Written by Scott Bryant, current PhD Candidate in Energy Transition, Design and Business Models at The University of Sydney.
When you think about what it means to be sustainable, what do you think about? Do you think about “development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”?  Do you think about greenhouse gas emissions? Do you think about the ozone layer? Or water depletion and food scarcity? What about the grid and renewable electricity generation? Solar power, wind turbines, hydropower, geothermal, biofuels, and ocean power? Was energy the first thing to spring to mind? If so, this is not surprising. Whilst work is certainly being done in other fields, when you look to the news, when you look to government targets, what is it that you tend to see? The European Union (EU) targeting a 20% share of renewable energy consumption by 2020 , the Scottish Government targeting 100% renewable electricity by 2020 , the United Nations pushing to double the share of Renewables in global final energy consumption by 2030 , and the Paris Agreement arising from discussions about reaching a global consensus on tackling climate change and greenhouse gas emissions . The topic that all these headlines all have in common is energy consumption. Energy consumption is a proven foundation of human development , a driving force for poverty reduction , and ultimately the lifeblood of economic growth . From the discovery of fire, to the industrial revolution and beyond, energy has been at the heart of human civilization. When taken at face value, this focus on energy is indeed a vital necessity. Increased access to energy, and the products and services it helps create, keeps economies growing, new jobs flowing, and contributes to the ongoing alleviation of global poverty. Especially if that energy is Renewable. However, like with any challenge worth addressing, if you look a little closer, it’s not quite that simple. At the base of it all is the premise of economic growth, global development and poverty reduction. The demand for economic growth to drive global development, and thus the subsequent need for increased energy production, often rings loud and clear around the globe. By such logic, it is easy to think that a focus on increasing access to energy correlates to a direct increase in prosperity. Using conventional measures, i.e. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), this does seem to be the case, as is shown in Figure 1 below.
However, the accurate reflection of the quality of life in a country by a nation’s GDP has come under fire in recent times, with alternative measures such as the United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI) proposed as a more appropriate measure . When the HDI is compared with energy consumption (see Figure 2 below), it quickly becomes apparent that there are limits to the direct correlation of energy consumption and quality of life; approximately 2.6 metric tonnes of oil equivalent/capita/year. The ability for increased energy consumption to improve human development levels is shown to incur significantly diminishing returns after this level of development.
This highlights an interesting topic sometimes overlooked by those in the energy industry, especially when it comes to discussing the potential for (renewable) energy to contribute to economic growth and subsequent (sustainable) development. That is, namely, water scarcity, food production and population growth. Although the ‘Renewabilisation’ of the electricity grid, and energy consumption in general, is certainly a step on the path to global sustainability, it is worth remembering that this alone is not enough. With the population set to rise to over 8 billion by 2030, with 80% of this increase in developing countries , how will we as a global community deal with providing adequate water and food supplies to these new additions to humanity at current levels of consumption? What about at the consumption levels of more developed nations? How will we provide for renewable energy production if there is competition for resources (namely water) just to hydrate and feed nations, let alone to produce energy (be it water to generate hydropower and biomass, or water to produce solar panels)? Perhaps it’s worth taking a step back every now and then from the understandably energy-centric approach in this industry, to look at the bigger picture. What other global issues, in addition to energy, do we need to consider when facilitating development that will meet the needs of future generations, as well as our own? Is it population growth? Overconsumption? Improved energy efficiency? How these issues will affect the energy sector and how our industry will contribute to overcoming these wider issues will be extremely important as we transition towards a more sustainable global future.
Written by Scott Bryant, REI Volunteer, and current PhD Candidate in Energy Transition, Design and Business Models at The University of Sydney. Scott was previously a Circular Economy Consultant at Zero Waste Scotland. If you’d like to get in touch with Scott, please direct your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and the REI will pass your details onto him. The REI is an independent educational body which has been in operation since 1975. The REI promotes best practice in renewable energy and energy efficiency through training courses and conferences with the United Nations (UNEP), intergovernmental organisations and 21 universities across Europe. For more information: Renewable Energy Institute (REI) +44 (0)131 446 9479 email@example.com www.EUenergycentre.org  World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). Our Common Future, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK, pg. 27.  European Commission. (2007). Renewable Energy Road Map. Retrieved from http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/energy/renewable_energy/l27065_en.htm  The Scottish Government. (2011). 2020 Routemap for Renewable Energy in Scotland, Scottish Government, Edinburgh. Retrieved from http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/917/0118802.pdf  Sustainability for All (SE4ALL). (2013). Our Objectives, United Nations. Retrieved from http://www.se4all.org/our-vision/our-objectives/  European Commission. (2014). Climate Action: The 2015 International Agreement. Retrieved from http://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/international/negotiations/future/index_en.htm  Smil, V. (2004). World History and Energy, University of Manitoba, Canada. Retrieved from http://vaclavsmil.com/wp-content/uploads/docs/smil-article-2004world-history-energy.pdf  Bierbaum, R. M., & Matson, Pamela. A. (2013). Energy in the Context of Sustainability. Daedalus. 142(1), 146-161. doi:10.1162/DAED_a_00191  World Economic Forum. (2012). Energy for Economic Growth: Energy Vision Update 2012. Retrieved from http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_EN_EnergyEconomicGrowth_IndustryAgenda_2012.pdf  Garnaut, R. (2011). Global Emissions Trends – Update Paper 3. Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved from http://www.garnautreview.org.au/update-2011/update-papers/up3-global-emissions-trends.pdf  United Nations Development Program (2015). Human Development Index. United Nations. Retrieved from http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/human-development-index-hdi