20 October 2016
OPEC is committed to ensuring that fossil fuels remain viable despite the environmental and health dangers attributed to their use. Photo: internet
OPEC is committed to ensuring that fossil fuels remain viable despite the environmental and health dangers attributed to their use. Photo: internet

Why clean energy is not popular enough and what needs to be done

World leaders, business leaders, climate negotiators and supporters of a global carbon emissions treaty are in Paris to try to hammer out an agreement that will prevent a rise inglobal temperatures that will wreak havoc on the planet.

The activities of demonstrators and campaigners have been somewhat hampered by tighter security in the wake of the terrorist attacks by Islamic State a few weeks ago, but their voices have not been totally silenced.

While I sympathize with those demonstrating and crying out in the streets for the need to act on the climate, there are several things that need to occur for us to see a real revolution in clean energy.

This is not to say that great strides have not been made — in fact solar, wind, biomass, microhydro and other renewable energy and clean-tech technologies have benefited greatly from technological research and economic policies designed to make their use widespread.

Then there are also the attempts by the likes of the Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to ensure that fossil fuels remain viable despite the environmental and health dangers attributed to their use.

Just this week, as the conference got underway in Paris, OPEC released a statement saying it is possible that oil prices could dive to as low as US$20 per barrel.

Now, that could be coincidence, or intentional — we will probably never know.

But the fossil fuel industry will not give up without a fight — that’s a safe assumption to make.

The first thing that needs to happen is for more money, from the government and the private sector, to go into clean energy research and development.

The recent announcement by a coalition of tech billionaires led by Bill Gates to pour money into renewables and clean-tech research, coupled with what is already happening, is a good start.

Research and development efforts need to make many bets, some of which will end up as dead ends.

Others will bring new knowledge, but not always the type that makes it to the marketplace.

While some technologies, like nuclear fusion, may take time, others like solar and wind can benefit from efficiency and cost improvements.

Development efforts in materials, techniques, manufacturing and other areas need to take these improved renewable energy technologies and figure out how to manufacture them faster, better and at a cheaper cost, so that the market can absorb them faster.

The second thing must be an attempt by business and industry to include the cost of carbon emissions to people and the environment — what are called externalities — on their accounting balance sheets.

This can only be done if there is a price on carbon, whether a fixed carbon tax or a market-driven price.

Otherwise, all these demonstrations and slogans will fall on deaf ears to industry, which burns a lot of fossil fuels in its activities, because fossil fuel energy is still artificially cheaper.

But if you include the cost of externalities like air pollution, healthcare impacts, environmental impacts, and so on, then fossil fuel energy no longer becomes cheap.

More importantly, once these costs are placed on the accounting books, then companies can better make decisions on clean energy.

Finally, individuals and businesses need to recognize the problem.

An empty coffeemaker that is left on, a car or delivery truck that is poorly tuned up and wastes gasoline, and other wasteful practices that generate greenhouse gases because the power company or the oil company continues to supply what we really don’t need — these have to stop.

Improvements in technology and price, avoiding wasteful practices, and putting the external costs of fossil fuels into the accounting books of businesses are what we need to spur the real revolution in clean energy.

The current adoption of renewable energy is good, but we need to make it quicker.

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Consultant on low-carbon technology and publisher of Asian Spectator technology blog

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