Free energy, as much as you want – possibility or dream?
Is unlimited cheap renewable energy becoming a reality or is it a pipe-dream? We need to do the carbon pollution maths.
Since humans lit their first fire, "human-made" energy has been a central component of our wellbeing. That’s why one of the global sustainable development goals is to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. Because right now, in the 21st century, over a billion people still lack access to electricity, and in the UK more than 10 per cent of households are in fuel poverty.
Renewable energy is getting cheaper by the day, but before we can talk about limitless energy we need to accept the pressing need to drastically cut greenhouse gases.
Growth in energy use
Broadly speaking, according to the Social Progress Index, the more energy a country consumes the higher it scores on wellbeing.
We want energy for warmth, cleaning, entertainment, travel, manufacturing, etc. We also seemingly want ‘human-made’ energy for mundane tasks such as cleaning our teeth and clearing-up autumn leaves.
But people don’t just want energy, they want lots of it. Or more accurately, they want lots of the services that energy brings.
The newly published transport statistics for the UK reveal that the amount of ‘passenger’ kilometres travelled within the UK has quadrupled in the UK since 1950, reaching the highest level on record (to around 13,000 km per year per person). Air travel is also at a record high, two and a half times higher than it was in 1990. Many of the wealthier of us enjoy foreign travel, by plane or preferably train.
The vast bulk of the world’s population don’t enjoy such a luxury – although if we can, why shouldn’t they?
So what we need to do is try to square people’s desire for more of the good stuff that energy can do for us, with ensuring that the energy we use is environmentally sustainable. That sounds straight-forward enough.
Some people suggest that it is.
In his excellent book Switch, Chris Goodall explains that the sun supplies enough power in 90 minutes to meet the world’s total energy needs for a year, and that the plummeting cost of solar, plus advancing energy storage, can deliver this dream.
But, sadly, there is a hitch.
Need to cut greenhouse gases
At that same time we need to ensure people can get the energy they need for a decent life, we need to cut carbon dioxide emissions very rapidly - at least 80 per cent by 2030 in the UK if we are to do our share in avoiding dangerous levels of climate change (globally emissions will need to be cut by a third by 2030 and to zero by 2050).
So we need to get rid of fossil fuel energy fast. We need to replace the energy they produce with renewable energy. And we need to provide additional renewable energy to those who are in desperate need of extra energy – people across the world without electricity, or enough heating/cooling, or who need to be able to at least travel to work or see family.
Renewable power is great, and it’s tumbling in price. But the idea that it can replace the vast majority of the fossil fuel energy we use – in our homes, our businesses and our cars – and provide all the energy that is needed by people across the world in ‘energy poverty’ within just 15 years is a stretch to far.
Instead we need to grow renewable energy as fast as we can, while simultaneously reducing energy use as much as we can. And we should share out what energy we have more fairly – that’s if, like Friends of the Earth, you think we shouldn’t live in a world where some people use masses of energy and many more don’t have access to enough to even have their basic energy needs met.
This is what two think-pieces for Friends of the Earth’s Big Ideas Project say.
Professor Gordon Walker from Lancaster University, and the cross-university Demand Centre, argues that “the combined need to reduce carbon emissions at scale, at speed, and in ways that embody fairness and justice, means that particularly in the more wealthy parts of the developed, carbon-saturated Global North, we have to both de-carbonise the energy supply system and de-energise the conduct of everyday life, at home, at work and in moving around.” While he champions clean low-carbon energy, he also points out that building a low carbon energy supply isn’t quick, citing Iceland as an example, which took 40 years to transform its electricity supply from fossil fuels to renewable geothermal energy.
In his think-piece he says that in order to meet internationally agreed climate targets we will need to put ‘energy demand reduction at the top of an ‘energy hierarchy’. In it most simplest form this can means drying clothes on a washing line. But it also encompasses projects such as designing buildings so they better benefit from ‘natural’ warmth and cooling, as the striking Eastgate Centre in Harare does. More fundamentally it means understanding what ‘energy services’ we need as humans for a decent quality of life – much as poverty campaigners look at what minimum income is needed for a decent quality of life - and working out how to provide these with as little technologically produced energy as possible. This is a big step-beyond simply trying to make products more energy efficient, such as lightbulbs, as important as these are.
Dr Caroline Mullen, also from the Demand Centre, but based at the Institute of Transport at Leeds University addresses the more politically contentious subject of transport in her think-piece. As mentioned above, in the UK we are on average travelling more than ever in the UK. This average data hides within it a stark reality – many people in the UK don’t travel much at all because they don’t have a car, can’t drive (e.g. due to disability or age), don’t want to drive, or the price of public transport is too expensive. This is Dr Mullen’s starting point in her think-piece - everybody should have the freedom to travel not just the wealthy.
Ensuring this goal can be met, while respecting carbon limits, will require much more than rapidly switching cars, buses and trains to electric (as necessary as that is for carbon and air pollution reasons). It means designing transport for everybody, not just for car users.
Putting everybody at the heart of decision-making requires town-planners ensuring developments don’t require car use; it requires much greater focus on providing everybody with quality cycling, walking and public transport facilities; and yes it some circumstances it requires constraining car use. This not only brings benefits in terms of fairness, it also opens-up opportunities to use space differently, e.g. more urban play areas for kids or more nature in our cities.
This approach – that everybody matters, and each person matters as much as the other – doesn’t sound radical. But it is a radical departure from where we are right now, with car use prioritised by (car-driving) decision-makers using models which prioritise economic growth over fairness. These models invariably result in enabling and encouraging fast car journeys regardless of the air pollution, climate impacts or other negative impacts. Instead, she says, these models need to be adapted to identify the potential impacts of decisions on different groups of people with the aim that fairer outcomes are achieved. As importantly is diversifying those involved in this decision-making, so that decisions are better informed by the full-range of perspectives and needs. Only through this can all people have the freedom to travel which is so critical for work and wellbeing.
One day we may, perhaps, as Chris Goodall suggests, have an almost limitless supply of clean green energy. We might even have renewable energy powered planes. It might even be - as the nuclear industry famously promised but never delivered – an age where energy is too cheap to meter. I hope we do.
But in the meantime we need to not wreck the planet for future generations through runaway climate change.
So right now, we need to radically reduce energy demand, transform our energy system from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable energy, and we need to share energy more fairly. Nirvana is a bit further off.
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