Lester Brown founded Washington-based think-tank the Worldwatch Institute and currently heads the Earth Policy Institute. He has just released his new book, Plan B 4.0.
He was speaking to EurActiv's managing editor Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener.
You have just arrived from the US. Are we going to have a US climate bill? Why, despite the sense of urgency following the Deepwater oil spill and with the health bill out of the way, are US lawmakers still dragging their feet on legislation?
There is a great deal of uncertainty. But what I am impressed with is what the Obama administration is doing independently of Congress.
For example, in spring 2009 the administration pushed for rather ambitious fuel efficiency standards for new cars sold in the US. That is one major advance.
Another is solving the legislative backlog. Throughout the Bush years, when Congress passed new appliance efficiency standards, the Department of Energy never translated the legislation into regulation.
So, there was actually a backlog of legislation passed even before the Obama administration took over. And one of the first things Obama did was to issue an executive order that the Department of Energy [must] begin to deal with the backlog.
The third thing: the US government is setting its own carbon reduction goal, as I recall, of 40% by 2020. This is for government agencies. The US government owns or leases roughly 500,000 buildings, the government auto fleet is probably over 600,000 vehicles: that's going to improve efficiency there.
What percentage of the total economy does that represent?
I don’t have that figure. But these are examples of things happening. There are other things happening.
Last year, the US automobile fleet decreased by four million vehicles: that is because new car sales were 10 million but 14 million were scrapped. So we had four million fewer vehicles.
It now looks like that the US auto fleet is going to continue to shrink in the next 10 years, because sales are going to be exceeded by the number of cars scrapped, through 2020. That is because we had very heavy sales between 1994 through 2007: sales ranging from 15-17 million a year. But probably we are not going to have new car sales of much more than 12 million a year.
Isn’t that due to the economic crisis?
Last year, the big drop was partly due to that. But there is something else happening in the US. We are becoming largely an urban population. 80% of Americans live in cities and in cities the demand for cars is much less than in rural areas.
In Washington D.C,, 62% of households, I think, own a motor vehicle. As we urbanise, urban transport is improving and it is improving in most major cities in the United States.
In Washington D.C., for example, we are extending the subway all the way up to Dulles Airport, which is not just the airport, but large parts of Virginia that will have access to public transportation that we did not have before. Similar projects are happening all over the country.
Another thing that economists have missed in forecasting the future of auto sales is the attitude of young people towards cars. That is changing partly because many have been raised in cities, but partly because of changing behaviour.
When I was a teenager in southern New Jersey, for everyone in my class getting a driver’s licence and a car was a right of passage. Everyone did. Socialising depended on the car.
But today young people socialise over the Internet and mobile phones, and cars are not such a big part of teenage socialisation.
In the US, the number of teenage drivers peaked in 1979 at 12 million. It is now down to 10 million and it will probably continue to decline.
Don’t you think that the decline is also due to demographic change?
I think it is partly economics, partly demographic change. But the fact is that these driver’s licence courses are being dropped.
Now, if you want a driver’s education you need to pay 200-300 dollars, and some young people just don’t bother. Cars are just not in their future.
This is another reason why future car sales are not going to be great.
Then, there is the overall economics. Apart from the recession, there is a growing sense of insecurity in the States.
For middle-class income, particularly blue-collar workers, incomes have not increased in 20 years, so people are becoming much more conservative in their spending and they don’t buy cars as much as they used to.
Therefore, what we have now in the automobile sector is a shrinking number of vehicles and an increase in fuel efficiency, so that the amount of oil we use is being squeezed in two directions.
Other things that are happening that are not part of policy is a powerful grassroots movement opposing coal-fired power plants. This has made it impossible to get a licence to build new coal-fired power plants, and we have a de facto moratorium.
The fire and the belly of this movement has come from local groups but has been coordinated by the Sierra Club at national level, especially when it comes to legal strategies.
Now that the campaign to prevent the building of new coal-fired plants has succeeded, groups are moving to stage two, which is to close existing coal-fired power plants. Now at least 30 - or even 40 – coal-fired plants are scheduled to close and will be replaced by natural gas, in some cases wind, and some cases wood chips.
And also nuclear power: isn’t there a revival of the nuclear energy movement?
No. There is a lot of noise. But noise is not the same as building new nuclear power plants. The economics of nuclear power has become almost impossible now.
I don’t know if you are familiar with the new plant in Finland that has been under construction for some years. It is two years behind schedule and two billion dollars over budget, and now Areva and the Finnish government are hardly even talking to each other. The last I heard it had come to a standstill.
