Four weeks before COP21, prominent actors in renewable energy – as well as economic and ecological change more broadly – came together at the historic Geographic Society amphitheatre now belonging to the IPAG Business School. The school’s director, Guillaume Bigot, opened the conference with a call for a new “positive” economic system.
Corinne Lepage was the first to discuss her recent work on a new world economy, her collaboration with Ségolène Royal’s Environment Ministry in June and a report from a new movement gaining ground this year.
Some 5,000 businesses are already part of MENE (Mouvement des Entreprises de la Nouvelle Economie), a group committed to bringing about a ‘third industrial revolution’. According to Lepage, the report’s recommendations will be acted upon.
Corinne Lepage’s address was followed by two roundtable discussions. The first included Claire Roumet (Energy Cities), Yves Marignac (WISE Paris) and Nathalie Gysi (Green Cross Switzerland).
Claire Roumet, representing a network of more than 1,000 European cities engaged in the transition to a new energy future, emphasized the importance of solutions being developed and applied at the local level. She cited the example of Vancouver, Canada, which has made an independent decision to achieve a 100 per cent renewable energy mix by 2035.
Yves Marignac reiterated the point that, faced with climate instability, the response must address all of the key issues: energy use, technology and infrastructure, and energy resource management. This will make it possible to develop a system that relies on fully renewable energy. A successful transition must be based on a realistic assessment of needs.
Nathalie Gysi continued with a look at the Swiss energy transition, particularly the results of its decision to stop using nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. The country is investing the equivalent of about 1 billion Euros per year in renewable energy subsidies until 2050 to finance the shift, linked with policies aimed at encouraging voluntary efficiency that are expected to leave Switzerland consuming less energy in 2050 than it had in 1970.
A similar change in France would require a complete overhaul of the national energy policy, according to Yves Marignac, but would be possible if the state worked in collaboration with regional policies – currently, national energy policy is imposed from the centre with little regional input. Changing that will be a key factor in any successful energy transition.
The second roundtable brought together Pierre Astruc (GRT Gaz), Robert Bell, (Professor, Management) and François-Michel Lambert (President of the Institut de l’Economie Circulaire) to discuss practical solutions that would support this transition.
François-Michel Lambert, recently returned from China, noted that the transition to a circular economy is already underway in that country. With a population of over a billion people, the importance of new economic models in addressing issues of resource consumption is absolutely central. Local governments in particular are key actors in spreading awareness and demonstrating the value of good policies (such as by powering public vehicles with biogas extracted from citizens’ own waste, to encourage collection).
Pierre Astruc spoke about the role natural gas can play in a transitional energy policy. He said the global need to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, as we approach COP21, demands that we move towards much more decentralised energy systems. As a relatively low-carbon fossil fuel that is efficient and easy to store, natural gas can make a significant contribution to an energy transition.
Robert Bell spoke about the use of carbon taxes, which he does not consider an effective means of reducing emissions. In his view, the level of taxation needed to make a difference would be so high as to be unworkable.
“The last time gas consumption had started to drop, a barrel of oil was selling at about $140,” he said. “With Brent Crude at $50 now, you can imagine what tax rate would be required to have an effect.”
Bell proposes instead to lift taxes on renewable energy investments in order to provoke an “investment tsunami” in the sector. As an example, in the U.S. tax breaks on natural gas and shale gas exploration had led to a massive increase in activity – as well as major booms in gas-rich regions. This same approach could provide a lot of leverage for the renewables sector as well.
Finally, Josias Gasser (Swiss National Counsellor for Grisons and Vice-President of the Swiss Parliamentarians’ Group for Energy Transition) spoke about energy policy in Switzerland. He regretted that his country has lagged behind several of its European neighbours, but presented ambitious targets for the future. The move away from nuclear power, supported by popular referendum, will be carried out in parallel with a renewed commitment to energy efficiency – reducing demand for both heating and electricity. Modernising buildings and houses is also expected to improve competitiveness, as will retiring nuclear power which is, today, far more expensive than renewables.