It is time to re-frame the debate about future energy supply, arguably the biggest challenge we face. This challenge has often been portrayed as a tension between the moral imperative of protecting the environment on the one hand and preserving the economic interests of the energy industry. This simplistic view misses the more difficult challenge that we face: namely, balancing the tension between protecting the environment—which would require us to turn off the use of fossil-fuels—against the equally important call for social justice to provide people around the world with sufficient and affordable energy so they can all live a healthy productive life. Meeting the global demand for energy is going to be a daunting challenge, and the way we choose to do it, namely the energy sources we choose to employ, will have a profound effect on the lives of millions–nay billions–of people. There are choices to be made, and the public at large must get engaged in making them.
To many in the sustainability community, fossil energy is an anathema. Continued use of fossil resources—oil, coal, natural gas—poses threats to the environment through the emission of pollutants and greenhouse gases. The fact that they are a limited or exhaustible resource means that in the future we could either run out of them or their extraction will get progressively harder to a point that it takes more energy to extract them than would be derived from their use. Using fossil energy is clearly not sustainable, and the world has to look to renewable resources for long-term survival.
While it is true increased use of coal only exacerbates the global struggle to curb carbon dioxide emissions, the moral imperative to protect the environment has to balanced by the equally strong moral imperative of providing energy to enable people live healthy productive lives. Between 1981 and 2005, China increased its use of coal four-fold, but over the same period it also lifted about 400 million people out of poverty.
I recently spoke with Martin Wasserman, co-producer and host of Future Talk. A ten-minute segment of that conversation can be viewed here.