The Oxymoron of Political Leadership

  • Analysis by Stephen Leahy (vienna)
  • Wednesday, June 29, 2011
  • Inter Press Service

Humanity has the technology, resources and even the money to solve these problems, agree scientists, corporate business leaders, heads of civil society organisations and United Nations agencies and government ministers. 'All that is lacking is political will,' they almost always declare at the dozens of international conferences, summits and forums this reporter has attended for the past five years. And then everyone goes home.

What is this magical 'political will' that can solve any problem?

It seems it is as simple as deciding to do something and then making sure it happens no matter what. You decide to take a train somewhere. You plan the time and route, book the ticket, pay for it and arrange your life to make sure you get on that train. Every day, we make decisions and carry them out.

'Political will is really about priorities,' says Anders Wijkman, former member of the European Parliament and current vice chair of the Tällberg Foundation, a Swedish NGO.

The priority for Europe and many countries is the current economic crisis and all else is secondary right now, said Wijkman, who has fought to put many important environmental and development issues at the top of the agenda in Europe.

Everyone in the world could have electricity or be fed properly if it were the most important thing for world leaders to do. However, not only are other issues clamouring for attention, there are enormous barriers to doing anything different such as bringing light to the billion people who are left in the dark when the sun goes down.

'You have to remember politicians are more interested in incremental change than transformational change,' Wijkman told IPS at the 2011 Vienna Energy Forum last week.

Some 1,200 delegates from 100 countries attended along with 40 government ministers to discuss how to bring clean, efficient, reliable and affordable energy services for the long-term prosperity of all people. The need for 'political will' was frequently cited.

Political leadership is in fact an oxymoron. It doesn't mean what everyone thinks it does. In off-the-record conversations with retired politicians, they have candidly admitted their first priority as ministers was to ensure their party was re-elected. Taking a leadership role on anything else was viewed as risky and politically dangerous.

'It is up to the public to demand change,' they often told IPS. Unfortunately, the public listens to what politicians say and pays too little attention to what they do.

There are also powerful barriers to changing priorities in the form of special interest groups such as the corporate sector. Renewable energy was and is still strongly opposed by big power utilities, says Wijkman.

Renewable energy is generally small-scale and decentralised, and utilities like big and centralised. Utilities have made their investments in big power generation facilities. 'Extending the operational life of big power plants, be it coal or nuclear, means huge profits at very little cost,' he says. Even in progressive Europe, the fight to shift to renewable energy was difficult. Tough legislation and rich feed-in tariffs are the main reason Europe has been able to reduce its carbon emissions through alternative energy generation even though overall energy demand has risen. And because publicly subsidised coal or oil still does not pay the full costs of their pollution - smog and carbon - renewables are more expensive to install.

'There is an ideology in industry that renewables cannot meet their needs and the only way is with big centralised power,' Wijkman says. However, that is not the case when wind and sun energy is coupled with smart grids, energy storage using water (pumping water uphill when energy demand is low) and intelligent design.

There is an unwillingness to move away from business as usual and there is even fear amongst politicians and the public that change will mean giving up what we are used to and that is why we are not proactive, Wijkman concluded.

The reality is that business as usual cannot be sustained from either an environmental or development point of view, said economist Nebojsa Nakicenovic, deputy director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis located near Vienna.

'A transformation of the global energy system is needed,' Nakicenovic says.

That transformation can bring a wide range of benefits, including cleaner air, better health, more productive societies, a reduction in conflicts, and getting the world on a path to keeping global warming below two degrees C. The triple goals set out at the Vienna Forum of energy for all, energy intensity reduction of 40 percent and generate 30 percent of the world's electricity with renewables would bring those benefits and is doable, he says.

'It is doable only if there is early and sustained investments,' he warns, and only if there are no further investments in coal power plants, and energy gobbling buildings and other infrastructure. But the window of opportunity is already closing. 'If we wait too long it will be too late,' he adds.

The fear is that political leaders will not heed this warning and the necessary energy transformation will not become a top priority until it is too late. It seems that only if the public exerts its will can this outcome be altered.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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