Solving the energy conundrum

Opinions

 

We are in crucial times.

On the one hand, we are consuming more energy than ever before to drive growth and development.

On the other, our reliance on coal, oil and gas as our predominant sources of energy is the driver for rising air pollution, deteriorating public health, depleting forest and freshwater resources, and nightmare scenarios for climate change.

The only way to cut through that Gordian knot is by fundamentally changing our approach to energy.

In order to honour human, ecosystem and indeed planetary limits, the world needs to embark on a pathway for a fully renewable-fuelled economy by mid-century and one that is underlined by strong energy efficiency and conservation to provide clean and sustainable energy for all.

In the landmark World Energy Outlook 2012, the International Energy Agency estimated that to limit climate change to below 2°C, more than two-thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground.

Global emissions must peak by 2015, and then decline, in order to have a 50 per cent chance of keeping the world below a 2°C global average temperature rise.

The many costs of fossil fuels, including impacts on human health and livelihoods are all too often glossed over in the energy debate.

It is important in future to account for all the external costs of energy use and production.

Today, governments around the world subsidise fossil fuels with almost 1.9 trillion US dollars annually according to the International Monetary Fund, equivalent to 10 per cent of all state budgets – a huge social cost, in terms of hospitals not built, education not financed, infrastructure being delayed.

In the future, the true costs of fossil fuels will substantially raise power prices.

 

Health impact

It is estimated by the World Health Organization that each year at least two million people die prematurely from air pollution caused by fossil fuels.

A recent study found that the citizens of northern China – where 40 per cent of the population lives in proximity to the majority of China’s coal-fired power stations – live 5.5 years less than their southern compatriots due to cardio-respiratory mortality.

Another assessment showed that the health costs of coal-fired power stations add a financial burden of up to €42.8 billion a year to the European population.

The first ever estimation of death and disease due to coal power plants in India estimated that between 85,000 and 115,000 people died due to coal related problems in 2011 and 2012, with a cumulative cost to public and government estimated at 3.3 to 4.6 billion US dollars.

Despite the health and climate change impacts, entrenched coal interests have generally fought to stave off efforts to clean up coal with predictions of power shortages, collapsing employment and economic disaster.

Yet large scale deployment of wind and solar technologies are demonstrating increased jobs, both in manufacturing and in operations and maintenance.

 

Green jobs

The 20 largest oil and gas companies, which are responsible for the majority of global fossil fuel supply, provide about 2.1 million jobs worldwide; that’s just one-third of the employment generated by renewable energy, mainly in various solar and wind technologies.

The reality is that the fossil fuel industries will shrink, and this will reduce jobs in these industries.

At the same time jobs in renewable energy will grow, as well as other “green” jobs.

This will be a transition, not an instant switch-over.

We must move swiftly to prepare for the new skills that will be needed, to ensure that the emerging jobs are decent.

These are elements of a just transition.

The world has abundant renewable energy resources.

Solar, wind, geothermal, ocean and bioenergy resources can technically provide 100 times the present global energy consumption.


Success stories

Pockets of excellence in expanding renewable energy production are showing the way.

In Germany, the third-largest OECD economy, for example, almost 30 per cent of electricity is derived from renewables, mainly solar and wind.

Island nations like Philippines have committed to increase renewable energy based generation by 40 per cent by 2020.

China has invested heavily in its renewable energy industry – accounting for a quarter of the total global investments in 2011.

Coal-dependent South Africa was the 2012 global champion – it invested about one per cent of its GDP into solar, wind, and other renewables.

The urgent need to change global energy systems is indisputable.

But it will not be quick enough unless we press for it.

Civil society organisations are working on this front and the WWF is joining this effort by launching a global campaign calling for a decisive change in energy financing – asking major financial institutions and governments to make a significant move away from fossil fuels and into renewable energy.

Under the slogan, Seize Your Power, the campaign was launched last month and is looking for creating public support and political space necessary to make renewable energy the new normal.

WWF is challenging investors to commit in the next 12 months to an additional 40 billion US dollars for renewable energy by 2017 and to not invest in fossil fuels, particularly coal.

The unions have a decisive role to play in the economic, social and political change to enable an energy transformation towards a sustainable future for people and the planet.

Join us. Seize Your Power. Start by signing the pledge at www.panda.org and contribute to the way each one of us thinks about energy.