved toward cleaner fuels -- from wood to coal, from coal to oil, and from oil to natural gas. Renewable energy sources are the next step.
The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star.