Posted on 4/04/08 in Energy
Even more so, the ancestor of the EU is the European Community on Coal and Steel (ECSC) which was all about energy safety and war prevention. Also, one of the first treaties and founding elements of the Union was EURATOM. Still today its relevance is undeniable. The importance of energy issues is based on the crucial role energy plays in the economic context and hence in the social development.
Energy is the base for production and trade of a nation. Without proper energy supply manufacturing and transportation of goods are endangered. This would mean market uncertainties and destabilized national and supranational economic systems, as it has become clear with the oil scarcity’s impacts on economies in the last decades, namely the first and second oil crises and the fears the peak oil is generating nowadays within the world’s economy.
From an historical perspective, progress in human development has been strongly linked to energy revolutions. The technical and engineering improvements in several fields like the ability to use the power of animals, water, wind and fossil fuels have generated major changes in the society. Therefore, given the nature of such an essential element for our economies, energy issues have always been taken into a deep consideration.
Current status quo of energy sector and worldwide implications
However, the topic of energy has gained even more attention recently because of the uncertainties for the coming decades on availability of resources and the side effects of burning fossil fuels for our environment. The fight for control over energy resources has created the biggest geopolitical perturbations and armed conflicts over the past years, many of them still unresolved.
There are many examples on how the energy dependence of the European Union on uranium and gas from Russia influences political relations or about the role that securing energy sources has played in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hence, the unclear perspective posed by the foreseen depletion of fossil fuels before the end of this century, combined with the public acceptance of climate change has opened the door for debate in the face of emerging energy challenges.
This process has also generated interest from different social sectors, and it is this diversity of agendas that keep the debate open and running. While the debate is clearly centered on the way natural resources are exploited, the positions on this differ notably: from denying the unsustainability of the current system to a claiming a green revolution, which strives to change our relationship with the environment and proposing a longterm sustainable model. Intermediate positions are in many cases founded on sectoral interests rather than a vision of sustainable welfare. However, if all the world’s regions would achieve the same degree of development as the developed countries –something desirable and legitimate from a social justice perspective-, the resources required could only be provided within a space 3.5 times our planet. This fact highlights the inconsistency of our current way of living.
Considerations when mapping the future energy scheme
With global warming finally having been finally acknowledged as the main threat and challenge humanity is facing today and in the future, the fight against climate change must be placed at the core of the political decisions. Yet this cannot be used as a pretext aside the design of a long term sustainable development model.
These are targets that cannot be treated separately and which can only be accomplished by means of renewable energy sources. Definitely, the European Union should commit unambiguously to clean, sustainable technologies from now on. Furthermore, achieving at least the goals set by the EU on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, energy savings and increasing the share of renewables –although not sufficient- requires a compromise across all spheres of society, in terms of efficiency and rationality in the consumption on one side, and environmentally friendly supply on the other. Finally, the accomplishment of these targets cannot be at the expense of developing countries by using their natural resources to fulfill our unsustainable consumption patterns.
Despite all world’s population will be affected climate change –although unfortunately once again the least favored people are the once suffering the worst consequences from it already, for instance in form of severe draughts and floods-, not all have the same degree of responsibility, and this has to be reflected when reaching a global agreement. It is unfair to deprive the less developed from the right to reach similar life conditions than the wealthiest, and therefore are the latest the ones to take the first and bigger steps to revert the situation. And a fundamental part of that relies on the success in reducing our consumption and turning to sustainable energy resources. It is worth to point out that at the moment the current energy demand is hard to fulfill with renewable resources.
Therefore we need to reduce our energy use by increasing efficiency and saving. Therefore, a converging process has to be implemented aiming to equal the total energy use with the generation from clean sources which means increasing the share of renewables, but also reducing the consumption. Finally, to enforce this reduction, a global scheme that regulates emissions based on solidarity is the only solution to tackling the disproportional division and use of energy in the world.
A green path for the future
Always with this background in mind it is of high importance that we, as green youth, decide which development model we strive for. Obviously, it is impossible to define it in detail, especially given the current uncertainties. Therefore it is important to leave room for adaptive response and manoeuvre within the actual realities. Yet it is crucial defining our red lines on the borders of what we consider to be acceptable in the debate around energy and development.
Then, it is important to define precisely the priorities and translating them to a roadmap. A major goal is ensuring energy accessibility to everyone, including the most vulnerable areas of population. As explained before, without access to energy it is not possible for a society to develop, achieving a worldwide harmonization of life quality. However, on such an emergency planetary situation, not any means of achieving it is valid; we have reached a stage where we cannot afford satisfying the present needs any more –despite them actually striving for social equality- at expense of future generations.
Indeed, energy supply is an issue of global and cross-generational concern, but in the current political debate Western governments and the older half of the current generation have the biggest input in the debate. It is therefore important that young people from all over the world stand up for our rights to sufficient energy resources and our rights to be protected against climate change and its consequences.
