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Monday, February 4, 2008

Tipping into the light?

February 4, 2008

The Final Tipping Point

by Christopher Flavin, President, Worldwatch Institute

There are good reasons to think that the world may be on the verge of a major transformation of energy markets. The powerful interaction of advancing technology, private investment and policy reform have led to a pace of change unseen since men like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford created the last great energy revolution a century ago. But is it enough? Will the coming years bring the accelerated change and trillions of dollars of investment that Nicholas Stern estimates is needed to reverse the tide of climate change?

The answer to that question will likely be found not in the messy world of economics but in the even messier world of politics. Can the enormous power of today's industries be set aside in favor of the common good? Time is growing short. In the United States alone, 121 coal-fired power plants have been proposed. If built, they could produce 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide over their 60-year lives. China is building that many plants every year.

There were growing signs in 2007 that the years of political paralysis on climate change may be coming to an end, spurred by the warnings of scientists and the concerns of citizens. One sign of the changing times is that many of the planned coal plants are under attack by local and national environmentalists, and some have already been scrapped. Germany recently announced that its centuries-old hard coal industry will be closed by 2018.

Several potentially game-changing political developments in 2007 are worth noting:

  • Twenty-seven major U.S. Companies — from Alcoa and Dow Chemical to Duke Energy, General Motors, and Xerox — announced support for national regulation of CO2 emissions.
  • The European Union committed to reducing its carbon dioxide emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and member states are ramping up their energy efficiency and renewable energy programs in order to achieve these goals.
  • China announced its first national climate policy, pledging to step up its energy efficiency and renewable energy programs and acknowledging that earlier policies were not sufficient.
  • Seventeen states in the United States moved toward adopting regulations on CO2 emissions, increasing pressure on the U.S. Congress, which was considering national legislation.
  • Brazil recognized the threat that climate change poses to the country's economically crucial agriculture and forestry industries and signaled a new commitment to strengthening international climate agreements.

As negotiations begin on the international climate agreement that will supplant the Kyoto Protocol after 2012, the world's political will to tackle climate change will be put to an early test. The politics of climate change are advancing more rapidly than could have been imagined a few years ago. But the world has not yet reached the political tipping point that would ensure the kind of economic transformation that is required. And the divide between industrial and developing countries over how to share the burden of action must still be resolved.

As people around the world come to understand that a low-carbon economy could one day be more effective than today's energy mix at meeting human needs, support for the needed transformation is bound to grow. Urgency and vision are the twin pillars on which humanity's hope now hangs.

Christopher Flavin is President of the Worldwatch Institute. This piece was excerpted from the WorldWatch State of the World 2008. For more information, please visit

The information and views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of or the companies that advertise on its Web site and other publications.

Reader Comments (1)

Jonathan Cole

Date Posted:
February 4, 2008

I have been a fan of Worldwatch Institute since its inception. But I must say that if we wait for the political will to make these changes, it may be too late. The way the world works is the old "king of the hill" technologies (i.e. railroads, petroleum energy systems), are defeated by upstart technologies (automobiles, ([solar energy systems?]) that give the customer what they want at a price they can afford. Solar is already affordable, it is just not packaged efficiently. It is not the politicians we are waiting on, it is the intelligent financiers!! The Henry Ford of solar energy is awaiting the financial means to mass produce the right product!