Gore’s challenge, Australia’s hope

Al Gore, ‘climate change warrior’ (or ‘ozone man’ if you prefer George Bush’s nickname for him), gave a speech in Washington on Thursday challenging the United States to produce 100% of its electricity supply from wind, solar and geo-thermal sources within ten years. According to Gore, doing so, while having an enormous upfront cost (one wonders if it would exceed the cost of the War in Iraq?), would represent a win-win-win for America in economic, environmental and security terms. It would, according to Gore, solve the problem at the root of America’s current travails – reliance on ever-more-expensive fossil fuels, mostly imported, and largely on the never-never.

George Bush & Co. remain the major stumbling blocks to any real progress on CO2 emissions on a global scale. The recent G8 Summit cemented the view that Bush, while latterly mouthing placatory verbiage on climate change, will resist any real action during the remaining months of his administration. It is farcical to imagine him sponsoring any such scheme as Gore proposes. Bush, like all good climate change denialists, loses one battle and assumes one fallback position after another. His latest confection is that the developing world, responsible for a miniscule proportion of historic CO2 emissions (and still producing about one-fifth per capita), must agree to curb their growth before the US, responsible (like us) for the glutton’s share, will join in. He might as well say ‘there’s more money to be made out of the status quo’. And so we wait.

Australia, sharing much of the same resources as the US in terms of sunshine, wind and hot rocks, ought to hope that Bush’s successor has a more willing ear to Gore’s challenge, not least because we might no longer be drawn into dubious wars in oil producing regions. We are, more than most, an oil-junky country. Australia’s imperative to migrate to ‘clean energy’ is as much based on economic survival as on being a good global citizen. The cost of fossil energy is only going one way. Massive R&D investment is required to enable alternative technologies to replace coal and oil. Bringing the US on-line as an alternative energy leader would produce massive economies of scale that could see photovoltaics and the like develop on much the same trajectory as computer chips, doubling output every eighteen months. And getting cheaper.

McCain and Obama both support nuclear as a part of the mix. McCain espouses investment in 100 new nuclear power stations. There are many reasons for not pursuing nuclear power, not least because there is no enthusiasm for it amongst private investors, but from Australia’s point of view, we might want to consider what it could mean to be sitting on a quarter of the United States’ world’s supply of an essential fuel. We’re unlikely to be able to save it for a rainy day.

Obama, riding high in the head to head polls and purportedly the great black hope for the world, has an energy/climate policy that, while having more bite than the recent G8 ‘fifty in fifty’ agreement and Australia’s proposed carbon trading system (he proposes an 80% cut from 1990 levels by 2050, achieved by a ‘cap and trade’ system with zero exemptions), seems to rely largely on biofuels, carbon sequestration and hybrid cars to achieve its goals. However, an 80% cut would bring the US into line with per capita CO2 production in India and China, at which point some moral force could be brought to bear on those and other developing nations to invest in cleaner energy supplies.

Unfortunately that may all be too little too late. I would suggest that America has to not only follow a plan like Gore’s, but to share the benefits of the resultant R&D cheaply if not freely with the developing world. Let’s look at it. They’ve invested US$1 trillion in the war in Iraq (it’s probably going to cost them about $3 trillion all up) to ensure more secure access to the remaining petrol in the world, only to have it jump 700% in price since before the war – a pretty sucky situation for ordinary Americans and pretty much everyone except Bush’s oil buddies.

Obama proposes a mere $150 billion in alternative energy R&D over a ten year period, mostly directed towards sequestration and biofuels. They’ll have more energy security and may mitigate the worst of their carbon pollution, but what will food cost? And the price of coal is also skyrocketing. They’re even talking about opening defunct Welsh coal mines. Imagine if, since 2003, they’d poured $1 trillion into solar, wind, geo-thermal, tidal and the plethora of other clean, renewable, inexhaustible energy supplies. How much return would they have on that investment, selling the world’s best alternative energy to countries like ours that can afford it? They’d be freed from having to bludgeon the Middle East and their energy supplies would be steadily decreasing in cost, instead of the inevitable squeeze on a finite resource as it runs out. Surely they could afford to share some of that bounty of new technology with developing countries? So they could continue to develop?

Alternative energy technologies have been stifled for years by an over-abundance of cheap power from oil and coal. That era has ended, as we have known it would do for decades. Combine peak oil with climate change, the failure of US policy in the Middle East and the massive economic expansion of India and China and we are faced with a certain reality – we can not go on as we have gone on before. How to make the transition, and into what, are the vexed questions of this age.

Gore is not alone in proposing radical transition to true renewable energy sources, but he has a unique pulpit and major clout. Whether he would be proposing any such scheme were he actually a presidential candidate is by no means sure. There’s a lot of skittish, not to mention terminally stupid and easily led by the nose, horses in America. A genuine candidate has to think twice before frightening them with hair-brained ideas. Like the rest of us, Gore must be content with yelling from the sidelines.

Comments are closed.