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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 14, Number 2, 1993 (UNU, 1993, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentThe case for sustainable development
View the documentMeasuring sustainability - Spotting signals in the noise
View the document"Overshooting" environmental cures
View the documentTo avoid gridlock - Governance without government
View the documentCovenants and protocols
View the documentIndustrial restructuring - Does it have to be "Jobs vs. Trees"?
View the documentSustaining Africa's genetic riches
View the documentManaging international waters
View the documentEnergy - The bad news, the good news
View the documentSustaining the mountains
View the documentThe case for agrodiversity - Drawing on the farmer's adaptability
View the documentUNU update

Energy - The bad news, the good news

By Walter Shearer

With a creative mix of renewable energy sources and more intelligent use of conventional ones, there is good reason to believe that we can reduce energy's toll on the environment while still increasing the supply of it needed to drive the sustainable development process. If the world's poor are ever to leave behind misery and hopelessness, it will come from following new energy pathways.

Walter Shearer stresses the centrality of energy to the sustainable development equation and suggests some practical steps to make energy work for and not against the growth process. Dr. Shearer, who coordinated much of the UNU energy work for a number of years, is a UNU Senior Academic Officer, currently stationed at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. - Editor

The involvement of energy in the environment and sustainable development debate is greater than Agenda 21 would lead us to believe. A great many of the current and potential threats to the environment around the world are, in fact, energy-related.

Energy is directly implicated in the atmospheric pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels for transportation, industry and domestic uses - leading to the problems of acid rain and the emission of carbon dioxide which is of concern as a global warming threat. The procurement of energy is also responsible in varying degrees for much of the ongoing deforestation, desertification and loss of mountain vegetation and soil.

While energy availability is a determining factor for agricultural productivity, the traditional use of agricultural wastes for energy production leads to soil impoverishment. The extraction of coal is responsible for considerable land degradation, and the environmental impacts of nuclear energy includes the effects of mining, the release of radioactive substances into the environment, and contamination due to the inadequate disposal of radioactive waste.

Finally, the impact of oil extraction and transportation is felt also in the oceans and seas as a result of oil spills and releases. Thus the effects of energy generation, transportation and use make a contribution to nearly every substantive chapter of Agenda 21.

But even though current energy use is responsible for detrimental impacts throughout the environment, energy is essential to economic and social development. Therefore, in order to be productive, much of the debate surrounding the environment vs. sustainable development question will have to centre on how to deal with our need for ever increasing amounts of energy.

What can developing nations do to increase the energy available for development while, at the same time, substantially decrease the associated environmental degradation? In the first place, this means that, in the planning process and management practices, energy can no longer be treated in isolation. Sound policy and management decisions must now involve three elements: economics, environment and energy. And these elements must be considered in the search for ways to improve current energy supplies.

The best hope for environmentally benign energy supplies is to tap the renewable sources. Hydropower, particularly on a small or modest scale, photo voltaic technology for directly converting solar energy into electricity, distributed wind systems, geothermal power generation for local use, and the agricultural production of fuels are strong candidates for a future mix of sources and technologies that have few environmental drawbacks.

The difficulties facing those wishing to use these renewable energy systems derive from technical and economic considerations. Because of the dispersed nature and low-energy densities of most renewable sources, producing the vast amounts of energy needed to drive modem societies presents technical challenges. Furthermore, energy from renewable sources is not always available and, therefore, efficient energy storage systems are required. Solving this crucial problem still requires a major technological breakthrough.

As matters stand now, the cost of energy from renewable sources is still generally higher than that for fossil-fuel produced energy, except under favourable conditions - in, for example, areas remote from the power grid. In many countries, the current subsidies accorded conventional energy systems are slowing efforts to surmount these obstacles and develop the technologies needed to make better economic use of renewable energy sources.

A particularly interesting prospect for future large-scale systems involves the use of hydrogen fuel; this would have to be produced from water electrolyzed by solar energy, at least until the long-awaited thermonuclear energy option becomes a reality. The environmental advantages of such a system are considerable since the raw material is one of the most abundant chemicals on earth and the primary waste product is also water (which could be used for a number of other needs).

