Sustainability is the practice of maintaining a balance between the human civilization and the environment, focusing on economic and social development while still protecting the diversity and resources of the ecosystem.
However, in this day and age, rapid urbanization paired with the largely growing population has led to an increase in energy demands, depleting many resources such as fossil fuels at a rate which the earth cannot provide. These fossil fuels have lent a major hand in pollution and are responsible for global warming, compromising the health of ecosystems as a whole. The cutting down of forests has also had major consequences. The climate change will give way to a plethora of natural disasters which will affect different economies adversely. At such an unsustainable rate, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the earth to accommodate the entire human race.
This problem has been widely publicized, from news reports and campaigns, right down to the science textbooks we study from. Its seriousness has been perceived now, giving an incentive for the United Nations to come up with a set of 17 sustainable development goals ( SDGs), as an agenda to achieve by 2030.
ISSUE 1 – INCREASED CONSUMPTION OF FOSSIL FUELS
Fossil fuels are the biggest source of energy. The demand for energy, especially in the form of electricity has greatly increased. It logically follows that the usage of fossil fuels has also increased. This graph starkly represents the pattern of growth of different energy resources. Coal, mainly responsible for the carbon emissions, eventually flattens, indicating that there is no more increase in its usage. It can be seen that even though the rate of increase of consumption of renewable energy and natural gas grows at the fastest rate, fossil fuels still dominate the sources even in 2040. The report mentions that most of the energy use is from countries that do not belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), mainly China and India. Energy consumption rises by 41% in non-OECD countries but only 9% in OECD countries.
Economic development seems to be the one of the main causes of increased usage of fossil fuels. On a personal perspective, people now have better financial means, so are able to access better facilities, such as air-conditioners, personal vehicles, etc which have a high power usage. Locally, the financial inclination will allow for social development. Governments will invest in better infrastructure such as roads and transport facilities, such as airports. Industries also develop more in these regions (89% increase in energy use for industries in non-OECD countries), where they make use of fossil fuels.
There is also a rise in consumption due to wastage of energy. Electricity is wasted on a daily basis in schools, homes and office buildings. There is also a wastage of energy in the less efficient thermal power stations where energy from the fossil fuels is harnessed. However, it should also be noted that in OECD countries, the energy consumption per capita is higher than in non-OECD countries. Canada, US, France and Germany have much greater per capita consumption of energy than non OECD countries such as China and Brazil.
It can thus be concluded that the higher population in these countries means individuals have access to lesser energy, yet the consumption of the entire country is higher. The blame is then put on the developing countries, whereas developed countries should also be held accountable, as individuals use much more energy. Population growth seems to be a very big hindrance in attaining sustainability, and can also be considered a root cause for the increased energy demand as the requirements for many people will have to be met.
While fossil fuels are immensely valuable, they have many negative consequences. Environmentally, these fuels are largely responsible for the emission of greenhouse gases. They produce 40% of the world CO2 emissions. This leads to the increase of the average temperature of the surface of the earth which disturbs the thermal balance, giving rise to a plethora of natural disasters such as floods and draughts. They also produce many other pollutants such as carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen and sulfur oxides. The gases emitted are also components of acid rain which can ruin the fertility of soil, hindering agriculture, which can have further economical impacts.
On a social perspective, exposure to these gases can cause a number of respiratory, reproductive, genetic, cardiovascular, nervous and neurological diseases. The combustion of fossil fuels also pollutes water, by oil spills and leaks, which also contaminate potable water sources. According to a Cambridge academic journal, a research conducted by UNEP in Nigeria showed that severe oil pollution contaminated the soil for more than 5 metres deep, and water sources, along with community drinking water was severely contaminated, far beyond the health guidelines. It should also be taken into consideration that the exploration of new reserves along with destruction of the environment also require huge population movements and the fast changes in the locality can disrupt the way of life.
In India, according to the report by EIA in July 2018, India has the highest energy consumption in the world, after China, US and Russia. It has on of the fastest economic growth in the world, and is expected to have the highest population. This accounts for the high energy consumption. On a personal and local scale, the courses of action to reduce energy consumption are simple steps, such as switching off electric appliances when not in use, buying more efficient appliances, carpooling, walking when reasonable distances need to be covered, using public transport. Nationally, it has been shown that countries part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show declining rate of energy demand and consumption. Population control schemes and awareness will also be beneficial to the entire demographic. It would be implausible to suggest that the consumption of fossil fuels should completely stop as it is a major industry with impacts connected to major economic and social factors. The biggest advance still will be to convert to renewable sources of energy, but this has proven to be a very difficult process.
