Comment: how do we get to a sustainable future?

Miguel Mendonça

In terms of carbon emissions, how do we get deliver solutions to our climate and energy challenges? For those who simply wish to get there quickly, it may look easy in terms of technology. However, Miguel Mendonça of the World Future Council is convinced that getting there requires more agreement, more collaboration and more action.

In the renewable energy space, many people see their own technology as the way forward, arguing their point endlessly while claiming that other technologies are not quite “there” yet – or marginal at best. The notional visitor from another planet may find all this argument amusing, baffling, or tragically common. This visitor can see what we are too close to see: that we need to work together – and soon.

What is the World Future Council's approach? We surveyed the best proven and emerging solutions around the world for decarbonising the global economy. We set out to identify methods of renewal – of the energy system, of the carbon-absorbing capacity of the biosphere, of cities and local economies, and of international cooperation, democracy, justice and money systems. Our ultimate aim is to determine the building blocks of a renewable world.

We started by asking: how do we reduce both carbon emissions and carbon concentrations? We went into this research with open minds, attempting to find the most truly sustainable approaches – not the quick-fixes, or methods of making rich companies or countries richer at the expense of the poor. We took a global, ethical perspective, as we feel this is vital for local and global stability. For example, we view mass migrations as a sign of policy failures, as they certainly tend to reduce stability in affected regions. So we need to look after people where they are.

Too much carbon, too few jobs

How do you kill these two birds with one stone? It's simple: you green the economy. This is now agreed across the political spectrum. Of course, there is a compelling logic to creating a green economy: We have to do it anyway, and if we do, everyone wins. We have found many examples of both research and practice on making the green career ladder reach all the way to the street.

From ex-convicts to those with substance abuse issues – or those simply untrained and uneducated – many who have found much of traditional employment out of their reach have been able to take that first step into “green roles” such as wood recycling in the UK, urban agriculture in China, or community gardening in the US. There are many ways in, and these roles can all develop according to the desires and abilities of the individual – and of the sector itself.

Despite the slowdown in the conventional car market for example, new investments are creating new jobs in building electric, hybrid and hydrogen vehicles. Battery and other storage technologies are also opening up employment possibilities. High-level research and development have also been given a boost by way of the green economic stimulus packages which have been widely reported in 2009.

The USA is pouring more than US$100 billion into renewables, efficiency, grids, transport and training via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act 2009. So opportunities are emerging at all levels, despite the difficult economic landscape in general.

To make these things happen on a larger scale we will need not just taxpayer hand-outs, but policy drivers. These have been most commonly applied to renewables, but are now spreading into many other key areas, including energy efficiency, manufacturing, waste, buildings and transport. Some of these drivers are:

  • Extended Producer Responsibility (product take-back, reuse and recycling laws);
  • Public and private sector green procurement (mandates for purchasing eco-friendly products and services);
  • Ecolabelling (guiding purchasing choices by creating standards);
  • Recycling and anti-landfill mandates (i.e. obligations upon local authorities);
  • Green Building standards (i.e. the UK's Zero Carbon Homes by 2016 policy);
  • Energy efficiency retrofits (Government-funded schemes, mandates);
  • Sustainable transport (walking and cycling promotion, alternative fuel mandates, tram or bus rapid transit systems);
  • Renewable energy and energy efficiency targets, mandates and incentives (feed-in tariffs, solar roof programmes, solar thermal ordinances, tax credits, portfolio standards, fuel efficiency standards).

It is evident that these drivers provide another major benefit, that of public awareness and participation.

Decentralised or centralised, or both?

This last year has seen many interesting discussions in the world of renewables, most notably supergrids and the formation of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). The former has been on trial so far. As often happens in the field of energy, whatever idea a proponent of a technology or particular approach puts forward, opponents will counter it utterly and rapidly. Nuclear, CCS and biofuels all fall into this category, and this has been my experience of the supergrids discussion so far.

There are many ideas out there on supergrids. Although these ideas share some basic characteristics, proposals from stakeholders such as Mainstream Renewable Power, the e-Parliament, or Dr. Gregor Czisch – the German scientist – vary in size, geographical scope and emphasis on different types of RE integration. The European Climate Forum extended the supergrid idea, proposing the SuperSmartGrid concept, which combines Supergrid and Smart Grid technologies. However, implementation leaves many questions still to be addressed regarding the legislative, political, financial and technical prerequisites.

Some, such as Hermann Scheer, member of the German Bundestag, President of Eurosolar (The European Association for Renewable Energy) and general chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy, vehemently oppose the concept, arguing that – among other things – the monopolistic structures which stifle competition, innovation and participation (and are under no pressure to reduce costs) may reappear to run the supergrid, or significant parts of it. He advocates a decentralised strategy, which has the advantage of bringing many more people into the market, making it more vibrant and human, and reducing distances for transmission, and hence costs.

