Biofuels from corn seem to have been in vogue lately. This is especially true in the United States, where the Navy just paid $12 million for a Pacific fleet this summer, reopening at the same time the debate. But are biofuels really a sustainable and practical solution to our energy problem? Is it responsible to continue in that direction, especially with cars, while other possibilities could be and are being developed to avoid using fuel or biofuel? The concept of biofuels is not a new one and it is not just in the last decade that it came to the mind of some car producers to use ethanol to run their machines. In fact, Henry Ford planned to have his Model T running on ethanol, which is a type of biofuel, already back in 1906.
Oily, coaly is our earth. The black blanket of your blue planet is slowly extracted, providing extraordinary power to the humanity. But at what price? Hasn’t the right time already arrived to turn to green energies? The 2011 report of the International Energy Agency (IEA) reveals that globally, energy sources are not diversified.
Can biofuels still be the magical solution to our energy problems? Thousands of scientists will admit that biofuels are no longer a new concept (in fact, it is a very old idea). From the ‘first generation’ ethanol to the ‘second generation lignocellulosic’ biofuels and the latest algae-based biofuels, scientists and researchers are trying their best to find the best biofuels solutions. But with controversy shrouding if they’re actually sustainable means that biofuels are still debated hotly. Opposition to biofuels mainly revolves around concerns that are mainly related to the sustainability aspects of their development and manufacturing.
This summer, the first of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors – the Ohi nuclear plant – reopened 14 months after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Since the tsunami in March last year, Japan’s domestic anti-nuclear protests have increased significantly. Tens of thousands of people protested against nuclear power outside Japan’s parliament. Meanwhile, anti-nuclear groups have been growing louder on the use of renewable energy, such as wind power, solar power, and geothermal energy etc. It’s no surprise then that the Japanese government struggled over its decision of resuming the nuclear projects.
As a (now infrequent) resident of Delhi, I’ve sweltered through my share of power shortages. Trying to find that sweet spot between fanning myself fast enough to stay cool, but not over-heating from the action while waiting for the lights to turn back on, was one of the more troublesome equations I wrestled with in my childhood. I’d like to say I bore these episodes with equanimity but that would be a lie. Luckily, I live(d) in an area of Delhi where power outages are rare and if they do happen, they are of short duration. The liberalising reforms that rolled through the country and down the corridors of the Ministry of Power in the ‘90s promised that a change was coming.
Although China dominates in the race to be the leading global manufacturer of clean renewable energy, they are not necessarily doing the most for the environment. China, consistently pushing the clean energy market towards an economic future, was expected to be a leading developing country in negotiations at Rio+20. As they lap the United States and world economies in this race by training a skilled clean energy workforce and providing steep subsidies more and more manufacturing companies are heading overseas. The US simply cannot compete. If the US does not demonstrate a greater sense of urgency to contrive alternative clean energy policies coupled with investment initiatives, it will fall further behind economically.
Protesters at Rio Centro during the UN Summit
The call for the end of fossil fuel subsidies echoed in all venues of Rio+20. The OECD identified more than 250 individual subsidies supporting fossil-fuel production or consumption valued at US $45-75 billion per year, similar to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a country like Croatia or Ecuador. Greenpeace estimates are even higher; the NGO evaluated fossil fuel subsidies in 2012 at $775bn, which is equivalent to the GDP of the Netherlands or Turkey. Stretching over 40 kilometers, from the People’s Summit in Aterro do Flamengo, crossing to the Copacabana Fort all the way to Rio Centro and Parque dos Atletas in Barra da Tijuca, academics and specialists are unanimous in their opinion: fossil fuel subsidies must be extinguished because they are inefficient and prevent the economy from transitioning from the brown to green economy. Oil & Gas Corporations
Who needs the subsidies? Not the Oil & Gas (O&G) corporations. Half of the top ten largest publicly traded companies in the world by market cap are oil and gas producers. Their annual revenues are higher than most mid-size countries.
