On November 22, China.org.cn interviewed four sustainable energy experts who were attending the two-day International Conference of Rural Energy Development in China, jointly organized by the UNDP and the Office of the State Council Energy Leading Group in Beijing. The four experts; Ms. Kelly Hayden from Australia, Mr. Monga Mehlwana from South Africa, Mr. Ronaldo Seroa da Motta from Brazil and Mr. Anil K. Rajvanshi from India, talked about their theories and concerns regarding renewable energy, the role of government and the process of change toward sustainable energy resources.
China.org.cn: Please tell us how you think renewable energy sources can be developed in China.
Anil K. Rajvanshi: I think China can follow the path that we are trying to take in India instead of simply copying the western countries, especially the United States. Energy is the basis of life, and in India the greatest percentage of people are employed as farmers, just as in China. So I believe that the availability of affordable energy in rural areas is the only way to improve the quality of life among rural residents. We need to offer energy production via agriculture in conjunction with high technology devices in order to provide for basic needs: cooking, lighting and clean water in rural areas. Biofuels, liquid – such as ethanol, gas, such as methane and electricity must be supplied. In India we use sweet sorghum to produce ethanol; this could also be done in China.
China.org.cn: China is experiencing rapid economic growth; how can we use this growth to promote sustainable energy resources?
Ronaldo Seroa da Motta: That's a good question. As an economist I can tell you rich people, not poor people, consume that 80 percent of the total energy worldwide; so the real question becomes: why don't they switch to renewable resources?
Anil K. Rajvanshi: Because they are greedy. Rich people forget about the quality of life and everything for them becomes a numbers game; how many houses, how many cars, how much money invested here and there.
Monga Mehlwana: As far as I can tell, particularly in South Africa, renewable energy is usually associated with the poor, not the rich; this is the public perception. It's not popular yet; there is not enough information out about renewable energy, especially among the poor.
Anil K. Rajvanshi: I firmly believe that to change the way a system works one must start with himself. It may sound small and insignificant to begin with one person but that is the way ultimate change happens, in India, in China, anywhere in the world. Another key is to harness the enthusiasm and energy of youth; the younger generation could change the current energy mindset. The transition from steam to oil took a long time but when it happened it was a paradigm shift. Right now oil technology is centralized, everything is in place and profits flow from it. When you talk about technology paradigm shifts you must allot time for change.
Monga Mehlwana: The government must also show the people other alternatives; government leaders are responsible for guiding change.
China.org.cn: What about protecting the poor? How can we provide enough energy for the rural poor in China?
Monga Mehlwana: You know, energy is like blood: you don't think about it directly for your life but we all need it to live.
Ronaldo Seroa da Motta: As an economist I think that if you want to provide for the poor, give them a certain allotment of energy for free. It doesn't make sense to levy a higher tax on the rich for using the same amount of energy; I know they fine drivers according to income brackets in Finland but that's a very small homogeneous country with a wealthy population and steady economic history; it wouldn't work in a huge country like China. And besides, the rich will use more energy than the poor, so they'll pay more in the end result. I feel that, instead of a cross subsidy the government could give the poor direct subsidies. It's a mistake to have different prices for people in different income categories.
Monga Mehlwana: South Africa does indeed have a policy of providing direct subsidies to the rural poor, but there are problems within this system. First of all: who is entitled to the subsidy: how poor is poor? And then there are people who cannot use up the energy, maybe they don't have electrical appliances, so they end up selling their allotment. There are unintended consequences to these kinds of subsidy deals.
Ronaldo Seroa da Motta: In any case, I think technology-based solutions to provide adequate energy won't succeed; we must depend upon pure economics. Just developing a new technology is not enough. The market economy is the best thing a country can provide its rural poor and the rest of its citizens as well. China is a shining example of this. The previous planned economy in Russia wreaked havoc on the environment and in China, I assume, as well. The tragedy of the commons has been repeated throughout history; privatization and market economies are much more responsible than closed systems. And as far as developing new renewable resource technology – it will never change the path the world is going toward unless economics is directly involved.
