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Building a Low Carbon Society

Maria da Graça Carvalho (Full Professor IST - Instituto Superior Técnico), Matteo Bonifacio and Pierre Dechamps (Advisers, Bureau of European Policy Advisers - European Commission).

Introdution

There is a wide consensus that we are approaching the sunset of the oil era in the first half of the 21st century.  From an environmental perspective, the dramatic rise in carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is raising the earth's temperature and threatening an unprecedented change in the chemistry of the planet and global climate, with ominous consequences for the future of human civilization and the ecosystems of the earth.

From an economic perspective, while oil, coal, and natural gas will continue to provide a substantial portion of the world's and the European Union's energy well into the 21st century, there is a growing consensus that the full costs of our fossil fuel addiction is beginning to act as a drag on the world economy.  And last but not least, the changes that the climate challenge will bear will also deeply affect our societies, questioning issues of sustainability, distribution of power, migration and intergenerational equity.

During this twilight era, the 27 EU member states are making every effort to ensure that the remaining stock of fossil fuels is used more efficiently and are experimenting with clean energy technologies to limit carbon dioxide emissions in the burning of conventional fuels.  These efforts fall in line with the EU mandate that the member states increase energy efficiency 20 percent by 2020 and reduce their global warming emissions 20 percent (based on 1990 levels), again by 2020.  But, greater efficiencies in the use of fossil fuels and mandated global warming gas reductions, by themselves, are not enough to adequately address the unprecedented crisis of global warming and global peak oil and gas production.  Looking to the future, every government will need to explore new energy paths and establish new economic models with the goal of achieving as close to zero carbon emissions as possible. It must be clear that a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 80% in developed economies will never be achieved b business as usual plus a few windmills and solar panels. It is a complete reorganization of society which is needed.

In this context, the energy and climate change challenges have been seen, up to now, as a constraints to deal with rather than opportunities.  Policies and actions to address them have been perceived as potential threats to our capacity to generate wealth and, moreover, to maintain our social models.  Addressing climate change, especially during a period of global economic slowdown, has been seen as a "luxury" that collides with other compelling priorities such as the need to build sustainable social security systems, as well as support the welfare of low income groups, communities and nations.  And this is especially true for Europe, which placed the need to preserve a social model based on solidarity, access and opportunity at the heart of its policies and values.

On the other hand, the vision of a post carbon society makes it possible to reframe the energy and climate change challenges as opportunities, not just to foster a wealthier society, but also a more equitable and sustainable one. In this sense, the European Union needs a powerful new social vision that will push the discussion and the agenda around climate change and peak oil from fear to hope and from economic constraints to economic possibilities.  That narrative is just now emerging as industries across Europe begin to lay the groundwork for a decarbonised society for the middle of this century.

In this paper we argue that the key, for both Europe and world, is to lay out a compelling "social vision" to accompany the new economic vision. The coming energy challenge provides the framework for the birth of a "New Social Europe" in the first half of the 21st Century. Just as the distributed Information Technology and internet communication revolutions dramatically changed the social context, as well the economic parameters of doing business, a distributed renewable energy revolution will have a similar impact on Europe and the world.

The aim of this contribution is to sketch the main lines of this social vision. To do so, we will briefly review the main elements that would allow for the creation of a post carbon society while focusing, in the second part of the paper, on how these would fit into the creation of a new social Europe.