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Excuse me if I take a flier today and write an introduction on the good news about climate change. Yep, the good news. It would, of course, be easy enough to do the opposite. When it comes to climate change, gloomy is a cinch. Just about any piece on the subject is likely to depress the hell out of you. Did you know -- as I learned only recently from a New York Times article -- that sea levels rose at a rate of 1.7 millimeters annually during the previous century, but from 1993 on, that rate has nearly doubled to 3.2 millimeters? Later this century, scientists estimate that it could be "16 millimeters a year, or about six-tenths of an inch" --at least three feet by century's end and possibly worse, depending on what's melting and how fast. If you're a coastal dweller as I am (the eastern U.S.), that should give you pause, and if you live in a coastal area of China, you should be getting nervous. But I did say good news, didn't I, and it is the weekend that 195 countries reached a climate agreement in Paris, isn't it? So here goes.
Let's start with the divestment movement. In Paris recently, the heroic 350.org announced a startling figure. More than 500 institutions representing $3.4 trillion in assets have agreed to get rid of all or part of the fossil fuel investments in their portfolios. That represents a big leap forward for divestment. And this is just one aspect of a growing global climate change movement that wants to point us toward the exit when it comes to the age of carbon and is proving that it can't be ignored. And speaking of carbon emissions, here's a little news flash from the atmospheric front lines: it's just faintly possible that those emissions are peaking ahead of schedule. Despite a modest global economic recovery, for the last couple of years greenhouse gas emissions have flat-lined and they may even fall by a modest 0.6% in 2015. Don't dance a jig yet. This may not even be the "peak emissions" moment, but if not, it could be coming more quickly than expected.
On a planet getting hotter all the time, this isn't exactly nirvana-style news, but add this in: it had been hoped that somehow the negotiating nations of the world gathered in Paris these last two weeks might agree to the goal of keeping the prospective rise in temperature on planet Earth to 2 degrees Celsius. As it happens, climate scientists have increasingly been warning that even that number could result in devastating environmental disruptions. To the surprise of all, the aspirational number now mentioned in the Paris agreement is 1.5 degrees Celsius. (Humanity has already fossil-fueled the temperature upward by about a degree since the industrial revolution began.) Of course, agreeing on such a figure is one thing. Coming anywhere near achieving it is another.
Still, good news and climate change are not normally associated, so let's give a tiny cheer for these glimpses of upbeat news this week, as well as for the agreement just reached, and then consider what's positive in the long-term outlook for all of us. There, too, as TomDispatch's invaluable energy expert Michael Klare suggests, there's a green glow on the horizon amid the gloom when it comes to renewable energy sources. So don't pop that champagne cork yet, but do read on! Tom
A New World Beckons
The Future Belongs to Renewables
By Michael T. Klare
Historically, the transition from one energy system to another, as from wood to coal or coal to oil, has proven an enormously complicated process, requiring decades to complete. In similar fashion, it will undoubtedly be many years before renewable forms of energy -- wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, and others still in development -- replace fossil fuels as the world's leading energy providers. Nonetheless, 2015 can be viewed as the year in which the epochal transition from one set of fuels to another took off, with renewables making such significant strides that, for the first time in centuries, the beginning of the end of the Fossil Fuel Era has come into sight.
This shift will take place no matter how well or poorly the deal just achieved at the U.N. climate summit in Paris is carried out. Although a robust commitment by participating nations to curb future carbon emissions will certainly help speed the transition, the necessary preconditions -- political will, investment capital, and technological momentum -- are already in place to drive the renewable revolution forward. Lending a hand to this transformation will be a sharp and continuing reduction in the cost of renewable energy, making it increasingly competitive with fossil fuels. According to the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), between now and 2040 global investments in renewable power capacity will total $7 trillion, accounting for 60% of all power plant investment.- Advertisement -
Fossil fuels will not, of course, disappear during this period. Too much existing infrastructure -- refineries, distribution networks, transportation systems, power plants, and the like -- are dependent on oil, coal, and natural gas, which means, unfortunately, that these fuels will continue to play a prominent role for decades. But the primary thrust of new policies, new investment, and new technology will be in the advancement of renewables.
Two events on the periphery of the Paris climate summit were especially noteworthy in terms of the renewable revolution: the announcement of an International Solar Alliance by India and France, and the launching of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition by Bill Gates of Microsoft, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and a host of other billionaires.
As described by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the International Solar Alliance is meant to mobilize private and public funds for the development and installation of affordable solar systems on a global scale, especially in developing countries. "We intend making joint efforts through innovative policies, projects, programs, capacity-building measures, and financial instruments to mobilize more than 1,000 billion U.S. dollars of investments that are needed by 2030 for the massive deployment of affordable solar energy," Modi and French President François Hollande indicated in a joint statement on November 30th.
According to its sponsors, the aim of this program is to pool financing from both public and private sources in order to bring down the costs of solar systems even further and speed their utilization, especially in poor tropical countries. "The vast majority of humans are blessed with sunlight throughout the year," Modi explained. "We want to bring solar energy into their lives."
To get the alliance off the ground, the Indian government will commit some $30 billion for the establishment of the alliance's headquarters in New Delhi. Modi has also pledged to increase solar power generation in India by 2,500% over the next seven years, expanding output from 4 to 100 gigawatts -- thereby creating a vast new market for solar technology and devices. "This day is the sunrise of new hope, not just for clean energy, but for villages and homes still in darkness," he said in Paris, adding that the solar alliance would create "unlimited economic opportunities" for green energy entrepreneurs.- Advertisement -
The Breakthrough Energy Coalition, reportedly the brainchild of Bill Gates, will seek to channel private and public funds into the development of advanced green-energy technologies to speed the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. "Technology will help solve our energy issues," the project's website states. "Scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs can invent and scale the innovative technologies that will limit the impact of climate change while providing affordable and reliable energy to everyone."
As Gates imagines it, the new venture will seek to bundle funds from wealthy investors in order to move innovative energy breakthroughs from the laboratory -- where they often languish -- to full-scale development and production. "Experience indicates that even the most promising ideas face daunting commercialization challenges and a nearly impassable Valley of Death between promising concept and viable product," the project notes. "This collective failure can be addressed, in part, by a dramatically scaled-up public research pipeline, linked to a different kind of private investor with a long-term commitment to new technologies who is willing to put truly patient flexible risk capital to work."
Joining Gates and Bezos in this venture are a host of super-rich investors, including Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba, the Chinese internet giant; Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chairman of Facebook; George Soros, chairman of Soros Fund Management; and Ratan Tata, chairman emeritus of India's giant Tata Sons conglomerate. While seeking to speed the progress of green technology, these investors also see a huge potential for future profits in this field and, as the venture claims, "will certainly be motivated partly by the possibility of making big returns over the long-term, but also by the criticality of an energy transition."