Development:

Worldwatch report says rate of economic growth is destructive to environment

As the energy demands of the United States and other developed nations continue to rise, experts warn of the potentially damaging effects on the environment. During today's OnPoint Erik Assadourian, project director of the Worldwatch Institute's "Vital Signs 2006-2007," discusses the findings of this latest report and predicts a collapse of resources if the use of fossil fuels is not diminished. Assadourian talks about major societal destruction if the current rate of economic growth is not slowed. He also says a sustainable planet will not be achieved until there is a transition to renewables and biofuels.

Transcript

Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Erik Assadourian, project director of the Worldwatch Institute's new "Vital Signs" report. Eric, thanks for joining me.

Erik Assadourian: Well, thank you for having me.

Monica Trauzzi: The Worldwatch Institute's new report on global trends gives a pretty grim outlook on the world, unfortunately. And much of what's negative is based around the fact that greenhouse gas emissions are on the increase. Which trends do you see as the most worrisome to you?

Erik Assadourian: Well, I think we continue to base our economy on fossil fuels, 80 percent of our energy comes directly from fossil fuels. And until we make a transition to renewable energy, to biofuels, we will not be able to achieve a sustainable planet and climate change will become an increasing risk.

Monica Trauzzi: Basically, you say that the trends we saw in 2005 are "a foreshadowing of what's to come," and you're referring to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If that statement is true, what are you recommending that governments and people do to ensure that we don't have such a grim future?

Erik Assadourian: Well, it's going to take a mobilization of entire society. Business leaders need to make this a priority, transitioning their industrial output towards a renewable direction, you know, being focused on renewable energy. But politicians also have to push for a climate change solution. Whether this is framed in an energy security model, talking about renewable energy, less foreign oil and those kind of, that rhetoric, it needs to be a priority. And to make both of these two leaders push for this, I think, civil society is the essential linchpin. They need to rally and say we need a renewable energy economy.

Monica Trauzzi: At a recent press conference you raised the question where is the point where booming economic trends are no longer a sign of prosperity? Are you saying that economic growth is bad?

Erik Assadourian: I'm not saying that, but the economic growth that we are maintaining is destructive to the environment. And so eventually it will catch up with us and will become bad, but it doesn't have to be. In context, that was raising the question, look, gross world product is the highest it's ever been, we're producing more aluminum, steel, round wood than we ever have before. But the question is are these good things or are they bad things? They're bad considering that it's destroying the planetary capital that we depend on. And if we continue in this direction we are going to have major societal disruptions in the future.

Monica Trauzzi: So we haven't quite reached that point yet?

Erik Assadourian: We haven't. We've been living off of ecological capital, as it's called, for many years. And scientists are afraid that we will eventually a hit tipping point, what they call abrupt changes that could lead to a radical change in our ecosystem health, which could quickly change the fortune of humanity.

Monica Trauzzi: The report also addresses the various international efforts that have been used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And you say that the efforts have been met with varying degrees of success.

Erik Assadourian: That's right.

Monica Trauzzi: Who's been successful, who hasn't and more importantly, why?

Erik Assadourian: Well, I think Kyoto, as much as it is criticized, is an important first step in mobilizing political energy towards addressing climate change. So creating a carbon trading scheme, like the European Union has done, this is very important. So reluctance by the U.S. administration to address climate change because it will hurt economic growth is counterproductive, especially considering that it will, not addressing this will hurt economic growth much more in the future if it's not addressed now.

Monica Trauzzi: The G8 countries have all expressed interest in addressing energy and climate issues. What are you hoping to see from the G8 countries?

Erik Assadourian: Well, I mean obviously, a direct and immediate response to climate change, a 10 year plan in which we phase to help the limits on carbon emissions. But I'm skeptical that there will be this focus, especially now with the turning of attention towards instability in the Middle East.

Monica Trauzzi: Of course it's not all bad news that's being reported in the Vital Signs report.

Erik Assadourian: That's right, yes.

Monica Trauzzi: We don't want to give people the wrong idea. We also see some promising statistics regarding solar power, wind energy, biofuels.

Erik Assadourian: That's right, um-hmm.

