In ‘Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution,’ the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman imagines the ideal response of the United States government to the challenges of global climate change. Most of his speculations focus on the manipulation of markets and money. Perhaps tax incentives could provide billions of dollars for research and development into new technology; perhaps utility companies could be persuaded to retrofit older houses as a matter of course, if offered a slice of the savings this would produce; perhaps traditional power grids could be updated to ‘smart’ grids which shuffle supply and demand across the network, the way Internet servers juggle traffic.
In this imagined future, instead of constantly over-producing energy in case there are sudden spikes in demand, power companies co-opt efficient consumers into returning excess energy (for which they are compensated) and use the profit motive to entice sceptics into switching to clean, renewable energy such as wind and solar. This sort of ‘blue sky’ futurism has become commonplace in environmental thinking, but Friedman has one advantage most other writers lack, his book has appeared twice on the official reading list of Barack Obama, once during the campaign and then again when President Obama went on his first holiday.
The United States may yet become a leader in the green revolution, but it has a great deal of catching up to do. In many other parts of the world, parts of Friedman’s speculative programme are already underway, often with spectacular results.
In March 1986, after four of the country’s top scientists warned Deng Xiaoping that China was missing out on scientific revolutions in biotechnology and elsewhere, the People’s Republic launched the 863 project – named after the month and year of its inception – to make up lost ground. Since then, despite its notorious reliance on fossil fuels, China’s heavy investments in research and development have produced astonishing results. According to The New Yorker, twenty years later, in 2006, “China doubled its wind-power capacity [then] doubled it again the next year, and the year after. The country had virtually no solar industry in 2003; five years later, it was manufacturing more solar cells than any other country.”
In Germany, progress to a green future has also taken place at double speed. In 2000, the German parliament passed a new Act on Granting Priority to Renewable Energy Sources which provided among other incentives, 20-year purchase guarantees for emerging green technologies such as wind, solar, biomass and biogas. This triggered a massive wave of new investment which has since persuaded thousands of Germans to build high-efficiency homes which produce more energy than they consume, and to offset the cost of the new technology by selling this extra energy back to the utility companies.
Even countries like Spain, whose economy has long lagged behind the EU’s leading nations, have begun to adopt futuristic green technologies. One of these is the Solar Platform at Sanlúcar la mayor, near Seville. Here, water in a 40-storey concrete tower is superheated by 624 giant mirrors that track the sun as it moves. The steam produced drives a turbine which provides 11mw of clean energy. When completed in 2013, at a cost of 1.2 billion euros, the project will generate around 300mw – enough to meet the energy needs of the entire population of Seville. This project also creates 1,000 manufacturing and construction jobs and 300 service and maintenance jobs.
Innovative power generation, however remarkable, can only be one part of the green future. As the environmentalist Bill McKibben points out in his new book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, even if we were able to cut our emissions to zero tomorrow, the chain reactions we have already set in motion will continue to alter the climate in strange and unpredictable ways. Not only do we have to change the way we obtain power, we have to stop squandering the power we already produce. For example, instead of driving cars around city centres, more of us should use public transport or bicycles. Here again, Europe leads the way. In many parts of Amsterdam and Copenhagen it is now so convenient to use public transit or bicycles that tens of thousands of commuters now prefer them because they get where they are going faster than they would with a car.
These developments, all of them fairly recent, show that it is possible to adapt to climate fairly rapidly and that market-driven solutions are often the most successful way to do so. But they also show that green development does not occur in a vacuum and that it needs political imagination, long-term funding, and a considerable shift in public attitudes to stewardship of the environment and the importance of obtaining energy from ‘clean’ sources.
If indeed Amaila Falls will supplement our ailing power supply by up to 154 mw, it is tempting to believe that Guyana may be on the verge of entering a twenty-first century green economy. But this hope should be tempered with an awareness that the countries mentioned above have only made progress towards this end through the steady implementation of well thought out and often hotly-debated political programmes to adopt emerging green technologies. We should also remember that their transition to a green economy has usually entailed massive investment in long-term infrastructural changes. Without a similar level of public interest and scrutiny, and a comparable shift in our attitudes to the environment and sustainable development, we should not expect our progress to be easier than the United States’ hesitant, chaotic and often self-contradictory moves towards a green future. Green visions are easy, but green politics is hard work.