Climate change and the depletion of oil reserves are taking place faster than expected and the policies being put in place are insufficient to keep up, leading economist Jeremy Rifkin told EurActiv France in an interview, pleading for the EU to lead the way towards a "Third Industrial Revolution".

  • The "sunset of an energy regime":  

We are "at the last stage of an energy era", Jeremy Rifkin told The current energy system based on fossil energies will not last through the 21st century as oil prices surge and "peak oil" – the point of maximum oil production – will, according to him, be attained in 2030 at the latest. 

"I don't know who's right, the optimists or the pessimists. But anyway, it will happen between 2010 and 2030, and it leaves a very small window," he said. 

Action is needed urgently, he added, pointing to the increasing number of studies, including the United Nations' third climate report, which reveal not only the speed and acceleration of climate change but also the alarming consequences it is already having. "We have to understand the enormity of what is happening here. We are talking about the potential extinction of our species," he warned. 

  • A "Third Industrial Revolution" based on three pillars   

Firstly, renewable forms of energy, including solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, ocean waves and biomass, need to be developed and factored in "wherever we are, in our infrastructures, in our homes, in our offices, in our vehicles". The EU has already started investing in these and has set itself the target of attaining a 20% share of renewable use in energy by 2020 (EurActiv 23/01/08). This is a "good thing", says Rifkin, but it will "not be enough". 

The EU must now work to find ways of storing these renewable energies. "Renewable energy is intermittent. The sun isn't always shining, the wind isn't always blowing." 

Existing storage media, such as batteries or differentiated water pumping, can only provide limited storage capacity. But Rifkin believes that hydrogen can provide a solution – as a "universal medium that 'stores' all forms of renewable energy". 

"If some of the electricity generated when renewable energy is abundant can be used to extract hydrogen from water, which can then be stored for later use, society will have a continuous supply of power," he explained. While the technology may appear expensive now, so were the first cars and computers, he added. 

  • A new role for the Internet  

The third pillar relates to distribution. Europe must establish a "continent-wide, fully-integrated intelligent intergrid [that] allows each EU member state to both produce its own energy and share any surpluses with the rest of Europe in a 'network' approach to ensure EU energy security." he said. In this way, Italy could share its surplus solar energy with Britain, which could in turn share its excess wind power with Portugal, and so on. 

But for this to happen, the "communication revolution" must connect with the energy revolution, he stressed. "The great pivotal economic changes in world history have occurred when new energy regimes converge with new communication regimes," he said, pointing to the convergence of Gutenberg's print press with coal steam and the first industrial revolution, or the creation of the telephone in the 20th century, which converged with internal combustion and oil for the second industrial revolution. 

We are now living the IT revolution, but we have yet to see its full potential, its "deeper historical mission", he said. "That potential lies in their convergence with renewable energy, partially stored in the form of hydrogen, to create the first 'distributed' energy regimes." 

  • Nuclear slowing us down 

In order to fulfil the world's energy needs through nuclear energy, Rifkin said: "You have to put under construction a new nuclear power plant every 30 days for the next 50 years. That's 2,500 new power plants. This is not realistic." Investments in this area are "keeping us from getting the third industrial revolution," he added. 

  • An opportunity for Europe 

Everyone is trying to hold onto the current system because they are afraid and no-one is willing to make the first sacrifices, Rifkin noted. Yet, he sees the Third Industrial Revolution as "probably the greatest economic opportunity in history". What's more, he stressed, the EU – as the world's biggest internal market, with 500 million consumers – has the necessary assets to lead the way. "Europe should not panic or deconstruct" because other economies, like the US, are bailing out, he insisted. "Europe created the first industrial revolution. We (USA) created the second revolution and Europe can make the third one." 

To read the interview in full, please click here.