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Last edited 16 Jul 2020
Sustainable development: energy challenge
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The world has been heavily dependent on fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal over the past centuries and is likely to remain dependent on them for much of this century (Odell, 2009). This dependence is now not the only matter for Western countries but also of Asian emerging countries such as China and India as their oil imports have dramatically increased in parallel with economic growth and industrialisation (Jaffe, 2004). As the industrial societies exhaust fuel resources, vulnerability to supply disruption are accelerating. In the US, for example, national debate is increasingly focused on the impact of dependence on oil from the Middle East, and rising oil consumption has also become a major policy challenge.
Every year we inject 23 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, half of which is absorbed in the seas and vegetation, and half of which remains in the atmosphere (Comby, 2008). The impact on human and natural systems is severe and potentially irreparable unless mitigative action is taken (Schellnhuber et al, 2006).
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, 1992, and the Kyoto Commitments to reduce greenhouse gases created a framework for action at an international level. Many nations are striving to include sustainability as a factor in their national energy policy (see HM Government, 2009; HM Government, 2008; European Union Committee, 2008; etc).
According to the IEA (1999) ‘The world is in the early stages of an inevitable transition to a sustainable energy system that will be largely dependent on renewable resources’; and more recently, US President Barack Obama said, “To truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy” (Obama, 2009).
Renewable energy is energy derived from sources which are naturally replenished or are practically inexhaustible, such as; sunlight, wind, geothermal heat, tides and biomass. They are often described as clean and green forms of energy because of their minimal environmental impact compared to fossil fuels.
However, discussion about renewable energy supply involves a number of optimistic expectations. Many people believe that full replacement of fossil with renewable energy sources is possible in a very near future (for example, US former Vice President Al Gore's speech calling for 100% renewable energy in the US within 10 years (Al Gore, 2008), and Jacobson & Delucchi’s plan to Power 100% of the Planet with Renewables by 2030 (Jacobson & Delucchi, 2009)). Some even apply Classical Geopolitics to renewable energy: “those who will control the new energy regime will control the future” (Criekemans, 2011).
In 2007 European Union (EU) countries committed to set a binding target that 20% of the EU's total energy supply should come from renewables by 2020 (European Union Committee, 2008). For the UK the target is 15%, almost a seven-fold increase in the share of renewables in scarcely more than a decade (HM Government, 2009). Achieving these targets involves generous subsidies (35 billion euros in the EU and 18.2 billion $ in the US in 2009 (Harrison, P)).
The first common disadvantage lies in the rate at which renewable energy can be produced and the inability to produce as large quantities of electricity as fossil fuels. Despite all the relative successes, renewable energy production is way below demand, partly because of the costs of new technologies required are high and partly because their efficiency and productivity depends on the weather. Recently, a study conducted by The Renewable Energy Foundation revealed that the UK has missed its 2010 targets by a "large margin”, and reasons for the low number have been put down to low wind load factors leading to a lack of wind power generation (REF, 2011).
In the pursuit of renewable energy, we may also face the challenge of land constraint. For example, replacing crude oil-derived fuels by bio fuels would require 1000- 10,000 times larger areas for crops than the land used by oil field infrastructures, and shifting from coal-fired to wind-generated electricity would require 10 to 100 times more space (Smil, 2006). Land issues apply to most renewable energies, along with direct or indirect impacts on natural habitats and the visual environment. Issues include, the visual appearance of wind turbines, biomass causing soil erosion, the construction of tidal power damaging ecosystems and so on (Finch et al, 2009; birdsaustralia, 2011).
