Published in the Telegraph-Journal 23rd October 2012
There exists a paradox at the center of efforts to deal with global warming that is directly related to how quickly policymakers limit greenhouse gases. If policymakers limit greenhouse gases too quickly, the price of power – electricity and fossil fuels – will rise precipitously, causing competitiveness challenges in industry potentially leading to unemployment and triggering a political backlash from the public. However, if policymakers limit greenhouse gases too slowly, clean energy alternatives cannot become cost-competitive with fossil fuels in time to prevent disastrous global warming.
Remarkably, no country has developed a comprehensive energy policy to prepare for the inevitable global warming crisis. Expressions such as sustainable energy, the “green revolution” and the “green economy” gave the appearance that a global movement to end the reliance on fossil fuels finally was under way. Alternative energy was identified as one of the world’s emerging economic growth engines. Over the last ten years, significant investment has gone into alternative energy including wind power, tidal power, solar power and electric vehicles in an attempt to build a bridge to a fossil-fuel-free future.
What happened to the green economy? The initial optimism has been diluted by a number of factors. Alternative energy has turned out to be more expensive than initially calculated. Developing enough of it to provide widespread power has proven stubbornly difficult. The technologies themselves have not responded to investment in ways that were initially anticipated and breakthrough innovations have been few and far between. We have discovered no Moore’s Law for alternative energy technologies.
The 2007-2009 financial crisis placed many alternative energy projects on hold, especially if they required substantial government funding. Further, the crisis precipitated a global economic recession from which many nations have not yet recovered. Renewable energy has not been exempt from the phenomenon of dampened investment.
This global economic weakening was reflected in the retrenchment of many nations away from an ambitious and expansive consensus solution to global warming. The commitment to renewable energy, especially wind and solar power, as the primary means of cutting carbon emissions began to wane. This decreased commitment occurred at the same time that multilateral treaties and regulatory regimes failed to provide the institutional foundations that the green movement needed.
The 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster instantly altered the discussion on energy policy and suddenly nuclear power was written out of the equation. This was a huge blow to the potential success for the sustainable energy movement which held that nuclear energy was at the forefront of an paradigm shift toward a truly sustainable, low-carbon energy future. There had always been a strong anti-nuclear sentiment that was suspicious of what it considered government and industry mythology about nuclear safety. The Fukushima incident converted this suspicion into widespread anti-nuclear sentiment that quickly spread to Germany, Spain, Italy, Taiwan and the United States.
This shift from exuberant confidence in an easy and effortless bridge from our current reliance on fossil fuels to renewable sustainable energy to a darker and more pessimistic vision for energy has had profound consequences. The United States, after demonstrating initial support and enthusiasm for a paradigmatic shift in the future of energy, now favours a more incremental approach to transitioning from dirty – and foreign – fossil fuels to renewable energy. The most obvious element of this approach has been support for shale gas.
Many Americans stress that because energy innovation takes a long time, the U.S. must keep investing in its energy future. Energy innovation will mean replacements not only for coal, conventional oil and gas but shale gas as well. For these replacements to be successful, they should allow policymakers to limit greenhouse gases quickly enough to have a favourable effect but not so quickly to place excessive stress on an already weakened economy. The chief uncertainty is whether there will be enough public support for these incremental measures to succeed.