What are the main dilemmas for energy production in the 21st century?
As more countries become industrialised (e.g. the rapid economic growth of China) and world population expands so does the consumption of energy. All countries have to make decisions on the main sources of energy for domestic and commercial/industrial use, the most immediate considerations being those of availability and cost.
But there are important long-term considerations. The first is continued supply. Fuels which are available and cost-effective now will not always be so. Non-renewable sources of energy (see Factsheet 2) are likely to run out or at the very least become scarcer and more expensive to extract in the relatively near future. For instance, reserves of natural gas in the North Sea are depleting making it likely that the UK will increasingly have to rely on natural gas imported from Europe. It has been estimated that if fossil fuel use continues unchecked, all available known sources of petroleum and natural gas will be exploited within the 21st century1.
As these previously readily available energy sources diminish, those countries which still have reserves of oil and natural gas will be able to use this as a political bargaining tool. We may see wars over control of energy supplies.
The most serious problem of all, in most people's view, is the problem of climate change. Although there is still some dispute about the causes and long-term effects of climate change there is no doubt about the following figures2:
- The 1990s were the warmest decade since records began
- Global snow cover and the extent of ice caps have decreased by 10% since the late 1960s
- Global mean sea level rose by 0.1-0.2 metres during the 20th century
The frequency and intensity of droughts in Asia and Africa has increased in recent decades
The general consensus of climatoloigists (though there are those who disagree) is that one of the main causes of these changes is global warming attributed to the rise in the emission of greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide, caused mainly by the burning of fossil fuels.
What solutions are being proposed?
Reduction in current carbon dioxide emissions
A world conference on climate change at Kyoto reached an agreement among the industrialized nations to reduce their collective emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 5.2% compared to the level in 1990 (effectively a 29% reduction) over a five year period from 2008 to 2012.
These targets might be met by switching to alternative sources of energy (see below), which would also address the problem of dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, by more efficient technologies for disposing of greenhouse gas emissions before they enter the atmosphere, and by reducing consumption (see below). In practice, however, few countries look likely to achieve them within the proposed timescale.
Another way in which targets could be met is by 'carbon trading': put simply, a country which is exceeding its target for carbon emissions could buy 'emissions credits' from one that is able to stay below its target, thus ensuring that the overall global target is met.
The technique of collecting carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning before it is released into the atmosphere and storing it where it cannot easily escape.
Alternative sources of energy
Renewable sources of energy (see Factsheet 3), which will not run out in the near future and which will not significantly increase carbon dioxide emissions, are being explored and adopted, although none has yet been developed to a point where it could wholly replace fossil fuels: it is more likely that a combination of alternative sources of energy would be effective (one such model is suggested in Factsheet 5 and the accompanying poster and text from Greenpeace).
Nuclear Power Stations
Nuclear power stations (see Factsheet 4) are also being proposed as a solution because of their negligible emission of carbon dioxide when in operation. The UK Government is thought currently to favour this option.
Reduction in consumption
It is generally agreed that whatever the outcomes of agreements on carbon dioxide emissions, explorations of alternative energy sources etc, it is essential to reduce energy consumption, both on a national and on an individual level. See Factsheet 6, and Poster 3.
page last updated 31 May 2006