Cleaner technologies and renewable energy sources can marry economic development with environmental and social objectives
Energy security has become the burning issue of our time. For some it means guaranteeing safe, sufficient and long-term supplies of traditional fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal. For others, it means freeing the planet from fossil fuels in favour of alternative forms of energy like wind, solar, biomass and hydrogen. For me it means both and more.
It is a fact that while one’s heart may plead for a carbon-free world, the head knows that fossil fuels will, to a greater or lesser extent, be part of the energy mix for the foreseeable future. Disrupted supplies damage economies across the world and fuel anxiety that drives higher and higher prices. Industry faces rising costs, as do consumers through higher electricity bills and at the petrol pumps.
In developing countries, struggling to grow their economies and to lift poor people out of poverty, it can spell life and death. Every time oil hits over US$50 a barrel (and as I write it is far higher than that, at over US$70) many importing nations on continents like Africa are forced to meet the extra cost through spending precious overseas development aid. This is money intended for hospitals and medicines, and for schools, agriculture and sustainable development programmes.
Tackling the demand side
One way to meet the challenge is to ensure that the pipelines keep flowing. But there is a second way that is all too often ignored or sidelined. This is dealing with the demand side. It remains a fact that far too much energy is simply wasted in power plants, in factories, in homes and on the roads, the high seas and in the air. A revolution in energy efficiency and energy savings makes sense on energy security grounds but also on hard-nosed economic and environmental ones too.
So I am delighted that the Japanese government has put ‘energy savings’ firmly on the agenda of the G8 in St Petersburg this year. It was also a message emphasised by environment ministers attending the Special Session of UNEP’s Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum earlier in the year. They concluded that energy efficiency codes and standards should be adopted world-wide for buildings, electrical appliances, cars and agricultural machinery. Governments can set the example by focusing their purchasing power on buying energy-efficient goods, equipment and services.
There is so much low hanging fruit. Conventional power stations waste between 40 per cent and 65 per cent of the energy generated. Electrical appliances like TVs collectively consume large amounts of electricity needlessly when on standby. If all OECD countries’ governments could agree on a standard to limit standby power use to no more than 1 watt per device, peak electricity load could be reduced by roughly 20 gigawatts, the equivalent of 20 large power plants. This so-called International Energy Agency 1-Watt-Initiative was approved by the G8 leaders at their summit in Gleneagles in July 2005 and is now being put into practice.
Meanwhile, new vehicle technologies such as hybrid cars can have a role. The first ones, introduced in Japan in the late 1990s, increased fuel efficiency by 11km per litre. New ones have improved efficiency by up to 22km per litre. We can go further.
In many developing countries, energy security is simply about getting access to energy in the first place. About 90 per cent of people in Kenya, where UNEP is proud to be headquartered, have no access to grid electricity. Globally, over one and a half billion people in the developing world are in the same predicament. Most rely on biomass, many rely on trees for cooking and, as in many developing nations, a great deal is burned on indoor stoves.
Wanted: cleaner technologies
The G8 also has infectious diseases high on the agenda. The link between energy inefficiency and health is also relevant and strong. Between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of wood, dung or agricultural waste fuels is not fully burned, triggering a wide range of harmful air-borne pollution. Particle levels can range between a high 300 to a massive 3,000 microgrammes per cubic metre. (The European Union guideline, in contrast, is 40 microgrammes per cubic metre). No small wonder that indoor air pollution may be responsible for up to 2.4 million premature deaths annually. Meanwhile, outdoor air pollution from industries and vehicles may trigger some 800,000 premature deaths a year, with over 60 per cent of these in Asia. This spells not just misery for millions but has potentially huge economic costs. The World Bank estimates that, on current trends, China may, by 2020, be paying close to US$400 billion a year to treat diseases linked to coal burning.
Many countries, like the United States, are now pressing forward with research to develop cleaner – indeed zero emission – coal-fired power stations. Advanced fuels like hydrogen and fuel cells may not be far from commercialisation.
Meanwhile, greater access to cleaner burning fuels like kerosene and liquid petroleum gas could, in the short term, reduce the health burden in developing country homes while taking some of the pressure off important ecosystems like forests.
The role of renewables
However, some of the greatest potential yet to be harvested lies in the field of renewables. Rather like the way mobile phones have leapfrogged the installation of landlines in many developing nations and countries in transition, so wind and solar power can be rapidly deployed into rural areas without the need for an expensive grid.
