On 23 March, millions of people across the world will switching off their lights for 60 minutes as part of the annual Earth Hour.
In case it passed you by, Earth Hour is the brainchild of environmental group WWF, which wants us to “focus on the kind of energy we use”. The group says: “To create a better future for our planet we need to move away from dirty fossil fuels and onto clean, green renewable energy which works with the awesome power of nature”.
Now, you’ll either agree with all, some or none of that statement, but Earth Hour throws up another point worthy of debate.
Instead of turning off the lights and sitting in the dark contemplating the beauty of wind turbines and solar panels, we could instead think about the billions of people around the world who don’t have any lights to switch off in the first place.
If there is such a thing as a global energy crisis, it has got nothing to do with renewables vs. coal/gas/oil – it is one of haves and have-nots: those who have electricity and those who do not.
The phrase “keeping the lights on” is bandied about so often by European politicians that it has become a cliché and is pretty meaningless anyway, because it is unlikely to ever happen. Yet “turning the lights on” is a fundamental goal for many Asian and African governments.
In India, the population is growing so fast that the country’s infrastructure cannot keep up. Yes, the government is looking at – and investing in – renewables, but only this month S. K. Srivastava, the minister of Coal, conceded that India will remain heavily dependent on coal for the next 20 years.
He said the federal government predicts that 52 per cent of India’s total power generation will come from coal in 2030 – at the moment the figure is 57 per cent. Not much of a drop is it? Yet why should it be – India and countries like it have a duty to their people to provide their most basic needs. When everyone has electricity, then the country can get into the environmental ethics of where it comes from. Meanwhile, it has to get on with the business of making sure that its current energy crisis does not play a part in derailing its economic growth (see feature, p.16).
Meanwhile in Europe, a curious noise can be heard – it’s the sound of carbon capture and storage (CCS) campaigners banging their heads against a brick wall.
Everyone agrees that CCS is a good thing: good for tackling climate change; therefore good in meeting emissions targets; and good for the power industry at national and international levels, as it promises a whole new sector of skills.
So why is it not happening? Why are so many plans around the world literally not getting off the drawing board?
The answer, according to Chris Littlecott, senior policy advisor at UK think-tank E3G, is that CCS “is up against the limits of the bureaucratic imagination”.
And he’s right. CCS requires policymakers to do something they are traditionally not very good at – taking a long-term view of a problem and putting in place a long-term solution. Throw in a technology that politicians perceive to be untested and therefore risky, and they will always revert to a more tried and tested option, or, do nothing at all.
Such has been the fate of CCS, so much so that the World Energy Council (WEC) says that carbon capture and storage has now moved down the power industry’s priority list. And WEC singles out Europe as the region least likely to adopt CCS.
In the UK, CCS experts believe the situation has reached a tipping point of act now or lose investors forever (see feature, p.20).
Littlecott stresses that CCS “is not a moon landing – it is building a space station that we can go to again and again”.
It really is crunch time for CCS: the players in the sector know it, and the wider energy industry knows it. The only people who don’t – because it’s hard to hear a message with your head in the sand – are politicians, who unfortunately are the people that hold the key to stimulating investment.
Maybe instead of Earth Hour, policymakers should take part in their own Dearth Hour, where they contemplate the dearth of ideas they have come up with to stimulate investment in the power market.
CCS needs politicians to do something they are not very good at: taking a long-term view and putting in place a long-term solution
Dr. Heather Johnstone
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