But that is the new generation of nuclear power plants. It was supposed to be the new poster child for the industry and it is a disaster.
In the US and Canada, during the planning stages the costs more than doubled, then nearly tripled and they finally pulled the plug.
In the US, the only way that one can build a nuclear power plant and pull the capital from private sources is if the loans are guaranteed by the government. This is what the noise has been about.
The Obama administration has agreed to guarantee the loans for two new nuclear power plants in Georgia, but my sense is that we will not go far beyond that. And we are not sure if those two are going to be built.
Since Chernobyl the industry has largely died. There have been very few young people going into nuclear physics and nuclear engineering. Many of the suppliers of various parts have largely disappeared. So it has become very difficult and costly to build new nuclear power plants.
We have some being built in China, but worldwide nuclear electricity generation has been declining and will probably decline at least for the next decade just based on what we know on plants going on.
In the US, efforts are being made to extend the operating life of existing power plants, partly because some of the older plants are leaking.
But some countries in Europe see nuclear energy as key element of their energy mix, in order to meet the carbon reduction targets they have committed to … especially France and Italy.
France is getting almost 80% of its electricity from nuclear power plants and is building one new nuclear power plant - also over budget and behind schedule - but they are not replacing their old ones.
But they are also building 15,000 megawatts of wind energy and wind farms are beginning to go up in France as they did in Germany over a decade ago.
You were saying that domestically the US is moving in the right direction to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the idea behind the energy and climate bill was also to put a price on carbon and develop a cap-and-trade market to create a global level-playing field. There is a sense that if we don’t have that bill, international negotiations will be at risk. What is your view on this?
My sense is that international climate negotiations have become obsolete and we have not realised it yet. A couple of reasons: when you have a huge number of delegations, no-one wants to come back home appearing to have conceded more than someone else - so it becomes very political.
In this vein, if you look at countries’ delegations they are mostly composed of diplomats and lawyers, not scientists and visionaries. No meteorologists are on these teams, but there should be.
The other problem is that it took years to negotiate for Copenhagen, and we still did not get it. Now we hope for Mexico. But even if we have a meaningful agreement it will take years to get it ratified. And we don’t have much time and we have to move fast.
The reason I mentioned the green movement in the United States is because that is affecting carbon emissions and it is entirely independent from Washington.
In terms of emissions we should look at what has happened over the last two years. Coal usage has dropped 11%, partly because of the recession, but not entirely. During the same two year period we brought 191 new wind farms online, generating 17,000 megawatts of generating capacity.
This has nothing to do with climate legislation, it is happening for other reasons. If we can get a good climate bill, then great. If we don’t get one, it is not the end of the world, because we will still be closing coal-fired power plants and we are still going to be building wind farms.
And solar farms I suppose …
Yes, especially solar-thermal in the southwest of the US. It has been interesting also to see Desertec take off in Europe.
But the big thing in the solar-thermal power plants has been the addition of molten-salt technology, which enables them to use for an extended generator period from sundown to midnight and allows them to get through peak periods. This is the technology at the heart of Desertec.
But if domestic action in the US, in China and in Europe is putting the world on the right low-carbon track, why is there such blockage in talks on an international framework? Is it maybe a governance problem? Some are saying than rather than a UN process, we need to have climate change ‘coalitions of the willing’. Do you share this view?
The two major players right now are the US and China. If they move in the right direction then the world is going to follow. What is emerging right now is more clearly recognised market competition for developing the new energy technology.
For the last generation, it has been information technology that has driven investment and progress and productivity. In this area, it was the US that provided leadership from the first computer to the Internet.
If you look at the big companies: it is Microsoft and Google, etc.
Now people are beginning to realise that future growth in the next few decades is going to be in the energy transition. We are going to leave fossil fuels behind for many reasons: depletion of resources, pollution and energy security.
The Chinese have not been supporting an international climate agreement because a meaningful agreement would drive countries everywhere to invest in new technologies and new energy sources.
The Chinese wind programme is huge. They were late to come to wind energy, but once they got started they moved very fast. In each of the last five years they have doubled their capacity.
But beyond that, a Chinese government agency is coordinating the development of seven wind mega complexes – 135,000 megawatts of generating capacity. To put that in coal-fired plant equivalent, that is equal to 135 coal plants. This is like building a coal-fired power plant every week for the next two and half years. It is huge. We have never seen thinking on this scale before in any kind of energy, and this is on top of all the little farms being built around the country.
