Monday, February 12, 2007

Energy: At What Cost?

The correlation between climate change and the burning of fossil fuels has been acknowledged widely for decades. The concern about global warming has led to heated debates about the use of fossil fuels to provide energy, and whether there are feasible alternatives. Renewable energy sources, efficiency and nuclear energy are all presented as low-carbon possibilities, yet agreement on their implementation varies and remains contested. The thirst for oil brings about geopolitical, socio-economic and environmental repercussions. Nuclear energy with all its risks cannot possibly be the best alternative. The political will to implement environmentally friendly, sustainable and renewable forms of energy is presently insufficient, despite the IPCC and the Uppsala Protocol. What remains largely uncontested, yet lurks beneath the surface of these debates is the need for energy itself. The claim that the demand for energy will continue to rise with economic growth and population growth therefore seems indisputable. Do we really need so much energy? The current negative effects of energy use in its different forms must force us to reconsider whether it is desirable to use energy at all for the future. If our need were in demise, our main energy problems would accordingly be solved. The socio-economic, geopolitical, health and environmental costs of energy far exceed our need for energy, and it is our need for energy that needs to be curtailed in order to solve our energy problems and ultimately, achieve sustainability for the future.

The war in Iraq is a recurrent example of negative effects that our thirst for oil brings with it. It is the umpteenth war fought in order to secure oil, and this pattern will continue as oil’s scarcity rises. Price volatility and depletion of oil fuel political uncertainty, yet oil itself fuels so many aspects of life and economy, including transportation, airline travel, agriculture, habitat, urban planning, industry which is why its access has had such a high determining factor in world politics for many decades. Not only is war fought to gain access to oil, oil is necessary for war. As fossil fuels are neither politically, nor economically, nor environmentally desirable, nuclear power is presented as a replacement for oil.

As if Chernobyl was not enough warning, nuclear energy is now once again on the table as a recommended alternative to oil as a source of energy, as it is deemed commercially viable, and economically competitive. Not only are such disasters as Chernobyl a warning, it is the epitome of human destruction our species could cause this earth and ourselves. In this case accidental, the same type of energy can be harnessed for purposeful destruction, as we are reminded by Hiroshima. This reminder was present throughout the cold war, and the fear of nuclear warfare caused countless negative effects in the socio-economic and political spheres, throughout the world. In order to look to the future, plan for the future, and involve ‘future generations’ in an ideal of sustainability, we must learn from the past.

Alarmingly, an increasing number of studies conclude that nuclear energy should be an important part of the strategies towards sustainable energy development, which influence policy such as the OECD’s IEA ‘sustainable development vision scenario’. The focus on carbon emission decrease causes the negative environmental impacts of nuclear waste to disappear into a blind spot. The mere fact that nuclear energy is suggested to be a sustainable source of energy clearly negates the multidimensional aspect of sustainability, which considers environmental, social and economic effects. Furthermore, the health risks accompanying nuclear production and radioactive waste are disastrous at worst: infertility, leukaemia, cancers, diseases, native malformations, death etc. The problem with radioactive waste is that it may not actually become a visible problem until centuries into the future. Therefore, the thought of creating more nuclear energy completely disregards future generations, which is an imperative aspect of any discussion concerning sustainable development.

Whether or not we need energy to survive as a human species seems like a moot point, yet it is certainly the magnitude of energy that we ‘need’ that should be questioned. It is argued that energy is one of the basic human needs; however, the majority of energy is employed in the production of mainly luxury goods and services. This luxury is needed due to our concept of comfort. Energy efficiency not only requires technology, but a fair amount of awareness. Awareness that the earth’s resources are finite, and an awareness that we consume much more than we actually need.

Renewable energy sources have been identified for decades, yet their implementation is problematic. First of all, the political will is lacking when it comes to the implementation of solar energy, as PV panels are not economically viable in the short term. When economic considerations are prioritized above environmental considerations, innovation and sustainability are blocked. Furthermore, certain renewables may not be ecologically sound alternatives. Sustainability is therefore not only a question of technological advance and innovation; it is a matter of political will, and transcending ‘Not In My Backyard ' attitudes.

For example, wind energy is a clean, environmentally friendly, renewable and sustainable form of energy, yet for a number of social and economic reasons, actual construction of wind turbines remains very slow. Many people protest the implementation of wind turbines due to their sight and sound, which are predominantly aesthetic and the sound is certainly no more than any urban centre.

Solar PV systems seem to be the most feasible option, despite their initial price, in terms of sustainability as well as implementation. Solar systems are used more and more in development projects, to increase self-sufficiency as well as sustainability, so that using distributed renewable energy resources will foster local independence from world markets, and create economic, social, and political stability.

