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Energy ministers from around the world met in London this week and they got a scolding. The International Energy Agency warned the ministers that they are falling far behind in their efforts to wean the world from dirty sources of energy. Nations are nowhere near benchmarks to avert significant climate change in the coming decades.
NPR's Richard Harris looks at the trends that are making it so difficult to go clean.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Just about everything is conspiring to make it harder to clean up the world's energy supply. Nuclear power produces very little carbon dioxide, but it is on the ropes after the Fukushima meltdowns in Japan.
And David Victor, at U.C. San Diego, says don't forget the economy.
DAVID VICTOR: What's happened across the industrialized world is that governments are feeling poor these days, and so they're a lot less willing to put money into programs like loan guarantees and production tax credits and feed-in tariffs, and other policies that historically have been the big drivers of very low-emission technologies like nuclear and wind.
HARRIS: Wind subsidies are on the chopping block here in the United States. And clean energy subsidies have already been scaled way back in Europe, where wind and solar had been riding high, thanks to generous government support.
Michael Grubb, at Cambridge University, says those subsidies proved to be too successful.
MICHAEL GRUBB: People scrambled to put solar cells on their roofs a lot faster than the government had anticipated, which meant the volume of subsidy that was going to be required for a much bigger volume of demand was going to get more expensive and they scaled back those programs.
HARRIS: That's good in that solar panels went up much faster than anticipated. But now it means that rapid growth is likely to stall. Grubb says it's tough to get the British public behind big, low-carbon energy projects these days for reasons ranging from cost to aesthetics.
GRUBB: Nobody actually likes energy-production sources. They object to nuclear. There's quite a strong push-back on onshore wind energy on the grounds of impact on the countryside. There's push-back on offshore wind energy, which is significantly more expensive than onshore.
HARRIS: And the British government is also stirring controversy by pushing ahead with plans to allow companies to frack for natural gas in the countryside. Britain is supposed to be phasing out fossil fuels, not exploiting new resources, the critics say.
So, David Victor says it's increasingly hard to see how these nations will stick to their ambitious promises to switch to clean energy in the coming decades.
VICTOR: All those promises just don't add up in Europe.
HARRIS: Take Germany, for example.
VICTOR: They say that they're going to phase out nuclear power and switch aggressively to renewables. But the program they have in place for renewables, especially wind, is extremely expensive. And they don't have the public budget to do that right now. So I think all governments are going to be forced to re-evaluate the bold promises they've made so far.
HARRIS: And greenhouse gas emissions are rising rapidly in places that haven't made bold promises, like China and India. The U.S. has no clear plan to reach its goal, which is to reduce emissions substantially by 2020. Emissions actually went up three percent last year.
Christiana Figueres is the executive secretary of the U.N. climate treaty organization. She is still confident that Europe, at least, will meet its short-term goal for 2020. The hard part is achieving the much bigger reductions needed after that.
DR. CHRISTIANA FIGUERES: The last 20 years have really put a very, very firm ground under our feet on the fundamental understanding of how we could solve this problem. But now we actually have to do it. And we have to take it to scale and at the pace that is necessary.
HARRIS: And that's the problem. David Victor, at U.C. San Diego, says there's no credible plan in place to move the global economy away from dependence on fossil fuels.
VICTOR: Under any politically realistic scenario, the world is in for a huge amount of climate change.
HARRIS: So we'd better prepare for that, he says.
Richard Harris, NPR News.
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