Besides, it is not only important to work towards the access sustainable supply of energy, but also one step more, in the direction of energy independency, which means that a nation is able to autonomously exploit and manage natural resources in order to self-supply the required amount for internal consumption.
This scheme provides economic and political stability by reducing dependency from third countries.
Renewable resources offer great opportunities for this, since they are operated locally and most countries have possibilities to produce their own demand. If it is not the case for all of them, the number of countries competing to provide this energy is increased, thus securing fairer supply conditions and by extension a higher political independence. However, it would appear too idealistic if it is not acknowledged that in a real world there is variation and a failure can happen. Therefore the system needs to be ready also for backup solutions in emergency situations, reinforcement to satisfy punctual peak demand, or transition stages, which could be eventually covered by alternative sources in case of need. To ensure a proper coordination between regional infrastructures it is important to establish clear supranational regulations and protocols ensuring a proper response to eventualities, such as temporary energy shortages, based on energy solidarity. This regulation should be transposed regionally, establishing the required actions in emergency situations and set the backup interconnectivities that minimize the risk of generalized failures. Without these standards it will be difficult to guarantee proper energy security.
To sum up, energy supply has no other option but to be provided according to sustainability criteria, both at the ecological and the social level, and therefore a green investment means placing renewable sources at the core of the energy supply model.
Why nuclear does not satisfy our present and future needs
When thinking of a possible solution, one of the first alternatives to be mentioned is investing in nuclear energy, since it is claimed to be CO2 emission free and therefore a means to fight climate change. However, this position would only represent a temporary patch that would entail even more complicated problems for the future, for instance those connected to what to do with the nuclear waste.
Yet, besides not being a long-term solution, nuclear cannot even be considered as a short term solution either. First, the current average power supply from nuclear source in the UE is below 20%; it is a very low amount despite the strong share of nuclear in electricity production in countries like France (nearly 80%). This means that it is not reasonable neither feasible intending to base energy production only on nuclear source, especially as the construction of a power plant is a long-term project –building up a reactor takes up to 15 years-, due to all the security protocols. And the same happens when dismantling a nuclear power plant; it takes decades and it is not possible to have the full certainty that radioactive activity has completely vanished. Secondly, despite being labeled as a climate friendly energy, nuclear can by no means be defined as a clean energy. There is the high toxicity of the waste –for which no real solution has been found so far, except for storages under earth-, and a high risk of water pollution during uranium extraction in the mines.
Also, there are unneglectable carbon emissions during the long-distance transportation of raw and processed material and the enrichment process, let alone the building of the plant itself which requires huge amounts of steel and concrete which can only be created by burning huge amounts of fossil fuels. Finally, concerning population safety, there must be high concerns about catastrophic consequences of an accident, and the risk of nuclear weapon proliferation are just some examples that turn down the presumed climate and environmental benefits, especially when there are other options.
On the other hand, one of the arguments for nuclear energy is that it is cheaper to produce given the low cost of raw material. However, simple calculations hide some facts that ought to be considered; there are many great risks involved which are often invisible and thus often not included in the production costs. That is, although the price of the energy itself may seem cheap, the damage to the environment and health of the people working in the mines is externalized, just like the cost of securing the transport and storage of enriched uranium, which are paid by the tax payer at the moment. If all these considerations would be internalized in the costs nuclear energy it would make nuclear very unattractive to invest in. Not to talk about the risk related to the socioeconomic consequences and environmental impact in the event of an accident, like Chernobyl.
Finally, there are also some sociopolitical political arguments against a nuclear predominating scheme, such as the risks associated to social dumping and energy independency. On the one hand, provided the growing opposition of citizens to nuclear power, big European energy suppliers from Western Europe are moving their plants to Eastern Europe, where social and security standards are lower, and where governments generally welcome foreign investments, despite the nature of those activities. Therefore, the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) approach from Western Europe –in high percentage still the final consumer of that energy – is creating a situation of social dumping. Thus, in a European liberalized energy market the situation becomes more complex since it goes beyond the national borders. Therefore the situation must be analyzed at the same level. On the other hand, it is important not to stress that nuclear power does not contribute to energy independence, since we cannot overlook that it relies on the supply of uranium, which is imported in its totality. In the case of the European Union, this dependence on raw material from third countries, namely Russia, entails lots of political implications in foreign relationships, which is sadly often translated into a complete blindness towards human rights violations. And on a broader level, control over nuclear energy generates political bargaining power, military-based coercions and increased threat of devastating terrorist attacks, all of them identifiable causes for world’s instability. As a conclusion, nuclear energy is not a solution to the energy challenges for today nor tomorrow, and therefore all the time and expenditures being dedicated to nuclear could be shifted to renewables.
The solution: Renewables!
