Energy and Sustainability: Policy, Politics and Practice
There is no universally accepted definition of what ‘Sustainable Energy’ means but in general the concept is to achieve a supply of energy that is sustainable over long periods of time with manageable or no negative environmental impacts. Unfortunately, many of these phrases are vague and open to interpretation. For example, when referring to long periods of time, do we mean decades, centuries or even longer? To be sustainable does an energy source have to be renewable and renewable forever? If the latter then no such source exists even the sun has consumed 50% of its hydrogen fuel. So, presumably what constitutes renewable energy depends upon the time frame over which the energy is to be used and the rate of use? What do we mean by manageable environmental impacts? Does this mean we are prepared to accept some negative impacts—whatever ‘negative’ means?
National concerns about energy have, until recently, been associated with the supply, security and cost of energy. Only as the global human population has dramatically increased, especially since the 1950s, have the environmental impacts of energy use become dominant concerns. The energy sources which have come under the most intense scrutiny are fossil fuels which account for almost 89% of global energy consumption and whose use contributes to, measurable increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions, which are causing the retention of too much solar energy resulting in detrimental ‘global warming’, increases in the number of disruptive weather occurrences and rises in sea levels. Together these effects could result in over half the earth’s population having to move away from coastal regions, whilst longer growing periods in other global regions would result in enhanced agricultural food production. Can all these effects be negated by a relatively immediate cessation of fossil fuel usage? How quickly could 89% of global energy consumption be eliminated or replaced and in a sustainable and affordable manner?
At least for the next few million years, solar and wind energy will provide obvious sources of renewable and sustainable energy. However, in terms of the electrical power generation, these sources are ill-suited for baseload generation, unless large-scale affordable energy storage systems can be developed. In the meantime, hydroelectric, nuclear and especially fossil fuel power generation will still be needed. Realistically, the latter is a finite energy source and for example, since the 1970s, forecasts have been made envisaging that oil reserves will be totally exhausted within a period of 10 to 20 years from the time of the particular predictions. Nevertheless, fossil fuels usage has not gone away—will they ever?
In this presentation, the historic and modern pathways of energy use are discussed along with the accompanying environmental concerns and ‘no-harm’ energy sustainability which have become more focused especially in the last half-century. However, in the face of polarized political, economic and societal opinions, will it be possible to achieve an agreed global plan for universal sustainable energy implementation in the near future? Can science and technology alone provide successful solutions to our energy and environmental dilemmas?
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