Bill Clinton has warned that the US needs to cut its consumption of natural resources if it is to stave off the threats of climate change and rising prices.
The former president said the economy of the world’s biggest consumer would recover faster from the recession and financial crises if more effort was made to use resources sustainably.
“We can grow even faster if we use less energy,” said Clinton in a conversation with the Guardian at the Resource 2012 conference in Oxford on Friday evening. “We have studies that show this. All that we need to do is find ways to finance this.”
He said the current financial system favoured the building of major projects such as coal-fired power stations, despite their energy intensity, because the value of energy efficiency was underrated.
Big financial backers are used to weighing up the finances of major infrastructure works, because they have long developed the financial models to work out the payback on their investment over the project’s lifetime.
But financing efficiency projects is more complex, and has received much less attention from investors, because the payback is spread more diffusely – among thousands of companies and individuals.
“This is the problem with going aggressively for efficiency, as we need to,” Clinton said. “If I want to finance efficiency savings, I need to go to lots of people and add all those savings together. But if I want to build a new coal-fired power station, I go to a few [backers] and I’ve done it.”
Clinton also called for countries to make much more effort to cut greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide, which has received most international attention.
He said there were easy gains to be made by cutting methane – for instance, by capping off or reusing the methane resulting from landfill rubbish disposal sites – and “black carbon”, or soot, arising from inefficient industrial installations or cooking fires.
He said that despite the failures of successive governments – including his own 1992-2000 administration in the US – to forge working treaties on climate change, and to cut greenhouse gas emissions, people should take the initiative by working together and individually to reduce their own impact on the environment. He pointed to the work of the biologist EO Wilson, whose most recent work suggests that human beings and other complex natural societies prosper through co-operation. “I believe that in a complex world … these creative networks of co-operation have to triumph over conflict-driven models,” said Clinton.
The conference was organised at Clinton’s alma mater, Oxford University, by the former chief scientific adviser to the UK government Sir David King. The two-day event, attended by politicians including David Miliband, Lord Mandelson and the energy minister Greg Barker, as well as by overseas leaders including Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and many representatives from business and finance, aimed to examine the problems of the increasing scarcity of natural resources – including water, energy, fertile agricultural land and precious metals – and propose solutions to use these resources more efficiently.
King told the Guardian: “We are nowhere near realising the full impact of this yet. We have seen the first indications – rising food prices, pressure on water supplies, a land grab by some countries for mining rights and fertile agricultural land, and rising prices for energy and for key resources [such as] metals. But we need to do far more to deal with these problems before they become even more acute, and we are not doing enough yet.”
Earlier in the conference, Miliband warned of the destructive effects of resource overuse and scarcity, and Mandelson called for an end to subsidies that encouraged the overuse of fossil fuels and an increase in support mechanisms for clean energy, such as sun and wind power.
Mandelson said: “Some kinds of subsidies are key to opening up the new world but on the other hand there are some kinds which are the biggest obstacles to making progress.
“We must have rules in place to regulate the ways these good subsidies are used and we should avoid perpetual subsidies. They should be limited to the time it takes for the technology to move from inception to mass commercialization.”
Miliband told the conference there was a “moral imperative” for rich countries to use less of the world’s natural resources.
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