In agricultural sectors, biofuels can be considered a sustainable option, albeit they are used on a small scale, such as using cattle manure or plant oils that are produced naturally anyway. On a large scale, biofuels are discouraged as an alternative, as it would require a lot of land, significant energy as inputs, and competes with food by diverting land and water resources, and defeats the purpose of environmental sustainability due to soil degradation, biodiversity loss and the fact that it is not carbon-neutral .

Hydro power is also presented as a carbon-neutral alternative, and it is renewable, however it is not an environmentally benign power source. According to new studies, the amount of greenhouse gases generated by hydropower can be greater than the amount of greenhouse gases produced by a fossil fuel power of the same strength, and increases threats such as erosion, landslides, change of sedimentation, loss of fresh water and biodiversity loss, nor is it socially benign! The implementation of dams has led to the displacement of millions of marginalized and indigenous populations worldwide, such as the Three Gorges Dam in China, The Narmada Dam in India, etc.

Therefore, renewable energies (wind, sun, water, biomass) are harmless to air pollution but face severe limits of feasibility for the world-scale development. True alternative energy sources are often unnoticed and certainly not recognized as plausible solutions to global energy problems. This is due to their small scale and locally-based character. Yet it is precise these two characteristics that make them sustainable, as transport is eliminated and self-sufficiency, and thus independence is increased. The smaller the scale, the greater the energy efficiency can be. Self-sufficiency also implies a limitation to energy use levels, so that they fulfil basic human needs but do not exceed sustainable levels for luxury items and superfluous behaviour.

The possibility of using clean, sustainable and environmentally friendly forms of renewable energy has been around for decades, if not centuries. Yet, the political will to resort to locally-based solutions seems to be lacking. Is it because they do not contribute to the national or global economy? Large-scale schemes are often the solution, (such as the quest for oil, hydro-electric dams etc.) as this contributes to industry, trade and political power, or is it just a matter of economics?

As with most sustainability issues, the interrelation between economics and politics forms the main stumbling block to achieving sustainable energy use. The economic dimension is prioritized above the social and environmental dimensions when energy policy is made, albeit a few exceptions.

The environmental and social costs are at present not included in the pricing of fuel or electricity. These costs are often referred to as ‘externalities’, yet have been known for decades, leading me to wonder when these costs will be internalized in energy policies. Inevitably, the negative social and environmental consequences of our energy use far outweigh any economic cost we may impose on energy sources. Therefore, putting a monetary price tag on the earth and on our survival cannot possibly answer to our ethics as a human species. Being confronted with our own behaviour is one of the hardest tasks we have as a species, yet it is not impossible. The ability to see the consequences of our own actions does not require superhuman abilities; it is rather the prerequisite for our survival and that of the planet. War is the most extreme cost that our ‘need’ for energy can bring. Not only is it traumatic for those directly involved, it threatens our global political security and is disastrous for both the local and the regional socio-economic and environmental stability.

Politics are a human creation, as are economics and energy production and use. These inventions have led to large scale changes in the ecology of this planet, and therefore the welfare of our species as well as every other species. Let us not forget that we have the ability to reinvent our social reality if we choose, which will in turn affect our planet, our natural habitat.

A reduction in the world’s population will not necessarily lead to an improvement in the global environment. The world needs to behave sustainably before the numbers can make a difference. If the world is overpopulated with overconsuming capitalists who do not consider the future of their grandchildren, then overpopulation is indeed a problem. Even if the numbers of these people were to decrease, we would still exceed the so-called ‘carrying capacity’. However, if the world was to have the same population, but of people living according to the sustainability concept, overpopulation would no longer be a problem for the environment.

Instead of reducing emissions by using less fossil fuels, the wealthy elite are seeking to replace oil and coal as energy sources with other risky sources such as nuclear power. Furthermore, over-consumption is apparently easy for people to signal as an environmental problem, but for the majority it remains extremely difficult to consequently act accordingly. It is confronting to realize that the only way to make a true difference in the world is if we change our own behaviour, for this has consequences for the environment as well as the poor and oppressed populations worldwide. The importance of environmentally friendly, renewable and sustainable energy use is recognized globally, yet reducing automobile usage or other forms of energy consumption has not been addressed effectively to date. Actions are often only undertaken if there is an economic gain or possibility. This is typical of the economic analysis, using the cost/benefit relationship, wherein social and environmental consequences are not considered.

To achieve the ideal of balance between the three pillars of sustainable development (economic, ecological, social), would require a compromise. A compromise in their values, as one may not be more valuable than the other. Therefore, the actors involved must compromise their own interests on the basis of equality with the other parties involved. In line with Wolfgang Sachs, among others, the present development model itself is unsustainable, and therefore sustainability is not possible in the current system. Sustainability must represent an alternative approach altogether, not one that takes place within the development paradigm.

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