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By Melissa Bell
Ours was a debate before the big debate that’s to take place in December. The whole world will be meeting in Paris in the hope of finding a deal that would limit greenhouse emissions to 2 degrees above pre industrial levels. The aim is about as ambitious as it could be: to agree the first universal and legally binding agreement on climate, which will be no mean feat, requiring both leadership and humility from all the planet’s many and varied governments.
The question put to our panel was what it will take to get there, both financially and otherwise. Our focus was the Mediterranean, a perfect microcosm for the debate to come, given that its countries, over a fairly small geographical area, fit neatly and fairly obviously into either the « north » or the « south » camp. With representatives of both around the table, it provided an interesting insight into the discussions to come. And it isn’t necessarily what you might expect.
The commonly held view is that the South is unwilling to accept the cost, even if it accepts the logic, of the fight against climate change and that the North is going to have to cough up in order to compensate. In a nutshell, that capitalism will have to be curbed in order to save the planet and that those the furthest down the road of development will have to lend a hand to those lagging behind.
It turns out though that, largely hidden from the cameras of the world, things have been happening on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, that turn that scenario on its head.
One thing the « south » has and in spades, is sunshine. Making the most of its power, the countries of the MENA region have been making sun farms, capturing its heat and transforming it into electricity.
Lots of it. So much of it that the privately and publicly owned companies that have been investing in the technology now say they have energy to sell. The trouble is they have no one to sell it to.
In turns out that the obvious market for the energy, just across the sea, is not prepared to buy it. Not because Europe doesn’t need it but because of the barriers designed to protect its internal market.
Now there is a fairly strong argument for some forms of protectionism especially in the initial development of renewable energy technology industries. In most markets, wind and solar power technologies have tended to rely on government support in order to get off the ground and few governments are willing to subsidize imports. What we are talking about now though are barriers that prevent cleaner energy from becoming the global norm rather than the exception.
Francois Hollande wants the Paris conference to be a success. So too do many other leaders of the developed world, convinced as they are now that the long term cost of inaction would be far greater than the short term cost of decision and sacrifice. So far they’ve been fearful that the south might be less willing to make any such sacrifices in the name of the future gains for humanity. But what if small sacrifices could be made by the north that would make a big difference to the global fight against climate change? and what if such sacrifices could be made not against the system that has served northern countries so well but perfectly in line with it? Capitalism in the service of environmentalism. What western country could argue with that?
Of course it will not be that simple. If the logic is unquestionable, there will still be vested interests to fight and old certainties to challenge. It will certainly take political courage and real leadership to dismantle a system that favors domestic producers.
But in this fight, the one against climate change, the real challenges begin at home. And what better way to signal Europe’s commitment to the cause, what better way to inspire others to follow where we lead than this relatively small step in the direction of a cleaner world. The lowering of barriers, the opening of markets to allow the south’s clean energy into our homes and work places?
The December conference allows the leaders of the developed world to show both their commitment and their courage and to lead by example. And a small step such as this one, taken in the direction of a cleaner world could be the most important measure of the Paris conference’s success. And it depends on no one but those who can actually afford it.