First ever international clean energy conference concludes in Washington, but to what end?

Delegates pose for photo during the Ministerial Public Forum on Clean Energy in Washington D.C

The first ever international conference devoted exclusively to clean energy was held yesterday in Washington. The Clean Energy Ministerial, hosted by US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, was attended by representatives from over 20 of the most polluting countries. Energy ministers from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, European Union, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom were present, all together responsible for 80% of the worlds energy consumption and a similar percentage of the worlds market for clean energies.

The meeting marked the first conversation about energy between these countries that excluded discussion of fossil fuels. The main aim of the conference is to avoid the need for an additional 500 medium sized coal power plants over the next 20 years, through the implementation of 11 initiatives. These include the;

The conference outcomes demonstrate growing understanding within governments of the value of the renewables market (billed to be worth $13 trillion market over the next two decades), as much as it demonstrates a policy consensus leaning towards sustainability. It is a wary recognition of the fact that countries who do not enter into this emerging market will be the losers of the green revolution. What a shame, then, that the least developed countries were not in attendance.

Regardless of this fairly significant gap in representation, members of the  American third sector represented by the US Climate Action Network have expressed guarded approval of the conference. In a letter to Mr Cho, they urge countries to commit to real investment in renewables and make a subtle attempt to steer discussion away from nuclear energy as a viable option. Countries have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars towards the initiatives, but Chu says that it is too early to assign an exact figure. We can only hope that the conference does not meet the same fate as it’s precursor: the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, where representatives of the European Commission and 16 individual nations proposed a doubling of investments in clean technologies by 2015 but choked on making a real financial commitment.

“The Clean Energy Ministerial has brought together leaders from around the world to take unprecedented actions to deploy clean energy technologies — from energy efficiency to renewable energy to smart grids to carbon capture. These steps will promote economic growth, create jobs and cut greenhouse gas emissions” says Cho,  “What we’ve seen here is that working together, we can accomplish more, faster, than working alone.”

In many ways he is fundamentally right: we can accomplish more working together, and the importance of this lesson should not be scoffed at. This conference was a landmark in the cultural change it represents and a huge success for the renewable energy industry, no doubt about it. But as John Kenneth Galbraith may point out were he alive, as long as the aims are more global economic growth and getting in on a new green cash cow to outcompete our neighbours then we are somehow missing the point.

Installing carbon capturing stations and building hydroelectric dams are easily executed and measurable technological answers to complex social, political and economic puzzles that demand far deeper solutions. They fail to address the deeper and more unsettling question of whether there is something inherently wrong with a society that measures success in terms of gross domestic product rather than human satisfaction or environmental stewardship. We have to look deeper, at our culture, at our levels of consumption, at the power relations in our society and our attitudes towards nature if we want real progress towards a sustainable world. An international carbon trading scheme at least attempted to put a price on environmental damage and thus bring it into our economic consciousness. Instead, by focusing instead on nationally competing renewables industries, we’re trying to make an extra buck out of it. But hey, the Clean Energy Ministerial is a start.

See here for the official press release.

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