As a conclusion of this, if we go through this moreless ideal future picture of the future energy map in Europe we will soon realize that such a sustainable model can only be achieved if it is based on renewable sources. Renewables offer the possibility of autonomy, as they can be in general terms generated –by diverse means depending on the geographic conditions- in the territory where they will be consumed, reducing transportation losses and thus increasing efficiency, which diminishes the environmental impact. This means a lot in terms of energy sovereignty and production decentralization, another key element. A properly interconnected decentralized production network minimizes the risk of failure, since it provides several well-connected production nodes. This combined with their already known environmentally friendly characteristics and the fact that they will not deplete makes them the most sensible option for present and future.
Consolidating the social change in the long term; a matter of political will
All this should be possible to achieve if a proper mid-long term plan is thoroughly followed. In any case, it must be clear that a green investment must place renewable sources at the core of the energy supply model. However, this cannot be done from one day to another; it requires a big amount of investment, principally from public sector, but also it can be reinforced by incentives to private entrepreneurs. However, a crucial step for implementing this new model falls into a general change of mind of the whole society. Such a structural shift can only be achieved by a systematic communication and information strategy, raising awareness and goodwill to take the necessary measures that are needed to tackle current energy challenges.
For instance, the involvement of the information society could be effectively be channeled through public media, while in order to keep the concern within the citizenship in along generations education for sustainability should be provided. This could be ensured by making energy and climate educational courses compulsory in the curricula at different levels of learning.
All these measures can be clearly linkable to concrete policies. Therefore, it can be seen that concrete steps can and must start as a result of political will and a serious commitment from governments. For instance, it appears obvious that the current taxation system does not reflect upon the production and consumption patterns the challenges depicted previously. The efforts on energy savings and efficiency so often proclaimed need concrete measures.
Therefore a progressive taxation on GHG emissions needs to be set up, always following the principles of equity and environmental and social justice. Yet also positive incentives can be established. As mentioned before, a prompt success of the renewable model depends a lot on committing the right amount of resources in Research & Development programs. It is on the hands of the states to decide the degree of investment they want to promote into the proper technology, both in terms of public expenditure and private incentives (tax exemptions, bonus for installation of renewable source energy supplies, etc.). The sad reality right now, though, is that nuclear energy is eating most of the R&D resources, which could easily be shifted to renewables field if there is political willingness to do it.
On another level, governments are able to effectively stimulate citizens, both individuals and organizations, to take action. However, it requires a properly coordinated strategy and coherent action from institutions at all levels. On the one hand, it is important to run specific campaigns to sensibilize about the issue, which will hopefully contribute to create an institution-citizenship cross complicity. On the other hand, real outcomes can be achieved through more concrete measures focusing sensible consumption, namely the ones being noticed in the consumers’ pocket, such as a more rational taxation on consumption. A further step in cooperation at both levels is the feed-in tariff systems already running in some European countries like Germany or Spain. This system allows households to produce their own renewable energy for self-consumption (solar, wind, etc.) and guarantees that they can sell the exceeding power to the distribution network at a fixed price, stimulating thus a sustainable and decentralized energy map. This is just an example, but it shows some concrete positive actions that can be achieved combining political will and individual involvement.
Conclusion: A new paradigm requires a new approach
To conclude, it is obvious that we are facing a new paradigm, and likewise already mentioned above, along the history new paradigms have obliged humankind to change their approach and mindset and responding coherently in order to adapt to the new conditions. And the new panorama in front of us shows we are in a finite world, with limited resourced, and therefore also finite is the concept of growth. Therefore, we need to start rationalizing the use of natural resources, and that means reducing the consumption to be able to reduce the production and make it a continuous virtuous circle. This will as well reduce the amount of waste and the impact on the environment, such as greenhouse emissions. In order to achieve this we must apply resource efficiency and saving principles.
The energy savings in consumptions, for instance, can be withdrawn from the most polluting and dangerous sources, reducing emissions and increasing that way the weight of renewables in the energy scheme. However, this cannot be the only means to increase renewable sources share, but a strategic plan is needed for gradual replacement of dirty energies to clean, sustainable power. Furthermore, an important issue to ensure actual implementation of action plans is creating mechanisms to guarantee that set targets are achieved timely on a regular basis, to ensure a smooth transition between schemes.
Hence, probably a good monitoring system would require setting yearly milestones that can be checked and addressed. By approaching this change as a continuous process made of an addition of short steps, after each one of them we can review its status, we will not be walking effectively towards a long-term green energy scheme, but beside we will be converging to a sustainable equilibrium between supply and demand in each of these small steps, which is a basis for continuous development.
To conclude, the key point here is whether we will be able to realize with time enough to take proper action, and whether when this will happen we will be able to rapidly enough build a social consensus and a compromise across all spheres of society that ensures common direction in the institutional, organizational and individual efforts. Yet rowing towards the proper harbour is a matter of political will and commitment. To sum up, the future of the planet depends on our ability to reach a global pact and implement it as soon as possible.
And here everyone counts.