Energy is the topic on everyone’s lips, especially renewable energy sources. Climate change must be addressed correctly in order to avoid a complete collapse of the global conditions of life. We must replace old fossil fuel technology with renewable energy sources. If we do this quickly we will increase the chances that the changes that are now taking place will remain at a level that we can cope with. Every serious and responsible citizen agrees on this.
But is it possible to replace all fossil fuels with renewable energy, even if we have to scale up the renewable energy production to a global level? This question is important, because otherwise we might take the wrong decision not only concerning energy issues but also on other issues relating to sustainable development. Today, 20% of the populations in the most developed countries consume 80% of all energy produced. Meanwhile, the 20% of the population at the other end of the scale have not enough energy to sustain themselves. If you take these figures and also look at the Environmental Footprint (WWF / Living Planet Report), it shows that there is a link between the two. High energy consumption is linked to a large ecological footprint. Huge ecological footprints create considerable pressure on ecosystems and biodiversity. Planetary Boundaries Report (Stockholm Resilience Centre, 2009) shows that we exceeded the limit for the loss of biodiversity more than the limit of climate change. Today, the pace of this biodiversity loss is more than 1,000 times higher than the natural one. It is clear that we must address several problems simultaneously, a one-dimensional focus on energy does not lead us in the right direction and may even be counterproductive.
A clear example is hydroelectricity, an energy source with very low emissions of greenhouse gases, at least in the northern parts of the world. But in tropical and subtropical countries the emissions of greenhouse gases are high in the large water reservoirs, where decomposition of organic matter creates methane. The dams required for hydropower are barring the passage of all fauna and also for much of the nutrients that normally float downstream in the non-regulated rivers. More than 50% of the world’s major rivers are affected by this. In Sweden the figure is over 75%. One of the foundations of these ecosystems is precisely the free flow of the stream; they are associated ecosystems from source to estuary. The ponds mean that these ecosystems are totally changed and most are now in a degraded state. This case is a clear indication that renewable energy is not problem free from a biodiversity perspective.
So we need to resolve the issue of renewable energy in a context in which we simultaneously take into account the biological diversity and the question concerning what we use energy for. If all people in the future are adopting the energy consumption habits of the wealthier parts of the world, it is clear that the burden on the ecosystems and finite resources will create an untenable situation. The question we must ask ourselves is: What do we use all this energy for and is it necessary? Do we have a built–in system problem since increased economic activity has so far automatically led to increased resource consumption of both energy and non-renewable raw materials? Is our lifestyle, that is clearly not sustainable, something we can or would try to scale up to a global level? If not, by what right can we, if so, continue to live this way? And besides the fact that in the future we can only rely on renewable energy sources, what is a sustainable low-energy future if we believe that we should have a fair distribution of finite resources?
Christer Borg, President River Savers Association, Sweden