This morning, I headed along for the first of Keele University’s open lectures being run in conjunction with Go Green Week. Across the campus, a range of exhibitions, events and sessions are taking place to inspire students and the wider community to consider sustainability and its role in our lives.
Today’s talk was titled ‘The Axis of Energy Evil’. So what is the ‘Axis of Evil’? Well first of all, we all have preconceptions of what the best and the worst types of energy are. Fossil fuels frequently get tarred with the ‘evil’ brush; named and shamed as big polluters. Clean, renewable energy should therefore be at the other end of the spectrum then, we would expect? Well this was one of the key areas the talk questioned and provoked thoughts.
Although renewable energy is cleaner, like with everything in the world around us, from our clothes to the food we eat, there is an environmental impact and amount of carbon required to produce it. In the same way, we can’t just measure how green a fuel is by the amount of emissions it produces to generate electricity. The back story of each fuel type needs to be taken into consideration too. This could be the impact on human lives, whether in mining related illnesses associated with coal, or light flicker and vibration for those living near large wind turbine farms. It could be the transportation costs of getting fuel to plants to burn and generate power. Or it could be the huge amounts of energy needed to extract energy from source materials. I was left considering the bigger picture with each fuel type rather than simply the end product, which is an important aspect many of us probably don’t think about.
Another key area that was brought up is why so much energy is required. As more developing countries reach their own industrial revolutions, should they be denied this milestone in their growth? That question certainly made me think. OK, so we could share the benefit of our newer technology, but we aren’t even benefiting from it fully due to cost and other factors; can we really expect that argument to stick?
Commercialisation and consumerism could easily be marked as two key culprits for our obsession with energy use and the reason we need more and more of it to keep our lives running. In the commercial world, profitability is central to business decisions. That means profitability often comes at the expense of sustainability. Rather than making the best item we can that solves a problem for life, businesses need us to buy their products again and again. Then there are the things we think we need and never use. Or want because our friends have one. Add to that the fact that consumerism is the fuel driving our economy, the current cycle is unlikely to change in the short term, and therefore our addiction to energy consumption is unlikely to change either.
So what are the real things that should appear on the Axis of Evil? The talk concluded with a very different set of evils, but in truth, they are responsible for more of the energy problems we face than the fossil fuels or renewables themselves. In no particular order, issues like poor communication about energy sources (fracking, underground coal gasification, nuclear power), lack of international action (are we really taking things seriously enough?), and failures in the political system to make clear and swift progress all got their comeuppance. In brief, the talk highlighted that one of the major problems is a human one rather than solely being an energy based one.