The four-day conference in the city of Bonn -- called "Renewables 2004" -- was planned back in 2002 to follow from the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg that year.
The organizers, however, could not have foreseen the recent turmoil on world oil markets that has seen oil prices shoot to 20-year highs, rising to over $40 a barrel. This run-up in prices has given renewed urgency to efforts to harness the sun, the wind, and the seas to reduce dependence on oil.
German Environment Minister Juergen Trittin, opening today's conference, used the timing of the event to rouse participants to action. "Here in Bonn, the point is not to make general declarations. The central point of [the conference] 'Renewables 2004' is action," he said. "We need to accelerate the use of renewable energy resources. Here at this conference we must [really get serious.] We must expand the worldwide use of renewable energy resources -- against global poverty, against global warming. [In English:] Make it real!"
Some 2,900 delegates, including ministers and heads of government from 118 countries, are planning to attend the conference. In addition to the use of solar and wind energy, delegates will discuss progress in harnessing biomass, geothermal energy, and hydrogen. Proponents of alternative fuels point out that they lessen the world's energy dependence on volatile areas like the Middle East.
Much of the world's oil is produced in the Persian Gulf states and the Middle East -- where the threat of a terrorist attack is greatest. This past weekend's terrorist hostage taking in Saudi Arabia alone added nearly a dollar to the price of a barrel of oil -- pushing it to almost $41 a barrel in trading today.
Rising demand for oil has also pushed prices higher. The reasons behind the higher demand are a rapidly growing Chinese economy and an increasing preference of drivers in the United States and other countries for bigger, less fuel-efficient vehicles.
Another strong argument in favor of alternative fuels is their effect on climate change. Fossil fuels such as oil and coal, when burned, produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases suspected of contributing to global warming. Alternative fuels, on the other hand, are negligible producers of such gases.
But skeptics will recall that this sudden embrace of alternative fuels is nothing new. The world reacted in much the same way in the late 1970s and early 1980s in response to the oil-price shocks of the mid-1970s.
A recent study by the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that the amount of money spent on total energy research -- including research on alternative fuels -- peaked in 1981, reaching some $16 billion that year. By 1987, however, as oil prices eased, the amount of money spent on energy research fell by half.
During the 1990s research in alternative fuels lagged even as the global economy boomed. Today, renewable energy resources contribute only about 5.5 percent of total energy supply -- scarcely unchanged from 1970.
The IEA says renewable energy resources can play a role in reducing oil dependence and in helping the environment, but that governments must spend more on research and development.
Trittin today promised participants at the Bonn conference a real commitment to renewable energy -- saying that voluntary pledges by countries to increase the use of alternative fuels would be monitored through UN structures. "'Renewables 2004' is something new," he said. "Here in Bonn we want to unite the voluntary initiatives and the structure of the United Nations to expand the use of renewable energy resources. That's the inner band between the declarations, the political recommendations and the action program."
History shows that change is possible, but that much will probably depend on the how long the price of oil stays high.