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Fight Climate Change like a German

The in-progress Doha Climate Change Conference presents the perfect opportunity to read Global Cooling: Strategies for Climate Protection by Hans-Josef Fell. Green parliamentarian Fell is one of the fathers of Germany’s Renewable Energy Law, the seminal legislation guiding the country’s Energiewende.

Fell refutes the tired line that saving the planet’s climate requires sacrifice, vast riches, and endless red tape. Rather than focusing on costs, he points out the gains of proactive policies overhauling our economies within clean energy frameworks.

In a nutshell, there’s serious money to be made (and saved) in the greening of our societies, as well as other perks like energy security, reduced energy imports, job creation, poverty reduction, the generation of substantial tax revenue – not to mention quotidian environmental protection.

Numbers illustrate clearly just how lucrative: Germany’s boom in renewables created a growing industry that has a $16.9 billion annual turnover and employs 382,000 people, many of them in the economically depressed, rural former East. Investment in renewable energy plants reached an all-time high of $31.2 billion in 2011.

Since the production of wind and solar power is largely free of costs once initial investments in infrastructure have been made, one day Germany will have rock-bottom energy prices compared to economies still addicted to fossil fuels and nuclear energy. With “peak oil” days already behind us, and an expected subsequent rise in fossil fuel costs as supply dwindles, this day of comparative advantage may come sooner rather than later.

In addition, Fell claims the energy transition has helped Germany weather the recent economic crises so well. The renewables boom benefited not just major industries like steel, but actors along the value chain: craftsmen, planning offices, financial firms, mutual funds, farmers, and engineering and construction companies, among others. The key to its success is not government subsidies or central planning, but rather a small surcharge tacked onto consumers’ energy bills. This feed-in tariff model is, for Fell, essential to combating climate change.

It is not coincidence that Fell’s book came out in the months preceding Doha. Global Cooling is a how-to manual, presenting a workable recipe for climate protection, as well as starkly admonishing policymakers to steer away from “pseudo-solutions” that aggravate the problem or divert resources from solving it.

Among the gravest of these is carbon capture and storage, or CCS. The idea is to capture carbon from coal-fired power plants and store it forever in abandoned underground mines. A pilot technology that the coal industry once touted, they ran in the other direction as soon as the EU took it seriously and recommended mandatory CCS targets.

In addition to being undeveloped and enormously expensive, Fell, along with most experts and environmental groups, sees CCS as a red herring, distracting from practical solutions. As the captured gases would never dissipate, their escape at any time over the next millennia as the result of, say, an earthquake would again release that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Further no-goes are non-sustainably produced bio-fuels, hydrogen technologies, natural gas cars, and geoengineering.

Why does one need these expensive, futuristic technologies anyway, asks Fell, when renewables production, reforestation, energy efficiency measures, sustainable bioenergy, and biological agriculture are already there for us – and so affordable?

Just how “affordable” they are to economies less muscular then Germany’s is another question. But once the ball gets rolling, as it is in Germany, the benefits are hard to dispute.

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