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Global Warning: The Last Chance for Change Excerpt from Global Warning: The Last Chance for Change

by Paul Brown and Gerd Leipold

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For individuals, apart from a strong desire to reduce the dangers of global warming both for future generations and for ourselves, there are other incentives. For the first time the cost of energy is beginning to make people think twice about the sort of car they buy and how much they need to heat and cool their homes. North Americans use two to three times more energy per capita than other highly developed countries like France, Germany, England, and Japan. Although Canadians sometimes console themselves by pointing out that they produce 2% of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions, they are one of the worst offenders per capita for energy consumption.

One way of making a contribution is to buy green electricity. At least 50% of electricity customers have the option to purchase renewable electricity directly from their power supplier. All customers have the option of purchasing renewable energy certificates that allow you to contribute to the generation of clean, renewable power, even if you can't buy it directly.

Generating your own electricity or hot water at home is a feasible option almost anywhere in the world and is becoming more economically viable every year. To encourage the trend, the U.S. Energy Policy Act recently implemented a 30% tax credit for installing solar water heating systems. Over much of Europe and North America, micro-wind turbines plugged into the home energy supply are also becoming a sensible option to draw free electricity from the elements. There are already a number of products on the market, and these are getting better all the time. Governments are slowly altering the regulations to make this a more viable option.

Those lucky enough to have access to a river or a stream could try mini-hydropower. Since technologies like solar power have a 20-year guarantee with them and will last far longer, many people regard the investment in renewables as a form of self-reliance, a sort of pension fund of free power. There are other ways of gaining energy from the environment like ground-source heat pumps. This is a way of extracting the Earth's natural heat by using a heat pump to raise the temperature to warm your home. Currently the payback period for a ground-source heat pump does not justify the capital cost unless you intend to stay somewhere for a long time or have one installed with new construction. Having your own source of electricity or heating is, however, a good selling point for a property.

But it remains true that rising energy prices are the greatest driver for change. It has been said many times, but it is worth repeating, that doing something about climate change is a massive boost to the economy rather than the opposite, as President Bush and the fossil-fuel lobby claim. This boost applies to individual households as well as nations. It is bizarre that governments, charged with looking after the public welfare, acknowledge this but still seem incapable of putting policies in place to take advantage of it. Finally, however, we are seeing the seeds of change.

Germany is a shining example of what can be done. In 1998 Germany began a 100,000 Roof Program, which gave people l0-year loans at reduced interest rates to buy photovoltaic systems. In five years the target was reached, and Germany had a competitive solar power industry. As well as boosting solar power, the German government at the same time embarked on encouraging wind power and leads the world in installed capacity. More recently, the government decided to bring all of its older properties up to modern energy efficiency standards at the rate of 5% a year. In 20 years all of the older housing, mostly in the former East Germany, will be brought up to modern standards. This is a classic example of how jobs can be created where they are most needed, housing stock improved, and fossil-fuel imports reduced, all at the same time. Reducing Germany's greenhouse-gas emissions and avoiding the need to replace the country's aging nuclear reactors are two other advantages. Germany has the good fortune to have one of the most environmentally aware populations in the world. The result is that individual voters are helping to drive the changes by buying into the new technologies in large numbers.

That is also true in California. The state's $2.8 billion Million Solar Roofs program takes a similar approach to Germany's. It mandates that new home buyers must be offered solar panels as a standard option and offers cash incentives on solar systems. These incentives, combined with federal tax incentives, can cover up to 50% of the total cost of a solar panel system. The goal is to create 3,000 megawatts of new solar-produced electricity by 2017, moving the state toward a cleaner energy future and making solar power mainstream.