ISSUE 2 -- INABILITY TO COMPLETELY TAP RENEWABLE ENERGY RESOURCES
There are a number of hurdles in being able to use renewable sources of energy which are mainly solar, wind, hydroelectric and biomass, so we are unable to completely tap them. On a social and local perspective, these sources of energy require acres of land to set up. This means a lot of formalities need to completed, and communities have to be uprooted. It is also very challenging to find suitable areas for this cause. Financially, though the energy from these sources is free, it is very expensive to set up these solar and wind farms, dams initially. Due to the high costs of this technology, investors or companies view this as a risk, and prefer the accepted means of fossil fuels. The reliability of these wind and solar farms also come into question, as there is a doubt as to whether they will be available whenever required. Furthermore, there is also an overwhelming competition between the already developed fossil fuels before renewables can be given a greater importance. Nationally, it will be hard for the various economies to switch to completely different means for energy, as it will need great many subsidies, investments and policies to be put in place.
There are a lot of consequences to not using renewable energy. These sources of energy are completely environment friendly, with no pollution. They will assist in reducing climate change and will not disrupt ecosystems. If these are not used, the world will continue to be increasingly dependent on fossil fuels whose reserves are fast depleting. Renewable energy can also guarantee steady prices, albeit, after a high initial cost. With fossil fuels, there are a lot of fluctuations, mainly rises in prices which can make it less accessible to people. Locally, these solar and wind farms will also benefit the governments by taxes and other payments due to this. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, these sources of energy provide more job opportunities, as their installation and maintenance require human labor. This means that there are vast economic advantages to this.
While renewable energy is beneficial, it also needs to be sustainable, taking into account the environment, people and economy. This needs to be planned and the most suitable solution needs to be contemplated. It will be wise to use solar, wind and hydroelectric energy for electricity, but the point of sustainability is rendered moot if the complete neighborhood has to be moved or rivers flooded or the ecosystem ruined. The steps taken need to be reasonable. Personally, people can put solar panels on their roofs. Though it will have a slightly higher cost, it will have benefits in the long run. Locally and nationally, the government can use abandoned lands to set up these farms, so it can have economic and environmental benefits while not affecting society. Leftover biomass can also be used to produce electricity.
A very good example of the conversion to renewable resources would be Iceland, that by December of 2015 it had made an almost complete switch to renewable energy, focusing mainly on geothermal and hydroelectric energy. Iceland’s success showed that co-operation between the municipality, government and citizens was essential. Comprehensive planning along with identifying the easily accessible and efficient natural resources was also vital.
As stated in an article in The Global Footprint Network, the world is using far too many resources than the earth can supply. The earth has already hit the overshoot day, on August 2 of 2017, when it exhausted the environment’s resources that year. The world is in, what is called, “ecological overshoot.” This has been going on since 1970 where the world has been exploiting far more resources that the earth can provide for. Humans are using the resources and generating waste that is equal to 1.7 earths.
According to this, the next overshoot day is in 2030. Humans need to figure out by then how to become sustainable so as to not disrupt the delicate ecological balance of the world. However, while fossil fuels are still majorly being used as a source of energy, the world has made great strides to change its ways. According to an article on the world economic forum, taken from World Bank’s sustainable energy for all blog, countries around the world have been switching to sustainable forms of energy. These countries include Morocco, Bangladesh, Tanzania, China, Mexico, Turkey, India and many more. They are mainly harnessing renewable energy in an efficient way so as to benefit the entire nation and its economy. The report from the EIA also shows that energy consumption is decreasing in OECD regions, which includes 35 countries, which gives great scope for more change in the near future. The same report shows that natural gas is the fastest growing fuel in comparison to fossil fuels.
In conclusion, it seems possible that the world can become sustainable before we run out of natural resources. Though we have already hit one overshoot day, the awareness about this problem has greatly increased and the world is taking effective steps so as not to seal its fate.
EVALUATION OF SOURCES
World Economic Forum: This non-profit organization has a very good reputation and has been called by the Swiss authorities as “the other international body”. It works only with experts in the concerned field, so it seems very reliable.
Global Footprint Network: Working with 200 countries and territories, this organization collects first hand information from the areas, suggesting reliability of data. Being a non-profit organization developing tools to promoting sustainability, they seemingly have no bias or vested interest.
US Energy Information Administration: This source seems to have enough expertise in the area, considering it is a federal agency. They have access to a lot of data and seemingly with no bias. I took information from its International Energy Outlook 2017, so there is currency of data. This outlook made predictions of energy trends using valid data, which is from a very big time span.
Cambridge Core Journals: This site is widely reputed as a global leader in publishing journals. They use scholarly content to provide greater knowledge. They publish peer- reviewed journals on subjects having a vast range, and do not have any vested interests or bias. This is a very reliable site to collect information.
I personally believe that the world is in a very pitiful condition right now -- using resources from an equivalent of 1.7 earths. While this topic was approached in various science classes, mentally, the blame would go to the large factories, and the government. However, through the course of my research, I found the truth about the situation, how even the smallest initiative would count. I thought back to every time I left the fan on in my room, our class lights and fans would remain switched on even for the hour we went to P.E. It made me realize that the doomsday scenario people predicted wasn’t as far in the future as I thought. We desperately need to make a change, and while many countries have begun this, which is much appreciated by every human residing on this planet, I still think that the change needs to be exponentially faster. After all, it is the future of our generation that hangs in the balance.