We always talk about sustainability: The Sustainable Development Goals, Sustainable Energy, Sustainable anything… The word is present in our daily life and at some point, people just nod and say “yeah sure “without actually thinking about it anymore. But have you ever asked yourself what the word “sustainable” actually means?
The most common definition is the one of the UN World Commision on Development and Environment and it says:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs “
Is that not something we all expect from each other? And particularly from our parents’ generation or their parents’ generation? Yes, we want our friends and family to live in a way that they have everything they need, but we do not want them to compromise our own mission to have what we need. In the same way we would have wanted our parents’ generation to live in a way, that we can still achieve what we need. But does this not also mean that we also have to live in a way that the next generations can also live their lives? These generations are not born yet and they do not have a voice, and it is on us to remember them.
This brings us now to the question of sustainable energy. The question of energy is one that is of crucial importance to the human race. If we look at the usage of energy more than 200 years ago it was close to zero. With the invention of the steam engine, this changed. Energy became not only more available over the years, it also became more accessible and – more importantly – it became more useful. The first steam engines were so big that they could only be used by big organizations and companies. Then they were used on steamships and the public suddenly had access to them. As technology became smaller, people started using them in their industries, in their businesses and in their homes. And today we are at a point in history of technology that we can hold a complex peace of technology like a smartphone in our hand. The need for energy has increased exponentially and if we look at facts, it has tripled over the past 50 years and it is predicted to follow that trend further. Until 2040 the energy demand of the world population is supposed to grow by another 50% of what we are already using today. That is a dramatic increase and it will not stop in 2040. It will continue and at some point, we are going to be faced with a very, very difficult question: What now?
If we look at the different energy sources, we have to provide not only enough for ourselves, but leave enough for all the future generations, we can eliminate many immediately. All so called fossil fuels – this means oil, coal and gas – are almost used up. In 2014 BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy said that “global oil reserves at the end of 2012 were 1.7 trillion barrels. Given that the world consumes about 86 million barrels of crude oil per day, it would be easy to conclude we’ll run out of oil in 55 years, or sooner if we increase production consumption.” Looking at the definition of sustainability as mentioned above, we can see that this might be enough for some generations that are currently in this world, but definitely not enough for all of us and most certainly not enough for generations yet to be born. Similar statistics can be found for gas and coal.
Let us now look at Nuclear Energy. We do not have to worry as much about nuclear energy running out as much as we have to worry about the threat it imposes generally. With Chernobyl and Fukushima, we already have had two accidents that should have never happened and that caused severe damage. Yes, we here many governments always say that it would never happen to them because they have much higher regulations and are much more cautious, but after Chernobyl everybody in Japan thought the same thing, until Fukushima happened. More importantly: we should not forget about the military use of nuclear power. Today the world’s arsenal of nuclear weapons can blow up this entire planet several times and we would still have some nuclear bombs left.
The third option that people always talk about is Sustainable, renewable energy. Renewable energy already has it in its name: It is renewable, which means that it cannot only be used by us, but also by our children. However, we have this problem with renewable energy that many people think it is unrealistic or not feasible.
First, when we think about the future of our generation should we worry about it being not feasible or too expensive? If we do that, we might want to reconsider our priorities.
Secondly, let us ask ourselves if it really is just a dream or maybe actually realizable? Scientists and researchers say that by 2050 almost 140 countries could run entirely on renewable energy. There is a huge diversity in the field of renewable energy. We not only have solar plants and wildcrafts; we have wave energy, geothermal energy, tidal turbine energy and solar reactors (no solar plants, actual reactors which focus the sunlight with mirrors on a huge tank of water, creating steam and powering turbines). If we would place these solar reactors in the Sahara Desert alone we would be able to generate enough energy for world consumption, scientists say.
Why should we listen to the groups of scientists and researchers, who study about these things for years if we can also look at some facts: In Norway 99% of the electricity production of the mainland came from hydropower plants and was renewable. Half of Sweden’s energy production is already renewable and the renewable part is increasing dramatically over the past years. Is it also possible for countries with bigger populations? Germany (counting 80 Million people) produces almost 30% renewable energy and aims at 80% by 2050. It may be more difficult the more people we have to provide energy for, but it is possible.
What we have to do is try, actively try.
Looking now at some consequences; what would happen if we go through with it? The energy sector is a huge sector of employment in any countries and almost 30 Million Jobs would be lost worldwide if we erase this sector. However, to produce the renewable energy new sectors would appear and more than 50 Million Jobs would be created. That is an increase of 60% of jobs available on the market. Because renewable energy is more efficiently, we would also need depend energy to meet our needs; more than 40% less. We would decrease the death toll from air pollution annually by 7 Million, we would save 50 trillion US-Dollar, which are now counted as Health and Climate costs and we would avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming per year. All of this sounds really good and still countries like Germany do not aim at 100% of renewable energy by 2050, but only 80%. That said, other big countries aim at even less
Yes, it requires investment, and yes, maybe sustainable development does not sound “sexy” enough for politicians, who worry about their re-elections, but should we not set our aims as high as possible, to generate the highest life standards for as many people as possible?
Shouldn’t we sometimes dream high and think about the world as we would want it to be and not how it is feasible to be?
Sooner or later we will have to answer these questions; sooner or later we will run out of oil and then we can fight over the last pieces that are left or we have to look for alternatives.
Let us just hope that humankind is mature enough to do the right thing, that we truly understand the meaning of being sustainable in our actions and leave behind for all future generations more than we had.