Monica Trauzzi: So what are the statistics like for these types of energies?

Erik Assadourian: Sure, well, 2005 was a record-setting year for these as well; solar power production increased 45 percent, wind power by 19 percent. And this is a key trend that we need to push forward into the future. Right now, unfortunately, wind and solar only make up 1 percent of electricity generation. But they could make up a lot larger percentage, especially with focused efforts by governments to really push for these energy sources. So if we make that transition the future will be much brighter.

Monica Trauzzi: We need to take the encouraging news with a grain of salt though, because many of the upward trends are not that significant when you compare it to the overall market. Can you put those findings into context for us?

Erik Assadourian: Well, I think that's the point. The wind power and solar power combined make up only 1 percent of electricity generation, biofuels make up only 2 percent of the total fuel market. But the growth shows that, if they continue at these growth levels, they could make up a much more substantial section of these energy markets. But it won't happen just because of increases in fuel prices. It needs to have the focus of politicians and therefore, civil society driving this.

Monica Trauzzi: So what should legislators be doing?

Erik Assadourian: Well I think it depends on -- it's such a broad term, legislators. At the local level, some governors, mayors, they're taking climate initiatives on their own, especially in the U.S. where there hasn't been strong national leadership. They say, okay, we'll clean up our city, as far as climate change pollution goes, ourselves. And they make a strong policy that they start implementing with the help of local businesses and civil society leaders. At the national level, of course, we need to have a clear energy plan that prioritizes renewable energy sources and by renewable, not nuclear, but actual solar and wind power.

Monica Trauzzi: In the report you say that Germany has been number one as far as wind energy goes, I'm sorry, solar energy. Why have they been so successful and how can the U.S. learn from that?

Erik Assadourian: Well actually, we have looked at that directly at Worldwatch and this is where some of my statements are coming from. It is clear that with a strong policy push by government leaders, by saying, OK, we will subsidize or at least pull away negative subsidies from the fossil fuel industry, but ideally shift those subsidies towards solar and wind energy producers. By redirecting those and prioritizing, economically and politically, renewable energy sources, this is what will lead us to a renewable energy economy.

Monica Trauzzi: Alternative and renewable energy development seems to be the priority internationally, but one major problem is finding the space to help these new types of energy grow. The Cape Wind project is an example of that. So are these issues going to inhibit the future upward growth of these renewable energies?

Erik Assadourian: They could, but I think more important this is an example that has captured media attention, but is minor compared to the overall potential of wind power, for example. There have been studies that looked at the key question of can wind power even actually provide all the energy we need for the electricity markets currently? And the answer is yes, especially if we combine wind power production with improved efficiency. Europe is a much more electricity efficient or energy efficient market than the United States for example. So that example is a NIMBY, a not-in-my-backyard issue, which, unfortunately, has captured a lot of attention, but for every one of those, there are hundreds of wind projects that are being developed.

Monica Trauzzi: Can you extrapolate the findings beyond 2005? What are you expecting to see in the coming years?

Erik Assadourian: Well, we are a trends organization, but not a futurist projector. It's clear there are two paths that we can go down. We can either really address these issues and we'll see rapid increases in renewable energy, in the positive trends, which we'd like to include more of in Vital Signs. Or if we continue down the business as usual model, unfortunately, I think fossil fuels will continue to increase. We'll see even surprising collapses in some resources. Fish harvest is an interesting example where, over the last five years, it's maintained itself at about 130,000,000 tons a year of fish harvest production. Unfortunately, actual wild catch is declining significantly. And the loss is being made up with aquaculture, which is much more intensive, which has much more toxic side effects. So right now we've been able to stabilize, but there will be a point where we could see rapid declines.

Monica Trauzzi: Finally, what's the next step? How should governments and citizens use these findings to improve the world around them?

Erik Assadourian: That's the key question. We have to, as individuals, get involved in every aspect of our lives, as consumers, as workers. Whether you're a teacher, teach your students, or if you're in a company, to push for new policies. But also get involved politically at the local and national levels.

Monica Trauzzi: Okay. Thank you very much.

Erik Assadourian: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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