July 23, 2008

Proposals for solar power stations are a good sign, but we need a framework for action

There is an exciting sign of things to come if the world really is to move to address climate change. The European Union's Institute for Energy is backing proposals for a massive solar power project (ie the size of Wales) in North African deserts. Massive sums will have to be found for the distribution system, but there is the potential for Europe to meet all its energy needs from this project, according to this report in The Guardian:

There are some provisos as to whether the political will for action will be forthcoming. The key one is, of course, economic. According to the Guardian article, an investment of Euros 450 billion is required for a distribution system to provide 100 GW by 2050. There is the potential for solar systems to provide energy more cheaply than other methods. Renewable energy is becoming even more feasible as oil prices rise, and they will inevitability rise further as increased demand for energy chases finite oil resources, which are widely believed to be past their peak already.

But it is not quite as rosy as it may appear - and reminds me of some sandwiches I bought once when catching the train to London from Cambridge (more on those in a moment). The rising oil price is having another effect. In Brazil it is now becoming economically viable to tap oil reserves that lie below many kilometres of rock off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. Yesterday the Secretary for Economic Development for Rio de Janeiro State said the country must capitalise on the high price of oil. In the US the cost of oil is prompting ever louder calls for reserves off the coast of California and Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico to be tapped.

Supply and demand increasing the price of oil is clearly not going to address the problem of carbon emissions or peak oil if it leads to an increase in oil production. As another example, Gordon Brown recently appealed to Middle Eastern countries to increase oil production to help meet demand and damp down prices. See:

Ideas under discussion within the Simultaneous Policy democratic process offer better solutions. Contraction & Convergence envisions a reduction of emissions to sustainable levels, with equitable distribution of the right to emit. The Oil Depletion Protocol proposes a managed weaning off of oil. It seems that whatever approach is taken, there is merit in taxing carbon emissions rather than trading them as trading does not necessarily provide an incentive to develop new, cleaner technologies.

Which brings me to my sandwiches, bought at Cambridge train station. They were organic, packaged with cardboard from recycled sources and the transparent film was made from cellulose and so 100% bio-degradeable. They were perhaps the most sustainable sandwiches I have ever bought. There are some that argue that we should rely on consumers favouring such products to change business practices. They argue that instead of imposing regulations, companies should be encouraged - and rewarded - for showing Corporate Social Responsibility, in other words, doing the right thing voluntarily. They would point to my sandwiches as an example of this working.

I see the lesson of the sandwiches differently. This product was the only one that had gone the sustainable route. If, however, there was a requirement that manufacturers of goods had to use recyclable or bio-degradable components wherever possible and take responsibility for processing any that are not (a so-called circular economy rather than a linear economy - see this clip on Youtube), then sustainable products would be the norm, rather than the exception. We need to be moving in this direction as, by definition, the world cannot survive unsustainably for ever.

Another example more directly linked to climate change, comes from my previous life as an electronic engineer. I worked on a computer-controlled diesel engine. The motivation for this research and development project was new European Union regulations on emissions which could not be met with conventional mechanical pumps. Greater control of the engine was required to improve efficiency and so reduce emissions. The main pump manufacturers were competing to produce the best solution and win orders from car manufacturers.

The Simultaneous Policy aims to provide the framework to prompt the innovation and other changes required to address global problems. Present mechanisms of commodity trading ramping up prices and emissions trading offsetting emissions may not quite do it when it comes to climate change and peak oil. We need the coherent set of policies being developed through the Simultaneous Policy campaigns democratic and transparent process (you can join in with proposals and cast your vote by signing up as a Simultaneous Policy Adopter on the official websites). The implementation strategy means that powerful vested interests that currently divert and undermine political effort are side-stepped.

The news on solar power stations is a sign that there is a way through the transition to a sustainable economy. We just need to provide the framework to make things like this happen. Play your part by signing up as an Simultaneous Policy Adopter.

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