Barely a day goes by without talk of climate change. The latest scientific reports have shown it is happening and that human activity is responsible. If we are to move beyond talk and prevarication, we need urgent solutions.
Renewable energy, carbon capture and biofuels are among the main solutions put forward to mitigate climate change. They are valid methods and must be pursued but the truth is that most of the technologies are either not ripe, still too expensive or have unwanted side effects.
There is a quicker, cheaper and more effective way of reducing carbon dioxide emissions that can be applied right now: energy-efficient technologies that are commercially available and proven. Energy efficiency is the low-hanging fruit in the campaign to protect the environment because the technologies exist and we know the savings they will deliver.
China, for example, has vast energy requirements that alternative fuels are not ready to meet. The country is set to open a new coal-fired power plant every week for the next 10 years, not because it's addicted to coal but because that's the affordable energy source that is available.
The issue that needs to be tackled today is how we can help and encourage China to raise the efficiency of those coal-fired power plants to minimize emissions of carbon dioxide. Like China, all fast growing countries are facing more or less the same challenging situation.
Similarly in industry, the biggest reductions in emissions in the short term will come from measures to run processes more efficiently.
To give one example, electricity consumption by industries ranges between 40 percent to 70 percent across the world, and two-thirds of that is used by electric motors.
Devices to regulate the speed of a motor can reduce energy consumption by 50 percent in many applications. Yet less than 10 percent of motors are equipped with such devices.
Fitting them to all the motors shipped last year alone would avoid 200 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, more than the annual emissions of the Netherlands. And there are many more energy saving opportunities like this.
The G8 leaders meeting from June 6 to 8 in Germany are right to focus on energy efficiency in their planned debate on ways to mitigate climate change. This is a great opportunity to raise awareness of the need to use existing resources more carefully. Industry can make a huge positive contribution but political will and support are needed to exploit its full potential.
There are many things politicians can do.
Raise awareness of the financial benefits of energy efficiency. Payback times can be extremely short but many businesses still focus on the purchase price when buying equipment instead of considering its cost over its entire lifespan. The purchase price of an electric motor, for instance, is just 1 percent of what the owner will spend on energy to run the equipment over its lifetime.
Create incentives for businesses and local authorities to save energy. The fairest would be a global price on emissions through a trading system. This will take time to achieve and in the meantime national governments can use standards, rules for public procurement or other means to promote energy efficient technologies.
Governments should make energy efficiency a criterion of every project they fund, treaty they negotiate, research agreement they support, school or hospital they build. Others will follow where governments lead.
Politicians should also consider legislation. Australia plans to ban conventional light bulbs and the European Union is likely to follow. Although energy efficient bulbs achieve huge savings, governments have decided it is taking too long for them to dislodge cheaper conventional lighting.
Efficiency standards were raised sharply in the 1970s without harming growth. On the contrary, it has made economies more resilient to the surge in fuel prices in recent years and helping energy efficient technologies will further reduce dependence on energy imports. Only fear is holding us back from taking much firmer action.
The G8 debate on energy efficiency is a positive signal. It is crucial that the leaders do more than pay lip service to it and are bold enough to set their own countries on a course that will make them models for others to follow.
The author is chief executive officer of ABB, the Zurich-based power and automation technology group
(China Daily 06/07/2007 page11)