Can sustainable energy really be sustained?

Can sustainable energy really be sustained?

Environmental sustainability has become a key topic in all circles: It plays a growing role in economic development, is widely debated in policy circles and is an important part of corporate social responsibility. That is why many politicians have jumped on the bandwagon. In Europe, green parties and those with a strong environmental program did extraordinarily well in recent local elections. It will be interesting to see how they fare during the upcoming elections to the European Parliament and in a raft of national polls later this year.

What has probably galvanized Europeans more than anything else is a young Swedish schoolgirl called Greta Thunberg. She has been skipping school every Friday for months to stage her climate strike/protest. This gained enormous publicity, especially after she attended the UN’s climate change conference in Katovice last December. Thunberg was even invited to the elite World Economic Forum, where she did not stay in a posh hotel but — true to her message — erected her own little tent in the cold Swiss mountain resort of Davos.

The Swedish student has inspired many in her age group. Throughout Europe, and even further afield, armies of teenagers go on climate strike every Friday. There is no talk show in the land that is not debating the pros and cons of youngsters skipping school to demonstrate for their cause. The young are amazingly articulate when they voice their concerns. They are also quite forthright when they tell the older generations that they are depriving youth of their rightful future.

Young people have a point in as much as we must halt the warming of the globe to avoid catastrophic climate effects. The Paris accord on climate change sets out the appropriate goals.

However, we may encounter a problem if populist movements — and the young demonstrators have all the hallmarks of a populist movement — start to dictate policy.

Policy, especially energy and climate policy, has to be well thought through. Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih put is extremely well at the IEA-IEF OPEC Outlook seminar in Riyadh at the end of February, saying that there are two options when it comes to energy policy (and sustainability). One is move fast and make mistakes and the other is to move thoughtfully. He said that the second option was the only viable way forward.

The general population still needs to see a clear trajectory of what climate change policies mean for their daily lives.

Cornelia Meyer

When it comes to energy policy and sustainability, we need to understand the context and ramifications of decisions. This can be fiendishly difficult. Two examples prove the case. Germany stood firmly behind the EU’s 2030 goals under its climate and energy framework, which states that by that date EU countries should gain 32 percent of their energy supply from renewable sources.

By 2016 almost 30 percent of the country’s electricity came from renewable sources. This in itself is astonishing and positive. What threw a spanner in the works of German policy was the disaster at the Japanese nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Germany’s lawmakers moved swiftly to phase out nuclear power plants by 2022, replacing them with coal-fired power stations. As a result carbon dioxide emissions shot up considerably. Germany failed dismally to achieve its overall goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions because policymakers moved too hastily.

Another example are electric vehicles. Again, they are brilliant in terms of carbon dioxide emissions compared with conventional vehicles. However, we need to understand the energy source of the electricity they consume. If it is coal-fired power stations, the beneficial effect in terms of greenhouse gases is zero. We also need to take into account that it takes about three times the amount of copper to produce an average electric car compared with a conventional vehicle. Then there is the lithium, magnesium and cobalt which goes into the batteries. The batteries are highly toxic and need to be disposed of carefully.

In other words, we should look at the full life cycle environmental balance of any device or source of energy. This holds true for electric vehicles, but also for power plants, including those powered by renewable sources of energy.

Policymakers need to be upfront with people about the cost of their policies to the public purse and the individual. People need to understand how polices will change their lives. Technology will develop and many hurdles can be overcome. However, the general population still needs to see a clear trajectory of what climate change policies mean for their daily lives. This holds especially true for those who earn less and those who live in emerging economies and are eager to leave poverty behind in order to move into the middle classes.

Sustainability can only be sustained if most people are willing to support it in the long run — with all the consequences it has for their daily lives.

Here is the problem with our young demonstrators. Their intentions are pure and good. However, they lack knowledge of science and context to devise well-considered policies.

Khalid Al-Falih is right: We need thoughtful energy and climate change policies if these are to stand the test of time.

  • Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macroeconomist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources
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