Water, food, and energy are fundamentally inter-connected. Before I began learning more about this water, food, and energy nexus leading up to the World Water Forum, I didn’t understand the full implications of this. Water is necessary for providing food and energy to populations in modern societies. Water is used to grow vegetables and grains that we consume and to feed animals that we consume. Water is used to cool power plants that produce our electricity and to process the gasoline used in our vehicles. Have you considered how much virtual water you “consume” through the food you eat and the electricity you use? The impacts also occur in other directions: access to energy allows easier transportation of food to those in need and the ability to utilize effective water-purification technologies. In a world increasingly concerned about water, food and energy security, it is important to understand the connections between them all. A threat to any one of them would impact the other two. While much of the World Water Forum focused on those lacking access to water and sanitation, there are 1.3 billion people lacking access to electricity and 1 billion people undernourished worldwide. Because water, food, and energy issues affect and are affected by one another so much, it is important to consider than together rather than in isolation. The High Level Panel: Water, Food, and Energy Nexus on Friday, March 16 discussed these interactions and proposed solutions.
The speakers at the high level panel included individuals from a range of countries and backgrounds: Uschi Eid (UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water, Gérard Wolf (Electricité de France), Rodney Cooke (International Fund for Agricultural Development), Dilip Kulkarni (JAIN Irrigation Systems, India), Yasar Yakis (Turkish Parliament), Diego Bravo (Columbia), Jane Madgwick (Wetlands International), Thomas Chiramba (United Nations Environment Programme), Rhoda Tumusiime (African Union), Alain Vidal (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, Challenge Program on Water and Food), and Lee Yangho (Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Korea).
What is the Key to ensuring that we can continue to have access to water, food, and energy in the future?
It is common knowledge that we are unsustainable consumers of water resources. Agricultural, household and industrial use deplete the Earth’s freshwater and experts state that water shortages will cause the next wars. One of the most water sensitive regions of the world is the Middle East. Rich in fossil fuels, but water-poor, the Arab world is already facing the cruel reality of insufficient water resources from unsustainable use and losses due to old and broken water infrastructure. These concerns were extensively discussed during the World Water Forum 6.
By the second day of the World Water Forum 6, in Marseilles, France, talks were already starting to heat up! Taking advantage of my Press badge, I decided to attend a closed-for-the-public session on “Transboundary Waters”. Never had I imagined before that representatives of countries, international organizations, and private and public sectors would agree on unifyng and synchronizing their efforts under the threat of a common enemy: Water Scarcity. The meeting was chaired by Germany andco-chaired by Oman. Attendees included representatives of Austria, Botswana, France, Kyrgystan, Morocco, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, the European Commission, the IUCN, the World Energy Council, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Business Action for Water, the International Water Association, the World Water Council, theFood and Agriculture Organization, the WIWP, the UN Habitat, the UNCCD, the UN Industrial Development Organization and the WWF.
Today I attended a presentation on a very concrete topic: self-efficiency with photovoltaic and hydrogen. Michael Schubert works for Fronius International GmbH, which proposes the model of a self-sufficient house based in Central Europe. One major problem of solar energy is the storage. Here, Fronius International proposes a storage system based on hydrogen gas:
The roof top of the house is covered with photovoltaic panels which produce electricity. This electricity is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen gas is stored at a high pressure, and converted back to electricity when required. If the heat waste is used for heating, the process efficiency is said to be >80%!
Europe has learned many times from Japan. In past decades Japanese business administration principles were adapted by European management consulting agencies, Japanese art of cooking found it’s way into our restaurants and even Japanese styles of bedding are popular in Europe. Tomorrow maybe we’ll have the chance to adopt Japanese resources management into our European concepts. Masafumi Maeda, Vice President of the University of Tokyo, Japanese Academy of Engineering is giving a keynote address at the World Resources Forum on Tuesday 20th of September. The general title “The Japanese View of Resource Management – a Perspective of Industry and Science” promises different insights into the way resources topics are discussed in Japan.