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Why choosing coal is like choosing Betamax

By Ben Pearson - posted Friday, 28 December 2007

Here I am in Bali writing this on a wireless connection. The entire Conference Centre is “unwired”, including meeting rooms and cafes, and it’s extremely handy. It’s also a far stretch from my experience when I visited Bali ten years ago and it amazes me how far communications technology has come in that decade.

Perhaps this technological transformation could provide a useful parallel for how developing countries like Indonesia could skip dirty, outdated energy technologies like coal and nuclear, and instead go straight for modern technologies like renewables, which could power their populations without fuelling climate change and further vandalising our planet.

First, let’s go back 10 years when I - a touch leaner and more hirsute than now - arrived in Bali with a friend. In those days, keeping in touch with my then girlfriend, now wife, was a pretty laborious job. I had to find the local “Telkomsel” office, which was invariably sweltering and wait in the queue to give the telephone number to a staff member. They would then direct me to a little booth and place the call for me. Occasionally, it worked. But, of course, if my girlfriend was not there, or already on the phone, then I was out of luck. I had to wait a couple of minutes and try again. The quality of the line? Don’t ask.


Fast-forward 10 years and, in communications terms, this is a different country. Be it sitting in my hotel cafe doing wireless downloading, or keeping in touch with my wife through SMS, Skype or email, it’s a long way from that sweaty old Telkomsel Office.

The speed with which that transformation happened is phenomenal. Countries like Indonesia basically jumped a generation of technology. There was some broadband installed, and phone lines no doubt, but now it’s all about mobile phones and wireless connectivity. Same thing with recording technologies. VHS? Betamax? Oh yeah, I think I bought their second album … it’s all about DVDs here.

So why can’t this happen with energy technologies?

If Indonesia can bypass 10-year-old communications technology, then why can’t they bypass 100-year-old energy technologies like coal-fired power stations? And if Indonesia can embrace smart, modern, decentralised communications technologies like mobile phones and wireless, then surely they can also embrace smart, modern, decentralised energy technologies like solar? Because really, ignoring renewables and seeing the choice as between nuclear and coal is the equivalent of ignoring DVDs and choosing between VHS and Betamax. Anda gila? Are you crazy?

But here’s the rub. Achieving this transformation is going to cost money, and a lot of that should come from developed countries like Australia, who are responsible for most of the damage so far. We all know that if developing countries replicate our energy systems it will cook the climate - our climate. So we’ve got to help stop that happening.

The best way to do this is by helping out with finance, making technologies available and helping to build the capacity - intellectual, institutional and otherwise - to help create sustainable energy sectors in countries like Indonesia.


The good news is technology transfer is one of the key issues being discussed here in Bali and the outcome we got wasn't bad. But more is needed.

If we don't consciously, deliberately and ambitiously help developing countries produce and consume energy in a sustainable way, then we are condemning them to a future of Betamax and slow broadband, and the planet as a whole to a climate catastrophe.

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About the Author

Ben Pearson is an energy campaigner at Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

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