September 27, 2009 – Lester Brown is one of the unsung heroes in the battle to
mitigate climate change. Founder of the World Watch Institute, and current president of the Earth Policy Institute, he has been at the leading edge of the movement to reduce waste and teach respect for the environment for decades. His most recent book, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, will be reviewed in this blog at a later date. The title, by the way, is not grandiose. It says what it means and means what it says.
So my heart was indeed gladdened when I read Brown’s recent article, “On Energy, We’re Finally Walking the Walk.” (I now link to the Earth Policy Institute, where
you can find the article in its entirety.) Brown gives us a fact-filled overview of how far we have come in the last two years, and tells readers about the ambitious goals we must set for ourselves to get the job done. What job, you ask? The job of suf-
ficiently slowing our production of pollution so that we avoid the very worst consequences of global warming. You see, Brown believes that this is still possible, though by no means easy. What is called for is no less than an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2020. While that might sound like a staggering task, let me back up and tell you what we Americans are accomplishing, right this very minute.
There has been a 9 percent drop in U.S. carbon emissions during the last two years. Yes, you read that right. Nine percent. Caused in part by the recession and higher gasoline prices, it has not been entirely “accidental.” The gains made in energy efficiency in our country, coupled with the rapid development of alternative energy sources, have put us on the path to energy independence. They have also put us on productive path leading up to Copenhagen. With improved automobile fuel-economy standards, appliance efficiency standards, and enormous strides taken in the development of wind power, the United States can at last begin to talk about
the need for global action in addressing a global problem.
One hundred proposed coal-fired power plants have been cancelled since 2001, here in the United States. Twenty-two coal-fired power plants in twelve states are being replaced by wood-fired plants, wind farms or natural gas plants. Wood and
wind are, of course, renewable sources of energy, though I have no idea about the amount of pollution created by the first. Last year alone, 102 wind farms came online. Further wind projects, to the tune of 300,000 megawatts of power – the equivalent of 300 coal plants – have been approved for construction. Solar cell installations are growing at 40 percent a year.
The good news continues, not just here, but abroad, too. Though China does, in fact, continue to build coal-powered plants at an alarming rate, they are shutting down the oldest and dirtiest of them. And the Chinese are not unacquainted with the need to build reliance on renewable sources of energy. Brown bears the happy tidings that China is building wind-powered projects on a massive scale. Solar power already provides China with two-thirds of its water-heating capacity, and solar cells – sources of electricity - are now coming into their own, as well. Solar holds great promise for India, with enormous potential energy yet to be tapped in the Great Indian Desert.
All this, of course, constitutes the merest beginning of the work ahead. Encouragingly, it has largely been accomplished, at least in this country, without the involvement of the government. Were our federal government to actually assume a leadership role in bringing about swift change, there is no doubt in my mind that we (the American people, not necessarily American business) would put our collective shoulders to the wheel and get the job done. Our ability to do what needs doing has never been in question. Willingness is all, and it has been, up until now, the willingness we have lacked. Now we require not only willingness, we require sufficient time to get the job. We may not know until after the fact whether we had the luxury of time, much or little. Whatever else we may lack, faith – both in ourselves and a Higher Power – must see us through. Sometimes, that’s all anybody has.