China passed the US in new wind installations last year. We passed Germany three years ago and now China is passing the US. But in total installations, the US still leads.
China is driven by its own climate concerns. When I was in Beijing two years ago, I suggested that they construct a telephone line that would link the department of agriculture with the department of energy so that they would talk to each other.
Because the decision made by the ministers of energy to build more coal-fired plants would have much more impact on food security than the decisions being made by the minister of agriculture.
The Chinese know that if the glaciers on the top of the Tibet plateau go - and they are going - they are in trouble. Thy have done a 25-year study of their glaciers. They know what is happening and they are starting to worry about that.
They are also worried about the health consequences of pollution. China has gone beyond infectious disease [a major problem in developing countries] but the leading source of death is cancer. Given what we know about the lifetime and the actual development of cancer, we have to assume that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.
Birth defects are also part of this package, particularly if you only have one child.
So the US and China are moving ahead, but what about an international framework to put everyone on the same level playing field?
Look at Desertec: it was not part of the Copenhagen discussion. It was led by a group of companies to integrate the solar resources of North Africa with the wind resources of Northern Europe into a single, regional grid.
This was not a government proposal. It was a consortium of corporations led by Munich Re with Siemens and Eon, etc.
Again, the anti-coal movement did not have anything to do with government. Look at what’s happening in China in investing in new energy sources…of course the government is involved, but it’s doing it partly for commercial reasons.
It’s the economy, stupid! … to use the famous phrase.
It is the new energy economy, stupid! Things are happening. If we can get an international agreement, I think it would be great. But …
What is exciting now is that more and more people are starting to see the potential. The solar potential in North Africa is interesting. As the Algerians pointed out, they have enough harnessable solar energy in their desert that could power the world economy.
It is also about changing lifestyles, and that can only be done by carving the right policies. How can we convince politicians?
The point I am trying to make is that it is a mistake to look at Copenhagen and judge our future entirely on that. Or look at the legislation in the US Congress and say the world is failing. Because the Desertec or the anti-coal movement, and others that are not even anticipated today but that can develop tomorrow, can play an important role.
We are moving towards a tipping point on climate-energy issues. It has been driven by many horses: pollution, market etc.
I think Desertec is going to restructure the entire European energy economy. It’s going to take years and decades, but it is going to happen.
I use three models to explain social change. One is the Pearl Harbour model, where you have a catastrophic event that changes everything.
The second model is the Berlin Wall model, where the Berlin Wall coming down was the visual manifestation of a political revolution in Eastern Europe that changed every form of government in the region without bloodshed. Romania was a minor exception.
It was a peaceful revolution and we did not see it coming. You cannot find any political science article in the 1980s saying: watch Eastern Europe, big change coming. After the Wall fell down: the White House called the Central Intelligence Agency and said, 'how come you did not warn us this was coming?'
Not only did nobody anticipate it, but they were not able to explain it. That is the nature of the tipping point. You cannot say if you cross that line, everything is going to change - because you don’t know where the lines are.
I sense that we are moving to the tipping point. If you just look at things that have happened in the last couple of years - the anti-coal movement, the European Desertec, the Chinese wind programme - they have happened in a very short-time and each is a major development in its own right. None of the three had really anything to do with climate legislation.
That is not to say that governments don’t need to move much faster and establish efficiency standards and other policies. We need to do that and a lot more of it. But it is not the only thing.
So on climate change, are we on the Berlin Wall model or the Pearl Harbour one? Didn’t you have a third model?
The third model is called the sandwich model, where you have an upwelling of support for something and support at the top.
In the US, the lapse between the first freedom marches on racial issues in the South, in 1962, and 1967 when President Johnson signed legislation guaranteeing the right to vote and a whole series of human rights to give blacks equality in every state in the Union, was about a five-year period.
During those five years, a lot of things happened, from Martin Luther King to the new legislation.
I mention that because things happen very fast sometimes and you can’t always see them. But there was support at the top, finally we had President Kennedy and then Johnson, who was himself a southerner, supporting this revolutionary approach to human rights and the racial equality movement in the United States. You had that and then you had the up-welling of support from the grassroots.
It does not have to be a majority, but an active group.
We have the support of Obama on climate change and we have the support of the grassroots - seen in Copenhagen, but not only there. So if I understand you correctly, these two are going to create a sandwich effect on decision-makers in Congress?
I think so. What we also have from the political point of view in the US is a good cop, bad cop situation. Obama is the good cop, who wants to be friends with everybody. So he will guarantee some loans to nuclear power, he will do offshore drilling to get the support of Republicans. But behind the scenes, Lisa Jackson [the US Environmental Protection Agency] is doing things that you would not imagine.
