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Countdown to Copenhagen: Donald N. Zillman

By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK

In today’s Countdown to Copenhagen post, Donald N. Zillman looks back at predictions he and his fellow authors of Beyond the Carbon Economy: Energy Law in Transition made two years ago, and discusses what today’s position is in light of next week’s COP15 conference. Professor Zillman is President of the University of Maine at Presque Isle and Edward Godfrey Professor of Law, University of Maine at Fort Kent.

Click here for the other Countdown to Copenhagen posts.


Slightly more than two years ago, a consortium of 33 authors from 20 nations put the finishing touches on a book called Beyond the Carbon Economy. The authors were law professors, practicing lawyers, and participants in public policy in the fields of energy, natural resources, and sustainability. We noted that 80 percent of the world’s energy for all purposes came from the three familiar hydrocarbon fuels—coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Even the most radical alternative scenarios indicated that the three hydrocarbon fuels would still be major sources of world energy two decades from today. But, compelling reasons demanded that businesses, government leaders, and citizens around the world look beyond carbon, and begin NOW.

beyondthecarboneconomyWe identified five factors compelling that redirection. The first was climate change and other environmental harms from the use of the fossil fuels. When we wrote, the April 2007 Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just been released. It made the clearest case yet that climate change was real, was happening now, and that it clearly implicated the fossil fuels.

The second factor was the myriad of concerns over energy security. We noted: “Were the carbon fuels equally distributed around the world, and were rules of the market economy fully accepted by both producer and consumer nations, the problem would be largely one for economics to solve.” They aren’t and wars, civil unrest, political boycotts, and the like have kept much of the world uneasy since the early 1970s.

The third factor encouraging the move beyond carbon is the enormous increase in demand for energy. China and India are just the most visible examples of nations moving rapidly to a time when a substantial proportion of their population expect personal motorized transport, fossil fuel heated residences and workplaces, and steady access to electricity.

The fourth, and most controversial of the factors, is the potential decline in supply of the fossil fuels, primarily petroleum. The authors recognized the range in views from a strong belief in “peak oil” theories to a confidence in market economics that supports the view that “nothing would increase supplies like $200 per barrel oil.” Even advocates of the latter view, however, have to deal with the heavy investment costs of bringing more fossil fuels to the market.

The fifth factor–“the most sobering of them all”– is the energy needs of the one third of the world’s population who live today without modern energy services. The carbon economy has done them few favors and the future looks even more bleak for them than the present. Even if compassion or a rough sense of equity don’t prompt action, the prospect of dozens of failed states turned to terrorist havens should.

Two years on, we feel comfortable with most of the projections we made. The science of climate change advances. So do the visible evidences that the planet and our home towns are experiencing “hundred year events” with remarkable frequency. A political consensus about the need for climate change action has also strengthened. No serious candidate in the 2008 United States presidential election took the position on climate change that candidate George Bush took in 2000. President Barack Obama has pursued an aggressive agenda to respond to climate change. So has the new Australian government. And, more importantly, it becomes more inaccurate by the day to regard China as uninterested political action on climate change.

Energy security concerns worsen. Every military power’s national security structure is shaped in considerable part by “what ifs” in the Middle East and other areas that are rooted in energy concerns. The United States military is overstretched and challenged by what will soon be the longest war in its history with no clear end in sight.

Issues of supply of and demand for the fossil fuels have been temporarily influenced by the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. At this writing, some signs of recovery are balanced by the worst unemployment numbers in 30 years and related crises captured in headlines like “California Bankrupt.” Few citizens appear eager to keep energy demand down by reliance on depression economics.

Lastly, the plight of the “bottom third” worsens. The struggles of the first world economies hardly help those nations trying to raise a living standard above one dollar a day. Further, some of the more visible evidences of climate change (lowland flooding, increasing desertification) are making hard lives even worse. The need to move beyond the carbon economy becomes even more imperative.

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