Jonathon Porritt: Where’s our sense of urgency?

The reach of solar will spread, the scale will increase, and the impact on people’s lives will be massive. But the crucial question is, when? 

The direction of travel is clear: we are in the early stages of transitioning from the age of fossil fuels to the solar age. But many scientists now believe the future of humankind depends on how long it takes us to negotiate this transition.

I was struck by this at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi in January. Solar technologies were particularly visible. It’s only four years since the first World Future Energy Summit, but in that short time the market has grown massively. So much so that even Saudi Arabia has set a target for meeting a third of its electricity from solar power by 2032!

Much of that growth is down to the success of a handful of large photovoltaic (PV) manufacturers in China. They have been able to drive down the cost of PV by around 6.5% per annum over the last few years, to the point where it’s beginning to compete with electricity generated from fossil fuels. Those costs will continue to fall for a long time to come; the reach of solar will spread, the scale will increase, and the impact on people’s lives will be massive. (providing we do not ''lock'' them out with levies that slow thier development and thus our ability to adopt these systems)

I’ve been talking about this transition to a solar economy for the best part of 40 years. During that time, people mostly responded with contempt, incredulity or patronising jocularity. Now it’s happening. My forecast is that PV and its sister technology – concentrated solar power – will provide around 30% of total global electricity by 2030.

But it has been a long time coming. If we have to wait an equally long time for every one of the new technologies on which a sustainable economy depends, then it may well turn out to be too late.

By all accounts, that was part of President Obama’s thinking at the start of his first term in 2008. He opted out of any pitched battle with Congress, and used his regulatory powers instead (on vehicle efficiency standards, for instance). At the same time, he pumped money into ARPA-E, a new incubator for alternative energy technologies, funded out of the $800 billion stimulus from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

This has kickstarted what some describe as a ‘silent green revolution’ in the Department of Energy. More than 150 different projects and programmes – many on the cutting edge of research – have been funded. A few of these have failed, to be sure, but more than a dozen have been picked up by venture capitalists and are showing real promise.

As author Thomas Friedman puts it, “green is the new red, white and blue”.

Both Friedman and former Vice President Al Gore (in his excellent new book, The Future) are out and about reminding people of the economic cost of accelerating climate change. For instance, it looks as if the damage done by hurricane Sandy will exceed $60 billion – precisely the sum of money Obama fought so hard to get by marginally raising tax levels on the richest US citizens for the next four years!

What’s missing is any real sense of urgency – in the US and Europe, let alone anywhere else in the world. And the only way to get lead times down is for politicians to press down on that urgency button as hard as they can, and keep on pressing.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future.  (from Green enegry futures)