She is the visionary…
She is the visionary and she is tough. I think she is going to end mountain top removal - where they blow the top off the mountain to have easier access to coal.
Let me come back to the global picture: you said that things are happening. If we have an international agreement tant mieux, if not, then it's not the end of the world. Right?
I think we should push for a global agreement. But I think the US and China, by their actions, are probably going to establish leadership roles in one way or another.
Not many people in the US are aware that coal power plants are pretty much finished in the US.
If I had been part of the US negotiating team, I would have emphasised things that are happening in the US. But the diplomats in Washington are pretty much isolated from the environmental grassroots. There are no established ties, but this is where the important action is happening on this issue.
Governments have an important role to play, but they are not the only players.
In terms of leadership, where do you put the EU? After all, Europe adopted the first emissions trading scheme, it was the first bloc that came up with an ambitious target, it came up with visionary projects like Desertec, as you rightly pointed out, so isn’t Europe leading the way? Where does Europe stand in your picture?
I think Europe has trouble answering that question. The cap-and-trade system in Europe did not have a great effect on carbon emissions. Europe has done a lot of little things, and individual countries have done useful things - Germany has done some real important things in building renovation, energy efficiency.
One of Europe’s problems is that it is not a country, it is 27 countries. It cannot move with the same decisiveness that one country can. That makes it a bit clumsy and even though all the things you said are true, Europe does not create in the world’s mind the sense of a visionary. There is no person that represents Europe.
There is an Obama and a Wen Jibao, they are visual and representative of their country, but there is no European counterpart. That is why even if Europe has taken many actions in the climate-energy sector that have not been taken by the rest of the world, it does not get the recognition it deserves.
Germany, Denmark, Sweden have done many things, but it does not translate into Europe in the same way.
Farming and land use will have a great impact on climate change and food security. We have seen a few food crises. Are we taking the right measures to avoid further crises?
There are a number of food bubbles in the world that are the result of over pumping. Half of the world's population lives in countries where aquifers are being depleted.
To cite an example: the World Bank study reports that 15% of people living in the country (that is 175 million) are being fed by grain produced by over pumping, which by definition is a short-term phenomenon. By over pumping you are creating this bubble, but when the aquifers are depleted, pumping will be reduced to the rate of recharge of the aquifers.
We have this in India, in China (130 million) and I could use many other examples: Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran.
There are these food-water bubbles that are beginning to burst all over the place.
The most dramatic one is in Saudi Arabia, for example: this is happening now. For 20 years, they have been self-sufficient in wheat production, because they were pumping water from a fossil aquifer and that aquifer is now largely depleted and they are phasing out wheat production.
In 2007, they produced nearly three million tones of wheat: this year it seems they are producing only 700,000 tones of wheat and in two years from now, they will produce zero.
That food bubble is bursting. Saudi Arabia has 26 million people. What happens if in India, grain production starts to drop because of water shortage, or in China, which has turned to Kazakhstan for three million tones, and the US. That is new, because China has made a real effort to be self-sufficient.
These food bubbles are beginning to burst and it is quite possible that we have reached peak water in the world.
The idea that the world economy will be hitting peak water and peak oil at about the same time, both of which affect food security are a matter of concern - also because world agriculture is oil dependent and because oil sets the price of grain, but also because we can convert grain into oil.
If the food value of grain is less than the fuel value, the market will move the grain into the energy economy out of the food economy and if the price of oil goes up, the price of grain will follow.
This peak water-peak oil coming at the same time is really a matter of concern.
The world after peak water will be very different from the world before peak water.
Remember, we tripled the world irrigated areas from 1950 to 2000, then it has only increased 3% since then. Now it is probably going down, looking for example at India, where water is not freely available to the public.
That means that prices are going to increase and we are going to see more crises around the world. Are we really giving food security the attention it deserves?
For a long time, I rejected the idea that food could be the weak link in our civilisation as it was in many of the earlier civilizations, like Samarias and the Maya.
I am now starting to think that it's the weak link in our civilisation and that we are going to see serious trouble in the relationship of the global economy and its national support system - aquifers, fisheries, forests, grasslands …
Do we have a solution? Seawater desalination?
There are solutions, but we need to launch a worldwide effort to raise water productivity, the same way we launched land productivity in the 1950s.
As a result of that effort, we succeeded in tripling grain yields worldwide between 1950 and 2000. It is harder to raise water productivity, but there are a lot of things we can do that we are not now doing.