Thursday, November 28, 2002

Hard Choices, No. 1:

Energy, Development and Sustainability


kairos focus web:

Because energy is a measure of the ability to do work – impart ordered motion or structure to matter – it is an integral aspect of economic activity and development. It is also at the centre of the major debate over the sustainability of our civilization, in the light of the threat of human-induced damaging climate change. As a result, in 1997, a global convention on climate change was adopted in Kyoto Japan, now known as the Kyoto Protocol.

However, extensive debates rage over the proposed alternatives, energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, largely because of the feared economic impacts in the face of scientific uncertainties.

The immediate context of the Acts 27 case can easily focus the problems:

“6 [We landed at Myra in Lycia, Asia minor, where] the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board. 7 We made slow headway for many days and had difficulty arriving off Cnidus. When the wind did not allow us to hold our course, we sailed to the lee of Crete, opposite Salmone. 8 We moved along the coast with difficulty and came to a place called Fair Havens, near the town of Lasea.”

Sailing ships are renewable energy-powered technologies, and at that time were used in the wheat export trade from Egypt to Rome; in turn, the bread made from the wheat was used to feed (thus pacify) the idle masses in that city: “give us bread and circuses.”

However, as can be seen above, often such technologies are not reliable. Thus, delays and weather hazards were an unavoidable part of the ancient sea-trade; greatly increasing costs. Consequently, when coal-fired steam engines were first used extensively in the 19th Century, it transformed sea trade through reduced costs and increased reliability, vastly expanding the impacts of such trade on the world economy.

But, in light of the scientific debates over the past few decades, it is often argued that the development resulting from the harnessing of fossil fuels is unsustainable, due to impacts on the global climate system. Accordingly, international agreements and regulations have been put in place, and the question of sustainable energy is high on the agenda.

Countering these arguments, libertarians often argue that the science is debatable, and the potential economic damage due to the intermittent nature of many forms of renewable energy in particular is all too is plain. Additionally, alternative energy systems often have such high capital costs per unit of energy delivered to uses, that the net cost is higher than for fossil fuels, which adds to adverse economic impacts. Further, they point to an encroachment on individual liberty; even suggesting that many environmentalists are actually “watermelons”: green outside, red – i.e. socialist – inside.

And the debaters have points on both sides: there is considerable evidence (though a lot of hype as well) that our energy systems are causing damage, and many environmentalists do not sufficiently appreciate the critical importance of the market and individual liberty in economic development. Additionally, the present global climate models are very much still works in progress, and even a full Kyoto implementation would delay the trends projected by the models by only several years.

So, we face a hard choice: liberty, sound stewardship of our common world, and an appropriate degree of regulation.

Maybe, too, the key to a breakthrough is the same point just noted, that science and rechnology are works in progress: if we invest appropriately in research and development, we may be better able to solve the problems over the next decade or so. Another tradeoff.

Thus, a brief study of energy brings us to hard choice number 2: how to balance governance, liberty, growth, godliness, and sound stewardship of our world.

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