Skip to content

Global Cooling: Drive Toward Low-Carbon Future Stalls

As countries reassess the likely depth and duration of the economic chill, many are rethinking their energy policies. Many are backtracking from the past decade’s robust support for green energy.

Before the global economic crisis hit in 2008, concerns about climate change and the security of energy supplies drove a big investment of financial and political capital in the development of alternative energy resources.

A roadside bull advertisement gazes toward a Spanish wind park. Growth in renewable power generation is continuing in China but it has slowed sharply in Europe and the United States.

The threat of global warming, combined with record high oil prices, convinced policy makers in the industrial world that dependence on fossil fuels was economically and geopolitically unsustainable.

Europe, the United States and China earmarked billions of dollars for low-carbon technologies like clean coal, wind and even nuclear power.

But the credit crunch and recession reined in the gallop toward a low-carbon future. Now, as countries reassess the likely depth and duration of the economic chill, many are rethinking their energy policies.

In cases like Spain, they are backtracking from the past decade’s robust support for low-carbon technologies that require huge front-loaded investments and public aid programs to encourage production and to compete with cheaper but dirtier fossil fuels.

Growth in renewables and nuclear power will surely continue, especially in China, but the double-digit growth rate in renewable capacity is likely to slow sharply in Europe and the United States. Carbon capture and sequestration, or C.C.S., technology that until recently was considered a silver bullet to reduce global warming has, meanwhile, fallen off the radar screen altogether.

The need for major new investments to reduce reliance on fossil fuels has brought uncertainty to the whole electricity sector, said Antony Froggatt, senior energy research fellow at Chatham House in London. “Whether it’s renewable or nuclear or both, it means higher costs,” Mr. Froggatt said. “If you add the fear of another recession, that means even more uncertainty.”

Forecasts from multiple sources, including the United Nations, nuclear industry executives, the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the International Energy Agency all point to a rise of at least 75 percent in nuclear power development by 2030. But in the short term, at least, the Fukushima catastrophe has stalled the sector.

In addition to a pullback by Germany, the upper house of the Swiss Parliament voted late in September, following a lower house vote in June, to phase out the country’s atomic energy plants, and a referendum in Italy in June rejected government plans to resume nuclear power generation. Countries like China and Britain have said they would proceed with their nuclear building programs after reassessing security risks.

While the pullback from nuclear power may encourage development of renewable resources, it is likely to have a net negative effect on climate change, since most nuclear generating capacity will inevitably be replaced by dirtier fossil fuel power plants.

Still, the lag in government support has reduced the former double digit growth rate of renewables, which is now expected to slow to a 9 percent compound rate for the next 15 years. The annual addition of solar capacity, for example, probably peaked globally in 2010, according to a report published in July by the consulting firm IHS Emerging Energy Research. That is despite a sharp decline in costs, which have fallen by as much as 50 percent in the past decade.

Full story