Our global climate agenda may need a Plan B, but if we are to choose the right one, some popular misconceptions need to be clarified.
Fossil fuels are not cheap. Utility bills and per-gallon prices are just the tip of the iceberg of our energy costs. Governments pay hundreds of billions of dollars every year in subsidies, with the United States alone spending over US$72 billion since 2002. According to one account by the Natural Resources Defense Council, if you factor in the whole picture, including indirect support, subsidies are in the trillions.
Renewables are cheap, and will only get cheaper. When consumers pay more for oil and gas, their renewable alternatives become viable. But there is a twist. Fossil fuels are finite, so they get more expensive as sources dwindle. Renewables, on the other hand, are unlimited, and actually get cheaper to produce as more is produced. Moving onto the latter economies-of-scale track is not a cost or a burden so much as it is an investment, and if carbon polices are clear and predictable, the breakeven point will be quick. We could power the planet with 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.
The poor lose first. Accounts as varied as the IPCC, Six Degrees, Maplecroft’s climate risk map, and testimonies at Copenhagen by Tuvalu and the Republic of Maldives make it clear that developing countries face the most urgent and severe vulnerability to climate change. On top of already being prone to dangers such as desertification, droughts, disease, and sea-level rise, they have fewer facilities than their wealthier counterparts to insulate themselves against harmful effects. And as negotiations at COP15 demonstrated, they often have the least recourse in international forums.
What then of Plan B? Our task should be to seize this moment in order to usher in policy frameworks that are clear and predicable for enabling multi-decade capital investments in low-carbon technology. At least, according to the World Wildlife Fund, that’s what over 1,000 companies representing US$11 trillion in market capitalization and 20 million jobs think. Our Plan B should be to grab this terrific opportunity of having the world’s attention on climate and call on the United States and other national policymakers to enact a global framework which enables companies to invest and unleashes the potential of a clean-energy economy now.
First posted as a response to The Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, “Time for a Plan B,” by Nigel Lawson on 12/21/09, and then at BSR’s The Business of a Better World.