Rio Summit Must Make a Difference for Clean Energy

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Rio Summit Must Make a Difference for Clean Energy

World leaders have debated the merits of sustainable development and a green economy at Rio + 20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.

Protesters have used the event to highlight injustice.

And something substantive benefiting the environment may actually get done. This year’s theme is after all “a green economy in the context of sustainable development poverty eradication and the institutional framework for sustainable development.”

However, listening to current U.S. political discourse makes me wonder if anybody in government seriously considers steering toward a green economy.

Wall street bankers, brokers and speculators remain so fixated on profits and bizarre anti-populist goals like killing Dodd-Frank, the already weak-kneed consumer protection act, that real values get swept away like last quarter’s balance sheet. The concepts of quality of life, a better place for children and continued proliferation of the American way — where everyone has a chance to make it big — get nothing but lip service.

A trillion reasons

Robert Redford put it succinctly in a piece on Huffington Post: “We can do better,” he writes. His point is that with so much at stake, we need to shift some emphasis to clean energy and eliminate the near “one trillion dollars of subsidies… handed out to help the fossil fuel industry” each year.

Here’s author and activist Bill McKibben’s take, from an email he sent to the 350.org network: “We know that world leaders aren’t likely to achieve a comprehensive climate breakthrough in Rio.” But he says stopping subsidizing the fossil fuel industry would “give renewable energy a fighting chance.”

The buzzword now is jobs. The issue is so important people are ready to jump at anything, even a silly pipeline project that taps perhaps the most planet-cooking reserves Earth has to offer.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Redford says, and he’s backed up by numerous studies, that every federal or state dollar invested in clean energy gives multiple times the return of fossil fuels. Truly, that’s the kind of job that makes sense. Here in California’s San Joaquin Valley, we’re trying to prepare a ready work force. A consortium of community colleges has banded together to prepare curriculum that meets industry’s specifications and enables a green energy renaissance.

Then intent is to create living-wage jobs, rather than positions that perpetuate and exacerbate extreme economic divisions. The middle class is no longer bullet-proof. Incomes are declining.

So how does a green economy fit in? Not easily apparently. If it were up to me, I’d say, “Make the United States energy self-sufficient in 10 years, emphasizing sustainability.”

That’s not to say we should completely shed oil. The stuff has been quite good to us. Let’s just give a shot to making the world a better place, allowing American ingenuity fill in the blanks.

Taking up the challenge

Former Great Britain Prime Minister Tony Blair and a group of international statesmen and business leaders have penned an open letter advocating for a “clean revolution,” which they say is essential to “save our economies from the crippling costs of runaway climate change, and create meaningful jobs and enhance energy security.”

The group backs a campaign by business and government that calls for a “green growth” push out of global recession.

Topical, especially with nearly a half dozen countries in the European Union teetering on financial collapse. Greece elected the conservatives by a squeaky thin margin that allowed the markets a respite. But the future is anyone’s guess.

How’s the weather?

Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network, says there’s a chance the Rio + Summit will get results, but “the outlook is bleak.”

Normally, I love that pessimistic stuff. It nurtures the curmudgeonly spirit I gained from 24 years in newspapers, pounding out or editing stories about the best and worst in people.

But I’m hoping for more. The summit marks the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, and the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, the country where my cousin Sarah has decided to raise her twins.

Rogers says the U.N. event two decades past generated real optimism and a climate change treaty that “charted a new course to sustainability.”

Love at first bite

Implementation is a completely different issue. All that optimism from the first Rio summit had the bite of my toothless and blind 14-year-old dachshund Spike. Oh, he still barks like crazy — as do those of us who believe in a sustainable future. But we need a pit bull.

Adding some fangs, or even some well-worn teeth, requires agreement and action. I do believe it wouldn’t take much. Many are willing to give it everything they’ve got to extract power from those green dilithium crystals.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative has lofty goals, calling for universal energy access, a doubling of energy efficiency and a doubling of renewable energy by 2030. But it’s got allies.

Nothing but wind

The European Wind Energy Association says 75 countries around the world have installed wind turbines and 21 have more than 1,000 megawatts generating energy. It says with the right policy support projections show that wind power will double capacity by 2015 and again by 2020.

“This can be achieved,” says Kandeh K. Yumkella, the Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, in a statement.

After all, what choice do we have. Really?

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