The world should pay close attention to the Group of Eight summit this weekend in Russia because it will give us a good sense of our energy and environmental future.
As this is the first year of full Russian membership in the elite club of industrialized democracies, this year’s summit is hosted by Russia, which has chosen the primary focus for the summit to be energy security. Given the urgency of the global energy/climate crisis, that is clearly the right focus.
But to most G-8 leaders, the concept of energy security begins and ends with more fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Given the known risks posed by both of those, this is surely not a long-term, sustainable solution. Pinning our energy future to hydrocarbons and nuclear fission is a prescription for insecurity rather than security, and would simply dig our energy hole deeper.
Hoping to guide G-8 leaders toward a more sustainable path, more than 600 non-governmental organization representatives from 50 nations and every continent met in Moscow last week to put forth their hopes for the summit in St. Petersburg. The “Civil G-8” meeting was hosted by the Kremlin as prelude to the St. Petersburg summit and took up issues such as education, disease, human rights and poverty, but energy was center-stage. Russian President Vladimir Putin participated and promised to present the many recommendations from the civil society groups directly to the other G-8 leaders this weekend. For that, he deserves worldwide gratitude.
As the primary focus for the summit is energy security, the Civil G-8 in Moscow focused intensively on three interrelated topics — climate change, oil and gas, and nuclear energy.
On climate change, the NGO consensus called upon the G-8 to commit to keeping global temperatures to no more than + 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels (we are already at + 1 degree C), which will require a reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions to 50 percent of 1990 levels. This will require us cutting in half our current use of oil and coal, and/or a twofold increase in carbon capture processes. The groups called for a massive investment in energy efficiency — more efficient cars, planes, mass transport, appliances, buildings, etc.; and a shift to use of low-carbon, renewable energy sources — solar, hydrogen, fusion, etc. Much of the investment could come by reallocating the $240 billion a year in current energy (mostly hydrocarbon) subsidies paid by governments. The groups noted that Japan and Western Europe already run on about half the energy intensity (energy per unit of GDP) as the U.S.
Recognizing that we’ll need time to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, the NGO groups called for a dramatic improvement in the environmental performance of the hydrocarbon industry in its remaining years — protecting all sensitive areas from hydrocarbon development, best available technology used across the world, and increased financial liability for environmental damage. And the groups called for a dedicated environmental tax on oil production globally to be used for sustainable energy, climate change abatement and conservation efforts in developing countries.
And while the Moscow gathering lacked consensus on the nuclear energy issue (as Putin noted), there was a majority view that nuclear energy, in its present form, is not a solution to our energy or climate crisis and new development should be suspended. Most worried that nuclear fission is neither cost-effective nor safe.
As the G-8 uses much of the energy in the world, it is incumbent on the St. Petersburg summit to meet this issue head-on, with the seriousness and urgency society deserves. Energy efficiency and safe, low-carbon energy sources were overwhelmingly agreed by the Moscow gathering as the urgent policy choice. Chasing down the remaining hydrocarbon resources across the world and building more risky nuclear plants is clearly a lazy, non-solution. The sooner we get on with the inevitable transition to sustainable energy, the better. There’s no better time or place to begin than the G-8 summit this weekend.
If the G-8 doesn’t deliver this time, perhaps we should move next year’s summit up to the International Space Station where world leaders will get a better sense of the finiteness of our small planet, the thin membrane of atmosphere enveloping us, the futility of our current energy course, and then not let them back aboard spaceship Earth until they agree to an urgent transition to sustainability.
Richard Steiner is a professor at the University of Alaska who participated in the energy security group at the Civil G-8 in Moscow last week.