In addition, the process of bio fuel production has not only raised concerns over deforestation and biodiversity loss, but also, the global food crisis. Since 2006, food prices have escalated dramatically, and for the first time in decades, worldwide scarcity of food has become a problem. “Converting food into fuel is neither good for the poor or for the environment” (Wahlberg, 2008). “For some bio fuels indirect land use change poses a risk to achieving GHG savings compared to the use of fossil fuels” - response of the UK to the European Commission’s consultation on ILUC impacts of bio fuels (DFT, 2010)
In order to deliver significant quantities of lower price energy, large-scale solar thermal plants are being built across the deserts of North Africa, the Middle East and South America. DESERTEC – a projected €400bn mixed solar and wind project aiming to provide 15% of Europe’s energy by 2050- claims to use 17,000km2 of the Sahara (Desertec, 2008). While shifting from the dependence on Middle East oil to a dependence on foreign sunshine may not be much of an improvement. Concern have also been raised that these plants will interfere with local landscape and ecology (Shukman, 2007; Baker, 2009).
These impacts can also be seen in countries such as Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia as producer countries of biofuels (Barta et al) and Morocco, Libya, and Jordan where solar power plants are installed.
“Greenpeace has always fought - and will continue to fight - vigorously against nuclear power because it is an unacceptable risk to the environment and to humanity. The only solution is to halt the expansion of all nuclear power, and for the shutdown of existing plants” (greenpeace, 2010)
“We believe that the opposition of some environmental organizations to civilian applications of nuclear energy will soon be revealed to have been among the greatest mistakes of our times” (Comby, 2008, p1)
The two statements above well illustrate the heated controversy surrounding the deployment and use of nuclear power. The topic itself is a sensitive political issue in many countries. Those who argue for it often cite its benefit of low carbon dioxide (CO2) emission and compact plants with high productivity.
However, pollution does not only come from CO2 emissions, and sustainability is not only about meeting present demand. Radioactive wastes, the widespread concern about the diversion of nuclear materials to weapons production (American Nuclear Society, 2010), as well as nuclear plants’ vulnerability to terrorist attack are amongst the reasons nuclear power may not be a sustainable option. In addition, although some sources claim that Uranium is inexhaustible with 4 billion tons dissolved in sea water, and that it can power the globe for 60,000-years at present rates (Comby, 2008; Fetter, 2009); there are concerns about current state of available sources and costs of water processing that would be needed to extract uranium from sea water.
Nevertheless, increasing C02 emission, rising demand and renewable sources’ incapability creates a dilemma. "If you don't want nuclear, there are hard choices to be made on other issues” (Fitzgerald, 2005). The UK has chosen to support nuclear as a low-carbon source (Harrabin, 2011), perhaps giving time for renewable energy technologies to be perfected.
The way forward =
It took nearly a century for oil to replace coal and there is no reason to expect the shift from fossil fuels will take less time. Infrastructure construction for the world transition to renewable energy requires hundreds of billions of pounds investment, and that deployment is hampered by a range of barriers from technical to institutional: “regimes tend to be stabilised and resistant to any fundamental change” (Raven, 2006). Institutional structures (both formal ones such as public financing schemes and informal ones such as cultural values) are often rigid, preventing the breakthrough of alternatives (Jacobsson and Lauber, 2006 cited in ibid). The shift away from fossil fuels is inevitable yet it may be a generations-long process. A sustainable transition requires steady moves that respect local environment, economic and social conditions.
For the time being, while energy conservation and renewable energy are quite incapable of satisfying the needs of industrial civilisation, fossil fuel production must be regulated under strict environmental regulation to manage negative impacts as well as to improve performance and save costs (Jaccard, 2006). Nuclear power, although it may not be a desirable option, could offer an intermediate solution.
Sustainable energy is not only about using energy generated from clean sources and clean technologies, but also about using energy wisely. Jaccard (2006) suggests that reducing our energy consumption will help reduce emissions, slowing the depletion of fossil fuels at the same time. Smil (2010) stresses that a precondition for a successful transition from fossil fuels is that all affluent nations take steps to reduce fossil fuel consumption, through conservation and increased energy efficiently.
Regulation and economic measures do not necessarily change the values underpinning behaviour, therefore long-term and deeply-rooted social change needs to be promoted through education, creating community values and environmental citizenship, in combination with a framework of incentives (Dobson, 2003; Lorenzoni, 2007).
