Fueling the Future

What energy sources will drive the 21st century?


Johannesburg, South Africa — "The priority has to be getting energy access to poor people no matter what the source," said Greenpeace spokesman Steve Sawyer at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). He was responding to my question about whether the 2 billion or so people without access to modern energy services should nonetheless be able to get access to energy from whatever source, renewable or not? It is indeed progress that radical groups like Greenpeace now recognize poor people can't be overly choosy about how they cook their food and light their homes.

The future of the world's energy supplies is one of the central issues being negotiated at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). The ideological environmentalists are pushing for the adoption of specific timetables and targets for future energy sources. They are strongly advocating that fifteen percent of the world's primary energy must come from new renewables by 2015.

Meanwhile, the European Union, whose piously green propaganda is widely distributed around the summit venues, has issued a plan of its own. According to Jennifer Morgan from the World Wildlife Fund, the EU is now backing a proposal that would mandate that fifteen percent of the world's primary energy be produced using renewables by 2015.

You might expect environmentalist activist groups to be happy with this seemingly identical proposal. In fact, they're livid, and consider the EU plan a betrayal hatched in closed negotiating sessions. "What does this target mean?" asks Morgan. "Absolutely nothing. It's completely and utterly unacceptable."

At issue is how the EU and the environmentalists define the term "renewable." To understand how radical the environmentalists' proposal is, consider that today only two percent of the world's primary energy is produced by renewables that ideological environmentalists would regard as acceptable — among them wind, solar, geothermal and small hydropower. The Europeans on the other hand would count as renewables such already-existing sources as large hydropower and traditional biomass. "Traditional biomass" is a term that encompasses everything from collected wood to cow dung. Large hydropower includes projects like India's much-loathed Narmada Dam and China's equally execrated Three Gorges Dam.

Conveniently, the Euro plan requires little heavy lifting. Morgan points out that, using the EU definition, fourteen percent of the world's primary energy is already supplied by renewables; in effect the EU is calling for a mere one-percent increase in the portion of primary energy supplied by renewables by 2015. European diplomats have practiced this sort of continental guile since the days of Rochefoucauld. Less crafty United States negotiators would simply prefer to dump any timetables and targets for renewable energy.

Another sign of progress is that some environmentalists have recognized one "renewable" source of energy as a scam. "We count corn-based ethanol as unsustainable energy," says Morgan. She's right. Ethanol mandates in the United States are nothing more than disguised subsidies to farmers and corporate ethanol producers like Archer Daniels Midland. Growing corn to produce ethanol is a costly and environmentally stupid way to produce fuel.

The reason that Greenpeace, WWF and other activists are pushing the global renewable fuels mandate is that they want the world to adopt the Kyoto Protocol's limitations on fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases. President George Bush withdrew the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001 on the grounds that there is no conclusive scientific evidence that accumulating greenhouse gases will lead to a climate catastrophe. Bush also noted that complying with the limits established by Kyoto would cost as much $300 billion annually and have little effect on temperature trends in any case. Consequently, U.S. negotiators are fighting to prevent any mention of the Kyoto Protocol in the Summit's Plan of Implementation.

Curiously, environmentalists like Morgan are adamant that the Kyoto Protocol be mentioned in the Plan's text. The battle is completely symbolic. The Kyoto Protocol will come into effect when ratified by signatory countries that emit 56 percent of the total amount of greenhouse gases produced by industrial countries. So far, the list of ratifying countries, including the EU, accounts for only 36 percent of emissions. Since the U.S. has withdrawn, the only way the Protocol can come into effect is if Russia ratifies it, a move environmental activists expect the Russian Duma to make next month. That being the case, whether or not the Kyoto Protocol is mentioned in the Summit's Plan of Implementation is irrelevant. But then the main aim of the activists at the Summit is to paint the United States as an environmental villain — a goal that our European "allies" seem only too happy to go along with.