Renewables can be small, serving a house or a community, or they can be big. Only some weeks ago, plans were outlined for Europe’s biggest on-shore wind farm, in Scotland. The 322-megawatt, 140-turbine Whitelee project south of Glasgow will provide enough green energy to power 200,000 homes.
Close to 200 actions and commitments to promote renewables are underway or pledged as a result of the Renewable Energies conference held in Bonn, Germany, two years ago, which may lead to international cuts in carbon dioxide of around 5 per cent. A report card on progress was issued only some weeks ago in early June.
We can also ‘think big’. Some researchers and industry experts claim there is enough sunlight hitting the world’s deserts to generate enough electricity for the world many times over.
UNEP is also in a group, with funding from the Global Environment Facility, to try and exploit the vast ‘hot rock’ or geothermal potential of East Africa’s rift valley. This really is a living example of energy security. The supply is renewable and, being indigenous, could massively reduce fossil fuel imports. Indeed, it is estimated that Africa has some 7,000mw of untapped geothermal energy.
The benefits extend beyond fighting poverty, reducing ill health and air pollution, to confronting one of the biggest threats facing the planet, namely climate change. Only someone living on Mars could be unaware of the profound changes now sweeping the planet, from the melting of the Arctic ice to the growing frequency and intensity of weather events. According to Munich Re, one of the world’s biggest re-insurers and a company whose business is in the front line, weather-related natural disasters cost more than US$200 billion in 2005.
The costs of inaction will without doubt continue to rise, damaging rich and poor economies alike and make the prospect of meeting the interna¬tionally agreed Millennium Development Goals far less certain.
Fortunately, energy security and the wider issue of climate security can and are starting to step out hand in hand. Indeed we have, maybe for the first time ever, extraordinary opportunities to bring together long-term economic and political imperatives with environmental and social ones.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, the legally binding international treaty designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the so-called ‘flexible mechanisms’ are beginning to burst into life. Only some weeks ago it was announced that energy projects from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – a fund that allows industrialised nations to offset emissions via clean energy and some kinds of forestry schemes in developing countries – had reached over US$2.5 billion in 2005. The global carbon market, including the CDM and emissions trading, now stands at US$11 billion.
The United States, which decided not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, is far from idle. The Federal Government is encouraging technologies like solar power and, as mentioned, clean coal and hydrogen. Numerous American cities and individual states have or are planning to adopt Kyoto-style emission reduction targets.
We are up and running. Now we need to sprint towards the even deeper cuts needed to stabilise the atmosphere and avert catastrophic climate change.
We must also consider new initiatives like those proposed by nine rainforest countries led by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica. Deforestation in the tropics may account for a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions. The CDM covers planting new trees but does not benefit countries protecting their standing forests. Bringing reductions in the deforestation rates of standing forests into the equation could not only reduce climate-related emissions, but also provide much needed funds for conservation and local livelihoods. IPAM, a Brazilian research agency, estimates that Brazil could earn US$500 million a year from carbon credits, if standing forests were included. Reducing deforestation would also trigger other wide-ranging benefits, especially for the poor and those committed to meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Health security and environmental degradation
Infectious diseases need to be tackled by making drugs and health care more widely available but increasingly we are understanding that the environment has a vital role. Studies in the Amazon by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the United States have concluded that for every 1 per cent increase in deforestation, there is an 8 per cent increase in the number of malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Nipha virus is another case in point. It was, until recently, only normally found in Asian fruit bats. Its emergence in the late 1990s as an often-fatal disease in humans is being linked with a combination of forest fires in Sumatra and the clearance of natural forests in Malaysia for palm plantations. Bats, searching for fruit, were forced into closer contact with domestic pigs, giving the virus its chance to spread to humans via people handling swine.
Close contact of wild birds and poultry species is believed to be a major cause behind the spread of avian influenza. So restoring lost and degraded wetlands would seem like a good insurance policy to keep the two apart, as well as rehabilitating natural flood control features and water storage sites. Indeed, maybe the next G8 Summit can focus on water security as another stepping stone to tackling the overarching and fundamental threat to all life and livelihoods – environmental degradation.
All these issues – from energy security and climate security, to water and health security – are ultimately just part of a far wider issue not only for this but for generations to come, namely environmental security.
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