Turtles burned alive, ecosystems damaged beyond repair, fish stocks depleted, pelagic wildlife threatened…there is no shortage of catastrophic environmental consequences that the Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill has had. It has become obvious through the shocking images of the disaster that our over dependence on oil is causing as much damage in the extraction process as it is in the burning at the consumer level. Of course it shouldn’t take a disaster on this level to highlight the need for us to look to invest in safer and greener alternative energy sources, however the reality is that until problems become truly visible to the public, action is traditionally slow, with the environment and energy traditionally strongly linked.
“Renewable energies must generate almost half of the world’s power by 2050, up from the current level of 18 percent,” was the hard line taken by the International Energy Agency in its most recent report, Energy Technology Perspectives 2010. It’s true that alternative sources are being looked at today more than ever, global investment in green power was led by wind and solar in 2008, and reached a record level of$112 billion and remained broadly stable in 2009 despite the economic downturn. Toyota, despite its problems, along with Honda and other car manufacturers have seen sales of hybrid cars increase, the rate of energy efficiency improvement in OECD countries is double the rate of the 1990s, and funding for low-carbon energy has increased in last four years. Despite all this, however, it is still a mere drop in the ocean when it comes to meeting our actual energy needs and weaning us off our oil addiction. “All these efforts are vital if we are successfully to limit climate change, but current developments are still fragmented and fragile, and the rate of progress is still far too low to prevent dangerous increases in global temperatures,” says IEA executive director Nobuo Tanaka. “What we need is rapid, large-scale deployment of a portfolio of low-carbon technologies; we need a massive decarbonization of the energy system, breaking the historical link between CO2 emissions and economic output, and leading to a new age of electrification.”
“Renewable energy should be connected with the economy and industry much more strongly.”
Japan, however, recently seems to be going in the opposite direction in breaking this link. Once a leader in technology and renewables, the country has slipped further behind others, particularly as China moves into the solar PV market. One of the problems is that renewable energy in Japan is connected with the environment to an excessive degree. “Renewable energy should be connected with the economy and industry much more strongly. In some countries, people think the only reason why renewable energy is important is because of climate change, and I do not share this belief. Renewable energy is important even if climate change were not an issue. There is still value in energy autonomy in terms of oil, and value in energy security in terms of not being dependent on world events for a country’s energy supply” said Eric Martinot, senior research director for the Institute for Sustainable Energy Policies (IESP), in a recent talk on global markets and policies. “[The] Chinese want to be industrial leaders for renewable energy because they think that that will give them economic leadership in the future, and this is a correct assessment. That point has not been recognized in Japan.”
It takes an environmental disaster to bring the need for alternative energy sources into focus, however it is the simple fact of economic stability and security that should keep it there. If Japan and other countries really want to improve their long range economic outlook, then a look to the future and a more concerted effort in encouraging interest and investment in renewable energy would seem the sensible decision to make from here.
photo courtesy of Technorati
International Energy Agency