"The name of the game is resource productivity"

Currently chairperson of the Bundestag committee on environment, nature conservation and nuclear safety, Ernst Ulrich von Weizsaecker has been involved in environmental advocacy and policy for over 20 years now. He has been director at the United Nations Centre for Science and Technology for Development, and president of the prestigious Wupperthal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. Author of Earth Politics (1994), and co-author of Factor Four -- Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use (1997), von Weizsaecker talks to Clifford Polycarp about a more resource-efficient future for Earth

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

How should climate change be tackled?
If different groups -- the engineering and business communities, the media and ngos -- believe climate-friendly technologies are the future, then we would find ourselves in the midst of fierce competition, nationally and internationally, for the best solutions. If everybody believes such technologies are the future, because we simply cannot afford to let global warming continue, then politicians will be able to create the framework for businesses operating with these technologies to become profitable. This is where public perception and the technology environment work together.

For example, it is technically possible to construct a car, which uses not more than a litre and a half of fuel per 100 kilometres. But, to bring such a car into mass production would, in Europe or in America, require technology development worth, say, us $20 billion or so. Meaning, you would have to sell more than 20 million cars of that type before you make profits...

But manufacturers are not going to take that risk, no matter what the public perception is
Public perception does matter. If there is a big conviction everywhere that this is the car of the future you will see the manufacturers saying, "20 million is nothing. The world market is 500 million." If the mindset in the public is firm on the direction of the future then you will see them invest.

Of course, institutions such as the Centre for Science and Environment can greatly influence the Indian mindset and to a lesser degree the mindset outside India. But, they also need partners in Europe, America, China and others countries, who share their idealistic view and will join hands with them in creating a world mindset.

Isn't the 'cleaner technology' strategy really an attempt to escape from the bigger change of shifting completely to renewable technologies?
I say redirect technological progress. I mean, go beyond merely increasing labour productivity. Move towards increasing energy productivity or resource productivity. This is a much more fundamental and ambitious strategy than just shifting from coal to wind. Of course, in this paradigm shift, I am a strong defender of renewables. They are part of the game. But the name of the game is the shift to resource productivity. One pawn in the game is wind; another is solar; biomass, geothermal energy. That's already four pawns that can be decisive in the play.

Is there incentive for engineers and scientists to work for more climate-friendly technologies?
The Indian institutes of technology, and other technological institutions of the world, must work harder on developing "factor four" technologies. Let markets tell the truth. In India, water prices, or rural electricity prices, do not tell the truth. They therefore invite wasteful behaviour.

Mind you, true prices can also mean higher prices. However, one could imagine a strategy of modestly increasing water and electricity prices by, say, 5 per cent per annum or -- where they are already high -- by 3 per cent per annum. Expecting that the overall efficiency in the use of such commodities will also increase by 5 or 3 per cent per annum respectively, what we have is not a costlier life but a more elegant life in terms of water and energy use.

If the overall political community agrees on this strategy, then you would see a push for ever-more increase in the respective resource productivity. It is just like the common trend in industrialisation, where you always go for labour-saving technologies. Here, you do not need political engineering; the motivation comes from the labour markets themselves. But in the case of energy -- which, by itself, is not a price-making actor -- you need political engineering.

Given us non-involvement and Russia unwilling to sign the Kyoto Protocol, how do you see the future of climate change negotiations?
If we Europeans, and perhaps some developing countries, just go ahead developing technologies and incentive structures favourable for climate protection, then, at some stage, the American business community and the power elites in Russia will say: why should we let the Europeans and the Japanese run away with a new generation of technologies while we remain stupid enough not to have joined hands? So, if we maintain the momentum, I think others will eventually follow suit.

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