by Renee Sams
MOST of the energy we use today is provided by fossil fuels, coal, oil and natural gas, which have provided cheap and abundant power needed for the development of today’s industrial society. The choices that will be made in the very near future will have enormous consequences for the future.
At the time of the industrial revolution it was thought that those fuels were so plentiful they would last forever. It was not realised until the last century with its ever increasing need for power, that one day those resources would come to an end.
The first warning came in 1949 when M King Hubbert, a widely acclaimed geophysicist, startled the world with his assessment that the fossil fuel era would be very short-lived and that fossil fuels would not be able to meet world demand in the relatively near future.
In 1956 he predicted that US oil production would peak in 1970 and then decline. This prediction became known as Hubbert’s Peak.
But the world did not heed the warning, and since then world energy use has risen by almost 71 per cent. And while the developing nations now need their share of the dwindling resources, it is predicted that oil use will continue to grow exponentially as they become more industrialised.
With such an easily available cheap and profitable fuel there has been no incentive to research and develop alternative cleaner, renewable sources of mass energy and it is only now that some progress is being made in the use of alternative forms of renewable energy sources.
Currently, hydroelectric energy is the largest resource of renewable energy but progress is being made in tapping energy from solar, wind and water, to nuclear, biomass, geothermal and even new forms of fossil fuel.
As realisation sinks in that the end of the era of plentiful oil is approaching, the Bush administration has recently adopted a policy to produce a major amount of ethanol from corn as a substitute for fossil fuel to reduce the US reliance on imported oil.
An increasing use of biofuels seems like a good option for both governments and industry but far from reducing global emissions, increasing use of land to produce suitable crops is likely to accelerate climate change.
At the G8 meeting last June, President Bush stood out as the major obstacle to progress on climate. He forced the final communiqué to abandon any firm commitment to emission reduction.
In the US Bush’s new policy has already had some dire effects. It has driven the price of corn up sharply, more than doubling in the past 12 months and this has meant that the problem of hunger in the least developed countries of the world like sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia has increased.
Already it is clear that the sustainability of biofuel is very doubtful, with the continually increasing energy demands that will undoubtedly lead eventually to prime agricultural land being used to feed vehicles instead of people. Even in countries like Mexico and South Africa that have some level of economic development but where corn is a still a staple, a catastrophic rise of 400 per cent in the price of corn brought the people out on the streets their thousands in protest.
Brazil is one of the major producers of biofuel, using the waste from sugar production to make ethanol. About 30 per cent of the automotive fuel in Brazil now uses ethanol and the industry has recently announced that it intends to invest $9 billion to increase production.
It has been pointed out by environmental activists that this will require the clearing of a major area of the Amazon rain forest, which has already been massively reduced in size by the logging companies over the years.
The ethanol boom is raising commodity prices and large landowners have been burning more forest to clear land for ethanol production and obtain a higher profit than they can on cattle ranching.
And there is growing evidence that the rainforests play an important role in regulating the climate in the northern hemisphere.
In Africa a number of countries including Benin, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal, led by Ghana have been testing the production of biofuel from jatropha, a weed that animals won’t eat and farmers use as hedges for their fields.
It is a perennial weed that grows well in poor soil and arid conditions without fertilizer or irrigation, and its roots lying close to the surface stabilise the soil and this has made it useful for planting on earthen dams and dikes. Mali is an extremely poor, landlocked country and the government hopes to be able to power all the country’s 12,000 villages with affordable, renewable energy derived from jatropha. They have said that they will not be producing jatropha for export until the needs of their own people for energy have been met. It is an experiment that will need to be strictly controlled if they are to carry out this ambitious project.
In China they have made a breakthrough in the use of sustainable and renewable energy with revolutionary wind power technology. Last year they unveiled the world’s first magnetic levitation (maglev) generator which is expected to boost wind energy generating capacity by as much as 20 per cent over traditional wind turbines.
This would effectively cut the operational costs of wind farms by up to half, keeping the overall cost of wind power under 0.4 yuan ($ 5 cents). These new frictionless turbines are able to utilise winds with starting speeds as low as 1.5 metres per second, which is arousing interest in a dozen Chinese cities and more than 50 countries around the world.
A spokesman for the Guangzhou based Zhonke Hengyuan Energy Company said that the generator could be used on islands, in observatories, and television stations, and even provide roadside lighting by using the airflow from passing vehicles.
Beijing is going all out to achieve “Green Olympics”, Beijing Vice Mayor Liu Jingmin told a press conference “by not only improving the city’s ecology and environment, but also by adopting a ‘green’ environment-friendly approach to managing city affairs”. China is all set to spend US$200 billion over the next 15 years on environmental improvements.
President Bush, backed by the Exxon Mobil (trading as Esso in this country) is already prepared to continue the policy of preventing any meaningful action to bring down global emissions of greenhouse gases at the Bali Kyoto meeting.
Exxon is the largest oil company in the world with the biggest annual profits of any company last year of $36 billion.
This giant funds a variety of mainly extreme right-wing think tanks, which have lobbied against Kyoto from its inception.At a gathering of the 40 biggest corporations they all agreed that the only way forward for them is a market-based system of the buying and selling of carbon “credits” that will not reduce carbon emissions by one iota.
Join people all around the world to demand that world leaders take the urgent action we need to prevent the catastrophic destabilisation of global climate. The national demonstration in London will be one of many demonstrations on climate taking place around the world on 8th December.