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 External references
- Al Gore (2008)Al Gore's Speech On Renewable Energy, Constitution Hall, Washington DC
- Baker D. (2009) Concern over solar energy waste, San Francisco Chronicle, 20 Jan (accessed 10 April 2011)
- Barta P. and Spencer J. (2006) The Growing Danger of Ethanol, Biofuels, Wall Street Journal
- BP (2010) BP Statistical Review of World EnergyJune 2010.
- Birdsaustralia (2011) What’s the bigger threat to birds – climate change or wind farms?, April 8, yes2renewables.org, (accessed 19 May)
- Comby B (2008) Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy, TNR Editions
- Criekemans D (2011) The Geopolitics of Renewable Energy: Different or Similar to the Geopolitics of Conventional Energy? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association Annual Conference "Global Governance: Political Authority in Transition", Le Centre Sheraton Montreal Hotel, MONTREAL, QUEBEC, CANADA, Mar 16 (accessed 10 May 2011)
- Desertec (2008), DESERTEC Concept Note, Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation, The Club of Rome.
- DFT- Department for Transport (2010) UK response to the European Commission consultation on indirect land use change impacts of biofuels.
- Dobson, A., (2003) Environment and Citizenship, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- European Union Committee (2008) 27th Report of Session 2007–08: The EU’s Target for Renewable Energy: 20% by 2020, Published by the Authority of the House of Lords
- Fetter S (2009) How long will the world's uranium supplies last?, Scientific American, 26 January.(accessed 12 May 2011)
- Finch J W et al (2009) Miscanthus, short-rotation coppice and the historic environment, English Heritage
- Fitzgerald S. (2005) Britain facing large energy gap, BBC, 16 May (accessed 15 April 2011)
- Greenpeace (2011) End the nuclear age (accessed 18 May 2011)
- HM Government, (2009) The UK Renewable Energy Strategy, London: The Stationery Office.
- Harrabin R (2011) UK breaks promise on nuclear power subsidies, say MPs, BBC, (accessed 19 May 2011)
- Harrison P. (2011) Europe's green energy faces subsidy shake-up, the Reuters (online) 26 Jan (accessed 18 May 2011)
- IEA International Energy Agency (1999) The Envolving Renewable Energy Market, IEA, Paris
- IEA International Energy Agency (IEA) (2009) World Energy Outlook 2009, IEA, Paris
- Jaffe A.M. (2004) Energy security: Oil-geopolitical and strategic implications for US, China and Middle East relations, James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University, Rice University
- Jacobson & Delucchi, (2009) A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030, Scientific American, 301(5), 58-65
- Jacobsson, S., Lauber, V., 2006. The politics and policy of energy system transformation-explaining the German diffusion of renewable energy technology, Energy Policy 24, 256– 276.
- Jaccard M. (2006) Sustainable Fossil Fuels: The unusual suspect in the Quest for clean and enduring energy, Cambridge University Press
- Lorenzoni I. Nicholson-Cole S, Whitmarsh L. (2007) Barriers perceived to engaging with climate change among the UKpublic and their policy implications, Global Environmental Change 17 (2007) 445–459
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- Raven, R. (2007) Niche accumulation and hybridisation strategies in transition processes towards a sustainable energy system: An assessment of differences and pitfalls, Energy Policy, Vol 35, pp 2390–2400
- Schellnhuber, H.J., Cramer, W., Nakicenovic, N., Wigley, T., Yohe, G. (Eds.), (2006) Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Special Eurobarometer (2006) Attitudes towards Energy, European Commission
- Smil V. (2006) Energy at the crossroads, Paris, OECD Scientific Challenges for Energy Research
- Smil V. (2010) Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects, Praeger, Santa Barabara, CA
- Shukman D, (2007) Power station harnesses Sun's rays, BBC, May 2007 (accessed 10 April 2011)
- Wahlberg, Katarina (2008), ‘Are We Approaching a Global Food Crisis? Between soaring food prices and food aid shortage’, World Economy & Development In Brief, Issue 2/Mar- Apr
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