Paul Gilding tells business leaders to avoid the 'carbon bubble'. Photo: Sahlan Hayes. Photo: Sahlan Hayes SHZ
Global business leaders have been warned of a "carbon bubble" that will pop as nations accelerate their move into renewable energy and send the value of coal miners and other fossil fuel industries tumbling.
Paul Gilding, an Australian environmental activist and former head of Greenpeace, told the opening of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) that Asia was leading a drive into solar and other renewable energy sources that would leave countries dependent on coal exposed.
It will be "game over for coal" as the price of solar photovoltaic panels collapses, said Mr Gilding ahead of Wednesday's speech in Seoul.
Australia's plans to ramp up its coal exports would probably not be realised as international efforts to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases add to the technological advances already under way, he said.
"I don't think that [export expansion] is going to take place because the world's going to move away from coal before we get there," he said.
Overnight Tuesday, Scotland set a goal of meeting half its electricity demand from renewable sources by 2015, up from 35 per cent last year. It aims to get all its power from clean sources by 2020. Other countries, including from the European Union to China and South Korea, are stepping up efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Members of the WBCSD include global business giants such as Toyota, General Electric, BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Shell. Wednesday's meeting was expected to include addresses by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
Mr Gilding author of "The Great Disruption," said his invitation to speak at the event reflected a shift taking place in business circles. "My message would have been too radical for them five years ago, whereas now it's sort of the centrepiece of the opening," he said.
Companies and nations now have to cope with environmental constraints at a time when the health of the global economy was already weak, he said.
"The global economy is in serious trouble, trapped between debt and growth," he said, according to the notes of his speech." If we grow successfully, our resource and climate challenges will break us. If we don't grow our debt will break us."
Events such as Hurricane Sandy - which has left a damage bill of as much as $US45 billion for the northeastern US this week - highlights the point that "mother nature doesn't negotiate", he told the gathering.
Mr Gilding said as many as half of those in the audience "won't make it" because their businesses were tied to industries, such as fossil fuels, that won't make the changes needed.
"We know from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research that to reduce the risk of crossing that two-degree (Celsius) threshold to around 20 per cent — to give us an 80 per cent chance of not spiralling out of control — gives us a carbon budget," Mr Gilding said. "On current forecasts the entire budget — for burning coal, oil and gas — will be consumed in a little over a decade.
"That will then leave around three-quarters of all the currently known, economically recoverable reserves unable to be burnt, reserves that are today the key assets of listed companies.
"Just consider the consequences when the markets realise that financial carbon bubble could burst."
Australia is the world's largest coal exporter, with the product behind only iron ore in generating export revenue, according to the Australian Coal Association's website. Thermal coal exports are projected to rise from 162 million tonnes to 271 million tonnes by 2017, while coking coal exports are on course to rise to 218 million tonnes by 2017, the website said.
According to James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, known coal reserves alone hold about 600 gigatons of carbon, of which about one quarter have been burnt.
Big winners, losers
Mr Gilding said: "We're now at a point where business interests are no longer aligned amongst the business community. There are going to be big winners and big losers."
He singled out global food producer Unilever as one company that was repositioning itself to ensure its supply chain could withstand increased competition for scarce resources.
Mr Gilding said governments would also see advantage in diversifying their energy sources as they struggle to lower unemployment rates: "A US study found new renewable energy generation would create three times as many jobs per dollar invested as fossil fuels do."
Government interest, though, may also come from their militaries. Mr Gilding said armed forces from Singapore to Germany and the US were aware of increased competition for water, food and other scarce resources — issues likely to be made worse by climate change.
"It is a major issue of geopolitical power," he said.
Technology may drive some of the change. If China dominates solar power, for instance, it would take away a major source of income for the Middle East, which is already an unstable region.
Mr Gilding said the keen interest from armed forces showed such issues are no longer fears confined to environmentalists: "It's a very good indicator that the issue has reached a different stage."