Anil K. Rajvanshi: Technology does help but the levels must be suitable for the population it serves, and the type of power generation facilities must be operated at the grassroots level so that the people are directly involved and they can manage the power they use: this is a way of personalizing power rather than depersonalizing it and putting it in the hands of unknown bureaucrats, who may be wasteful, ignorant or uncaring about the people who need this power. Also, I think we all must try as best as we can as individuals to promote renewable resources and live at sustainable levels. We should all make individual efforts to support sustainable, renewable energy and purchase vehicles and machines that promote this kind of technology. It is already available, and I have spent most of my life trying to invent devices that follow these precepts.
Ronaldo Seroa da Motta: Why would I buy a clean car if air pollution remains the same? The answer goes above individual actions. Mechanisms to cope with these problems are found in market economies. If something goes wrong you can assign a price to it, price mechanisms rationalize nefarious things like pollution and profit is a leading motivation for development.
Anil K. Rajvanshi: Granted, the government must take an active role creating policies to allow free enterprises to work effectively. Without their policies the country is like an ostrich with her head in the sand, ignoring environmental destruction. In other countries, especially western countries that developed industrially like China is doing today, private industry and business would have polluted everything if not for governmental lobbies.
Monga Mehlwana: Indeed. We need to allow government a role in all kinds of issues regarding energy and the environment but regarding subsidies we must be careful. They often create wasteful tendencies in business and industry, they can actually promote energy inefficiency and they can benefit the rich rather than serve the rural poor.
China.org.cn: How much should energy cost? Should the government subsidize the cost?
Kelly Hayden: A good way to apply an energy subsidy is to look at the Thai government. First, they levied the price of oil. From this tax a fund for conservation and education was created. Then a second fund for public transport as well was enacted. Second, their pricing structure looked initially like people were paying more at the outset, but actually they were saving more because of the benefits they received overall. The transportation and distribution channels determine how a country can save energy in the long run. Thinking of alternatives and developing scenarios that not only cut emissions but also incorporate other societal benefits is the key.
Monga Mehlwana: South Africa can learn from China because it is already a great success story. The central planning is thoughtful and China is traditionally a very resourceful country. China has done things much faster than any other country; part of this is due to the fact that the government has a strong sense of social responsibility.
China.org.cn: Can you comment on pollution caused by fossil fuels and how to create a sustainable energy policy?
Anil K. Rajvanshi: I may be repeating myself but I still think awareness is the first step in creating a sustainable energy policy. We need to tell people how necessary it is to reduce their energy consumption. I am an inventor and a thinker: I believe education is the key to change. Also I believe that what really affects us comes at the personal level.
Ronaldo Seroa da Motta: Inventors and engineers are optimists: as an economist I think that only economics creates change because it directly affects technological innovations.
The USA, a wealthy country, fails to participate in the Kyoto protocols. How can China take responsibility for pollution and advocate renewable energy if the USA doesn't cooperate?
The Kyoto protocols are just the beginning. It is still very difficult to believe that without any price recommendations promising technology to replace fossil fuels will go into widespread usage. As fossil fuels become scarcer and scarcer and pollution worse everyone is going to have to sit up and take notice because competition for resources will create bigger problems than we have right now.
Anil K. Rajvanshi: That's true. All the major world wars, as far as I'm concerned were and are resource wars. If China develops amazing renewable resources it will not only help her people but also promote world peace.
Kelly Hayden: That's right, and also I feel that the environment and the economy don't have to be at odds with each other; it shouldn't be a trade off, one for the other; rather it should be a complementary process.
Ronaldo Seroa da Motta: The world has followed the path of rich countries like the USA. Perhaps this is faulty because their current market mechanism does not take into account the environmental and social costs.
Kelly Hayden: We need more integrated mechanisms. Right now many developed and developing countries are locked into inefficient paradigms. The real costs, even with urban planning, have hidden social costs and negative environmental impact.
Anil K. Rajvanshi: Yes, we need to leapfrog over the systems of developed countries. China is in an ideal position to do just that, but to do this we must keep in mind that the entire world also requires new technologies. Many amazing things are in the process of being developed, especially under the auspices of national defense and the space programs, especially in the USA, so even if the Americans aren't cooperating with the Kyoto accords they are still developing inadvertent gifts to humanity. For example, thermo-electrics has made quantum leaps. Awareness, plus education, plus technology equals positive change.
Monga Mehlwana: Technology, along with responsible government, will help China and the world to succeed energy-wise.
Ronaldo Seroa da Motta: And don't forget to keep the free market in place.
(China.org.cn by Valerie Sartor November 23, 2007)