Furthermore, he believes it could make decentralised energy an afterthought. Other well-known figures, such as Gerry Wolff of DESERTEC UK, find these concerns groundless, suggesting that competition will exist among suppliers in a single European electricity market anyway, and that a supergrid will need decentralised energy feeding into it.

A third way may be that of “energy subsidiary” – meaning that one only looks for energy imports beyond the realisable renewable energy production from the local area – building-integrated, ground-mounted, use of all possible roofs, facades, water bodies, landscapes, landfills and so on. This also includes all possible efficiency savings, as well as practicing ‘energy sufficiency,’ or the use of a cap on energy use in buildings. The Swiss 2000 Watt Society is just that, a collective of those who have found ways to live on a 2,000-watt electricity diet.

How do we get that carbon down again?

A key question concerns reducing carbon concentrations. The conventional energy industry is quick to point out that CCS is the way forward. Everyone else who examines the issue points out that it doesn't exist yet. At least not at commercial scale. Our findings also suggest limited applicability, high cost and reduced efficiency of power stations.

One might add that this again gives more weight in the energy portfolio to burning coal, and may well divert focus and investment from the renewables sector. While this is an obvious move from the conventional energy industry, one would like to see much more being done to redress this. It is, after all, a naked attempt to retain control over the energy market; in this day and age, we know that the days of investing in more fossil fuel plants are soon to be over.

Our preference would be for biological carbon sequestration, or bio-sequestration, rather than geo-sequestration. Aside from the issues above, ecosystem restoration, reclaiming fertile land from the deserts and improving the health of the oceans and soils, is critical to increasing the carbon-absorbing capacity of the biosphere. Forests need to be created, recreated or protected worldwide, soils can be improved with biochar and organic farming methods, and seagrass and mangrove restoration can not only yield many benefits to the biosphere, but also local economies. It is again an example of “a logic too compelling to ignore”. We must make these improvements to the natural world, as well as protect what remains. We cannot be insulated forever from the degradation of ecosystems, or the effects of climate change.

What else needs to be in place?

Without the active participation of citizens and communities, we cannot achieve what we need to in time. The above measures cannot be fostered by the will of Government and business alone: it requires society-wide buy-in, in all nations. There may be several ways of bringing this about. What is not working is fear, or material temptation through green consumerism. Carbon offsetting will not crack it.

The list of policy drivers above can be useful for increased stimulation of green purchasing and behaviour, but it seems clear that more is required, if we are to engage people more widely in climate- and environment-protecting activities. Money, for one thing. The much-desired “values-shift” shows no sign of appearing any time soon.

This is not like slavery, where the issue was real, vivid, something in front of everyone's eyes daily. It is not a clear and present danger like an invasion. It is still a nebulous threat, and may only show up during hurricane season, or a deadly heat wave – and even then may be something only witnessed through television. So what do we need to do?

The feed-in tariff policy can draw people in via the financial rewards. They may not be great, but they are certain, giving a level of investment confidence which is both high and protected by the law of the land – if the policy has become enshrined in national legislation. Special conditions can be applied to facilitate community projects; in fact the Danes helped to create their community wind scene through having a geographical ownership restriction in place in the early years. The expansion and eventual removal of this could have contributed to the reduction in community projects which ensued.

In parts of Latin America they employ an approach called “participatory budgeting”, wherein local people thrash out what they would like to spend a portion of the municipal budget on for the next fiscal year. They can prioritise areas such as education, health, transport and so on, and must reach consensus eventually. It has worked very well, even reducing crime in the process as communities become more integrated. International institutions including the World Bank have praised the system repeatedly.

There is no reason why local people cannot make such decisions on reducing carbon in their areas. The technology, policy and best practices exist already, and as Cicero said, “Freedom is participation in power.” The sense of disempowerment that can be imbued by the media, and by Governments evidently dictated to by big business, has to be countered by personal and collective action in one's local area. This has to be facilitated by Government, local and national. This also creates a stake in the green economy, and can help spur further legislative greening by creating “a reserve army of activists”. The populace can become active partners in remaking some of the fundamentals of society.

The new industrial revolution, powered by renewables, can create more spin-off benefits and applications, as did the first industrial revolution, and the telecommunications revolution.

What next?

We know we need to get renewables moving, here, there and everywhere. We have been doing work on getting them deployed in developing countries, and examining how feed-in tariff support schemes might be funded and designed for different markets (part 2 of this article, appearing soon, will look at design options). “Fossil fuelled” growth in emerging economies is dangerous, and in developing countries it is a major disadvantage at best. Increased carbon pricing could make it an overwhelming handicap.

About the author:
Miguel Mendonça is the research manager of the World Future Council, author of Feed-in Tariffs, World Future Council/Earthscan, 2007, and co-author of both A Renewable World (with Herbert Girardet), forthcoming from Green Books, 2009, and Powering the Green Economy: The Feed-in Tariff Handbook (with David Jacobs and Benjamin Sovacool), forthcoming from Earthscan, 2009.



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