OECD Forum 2010: Green growth and energy

Did you know that the 8 million people in New York use as much electricity as the 800 million in sub-Saharan Africa ?

That statistic was quoted during this afternoon’s session on energy by IEA chief economist Fatih Birol in support of his argument that even without climate change, there is a strong case for renewable and alternative energies. Birol was replying to Cecilia Tortajada, Vice-President, Third World Centre for Water Management, who asked if it was time for a change of discourse, given the criticisms of climate change science recently.

Birol also vigorously rejected the criticisms, saying that practically every scientist in the world working on the issue accepted that there was an anthropogenic element in present climate trends. Session moderator Peter Kemp Editorial Director of UK based Energy Intelligence, agreed, saying the attacks on the science were politically motivated.

Birol’s main point was that in developing countries, it would take too long and cost too much to link up the 1.5 billion people who don’t have access to mains power. Alternatives such as solar could transform people’s lives.

He pointed out something that we discuss in Chapter 3 of the Insights book on sustainable development: electricity means your day lasts longer, and brings numerous development benefits, ranging from making it easier for kids to do their homework and business to work later to reducing air pollution and the eye and respiratory diseases it causes.

Alternatives and renewables have potential benefits in developed countries too, improving energy security and providing a substitute for the inevitable day when the oil runs out.

They’re not the only option though. The panellists seemed to agree that nuclear would play an important role in the future energy mix, but so would better energy efficiency.

There was optimism and pessimism regarding how the situation had changed since last year’s Forum.

On the downside, Copenhagen failed to live up to its promise; a global gas glut means that renewables are less attractive; and strong demand for renewables relies on strong expansion in demand – and that’s not happening because of the recession.

On the bright side, prices of photovoltaics have dropped significantly; second generation biofuels are gaining momentum; and many stimulus packages include a green growth element.

Ten trillion well spent

The IEA has a message for all the negotiators in Copenhagen: keep on doing things the way we’re doing them now and catastrophe is just around the corner. That’s the stark conclusion from the latest World Energy Outlook, released in London on 10 November. “Continuation of current trends in energy use puts the world on track for a rise in temperature of up to 6°C and poses serious threats to global energy security” according to the IEA.
The reference scenario sees demand increasing by 40% between now and 2030, and pollution would worsen, with fossil fuels accounting for over three-quarters of the extra demand. The good news is that it would only take $10.5 trillion over the next 20 years to keep the temperature rise below 2°C.
If that sounds exorbitant even in these days of trillion dollar financial rescue packages, the IEA calculated that energy bills in transport, buildings and industry alone would be reduced by $8.6 trillion. And in addition to avoiding severe climate change, this cost would also be offset by other economic, health and energy-security benefits.