Fossil-fuel age is burning out


SEPT. 11 AND and the war in Afghanistan have pushed environmental concerns out of most people's minds and off the front pages - at least for a while. It seems that suddenly nobody is worried about such matters as pollution and global climate change.

Yet despite that wrenching turn of events - and in some measure because of it - the world is moving steadily away from the fossil-fuel economy and all the environmental ills that go with it.

The progress is partly the result of diplomatic efforts, partly the result of technological changes and economic realities. And none of it is getting much public attention.

You have to look pretty hard in your daily paper to find any news from Marrakech, Morocco, where delegates from 160 countries around the world - not including the United States - recently agreed on a set of working rules for the Kyoto climate treaty. Kyoto sets limits on releases of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The treaty isn't the decisive turnaround that environmentalists had hoped for. It has its weaknesses and loopholes, and is, of course, hampered by the Bush administration's decision to go its own way on developing cleaner technologies.

But it's still the most comprehensive environmental treaty that has ever been drafted, and every nation that signs on will be committed to developing a wide range of programs and policy changes - taxes, subsidies, emissions permits, research and education programs - aimed at cutting back on the burning of fossil fuels.

Environmental goodness is not the only driver.

It's in the interest of many industrial countries - particularly the European Union, the strongest advocate for the treaty - to reduce their dependence on oil from the Middle East. Although oil prices are down at the moment, nobody expects them to stay that way. The thinking is that one effect of the treaty will be to stimulate the development of alternative technologies and speed the world toward kicking the petroleum habit.

Meanwhile, with or without the help of global diplomats, a number of such technologies are hustling over the horizon, bringing the promise of available, affordable and practical ways to produce energy without burning oil or coal.

One that is currently receiving a lot of attention - and moving from idea to application - involves using biotechnology to produce ethanol and a variety of chemicals from plant mass such as wood chips, grasses, or the leftovers from a corn crop.

This is being enthusiastically promoted in the United States because the development of "bio-refineries" in farm areas could generate a significant boost to declining rural economies.

From an international point of view, it and other such technologies have the potential to radically decentralize energy production: Any country that can grow plants could also grow fuel.

Another way that farms might replace oil fields in the new economy would be through the use of wind power to produce hydrogen - likely the fuel of the future in the fuel-cell engines now being developed by auto manufacturers.

So many other technologies are coming on line that Lester Brown, head of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute and one of the world's leading environmental pessimists, recently announced: "For the first time since the oil age began, the world has the technology to wean itself from petroleum coming from the politically volatile Middle East."

In his new report, "Eco-Economy," Brown identifies a number of environmentally sustainable approaches - including wind turbines, solar cells, hydrogen generators and fuel-cell engines - and offers evidence that these technologies are already here, not in some distant ecotopian future.

"During the last decade," Brown writes, "the use of wind power grew by 25 percent a year, solar cells at 20 percent a year, and geothermal energy at 4 percent annually. In stark contrast, oil expanded by only 1 percent a year and coal use declined by 1 percent annually. Natural gas, which is destined to be the transition fuel from the fossil fuel era to the hydrogen era, grew by 2 percent per year."

This shift will take a while. It could be bad news for the oil-producing countries, or good news if they move toward more diversified, equitable economies.

Either way, it suggests a more far-reaching restructuring of global economics and politics than is being suggested in most of the current post-crisis scenarios.

Walter Truett Anderson, associate editor of the Pacific News Service, is the author of "The Future of the Self" (Tarcher Putnam, 1997) and "Evolution Isn't What It Used To Be" (W.H. Freeman 1996).

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