By: Joss Tantram
"Economic activity is impossible without external energy inputs." Hannes Kuntz
The currency of life
Energy is the currency of life, it is transformed from one form to another (down an irrevocable pathway of dispersal) every nanosecond of our lives.
All the achievements of human existence across history have been bought with energy, whether it be in the form of human muscle, animal power, water, wind, fossil fuels and nuclear sources.
A focus upon the performance and availability of energy has become even more of a burning issue as the Paris Agreement, which emerged from the Paris climate conference in December 2015. Delivering the Agreement requires a clear trajectory away from dependency upon fossil fuels.
The behaviour of energy in systems is described by the laws of thermodynamics, perhaps the most fundamental expression for the frame for physical existence. Indeed Sir Arthur Eddington said of the 2nd law: "There is only one law of Nature--the second law of thermodynamics--which recognises a distinction between past and future more profound than the difference of plus and minus".
Understanding real time energy
Recognition of the physical laws which frame our existence should be at the heart of economics and policy. However, a key challenge is that these get complicated quickly and it is not meaningful or appropriate to set a simple 'target' for how to align with them
A requirement for sustainable energy utilisation is a focus upon 'live' or 'real time energy' - the transformation of received energy into material manufacture or process power without significant time (i.e. the "live" use of solar, wind or water power or the years-to-decades for biomass rather than the millions of years required for coal, oil or natural gas) intermediation.
- To develop modes of energy utilisation that benefit from small inputs, and;
- The consolidation and storage of small inputs to mimic the concentrated energy of hydrocarbons and nuclear sources.
Post scarcity - Energy as a human right?
"Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks." Warren Buffett
As the common denominator of any activity, demand for energy has risen as population and consumption has increased. A dependence upon sources of energy with significant destabilising effects upon natural systems and human health is clearly unsustainable, and has led to some initial attempts, mostly (though not exclusively) through pricing carbon, to limit the 'use' of energy.
Rather than pricing energy to limit its use, an equitable and sustainable world would instead collect, store and distribute plentiful renewable energy as a birth-right and for free. This is the idea of energy as a free good, and by proxy, a human right.
This idea is not a new one, it has been extensively explored in science-fiction, where the precondition for truly "post scarcity" economies such as those explored in the Star Trek Universe and in Iain M Banks' Culture novels (among many others) is more or less unlimited access to clean and safe energy. In these futures, freely available energy equals social and technological freedom.
Could we take steps towards such freedom in the real world, not just in worlds of fiction?
- The relationship between energy and environmental and social impacts. Where energy sources are dirty, scarce and risky, expanding their use is neither feasible nor wise.
- The relationship between development and energy - of course, as noted above, nothing happens without energy moving from one state to another. There is, however, huge scope for changing the intensity and wastage relationships between a given unit of energy and a given unit of productive output or financial value.
There is huge scope to evolve the type and efficiency of the energy that we depend upon. Whilst we are challenged by the inertia that ties us to energy technologies, there are also existing and emerging energy technologies capable of fulfilling energy needs and wants with radically different environmental and social implications. Here is an interactive map of a possible country-by-country sustainable energy mix for the planet to fulfil its energy needs.
Energy as a human right is coming up the agenda of development thinkers and organisations. Access to energy is a foundational requirement or precondition for the achievement of all of the UNs Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is the specific focus of Goal 7.
Beyond the idea of energy access for all, we believe that energy itself should be free. Competition for energy undermines freedom of choice, action and ingenuity.
What possibilities for humanity would be opened up if access to abundant and clean energy were a birth right, rather than an obstacle to achieving a decent quality of life?
Energy should set us free, not constrain our potential. Turning from the dirty, scarce and dangerous towards clean abundant and safe energy is the challenge we must overcome to prosper as a species on our small, energetically blessed planet.
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About Joss Tantram
Joss Tantram is a founding partner at Terrafiniti LLP, a pioneering sustainability and systems consultancy. Joss has more than 20 years private and not-for-profit experience in the UK, Europe and world-wide. He leads Terrafiniti's strategic services and their R&D and innovation initiative, Towards 9 Billion. Joss is also the author of Terrafiniti's free Towards 9 Billion eBook series - presenting big, hopeful, playful and creative ideas for a sustainable, equitable future.