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(Un) Sustainability of the World: Where will our energy come from if not from fossil fuels?
Igor Rudan, one of the most successful and quoted scientists in Croatia, a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the founder of the School for the 21st Century, has written for the Index a series of texts on the (in) sustainability of the world. Rudan often makes a sharp and argumentative comment on social events in Croatia and in the world, and below we bring the seventh text from Rudan's series.
>> (Un) World Sustainability (I): What is happening at all and is the situation alarming?
>> (Un) World Sustainability (II): What and How to Do If We Really Want Progress?
>> (Un) World Sustainability (III): The Architecture of Collapse
>> (Un) World Sustainability (IV): An increasingly long life could cost us dearly
>> (Un) World Sustainability (V): Can we save the oceans the way we save children?
>> (Un) World Sustainability (VI): Climate refugees won't count in the millions alone
The LAST CONTEXT explains the Paris Agreement as the central global plan for action to reduce temperatures towards pre-industrial levels. This next section will discuss the next challenge that arises from that previous one. If we can no longer rely on fossil fuels to get energy because we need to stop releasing so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, then what will we be getting energy from in the future?
We “discovered” fossil fuels when only a billion people lived on Earth
Until the discovery of the James Watt steam engine in 1776, when only about a billion people lived on Earth, every structure that existed anywhere was built with the energy of human or animal muscle. Two and a half centuries ago, therefore, the impact of humanity on the environment and climate was negligible. However, when people saw how much the machines were helping them, they realized that they needed better “fuel” than wood, burning them to create steam for all steam engines. In the next step, they “discovered” fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas. They started building machines powered by fossil fuels.
The combustion of solar energy stored in fossil fuels has gradually created more and more wealth for people, while building entirely new infrastructure and improving living conditions. During the more than two centuries of development of the countries that we consider rich today, they have emitted greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Industrial water was discharged into rivers, seas and oceans. Precise data on air temperature and ocean conditions have been preserved since 1950, at a time when many poor countries in the world were just beginning to be colonies.
Rich countries may think about cleaning the environment, and the poor?
In 1900, no country in the world, per capita, was able to produce even $ 7,000 in value in one year, converted to today's dollars. But over time, by building infrastructure, heavy and light industries and powerful machines, developed countries by 2000 had already managed to produce goods and services worth $ 20,000 and some of the richest up to $ 40,000 per capita. But most of the world’s population still, after a century, has remained below $ 7,000. When rich country scientists began to warn that the pollution of the atmosphere, soil, rivers and seas was extremely undesirable for the survival of us all, these countries began to invest part of their wealth in cleanup.
However, poor countries still cannot think of this “luxury”. They are just building their infrastructure and extending the lives of their people, and environmental cleanup is not a priority for them. That is why today it is easy to determine the connection between the wealth of states, their economic freedoms and the purity of their environment. However, it should be understood that this connection is only a “snapshot” in the present that does not take into account the total “carbon footprint” of each country throughout the history of its economic development.
What did we pay for the use of fossil fuels?
The economic development of rich countries, based on fossil fuels, has by now been “paid” by the first degree of Celsius warming the atmosphere. Over the past three or four decades, he has been added to the development of many poorer countries. Therefore, the rise in temperature due to the industrialization of the world has probably already reached 1.3 degrees Celsius, with climatologists claiming that for our own safety we should not exceed 1.5 degrees, especially not 2.0 degrees. Also, economic development has been paid for by sewage and sewage spills and millions of square kilometers of “dead zones” in the oceans, where oxygen is now scarce. In addition, it has been paid for by reducing biodiversity, forest destruction, soil degradation and river pollution. As large as our planet Earth is, the resources on it are not infinite. If we exhaust them, heat them or pollute them too much, then it will be harder for us to survive.
Therefore, it is not comforting to know that the richest countries today pollute the Earth less than other countries, because no one should pollute it at all, and they themselves have historically been the main polluters. In addition, about one billion people live in the richest and “cleanest” countries today. It could be added to perhaps another billion people in urban areas of middle-income countries. However, scientists say that we can no longer push the remaining five and a half billion people through the same process and draw energy from fossil fuels. This would warm the Earth above acceptable levels and would probably cause great problems for humanity over time – both rich and poor.
The key issue is to reduce the cost of “clean” energy sources
However, fossil fuels are still the cheapest, and the populous nations that are yet to develop are still poor. If the situation is left to the free market, these countries will procure and burn fossil fuels, putting us all at risk. But on the other hand, their point of view should be understood. They say it is hypocritical that the rich countries of the world, which have developed on cheaper fossil fuels, and because of that wealth, can switch to “clean” but more expensive energy sources, now want to ban poor countries from using cheap fossil fuels for their development. That is why the question of cheaper “clean” energy sources, such as solar or wind, is currently a really important issue for the whole world. Scientists are working hard on it, and governments are investing big money so that poor countries can develop on “clean” energy sources rather than fossil fuels.
This led to a “global energy plan” from Paris. The governments of the rich have agreed to mobilize $ 100 billion a year, every year until 2025, to reduce clean energy prices for poor countries because the free market would not be able to regulate it. In these plans, the private sector has remained very reserved in its involvement so far.
If energy supply goes to market, the poor could “cook” us all
When in Germany and the United Kingdom wealthy industrialists first decided to improve catastrophic conditions for workers, who lived on average for only about 45 years, and forbid children under the age of ten from being allowed to study, they did so not only to care for the poor. They feared, first and foremost, for themselves and their children, because at that time there were neither antibiotics nor vaccines, so infectious diseases of poor workers could infect rich business owners. They also feared rebellion and revolution. Something similar is happening today, in this case of “global energy interventionism”. The rich understand that if the supply of energy is left to the free market, the poor will choose cheap fossil fuels. In doing so, they could cook us all on Earth together. Therefore, when funds to help poor countries get clean energy sources are set up globally, this is not always to help the poor, but also to protect the rich.
Among the companies that extract and sell fossil fuels and those that allow the construction and maintenance of nuclear power plants, hydropower plants, as well as proponents of other forms of clean energy, there are ongoing struggles for dominance in the vast energy market. Mankind may have, over the past half-century, failed to give much greater opportunity to nuclear power. It was a realistic alternative to fossil fuels. Due to lobbying and activism by advocates of other energy sources, as well as public fear, it has remained underutilized. Today everyone wants to believe that “tomorrow we will have cheap wind farms and solar panels that will meet all the energy needs of, for example, 250 million people in Indonesia, almost 200 million in Nigeria, another 200 million in Pakistan, 160 million in Bangladesh , 100 million in the Philippines and another 100 million in Ethiopia. Knowing how many residents of those countries today still lack electricity, sewage or health care, and what the infrastructure, technology and maintenance needs are for sustainable use of clean energy, these expectations are simply not realistic for the foreseeable future. Therefore, it will be very interesting to monitor how this development problem will be addressed during the 21st century.
(Un) Sustainability of the World: Where will our energy come from if not from fossil fuels?