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The Case for Sustainable Energy

We are facing the threat of a great reversal in human progress, thanks to the global energy crisis. A crisis in which two billion people, dependent on ever-diminishing forests for their fuel, have no access to reliable energy supplies, and in which millions more are at risk from climate change.

Climate change already affects the poorest people in the poorest countries. And from Nigeria to the Middle East and Latin America, the extractive industries are associated with a wake of corruption and conflict. Worse, an imminent spike in the price of oil, as production peaks and declines, will be economically devastating for poor, oil-importing countries.

Fossil fuels collectively account for about 80% of the global primary energy supply; oil for over 40% of our consumption. Without action to reverse present trends, the International Energy Agency predicts we face “a future in which energy use continues to grow inexorably [and] fossil fuels continue to dominate the energy mix”.

But the dominance of ‘dirty energy’ is not a natural stateA. It’s the consequence of massive subsidies poured into coal, oil, gas and nuclear, and the failure to internalise the cost of their environmental impact. Sound estimates put the global scale of fossil fuel subsidies at a minimum of $235 billion. The situation is absurd, because renewable energy is superabundant. Individually, wind, solar and geothermal energy sources could alone, in theory, meet all our energy needs.

A switch to such sources would provide a triple win for human development: creating access to energy and jobs, and making for healthier householders. It’s a potential waiting to be realised. Small and medium scale applications such as micro hydro generators, biogas plants, fuel-efficient household stoves, wind turbines, solar thermal units and solar PV cells are particularly well placed to improve the lives of the quarter of humanity who have no access to electricity, four-fifths of whom live in rural areas far from ailing national grids.

As demonstrated convincingly by the Ashden Awards, renewable energy technologies are much more than mere potential. From saving the sight and lungs of urban street traders and home cooks by using solar lanterns and eco-stoves, to powering solar communication systems for health centres in remote rainforests, and bringing electricity for the first time to distant mountain and island communities, renewables are already delivering human well being in some of the most difficult human circumstances. And they are starting to inoculate the poor against the economic, environmental and political shocks linked to fossil fuels.

One major obstacle remains, however, to the mainstream uptake of renewable energy in the developing world. Highly polluting fuels like brown coal are plentiful and cheap. A global framework with major incentives is needed to encourage the shift away from such fossil dependence and towards renewable energy. For that revolution to happen, there has to be a managed withdrawal from fossil fuels in a way which gives developing countries an equal, per capita slice of the remaining carbon ‘cake’ that it is still safe to burn without wrecking the climate. Allowing them to trade unused carbon entitlements will also generate essential income for development. Without such an arrangement, the sense of historical injustice about rich countries’ ecological debts could derail the dawn of renewable energy.

The world stands at an energy crossroads. We can choose to generate power to meet human needs from cheap, clean renewable sources, in a way that gives people more control over their own lives. Or we can stumble down an expensive, polluting path that leads to conflict, climate change and centralised control. If we want energy that’s sustainable, and able to power our efforts to make poverty history – then the road we must go down is signposted ‘renewable’.

This article was originally published in 'Light Emerging', a Special Supplement published by Green Futures magazine (July/August 2005), the leading source of news and debate, packed with environmental solutions, www.greenfutures.org.uk. For information on subscribing to Green Futures, call 01223 564334.

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