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Commentary :: Environment
Time for a Revolution
05 Mar 2007
This is the time for a revolution, not for half-hearted actions, said retiring French president Jacques chirac. Despite higher prices, energy still has an aura of inexhaustibility. Renewable energy has an 18% share in worldwide electricity production.

By Philip Bethge and Christian West

[This article is translated from the German in: Der Spiegel 7/2007, February 2007.]

Did you take a shower today? Did you drink coffee, leave the house and drive to work in a car? Did you book a flight for your next vacation?

Never did so many people have it so good. Over a tenth of the world’s population has a car and four billion have electricity. Since people inhabited the earth, growing prosperity has been the goal of civilization. Prosperity is measurable. Its currency is energy.

Humanity uses up ten million tons of crude oil every day, 12.5 million tons of hard coal and 7.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas – accompanied by the creeping certainty that the supplies will run out in several decades. The evidentiary situation is overpowering since the report of the World Climate Council (IPCC) on February 2. The energy hunger of humanity changes spaceship earth in a way unparalleled in history.

The temperature on earth could increase up to 6.4 degrees by the year 2100 and the ocean could rise up to 59 centimeters, climate experts predict. The explosiveness of the report is not in the prognoses themselves that are hardly different from the predictions of the last IPCC report of 2001. The certainty with which the researchers identify the perpetrators of misery is explosive.

“February 2 will be that date in history when the uncertainty was removed whether people are involved with climate change on this planet,” says Achim Steiner, head of the environmental program of the United Nations. According to the diagnosis of the scholars, the globe is overheated because carbon dioxide gushes out of 800 million auto exhausts, because power plants worldwide blow out additional billions of tons of greenhouse gases and because thousands of hectares of rainforests are burned off hourly to create room for soy- or palm oil plantations. As with the roof of a greenhouse, released carbon dioxide lies around the earth because of the combustion.

Melting, glaciers and ice caps are the results; devastating droughts, plagues and storms threaten. Natural disasters like those in Jakarta in which 340,000 people lost their homes after the powerful monsoon rains to floods of brown water are first signs of catastrophe.

“This is not the time for half-hearted actions. It is time for a revolution,” retiring French president Jacques Chirac declared after the publication of the IPCC report. Chirac urged a “great international mobilization against the ecological crisis and for an environmentally friendly growth.” The consequence from the increasing temperature curve of the planet must be far more radical than political declarations of intent and the call for new UN groups.

That economic branch that is the basis of every industrial society must radically change. Only a comprehensive energy turn can break the climate change. The political leaders of the world know present energy policy cannot secure our energy future in a sustainable way,” notes Claude Mandl, head of the international energy agency in Paris in a recent book on the theme. [Jurgen Peterman (ed), “Sichere Energie im 21, Jahrhundert,” Verlag Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg 498 pages, 25 euro]

One-and-a=half million years ago, humans started the great energetic experiment by taming fire. Then in antiquity, muscular humans forged swords and plowshares over coal fires. In the 19th century, oil began to fuel the human civilization process.

The whole cosmos is now involved. Turning away from fossil energy is on the agenda if humans want to continue their triumphant advance on the earth. Reconditioning the energy supply to a sustainable energy economy is overdue. Not only global warming forces this reconditioning. For a long time, climate change and the scarcity of world petroleum and natural gas reserves have combed into a vast epochal challenge.

The reorganization has already begun. Windmills or wind turbines with an output of nearly 170 megawatts rotate at the coast of the Danish island Lolland. In southern Spain, a consortium with German participation is building the largest solar thermal power plant in the world. With the help of thousands of shining parabolic reflectors, Andasol 1 will provide enough electricity for 200,000 people. The demand for biosprit already makes some farmers in the Midwest of the US very rich.

“The worldwide energy economy has reached a crossroads,” declared Peter Hennicke, president of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. If the world continues as in the past, the EU-research commissioner Janez Potodnik predicts, carbon dioxide emissions will grow over two-thirds by 2050. EU experts expect a doubling of the price of oil to $110 per barrel. The reason is that 6.5 billion people are now living on earth. In 2030 thee will probably be 8.2 billion. Humanity will need 53 percent more energy than today, the OECD estimates. The electricity demand will double.

On the other hand, the moment for reorganization is favorable. In many industrial countries, a renewal of the capacities is overdue. $5.2 trillion must be invested worldwide up to 2030 to modernize power plants and build new ones.

What forms of energy could reconcile the global power swaggering with the climate protection goals? How can the huge energy hunger of threshold countries like China and India be satisfied without further damage to the eco-sphere? Will it be ultimately possible for everyone to have everything at the end or is a new discussion about the limits of growth overdue?

For decades, the inhabitants of the western world have dealt carelessly and wastefully with resources. A change of their conduct is not in sight. Why is this? Despite higher prices, energy still has the aura of inexhaustibility. Electricity comes from the wall socket and gas from the fuel pump. At the end, the 20thcentury could go down in history books as a golden age, that age when an abundance of energy was available and people enjoyed a historically unparalleled prosperity at least in industrial nations.

In contrast, the beginning of the 21st century will be remembered as an epoch of new orientations (Weichenstellung). If the energy turn fails, the decline of prosperity will be inevitable. Three camps face each other in the conflict over the future: hardliners who want to produce energy as before from oil, gas and uranium; moderates who seek to keep all options open and a school of the “soft path” that turns from fossil-nuclear concepts and sees the future in renewable energies and greater energy efficiency.

