Most governments and supranational organizations agree – at least in principle – that if we burn less fossil fuel, we could put a break on global warming and the consequent extreme weather conditions we've all been experiencing. They also all agree that we need to do more to promote sustainable energy sources. It's just a pity that when it comes to backing up these fine words with actions, what often comes out are either watered-down compromises or go-it-alone policies on the part of countries who should be acting in concert.
To be fair, these less-than-satisfactory outcomes are more a reflection of the economic and political complexities in the real world than anything else. The lack of green energy policies on the part of many EU countries underlines my point.
Take Germany: The German government has decided to shutter its nuclear power plants and boost usage of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Trouble is, these sources of power won't be able to fill the gap left by nuclear energy, at least that's what the experts say. So it looks like the country will become even more dependent on lignite (brown coal) as a source of power. Germany is the world's largest producer and brown-coal fired power stations generate almost 25% of the country's electricity. Limiting the usage of this "dirty" fossil fuel would be politically difficult anyway given the 20,000 German jobs dependent on lignite mining.
France, on the other hand, depends on nuclear power for three-quarters of its electricity generation. Even though the government has announced its intention to diversify its energy mix over the coming decades, according to a recent report in Spiegel Online it remains reluctant to sign up to any EU-wide targets on renewable energy usage.
The U.K. government – which derives around 18% of its electricity from nuclear power – also supports shale gas exploration to help cover its future energy needs and generate benefits for the economy as whole. Despite the possibility of its negative environmental impact, the government has welcomed the news that the French company, Total, is to invest heavily in the search for such gas in the U.K. According to the BBC, the government is to strengthen financial incentives to encourage local authorities to allow drilling for shale gas (fracking). The BBC report cites a study by the Department of Energy and Climate Change which says that more than half the U.K. could be suitable for fracking.
My point is that governments have no other choice but to take account of economic realities when deciding how best to secure energy supplies for the future. And this means that fossil fuels will remain part of the electricity generation mix for a long while yet. All that said – as stressed by the Swiss Re publication, Building a sustainable energy future: risks and opportunities – "With an expanding population and a world economy powered by oil, coal and gas, fossil fuels have become a large part of our daily lives. But this has come at a price: greenhouse gas emissions which adversely affect our climate. How much higher will this price rise before we achieve a more sustainable energy system?"
Category: Sustainable energy: Fossil fuel, Fracking, Nuclear