Not only are fossil fuels still the world’s most important energy source, but our dependence on them continues to increase. By 2020, the date set in the latest energy outlook updates, fossil fuels will constitute 90% of world energy. This was the gloomy reality presented by moderator Kenneth Lay at a roundtable discussion on fueling sustainable development at the OECD’s Forum 2001 on Tuesday, May 15. “CO2 emissions for the next 20 years will have increased by 2% a year … and will reach a level of 60%, or 13.7 billion tonnes a year. This is a higher rate than in the past, and is hardly moving us closer to sustainable energy”, Kenneth Lay pointed out in his introduction, reminding us that hydropower and renewable energies together represent only 4.8% of the world energy market.
Kurt Yeager, CEO, Electric Power Research Institute, presented the “sustainability challenge” facing the OECD nations, which represent only 7% of the world’s population. Energy production, he said, is confronted with a “trilemma” of three components: the quadrupling of the world’s population over the past century, economic development and the environment.
“Sustainability requires what I call a 2% solution – sustain 2% growth in productivity, energy efficiency, agriculture, fresh water and emission reduction”, Yeager said, pointing out that hydrocarbons still produce 60% of world energy at the turn of the 21st century.
“The idea is to reduce our average consumption of hydrocarbon – the future of energy use in the world depending on our ability to develop and transfer needs for diversified energy use in the developing world”, he said. The ability of the developing world to develop its own transportation infrastructure is crucial, he said.
Mr Yeager argued that there is still much to be done to develop technology that will reduce energy intensity. “A gas-based, hydrogen future is not a new idea”, he said, listing some of the technologies available: advanced nuclear fuel cells, carbon sequestration, advanced sensors and controls and micro-miniaturisation of processes. “The digital revolution should be an important vehicle for the process of improvement in energy efficiency”, he said.
Luis Echavarri, Director General of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, said nuclear energy, which provides 16% of total world electricity, is a sustainable energy source. “The electricity produced by nuclear power plants avoids substantial quantities of CO2 emissions. In fact, if nuclear energy had to be substituted with fossil fuels, the CO2 emissions from the energy sector would increase by 8%”, he said.
As far as waste is concerned, he said no final solution for the disposal of high-level waste had yet been implemented for waste from the commercial production of electricity – although “the first deep geological repository for high-level waste from military uses was started more than a year ago in New Mexico”. A speaker from the floor raised the question of nuclear safety in former USSR countries.
“Our role is to support the EU in closing down the dangerous reactors, but others can be saved. But today is not the situation of the Chernobyl years, and the nuclear plants generally represent no risk anymore”, Mr Echavarri said.
Danish Minister of Environment and Energy, Svend Auken told the audience of the harsh consequences of the 1994 oil crisis in Denmark, and explained how the country had now developed from being 90% dependent on imported oil to being self sufficient – by means of oil and gas production in the North Sea, but also through production of wind energy. “Wind energy represents 15% of our energy, and we expect it to be one third of the total energy production in 2005”, he said, and the aim is to cut prices by 35-40% in the next few years. “If we can create a demand for sustainable development, companies will help in the long run. And we have to take into consideration the long-term perspective, in order to promote decoupling [of economic growth from environmental degradation] in the northern, rich countries, and development in the South – without repeating the faults that we committed in the industrialised part of the world”.
©OECD Observer May 2001