For a long time, only a few states pretended to be uncompromisingly green in which a high development state is combined with low population density. Thanks to skilful utilization of forests, Sweden rich in forests will manage completely without petroleum from year 2020.

In contrast, the most distinguished representative of fossil hardliners is Russia on account of its enormous resource wealth. Russia’s oil production is comparable to Saudi Arabia and its natural gas reserves are by far the earth’s largest. These fossil fuels give the Kremlin a position of power exploited ever more self-confidently by the authoritarian Putin regime. Billions flow into the pipeline infrastructure. No one has an interest in regenerative eco-technology.

Most European countries take the middle way of the coexistence of fossil and regenerative sources of energy. Hardly anything will have more far-reaching importance for the future of the planet than the question whether the growth-giant China will also soon move into this camp.

Sheer distress could force the land of the middle to a sustainable energy mix. The explosive industrialization has triggered an energy hunger that can only be stilled with conventional means at the cost of acute eco-catastrophes. For the time being, China mainly uses coal as a food for growth. In 2006, new coal power plants went on line that are greater than the whole capacity of Great Britain. Further development at the same speed would be a final blow against the climate and the air. The rust clouds from mega-Chinese facilities are measurable over California and Europe.

Although a signatory of the Kyoto protocol, China does not feel obliged to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions fixed in that agreement. Even without concern about the world climate, the suffering pressure through its native environment debacle – 16 of the 20 dirtiest cities of the world are in China – could soon accelerate a change in strategy of the government in Peking. In a few years ten percent of Chinese electricity will come from renewable sources of energy. More than $150 billion may flow into this development according to estimates of Deutschen Bank.

China could follow a global development that has already gained vast popularity. Renewable energy currently has an 18 percent share in worldwide electricity production, which is more than nuclear power. In 2003, worldwide regenerative investments exceeded the mark of $20 billion. In several years, the market could reach an annual sales volume of $85 billion.

What about Germany? Germany is a world leader in investing in renewable energy. No country gains as much electricity from wind as Germany. Nearly every fifth windmill worldwide comes from a German factory. Foreign investors are going all out for the Hamburg wind power firm Repower. The Indian firm Suzlon and the French nuclear conglomerate Areva are interested.

Experts like US economist Adam Posen believe Germany could play an important role “through innovations and the power of example” in leading the world community into a new climate-sparing energy age.

The problem is that Germans have acted far less exemplary. Germany is in no way a trailblazer in climate policy, EU commissioner Stauros Dimas rants and raves. That “deeds follow the beautiful speeches” is urgently necessary.

Dimas is right. Despite the renewal energy law, the German energy turn has long neglected something essential: optimization of efficiency. The individual German still consumes far too much energy.

The prosperity of every German citizen ruins the biosphere to an extent that makes the reputation of Germany, as eco-world master seem absurd. Every driver license owner in Germany uses up almost a thousand liters of gasoline per year. Energy-saving electric light bulbs and three-liter cars are among the most berated excesses of the modern age in Germany. Chancellor Merkel only seems to want a verbal change. Speed limits on the German autobahn? Not with Merkel. A uniform CO2 limit for new cars as now demanded by Brussels? Defused on pressure of the chancellor.

One dilemma of the energy debate is revealed here. No form of energy will correct the temperature curve of the planet downward without a rethinking of consumers in industrial nations. The world groans under the consequences of a wasteful western lifestyle that has long threatened to become the global model.

“Billions of people who do not have access to electricity today all want to live as civilized as us,” says the environment- and energy expert Fritz Wahrenholt, head of Repower: drive a Porsche, have a heated swimming pool in their garden and regularly fly to the Maldives. These are the insignia of the western brand of capitalism. Whether the mortals are ready to limit themselves only because scientists conjure a climate apocalypse in the near future is one of the greatest uncertainties in global energy calculation.

What must be done to introduce the long overdue energy turn? “Is a crisis necessary to bring people to a new path or can they react to a gradual growth in knowledge?” asked Ralph Cicerone, president of the US National Academy of Sciences and co-author of the new IPCC report.

We do not have much time – since every decision for a large-scale power plant needs new billions in capital for 30 to 60 years. That is the time period in which energy suppliers calculate. Firstly, changing the present energy structure with its mega-power plants and power lines to a sustainable, efficient and decentralized supply.

Secondly, the experts agree the world needs a new consciousness about how much energy is wasted and evaporates unused. “Energy saving through efficient use is the fastest and most economical solution for nearly all energy-related problems,” says the Wuppertal researcher Hennicke. With existing technologies, the primary energy requirement in Germany could be reduced up to 40 percent “even with increased economic output,”

“Climate change is a chance,” the energy expert says. He sees Germany as an “innovation engine.” New technologies for higher efficiency and for environment-friendly electricity production could greatly reduce the share of oil, coal and gas in the energy mix by the middle of the century.

A third savings, a third renewable and a third fossil energy is Heinnick’s general rule for the “soft path” into the future. The brave new energy world may be the last chance not to make us into monkeys.

“We can manage everything with energy,” the British environmental expert Evan Nisbet said. “Without energy, we are big chimpanzees.”
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