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Is Sustainability A Myth?

September 24, 2012

picIn an age of depleting energy reserves, growing resource shortages, and mounting environmental challenges, the promise of sustainable development and renewable energy indeed brings hope and reassurance. But the question remains: are we expecting too much from sustainable means of growth?

During a talk at The Fletcher School on September 24 hosted by CIERP's Energy, Climate, and Innovation Research Seminar Series, the US Ambassador to Finland, Bruce J. Oreck, laid bare the astounding gap between energy demand and supply, and spoke of the potential consequences that might result from this disparity.

Beginning with the rise of emerging markets, Oreck said that rapid growth requires an enormous amount of energy, and the increasing demand is putting pressure on finite energy resources. “Up until the last twenty years, there were only about a billion people using essentially all of the world’s resources, and everybody else wasn’t; but now the demand for oil is rapidly increasing as the economies of the developing world are fast expanding. There is no escaping the physical reality – we are all riding in the same SUV, we have a single tank of gas, and that is all we’ve got,” Oreck said.

Oreck pointed out that 75% of the world’s oil was discovered before 1980. Despite new technologies, not much headway has been made in discovering new oil wells, and the world may well be approaching peak oil. But the growing shortage of resources is not limited to oil. The promises of shale gas aren’t without peril as the technique used for its extraction requires huge amounts of water, another scarce resource. Oreck indicated that one fracked well takes more than four million gallons of non-recoverable fresh water, and that the disturbing consequences of chronic water shortage generated by such activities are all too apparent. Texas is showing an increased pattern of drought and dryness, and wildfires destroyed more than 3,000 homes in 2011. 

Oreck also drew attention to claims of the US having a hundred-year supply of natural gas. He noted that total supply is actually still very much an unknown, as this claim depends on proven, probable, possible, and speculative gas reserves. If the figure were drawn from proven and probable reserves alone, the supply estimate drops down to 21 years.

Oreck reminded the audience that China is now consuming more coal than it is producing, and that it relies on coal power for approximately 80% of its energy. In about 13-15 years, China will have consumed more than half of its total coal reserves. Despite making heavy investments, renewable energy is still a very small part of overall Chinese energy production. China’s master plan for the next decade is to build 42 nuclear plants; however, it would only make a negligible difference to the current power generation landscape.

Furthermore, about 20% (30 trillion gallons) of China’s total water consumption is from coal-fired power plants. In the next eight years, China will add as much electricity generating capacity as exists in all of the US today. More than half of that increase will be from coal, which will require even greater water consumption. Meanwhile, China’s freshwater supply has fallen by 13% since 2000.  

“By 2040, global electricity demand will almost double, but a lack of water will make it difficult to run coal and hydro plants. By 2030, India will have a 50% gap in water supply, whereas China might face a gap of 25%. Business as usual approaches will not meet demand for raw water.”

Oreck noted that government agencies are running simulation exercises to brace for the social and political challenges likely to emerge out of energy crises. Nevertheless, Oreck categorically stated that if energy challenges are not dealt with immediately, they may well breed challenges that exceed the capability of military efforts to contain.

Article by Sachin Gaur, MALD candidate F13