The phrase “renewable energy” conjures up visions of wind, solar, tidal power – clean energy sources that last forever and which will power the world into a green, sustainable future that will last forever. But what, exactly, is sustainability? How is it defined? When we examine the official definitions we find two things: First that renewable energy is not necessarily sustainable and sustainable energy not necessarily renewable: and second that there’s far more to sustainability than just energy. Sustainability contemplates a complete restructuring of the global economy and the world’s social fabric, and energy policy has, unfortunately, been nominated to take the lead in achieving it.
The term “sustainable development” was coined and defined in Our Common Future, a report released by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, more commonly known as the Brundtland Commission, in 1987. This Commission, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway and a lady of impeccable green credentials, was set up to determine what it would take to mobilize “a united international community with shared sustainability goals by identifying sustainability problems worldwide, raising awareness about them, and suggesting the implementation of solutions”. The Brundtland Commission accordingly made these determinations, and its conclusions, recommendations and definitions subsequently underpinned the Rio Declaration, “Agenda 21”, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol. They still set the ground rules for achieving “sustainable development”.
So if we want to know what sustainable development officially is we must consult the definition given by the Brundtland Commission. We find what we are looking for in the very first sentence of the relevant section of the Brundtland report:
3. Sustainable Development
Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.
Nothing too complicated here, it would seem. Any development that meets present needs and doesn’t compromise the needs of future generations is sustainable (always provided of course that humanity has the ability to implement it, but we will address that question later).
Let’s now examine how this definition applies in practice. First we will consider whether fossil fuels are sustainable. I don’t know anyone who would claim that they are, but when we apply the Brundtland definitions we find that in fact they might be.
One thing the Brundtland Commission doesn’t tell us is how many future generations we have to provide for, which leaves us at liberty to pick a number, and I’m going to pick three. Can we string fossil fuels out for another three generations – roughly 75 years? The oil reserves/production ratio presently shows around 50 years of global reserve life and continues to edge up, so I’m going to assume that we can. I’m also going to put on my green hat and assume that carbon capture and storage will shortly become reality, thereby minimizing any risks posed by climate change. Now, what are the chances that within the next 75 years we can commercialize a new, clean and sustainable source of dispatchable energy generation that can replace fossil fuels, maybe fusion? Well, who in 1940 could have foreseen nuclear power? So I’m going to assume we can do that too*. With these three assumptions fossil fuels become sustainable because a) they meet the needs of the present and b) continuing to consume them doesn’t compromise the needs of future generations.
*Note: These are assumptions, not predictions. They are disputable, but no more so than many of the other assumptions made to construct future energy scenarios.
Now let’s apply the same reasoning to energy sources like wind, solar and tide. They will be around for a few billion years yet so they are unquestionably renewable, but are they sustainable? We might expect that at some point a solution will be found to the intermittency problem, whereupon renewables will become capable of meeting the energy needs of future generations. But this point is probably several generations down the road, and until it’s reached they will remain incapable of meeting the needs of the present. So according to the Brundtland definition renewables are in fact unsustainable, at least at the moment.
So without bending the rules too much we have already made fossil fuels sustainable and renewables unsustainable.
But it doesn’t end there. Sustainability covers more than just energy. The Brundtland Commission goes on:
Poverty is not only an evil in itself, but sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to fulfil their aspirations for a better life. A world in which poverty is endemic will always be prone to ecological and other catastrophes.
In other words, sustainability won’t be achieved until poverty is eradicated.
How to eradicate it? The currently-accepted approach, officially endorsed by the Kyoto Protocol, is to encourage the developing countries to grow their economies, which they are proceeding to do by burning lots of fossil fuels. Can they grow their economies to developed country levels if we can string out fossil fuels for another three generations? Certainly they can. Japan and Singapore already have. By this yardstick fossil fuels are again at least arguably sustainable. On the other hand continuing to burn them without CCS, which is what is presently happening, is projected to bring on a CO2-induced climate catastrophe that will allegedly leave the developing countries even more poverty-stricken than they were to begin with, so by this yardstick fossil fuels are unsustainable. Renewables will supposedly avert a climate change catastrophe, so by this yardstick they are sustainable, but there is no way the developing countries are going to grow their economies to developed country levels with wind farms and solar panels, so by this yardstick they aren’t. Now both renewables and fossil fuels are unsustainable.
But having the developed countries develop their economies still won’t be enough to pull them out of poverty. The rich countries must send them money, and maybe also submit to world government:
Meeting essential needs requires not only a new era of economic growth for nations in which the majority are poor, but an assurance that these poor get their fair share of the resources required to sustain that growth. Such equity would be aided by political systems that secure …. greater democracy in international decision making.
And it doesn’t end there. According to the Brundtland Commission society won’t necessarily be sustainable even if poverty is eradicated. Before sustainability can happen we energy hogs in rich countries must change our lifestyles:
Sustainable global development requires that those who are more affluent adopt life-styles within the planet’s ecological means – in their use of energy, for example.
And do something about population growth:
Sustainable development can only be pursued if population size and growth are in harmony with the changing productive potential of the ecosystem.
And with this we are taken completely out of the realm of energy and into the realm of sociopolitical engineering. Yet the Kyoto Protocol and its predecessor documents make no distinction between the two. Sustainable energy and a sustainable global society are to be achieved at the same time, with energy policy leading the way. And current energy policy is of course driven largely by the fear of man-made global warming, which supposedly threatens the world with one of the “ecological and other catastrophes” that the Brundtland Commission contends makes our present society unsustainable.
The Brundtland definition begins with the claim “Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable”. I often think that many of the energy problems the world has burdened itself with reflect the inability of green visionaries to recognize the total impracticability of what they are proposing.
Brundtland then concludes by leaving the implementation of sustainable development up to the politicians:
Thus, in the final analysis, sustainable development must rest on political will.
Which probably explains why the drive towards the Brundtland Commission’s vision of a sustainable future, spearheaded by visionary renewable energy mandates, continues to make no significant progress.
Clearly an excellent case can be made for abandoning the drive towards sustainable development until the world is in a position to achieve it. But if the world is determined to forge ahead regardless then the first thing it needs to do is adopt an unambiguous definition of “sustainable” in the context of energy. Here is my proposal, with a definition of “renewable” thrown in for good measure. First “renewable”:
1. Any energy source that generates energy indefinitely regardless of the level of exploitation, specifically solar, wind and tidal power (the non-dispatchable renewable energy sources).
2. Any energy sources that generates energy indefinitely provided it is not overexploited, including hydro, biomass, biogas, biofuels and geothermal (the dispatchable renewable energy sources).
3. Any energy source powered by terrestrial resources provided the resources are sufficient to last for at least a thousand years.
Any renewable resource, as defined above, that:
1. Meets society’s energy needs 24 hours a day year-round, or which can be combined with other renewable generation sources to meet society’s energy needs 24 hours a day year-round, and which also:
2. Has an ERoEI high enough to sustain the downstream energy demands of society.
And what does the world presently have in the way of commercial-scale energy generation technology that might allow it to meet these criteria? Fast neutron reactors, commonly known as “breeder” reactors, are the closest we can come.