There remain technical obstacles to be overcome, however, before hydrogen fuel could come on line, including the development of efficient and, for mobile applications, lightweight storage for hydrogen fuel, and improvements in safety if liquid hydrogen is involved. Probably an even greater hurdle would be the need to convert the current energy generation and utilization infrastructure to solar hydrogen systems.


Firewood collection in Western Nigeria.

So, until renewable energy systems become economically competitive with existing standard systems and can deliver the quantities of energy required, we will have to rely on conventional energy sources. Yet there are approaches to conventional fuels that can lead to significant reductions in environmental impact and still increase supplies. Three possible strategies will be considered here:

Gas before Oil, Oil before Coal

The first is to select the most environmentally benign conventional energy systems from the options available. This would mean a preference for natural gas over most other forms of fossil fuel and for oil over coal, where the option is open.

In much of the third world, energy still means fuel wood, not oil. Tree plantations to produce the needed fuel for wood-fired electricity generation can be environmentally attractive because of low net carbon dioxide emissions - although fuelwood extraction can lead to some soil erosion. But in order for this option to be sustainable, as many trees need to be replanted and allowed to reach maturity as are harvested. If this requirement is rigorously applied, the cost of planting and maintaining the plantations will make a significant contribution to the cost of the electricity produced.

Nuclear energy is frequently cited as a greenhouse-gas-free energy source. Nevertheless, given current concerns for public safety and environmental protection surrounding the use of nuclear energy, its role will probably be limited. If nothing else, the demand for adequate safety systems and radioactive waste disposal arrangements will raise the cost of nuclear-fission generated electricity well above market rates. Furthermore, only very large developing nations have energy demands that would justify the size that nuclear power plants must be in order to achieve reasonably economical levels.

Regardless of which non-nuclear fuel is used, greenhouse gases will be emitted - but these can be reduced at the stack using new technologies. The problem with this option is the cost of installation and operation of the abatement systems; they would have to be imported by developing countries. Nevertheless, it is worth looking into the availability and cost of these systems from time to time to see if they might warrant adoption.

Better, Not More Use

The second approach is to focus on using energy in the most efficient manner. This can be achieved, for energy generation, transmission and utilization, by eliminating waste and improving the efficiency of the conversion equipment and technologies used. Such an approach does not increase the energy supply, but makes better use of the energy available.

A particularly compelling example here would be the new efficient refrigerators now available. Not only is energy saved and less carbon dioxide emitted to keep them operating, but no ozone-depleting substances are used as the refrigerant.

Once such simple and economically advantageous options have been exhausted, other possible changes, even though they might actually increase energy costs must be examined. At this point, given the need to consider the economic and environmental tradeoffs, the third option comes into play.

Improve Planning, Decision-making

This last approach involves improved energy planning and decision-making. Here the need is for an integrated planning framework that encompasses economic, environmental and energy factors. Skilled organization, management and policy formulation and analysis can lead to lower costs and lessened environmental impact in conventional energy production, storage, transmission and use. Both energy supply and demand considerations must be studied.

Pricing, taxation, subsidies and investments are all important policy tools that can be used to channel energy production and utilization toward cheaper and more environmentally-sound options. But many other variables are also at the disposal of policy makers and managers here. Physical controls, such as rationing and power cuts, are particularly useful for limiting consumption. Policies influencing investments made in other sectors, such as agriculture, can significantly affect the type and amounts of energy used. Finally, education and promotion can also be powerful tools, particularly in managing energy demand.

As Agenda 21 makes abundantly clear, financing will be very important in determining how effective we are in addressing the energy issues that are so central to the environment/sustainable development debate. Equally important, however, is the need for developing nations to strengthen their own technical, managerial and research and development capabilities within the energy-economics-environment framework.

Improvements in conventional energy systems provide only a temporary measure that will buy time to perfect the renewable energy systems needed for reliable large-scale power generation and fuel production. Thus, one important policy decision is to earmark some funds for the development of such systems.

In the final analysis, the success of most current efforts on behalf of sustainable development are going to be determined by how well the energy problems are solved. Thus, clearly, Item One on Agenda 21 needs to be energy.