Twenty years have passed since the first United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development was held in Rio de Janeiro, gathering over 100 heads of state in order to debate how to achieve economic growth while also preserving the environment through public policy. In June 2012 the next meeting will take place, Río+20, and Michael Liebreich admits he is unsure what the outcome will be: will the majority agree it isn’t the right time due to the murky global economic climate of the past couple of years? Or will representatives recognize that there are imminent disasters in our future due to climate change, water shortage, and depleted natural resources and now it is more important than ever to take action? He does have hope that an agreement can be met that successfully addresses both economic and ecological issues.
Liebreich, an expert in the integration of clean energy in businesses, discusses these issues and more in this exclusive WOBI interview.
What role does renewable energy play in the global sustainability map?
I dedicate myself to understanding analyzable concepts, and I’m convinced we have to do more with less. More food with less water and land, more industrial production with less energy, more of what we enjoy with less consumption. This is beneficial to everyone: governments, families, and businesses.
And how does energy fit in to using resources more efficiently?
It is absolutely necessary because energy represents 10% of the global economy. An economy can’t grow without an abundant, reliable energy source. Everything relies on energy, so if we can find the right solutions we will be able to better manage challenges, including national security and geopolitical problems. Energy isn’t the only industry that matters, but I would say if there’s a place to start, it’s with energy.
How do we make energy use more efficient?
If we strive for a better energy system we have to keep in mind everything that has come before instead of looking for individual solutions. If we don’t understand a petroleum refinery, a gas pipeline or a wind turbine, how can we possibly understand the scale of the industry? Recycled waste, wind and natural gas are each a fraction to the whole solution and we must learn to combine them.
Which businesses can participate in this process?
There is room for all: new technology companies as well as large, established manufacturers such as GE, ABB and Siemens. And, of course, we need the participation of the companies that produce energy in order to control how they refine and distribute. Finally, we also need investors who will give financial support. We are talking about a global industrial revolution that we won’t see the results of for another 20-25 years.
How will business be able to profit from this new ecosystem?
Some already are. With the growing price of energy in the last decade we have seen enormous political attention on alternative, clean energy. Suppliers of this sort of energy excelled because of a new, global demand. However, the economic crisis hit in 2008 and a year later we saw the failure of the Copenhagen Summit to reach an international agreement, and the demand and price of these technologies fell. For example, the price of solar energy has fallen 70% in the last three years.
However, as we are seeing a change in the energy production ecosystem, this is normal to see rises and falls as protagonists change. Solar panels can be purchased for a relatively cheap price, and developers and installers are doing well now. The energy market is like any other: we must consider both price and politics.
We also have to take into account the new perspectives different energy sources propose. Wind, for example, isn’t an exhaustible energy like gas or oil. Brazil has taken a particular interest in wind energy, and has found that at 6.5 cents per kilowatt/hour, this energy is cheaper than gas and carbon.
What drives innovation in these industries? A concern for climate change and the future of the planet? Or the possibility to increase profits?
This is an interesting question, because at the end of the day innovation is a combination of great individual advancements. In general terms, I don’t think environmental concern is the only motivation for such innovation, and in many cases it comes from a desire to make a commercial impact. In the past couple of years companies have been under an extreme pressure to watch costs as well as innovate, and their motives vary. For example what has driven Apple to create the new iPhone? A desire to change the world? It’s more likely they are trying to create a product and service that a lot of people buy.
I would say, then, that I hope sustainability goes from being a big trend to being and inherent part of how industries function, how we think and do things. Governments must incorporate regulations, and companies must embed sustainability in operations. For consumers, if these conditions are reached, sustainability won’t have to be a relevant factor when choosing between products.