Four Green Trends Set in 2008 Which Set Us on a Better Eco-Path for 2009


Baby New Year photo: Will Powell

As 2008 draws to a close it seems natural that a post looking back on some of the trends in green thinking was in order. Since I mostly cover issues related to energy, I’m going to focus on those; I’m sure frequent TreeHugger readers can pick out others and I encourage them to discuss at will in the comments.

Though the financial meltdown in the fall (which as Lloyd pointed out James Kunstler correctly predicted) has changed the trajectory of these somewhat here are four broad trends in green that took shape in the past year and which I think are decided steps forward:

Renewable Energy Goes Mainstream


While financial difficulties have put a kink into a good number of the large renewable energy plans introduced over the past year—most publicly the delaying of T. Boone Pickens’ wind farm—2008 was the year, thanks in large part in the US at least to Pickens himself, that the idea that renewable energy is a viable way to increase energy independence, decrease use of fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions became mainstream.

Sure, it still is a small part of virtually every nation’s energy mix, but 18 months ago if you asked the average person (not your average TreeHugger reader) if they thought that renewable energy could play a large part in creating jobs and creating lasting energy independence you likely would be met with many blank stares.

We still obviously have a long way to go in implementing the best of the renewable energy plans out there, but we’re solidly walking on the path in the direction of cleaner energy. It’s a long one, and there will be a number of hurdles along the way, but the ideological fight to convince people that renewable energy is the way of the future will be a lot easier next year and in coming years.

Two Words: Barack Obama

A simplification perhaps, but with the election of Barack Obama the US put eight years of environmental foot-dragging, willful ignorance and disinformation, and obstruction behind it. Granted he hasn’t had a chance to act to rectify actions by the Bush administration, but if the ideas Obama articulated on the campaign trail and those which he has articulated in the two months or so since he won the election play out the US will be in a far better place to act on climate change, environmental regulation, clean energy , energy independence, and green jobs that at any point in the past eight years. At least ideologically, again financially things aren't so simple...

Obviously the challenge is to transform the high ideals expressed so far by the Obama-Biden team (and recognizing that some of them, particular the level of greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed, and support for clean coal and some biofuels projects, aren’t quite as lofty as some of us would like) into action. With hope and pressure when needed, next year we won’t be writing about the failed promise of the Obama administration.

Falling Out of Love With Biofuels

Although some researchers had been saying that using large amounts of land to grow biofuels as the expense of food crops was unwise in previous years, 2008 was the year when the food versus fuel debate solidly made it into the public consciousness.

You can debate the actual impact on food prices that increased mandates for biofuels has had on the cost of food, but as a matter of public perception biofuels, particularly first-generation ones such as corn ethanol, decidedly aren’t as favored as they once were. Support for second generation feedstocks remains (it sometimes seems that researchers will attempt to turn anything into liquid fuel) and algae-based fuels still seem to be the great green hope.

The other issue which has come to the fore is that of biofuel sustainability. While sustainable biofuels initiatives have existed previously, this year witnessed the issue rise to top of the policy agenda: Worker’s conditions, more accurate assessment of greenhouse gas emission reductions from various feedstocks, and issues surrounding land conversions don’t seem as esoteric as they did in 2007 or previously.

This is a decidedly good thing. There is little sense in swapping a biofuel for a fossil fuel if its production doesn’t reduce carbon emissions, increases deforestation and biodiversity loss, or creates disenfranchisement for workers.

The IEA, Others Admit Peak Oil

Though the subject of peak oil ranks right up there with nuclear power, GMOs and climate change for getting people wound up, if the vociferousness of the TreeHugger commenters is any indication, 2008 saw some startling (and frankly relieving) admissions on the subject: Basically, the admission being that peak oil will be upon us sooner rather than later.

The year opened with Jeroen van der Veer, the CEO of Shell, admitting that peak oil was likely by 2015. Then, as oil prices rose to new highs, other former oilmen (including T. Boone Pickens) began admitting that the peak was nigh. In recent months a number of reports, including one by the IEA (which heretofore seemed to be unwilling to admit that supply constraints ever might be a possibility) began talking about peak oil. The IEA even went so far to say that non-Opec oil suppliers would hit peak as soon as three years, with Opec following by 2020. Predictably, and probably more accurately, peak oil researchers say we’re on the top of the peak now looking down a long slope.

While slowing demand due to recession could change the time frame of some of these predictions slightly, ultimately the fact remains that oil is finite resource and failure to find alternatives to this which have lower carbon emissions and can be produced in sufficient quantity will be disastrous. The good news is that peak oil seems to have moved from a fringe or specialized concept to one which has gained broader recognition.

Renewable Energy
Poll Shows the Pickens Publicity Plan is Working
Six New Solar Power Plant Plans Pulverize Old Records
12,100 Megawatts of Geothermal Power by 2025: Department of Interior Opens Up Lands for Leasing
Barack Obama
Obama Commitment on Second Gen Biofuels Good, Let’s Hold Him To It
Obama Picks for Science Advisor, NOAA Head Strong on Climate Change
Obama Choices for Energy & Environment Positions Widely Hailed
Sustainable Biofuels
Sustainable Biofuels Alliance Sets Out Draft Principles for Sustainability Practices
The Good and the Greasy: The Sustainable Biodiesel Summit Aims to Raise the Bar
Food Versus Fuel
Biofuels Have Pushed Thirty Million People Into Poverty: Oxfam
Increasing Biofuel Use Will Continue to Increase Food Prices, Drive People Into Poverty
Common Biofuel Myth: Corn-Based Ethanol to Blame for Global Food Shortages
Peak Oil
Matt Simmons: Peak Oil Will Dwarf Financial Crisis Soon
Shell CEO Admits Peak Oil Could Be Here in 7 Years
5 Years From Now Peak Oil Pinch Could Devastate the UK Economy, New Report Warns

Tags: Barack Obama | Biofuels | Energy | Peak Oil | Renewable Energy