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  1. Politics
22 October 2001


A plan for the world - Environment

By Geoffrey Lean

What we want

  • An immediate campaign to save energy
  • Top priority for developing renewable energy sources
  • Implementation of the Kyoto Protocol
  • Reduction of desertification and deforestation
  • Once before, just over 25 years ago, we were told that events originating in the Middle East had changed the world for ever. And for a while after the 1974 oil shock, western governments did consider using the world’s resources more wisely. They also entered into serious dialogue with developing countries over “a new economic order”. Then the monetarist jihad swept across the globe, denouncing all such thoughts as heresy. The world returned to the old ways even more enthusiastically than before.

    This time, it will be harder to get back to business as usual. The world is more dependent on Middle Eastern oil than it was in 1974, and is set to become more so. The region is home to two-thirds of the planet’s proven reserves and, during this decade, it is expected to double its share of the world’s oil production. Over a third of natural gas reserves are in the Middle East, with another third in the former Soviet Union.

    Nuclear power has virtually stagnated: no new nuclear power station has been ordered in the US for more than 20 years, none is being built in western Europe. And any new plants would doubtless have to be built to withstand the impact of an airliner, thus pricing them out of the market. If terrorists do succeed in sabotaging an existing plant, there will be enormous public pressure to close them all down. It is calculated that, if an airplane strike were to release just half the nuclear waste stored in one of the Sellafield buildings, the release of radioactive caesium-137 would be 44 times as great as in the Chernobyl catastrophe, causing two million cancers.

    So the new age demands that the world finally becomes serious about developing clean energy. The sun, the wind, the waves and the tides, long dismissed as cranky, have now become the most sensible option – because they are not only clean but secure. They are distributed free by the world’s natural systems, and can be tapped locally without depending on large centralised power stations, vulnerable to sabotage (tilting at windmills is not a particularly attractive option for terrorists).

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    There is some reason for optimism. Wind power still produces less than 1 per cent of the world’s electricity, and solar cells far less, but both have trebled since 1996. Shell and BP have begun to invest seriously in them, while oil and motor companies are beginning to compete to develop non-polluting hydrogen as a vehicle fuel.

    In the meantime, rich countries must finally prioritise saving, rather than producing, energy. For example, energy consumption can be cut in half in existing homes and industry, and by 90 per cent in new ones, using technologies already on the market. Many studies show that industrialised countries could cut their energy use to a third of current levels, without any cost to rising standards of living.

    All this will be helped by a new reluctance to travel, or to work in high-rise buildings. Already, the seemingly unstoppable rise of air travel – due to increase tenfold over the next 50 years – appears to have been set back. If mass terrorism is here to stay, there will also be a new drive towards decentralisation, as businesses choose to spread out their operations and people prefer to work from home.

    Such an energy strategy would help the fight against global warming, still the most urgent environmental issue. Minimising it (it is too late to stop it completely) will also help in the war against terrorism, because its worst effects would hit poor people in developing countries. The world must press ahead with implementing the Kyoto Protocol and agreeing deeper cuts in carbon dioxide emissions.

    Similarly, the world must concentrate on tackling the other, sadly neglected, environmental crises that increase destitution – notably the soil erosion and desertification that have affected two-thirds of the world’s cropland, and the felling of forests, which dries up vital water supplies.

    By ignoring the warning of 1974, and rejecting both a wiser use of resources and a better deal for the world’s poor, the rich countries helped to cause the new crisis. They also made it more difficult to resolve. This time, we have to make the change, and fast.

    Geoffrey Lean is environment editor of the Independent on Sunday