The climate conference (COP 21) that is taking place in Paris is attempting to reverse the terrible consequences of many years of neglect that have brought the planet to a point of almost no return. As a scientist I have to accept the mounting evidence that man-made pollution, mainly from carbon fossil fuels (coal, oil and gasoline) have caused global warming that is having disastrous consequences. This includes the melting of the glaciers and the ice caps and the rise in sea levels around the world, causing flooding and loss of habitat, especially in low-lying countries as far afield as Bangladesh, Holland and Vanuatu. The aim of the conference is to obtain an international treaty whereby each country agrees to reduce their carbon footprint (the proportion of carbon dioxide that they produce) by mutual agreement.
But, contrary to the Western consensus that this needs to be done now, some developing countries say rightly, it is the advanced developed world that has brought us to this state, and now just as we are beginning to develop they want to take the means away from us. For example, the Philippines is a developing country, that has limited energy production that doesn’t fulfill the needs of its large population. They have a plan for the construction of 30 coal-burning power stations. Why coal-burning, because coal is the cheapest energy source and it is readily available. Even though it is the dirtiest fossil fuel, they cannot afford the more expensive but less polluting alternative energy production means, such as solar, wind or wave energy and certainly not nuclear power.
India is the same, and they argue that their huge population of mainly peasants cannot afford any other except the most primitive means of heating, namely burning cow dung. They dry the cow dung with straw and it makes the perfect natural combustible substance, but it is very polluting and in fact the smoke from millions of fires all over India can be seen from space. Yet, how can they replace it, when they have such limited means? Then you have China, which has one of the most polluting industries on earth, where people in Beijing can hardly breathe. Because they are a communist country that has typically not bothered with environmental protection for their population, but at the same time are engaged in a huge capitalistic thrust for rapid development.
The initial statements at COP 21 have been optimistic, Pres. Obama and Pres. Hollande have delivered speeches that boast of the achievements of their alternative energy systems and how they are reaching or in fact passing the aims of past environmental conferences. But, whether or not the conference can come to an enforceable agreement on reducing fossil fuel use is unclear. Two of the countries that will be presenting their successful alternative energy industries are Brazil and Israel. Brazil leads the world in using alcohol, which is less polluting, than gasoline, for its cars and public transport, and that is because it has a huge land mass, and by clearing forest it has planted crops that can be harvested not for food, but for alcohol production, so called biomass production. These crops can also be used to produce electricity and Brazil is a pioneer in running electric public transport systems. Israel is a leader in alternative energy production particularly in solar power. There are huge Israeli solar fields not only in southern Israel, but in Portugal, Spain and the USA.
A lot depends on making the cost of alternative energy production low, and at first sight, people think that wind and solar power should be cheaper than oil. Although oil just gushes from the ground, it then has to be refined in expensive refineries and the price of a barrel of oil is controlled on the international market by the Oil cartel, OPEC. But, wind turbines are very expensive to produce and maintain and so far sea power is still in the early stages (wave energy both above and below sea level). Solar power is developing fast, but although the sun shines a lot in some areas, nevertheless the mirrors or solar cells need to be kept clean for maximum production. Then there are novel methods of energy storage. This all makes for a complex picture and how the large number of countries and interests at the COP 21 conference will reconcile all of this remains to be seen