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Energy Experts Describe Global Energy Progress—and Hurdles—in Talk at AAAS
Daniel A. Reifsnyder
Mark M. Little
Photos courtesy of Paul Recer
Finding energy sources that are abundant, affordable, secure and of limited threat to the environment is now a top concern for virtually every country in the world, experts said at a seminar at AAAS in Washington, D.C.
Learn more about this fall's lecture series, "Science and Society: Global Challenges" co-sponsored by AAAS. The final two lectures will be held 20 and 27 October.
In an open discussion in the AAAS auditorium, Daniel A. Reifsnyder, a U.S. State Department negotiator on international environmental issues, and Mark M. Little, a senior vice president at General Electric, said governments and corporations worldwide are wrestling with complex technical and policy issues that must be resolved to satisfy a growing need for an energy supply that does not hasten global climate change.
Reifsnyder, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Environmental and Sustainable Development who has been active in environmental negotiations for more than 20 years, succinctly described the problem: "How can we meet the world's energy needs without fouling the planet at the same time?"
"Every single person we deal with in these other countries wants the same thing," he said. "We have different perspectives and different positions but we all want to make the world a better place for ourselves and for future generations."
An agreement that achieves that universal goal remains elusive, said Reifsnyder, because of the widely different perspectives of the 192 nations now involved in climate change discussions. Some nations with common interests unite in negotiating blocks that have to be understood and accommodated.
For instance, said Reifsnyder, 37 small island nations are united by the threat of what rising sea levels, caused by global warming, would do to their countries. (Editor's note: Among those countries are Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Palau, and Micronesia, which are appealing to the United Nations for help. Officials from Kiribati, a nation of 33 small islands on the equator in the Pacific, say their nation will be uninhabitable within several decades and are asking help in relocating the nation's 100,000 residents.)
"If every single one of those countries stopped emitting greenhouse gases, it wouldn't really make very much difference in terms of the global situation," he said. And yet, he noted, "they have an enormous moral force in the negotiations."
Some developing nations, he said, are concerned that their fragile economies could be seriously damaged if the more powerful industrialized countries take action that affects global energy use. Some have proposed that the developing nations be compensated for any economic damage they suffer from climate change regulations adopted by advanced industrialized nations.
Such compensation, said Reifsnyder, "is not a terribly popular proposal."
In May 2007, President Bush launched the Major Economies Process on Energy Security and Climate Change to advance the shared objectives of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to ongoing negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Seventeen advanced industrialized nations are engaged in these ongoing climate discussions and the decisions of this group will have the greatest impact on global climate change. The Major Economies Process includes representatives from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union (and current EU President plus the European Commission), France, Germany, Indonesia, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus the United Nations.
"We have to have some kind of understanding among the major players about this issue," said Reifsnyder. "Who is going to do what and in what time frame?"
Reifsnyder said the fact that there is a universal yearning for energy solutions gives him confidence that ultimately the problems will be solved, although it may take generations.
"Sensing that commonality of purpose is very important," he said. "I take a lot of optimism from the pursuit of a common goal."
Little is director of the GE Global Research Center, a century-old industrial research laboratory that now has labs in the United States, Germany, China, and India.
He said GE has started an effort, called Ecomagination, that is dedicated to producing the technology needed to address a new era of sustainable energy sources and environmental controls.
"We are involved in a wide spectrum of energy systems, from nuclear to gas-fired power plants, coal-fired power plants, solar, and wind," said Little. "Our view is that we have to be ready to provide these solutions for needs anywhere in the world."
Little said GE was an early manufacturer of wind turbines for power production, and admits that it was years before the technology became profitable. "We lost a lot of money at first, but now we can sell every wind generator we make," he said. "Today, wind is the way to go."
Solar power plants, he said, have promise, but have to achieve an efficiency competitive with power plants fired by fossil fuels.
"If we or someone else can get the cost of solar low enough, then it will be transforming," said Little.
GE, through its Ecomagination effort, has already invested $12.5 billion on environmentally friendly products and technology. Such private sector investment in sustainable energy research would be encouraged by stable U.S. policies and regulations, he suggested.
Asked what the best government policy for encouraging private sector research, Little said: "I would like clarity of purpose, and a sustained clarity of purpose."
AAAS, Georgetown University and the Smithsonian Institution sponsored the 29 September conference, titled "Sustainably Delivering Energy in the Developing World." The moderator for the discussion was David Kestenbaum, a reporter for National Public Radio.
The event was the first in a series of seminars on global challenges organized by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.
15 October 2008