A story that didn't get nearly enough attention this past week was the 900-page report on renewable energy that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released Monday in Abu Dhabi.
To summarize the Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation's conclusions: With an investment of only 1 percent of global gross domestic product, 80 percent of our electricity could be provided by renewable sources in 2050.
That 1 percent doesn't make it cheap. We're talking a $5 trillion worldwide investment in the next decade. And then $7 trillion in the decade after that. The Schwartzman brothers, who published A Solar Transition Is Possible earlier this year, are among many who have been saying for a long time what the IPCC report says. As Amitabh Pal reminded us yesterday, another of those far-sighted people is Mark Hertzgaard, who, in 2000, wrote:
“The way to start, I believe, is for the United States to launch a Global Green Deal: a program to retrofit civilization environmentally from top to bottom--and in the process create the biggest jobs and business stimulus program of our time. Making use of both market incentives and government leadership, a Global Green Deal would do for environmental technologies in the twenty-first century what government and industry have done so well for computer and Internet technologies at the end of the twentieth: launch their commercial takeoff.”
Sven Teske, renewable energy director at Greenpeace International, and a lead author of the IPCC report, told The Guardian:
"This is an invitation to governments to initiate a radical overhaul of their policies and place renewable energy centre stage. On the run up to the next major climate conference, COP17 in South Africa in December, the onus is clearly on governments to step up to the mark. ...
"The IPCC report shows overwhelming scientific evidence that renewable energy can also meet the growing demand of developing countries, where over 2 billion people lack access to basic energy services and can do so at a more cost-competitive and faster rate than conventional energy sources. Governments have to kick start the energy revolution by implementing renewable energy laws across the globe."
Despite the claims of the fantasylanders who think climate change is a hoax and the IPCC an extremist organization, it is in fact quite conservative. The WWF's relatively recent Energy Report shows a path that could have us getting 100 percent of our electricity from renewables by 2050. I say, push for 100 percent, be happy with 80 percent.
Making the switch is doable technically and financially. But politically is another matter. Back in 1978, when I was barely into my 30s and working at the Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewables Energy Laboratory), we had dreams like that found in the IPCC report. I thought that by the time I would be, well, the age I am now, the electrical grid would be running mostly on solar, wind and geothermal and some more exotic sources of energy.
Alas, politics intervened. We didn't have the Kochtopus working against us in those days. But the impact of those who opposed a switch in the U.S. approach to energy were still plenty powerful. Their spokesperson was Ronald Reagan, who parroted the line that people (like us) who supported a concerted drive for conservation, efficiency and the widespread use of renewables just wanted everybody to "freeze to death in the dark." He gutted the "soft side" of SERI and I lost my job along with scores of my colleagues. From then forward, U.S. government policy has behaved pretty much as if there is no tomorrow when it comes to energy other than continued reliance on fossil fuels. And as we see every day, politics still stands in the path of energy sanity.
If the world were to wise up and adopt the IPCC approach, WWF's approach, a Global Green Deal approach, and the 40-year objective were met, I might still be around—the number of centenarians is on the rise, after all—to see that renewably-powered world. There are some alternatives that, frankly, I don't want to be alive to see.