Energy: A Fair Deal for All

By Audouze, Jean | UNESCO Courier, May 1998 | Go to article overview

Energy: A Fair Deal for All


Audouze, Jean, UNESCO Courier


Both the supply of energy and the demand for it have spiralled in modern societies, where everyday life and changes to the environment, global as well as local, are conditioned by energy production and use. At the same time, there are more than a billion people in the world with an income of less than a dollar a day, and more than two billion rely on firewood as their sole source - if any - of energy. There is a crying need for a fairer share-out of material goods, energy and economic resources.

Energy comes in three forms: so-called "fossil" fuels (coal, oil and natural gas); nuclear power; and "renewable" energies (hydroelectric power, thermal or photovoltaic solar energy, wind and tide power, wood, etc.). Each of these has its own undeniable advantages and drawbacks.

Fossil fuels

Fossil fuels are abundant and very simple to use. Oil, for example, can be very easily transported and processed, and is relatively cheap. The technology for producing its many derivatives is highly developed. What's more, it is particularly well suited for use in all forms of land, sea and air transport. Its handy fluid form and its price make it appropriate to the needs of poor communities or those that are unable to invest in capital goods.

Fossil fuels account at present for 77 per cent of all the energy produced and will, according to the most realistic projections, still account for 73 per cent in 2020. Worldwide annual consumption of coal, natural gas and oil stands, respectively, at 2.3, 1.7 and 2.7 GTOE.(1) Proven reserves at 1990 consumption levels stand at 200 years for coal, 40 for oil and 60 for natural gas. These figures may be multiplied by between two and five if improvements in productivity and efficiency and the exploitation of the last remaining deposits, such as those of oil shales, are taken into account. The resources will be strictly limited geographically as well as in duration, being restricted to certain regions such as the Gulf and the Caspian Sea. This state of affairs is fraught with the risk of tensions and even conflicts, owing to the strategic importance of energy supplies.

Fossil fuels are, furthermore, responsible for the man-made increase in the carbon dioxide content of the earth's atmosphere, with the associated danger of an increase in the greenhouse effect and, as a direct result, global warming of the order of 1 [degrees] to 4 [degrees] C in the next twenty years, which would adversely affect the climate and the environment. Though much uncertainty remains as to the scale of these effects, the risk is great enough to mean that every effort should be made to slow down the increasing "carbonization" of the atmosphere due to the intensive use of fossil fuels.

Nuclear power

The main advantage of nuclear power is that it has no effect on the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. As it is also cheaper (per energy unit) than hydroelectric or thermal energy, some countries, France for instance, have opted strongly for this way of producing electricity.

Nuclear power is, however, far from being unanimously accepted. Public opinion is very conscious of the lack of candid information and of the safety of nuclear plants, two aspects that have not always been treated, in some countries, with all the necessary care and clarity by the authorities and the operators. The public is also worried about the disposal of long-lasting radioactive wastes, an acute problem to which the experts seem confident that a long-term solution can be found. It would also be a mistake to underestimate the danger of the spread of nuclear arms, even though the main powers are now significantly reducing their arsenals of these weapons. A final point is that only those countries which can afford to make the huge investments required can put nuclear plants into operation. The investment is offset by the low cost of the fuel but is recouped only in the medium and long term.

Renewable energy sources

The ecological movements, which are worried both by global warming and by the real or imagined dangers of nuclear power, would like renewable energy sources to be developed faster than is now the case. …

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