The truth of the matter is that fossil fuels are a very efficient form of energy. We owe all of our current standard of living to oil and coal.
For 20 years world leaders have pushed for legally binding treaty to reduce the use of fossil fuels because of the carbon emissions that they produce. For 20 years they have failed.
Australia’s representative at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, Andrew Charlton, believes that we have it all wrong. His well reasoned logic in the latest Quarterly Essay (Man-Made World) is well worth the read. His assessment of what needs to be done will annoy the idealists and sceptics in equal measure.
Charltons central point is that making energy more expensive is simply not an option for the world economy, especially poor countries, who by far and away the worlds fastest growing greenhouse emitters. The division between rich and poor countries reached stalemate at Copenhagen, one Latin American delegate put it: “For centuries your countries have prospered by exploiting the worlds resources. How can I tell the slum dwellers they must stay poor and clean up your mess?”
Charlton states that many climate campaigners in rich countries hold to the conventional wisdom that we use too much energy and need to cut down… (he uses earth hour as an example)… but these campaigns miss the most fundamental element of the global energy/climate equasion: the world needs more energy, not less. Nearly 1.5 Billion people live without access to electricity, and they don’t like it.
Given that we are on track to add another 2 billion people to the planet by the end of the century, we cant (and shouldn’t) prevent the third world from moving its way out of poverty. Its hard to argue with Charltons assessment.
Roger Pielke Jnr, author of climate Fix is quoted: “If there is an iron law of climate policy, it is that when policies focused on economic growth confront policies focused on emissions reductions, it is economic growth that will win out every time” This has certainly been Australias experience with carbon pricing.
Charlton, a Rhodes scholar economist and former adviser to Kevin Rudd, argues that our current renewable energy options arnt nearly efficient enough and that green groups are misleading when they claim otherwise. He argues that nuclear energy and clean coal technology need to be part of the solution (despite issues with both). But even then it wont be enough. His most salient point is that we need something else. We need to find a new and abundant source of energy that is clean and cheap.
Charlton believes that relying on innovation is not the best answer, but it is the only answer. To do this will require leaps in technology bigger than the moon landing and the Manhatten Project.
In the end, for Charlton, the climate challenge is not a question of progress and planet as the greens have framed it. “The truth is: there is no choice between progress and planet. If we focus on one we will destroy both. The only way out of our predicament is to reconcile economic development and environmental sustainability”.
Man-Made World: Choosing between progress and planet
Release Date: November 2011