Are fossil fuels a blessing or a curse?
It’s a blessing…
Energy fuels economic and social development. Energy makes it possible to eat, move, learn, heal, work, and survive in hot and cold climates. A secure supply of energy is essential to modern society.
…and a curse
Globally, most energy is produced by burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Supplies of these resources are unevenly distributed, which can stoke tensions and lead to conflict as people seek to control them. Burning fossil fuels is the leading source of greenhouse gases and other harmful air pollutants. And demand for energy continues to grow: about 1.1 billion people still lack access to electricity.
We need a fresh approach
We must provide sufficient, affordable, and clean energy to all people, while respecting the planet’s ecological limits. We need to not only find alternative sources of energy, but also use existing resources more efficiently. Since the millennium, we have developed more innovative, intelligent, and efficient energy systems. This rapid progress on sustainable energy shows that a different energy future is possible, but it will require a new vision to make a major contribution to development, peace, and security.
Traffic during rush hour in Bangalore
The energy system is the key to a sustainable transformation
Worldwide energy demand will increase by 30 percent by 2040 due to rising standards of living in emerging economies. But meeting this demand by burning fossil fuels would lead to catastrophic climate change.
Ensuring prosperity while respecting planetary boundaries requires environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive solutions, such as renewable energy and energy efficiency. Transforming our energy supply in a sustainable way will require significant upfront investment. Over the long run, most investments will save more money than they cost.
A more sustainable energy system has important health and economic benefits. Cleaner air would vastly improve the living conditions of billions of people: more than 90 percent of the world’s population lives with unhealthy levels of air pollution. In addition, developing renewable energy and promoting energy efficiency would create jobs in manufacturing, installation, maintenance, and research.
Today, governments around the world spend large amounts of money on subsidising fossil fuels. Phasing out these subsidies could free up enormous resources and funds to invest in public services and goods. And these governments could gain greater energy security and more control over their energy future
The transition away from fossil fuels could threaten investments and political stability
Throughout recent history, governments have competed with each other to secure oil and gas. Energy trading relationships have shaped international cooperation and foreign and security policies. Since many of the world’s oil and gas reserves are located in fragile or politically unstable places, reducing their use could also create geopolitical risks.
To avoid dangerous climate change, we need to leave in the ground one third of our crude oil supplies, half of our natural gas, and more than 80 percent of our coal. Changing the market for fossil fuels could stall development in exporting countries, and perhaps destabilise them. Within these countries, the benefits of fossil fuel extraction are not distributed evenly. Most people have no access to either the energy resources or the profits from them — and if so, often only after the country’s elite captures most of the revenues.
In industrialised countries, large investors like pension funds and insurance companies could lose money due to their fossil fuel exposure, endangering social and economic systems. Nations, corporations, and financial markets need to plan now to mitigate the risks posed by the energy transition away from fossil fuels to all countries.
Almost two thirds of oil and gas reserves are concentrated in only five countries.
A man delivers Bharat Gas canisters, one of the only sources of fuel for homes, amidst a deluge of rain and flooding in an urban slum area of Mumbai.
A women helps to cultivate renewable energy by farming the Jatropha plant, whose seeds be used to make biodiesel fuel.
Lack of alternative sources of fuel in rural Eldoret forces women to spend hours trekking to fetch firewood from forests.
Billions of people are ‘energy poor’
Today, about 1.1 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity. The average resident of Haiti, for example, consumes as much electric power in one year as a person in Finland consumes in a single day.
About three billion people — mainly in developing Asia and sub- Saharan Africa — use biomass, such as wood and charcoal, for cooking their food and heating their homes. According to the World Health Organisation, exposure to household air pollution kills more than four million people each year. In addition, using wood for fuel increases deforestation and forest degradation.
Cleaner, more efficient cook stoves can help alleviate energy poverty and improve health. Decentralised renewable energy sources such as solar photovoltaics, small hydropower, wind, or biogas can bring electricity to remote areas. Private and public investments should focus on these sustainable solutions for ending energy poverty.
No access to electricity
This map shows where people have no electricity supplied to their homes, either from a publicly used grid or from self-generation. The map does not account for how much power they consume.
In 15 countries — all of them in Africa — over 80 per cent of the population has no access to electricity in their homes. Most people without access to electricity are living in India, Nigeria and Ethiopia.
Coal: Is the tide turning?
Phasing out coal power is one of the most cost-efficient ways to combat climate change. Yet many countries with coal reserves see it as a cheap and reliable energy source. Today’s coal power plants are already close to maxing out our global carbon budget, as calculated by the International Energy Agency.
But there are some bright spots. Early in 2017, China cancelled plans to build more than 100 coal power plants. Catastrophic levels of smog in Chinese cities are shifting public opinion to support cleaner energy sources just as they are also becoming increasingly competitive. At the same time, however, Chinese coal companies continue to rapidly expand their operations outside of China.
Only a few years ago, India proposed building a raft of new coal power plants to meet its growing demand for energy. But as the cost of solar power plunged, several coal power projects were cancelled. In late 2016, 31 Indian coal power plant projects under construction were put on hold.
Burning coal, oil, and natural gas for energy production is a leading source of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants.
In recent years, the use of renewable energy has grown considerably. In a single decade (2004-2014), the world’s installed wind power capacity increased more than sevenfold and solar photovoltaic capacity grew about 47 times, as the costs of new photovoltaics decreased by 70 percent between 2010 and 2016. In Germany, renewable energy sources generated 36 percent of the country’s electricity in 2017. And globally, the renewable energy industry has created 8.3 million jobs.
But renewable energy needs to be traded, stored, and distributed differently than conventional energy. Regional cooperation — including sharing or expanding grid infrastructure and storage facilities — could help address this challenge. Renewable energy opportunities also offer new, participatory models for investment, such as cooperative grid ownership.
Renewable sources offer alternatives
Energy-plus house designed by Darmstadt‘s Technical University team, winner of the Solar Decathlon 2007 competition
Concepts for low energy housing are in demand. A model for an energy-plus house of the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, won the 2007 international Solar Decathlon competition organized by the U.S. Department of Energy. The jury was persuaded by the building‘s design, which offered comfort and fulfilled the highest environmental standards. Thanks to solar panels and high energy efficiency, the model generates more energy than it consumes.
The Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Plant operates at Hengill Mountain, on an active volcanic ridge.
Iceland owes its potential for energy generation from geothermal sources to the island's special geological conditions. Iceland's current power supply is based almost entirely on the use of geothermal energy and hydropower. The abundance of energy also allows the country to cleanly produce hydrogen at an acceptable price.
Off-shore wind farm at Horns Reef, off the west coast of Denmark's Jutland peninsula
Wind energy accounts for about one-fifth of Denmark's electricity generation. A significant share of this comes from offshore wind turbines, which are installed along the country's coastline. And the expansion continues: starting in 2011 a new wind power plant off the coast of Lolland will alone cover two percent of Denmark's electricity needs.
70,000 solar panels connect to the base electric grid on 140 acres of unused Nellis land.
In December 2007, the Nellis solar energy system was inaugurated on the U.S. Army grounds in Nevada. The 14 megawatt plant is the largest of its kind in the United States and will produce more than 30 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year. A quarter of the electricity needs of the 12,000 employees and residents who live there will be covered in this way.