People and Communities
Human Needs and Lifestyles
Human needs include the need for food and shelter; heating and cooling; hygiene and healthcare; mobility and travel; and the right to own goods and to have a status and role within a society.
But the proportion of energy used for each of these in different parts of the world varies dramatically. In parts of Africa, energy use per capita can be a 100th of the energy used per capita in industrialised countries such as the United States.
PEOPLE AND ENERGY
Attitudes to energy vary enormously across the world. While the need to decarbonise is now generally accepted, people in economically successful countries in the west often have different priorities to those in poor countries with a low level of economic development and basic infrastructure.
People typically think of energy in terms of the commodities or technologies that produce it: raw materials such as coal, gas, oil; refined products such as LPG, gasoline, diesel and heavy fuel oil; and technologies such as solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear and hydropower. But the reality is much more flexible. Human needs include the need for heat for warmth and cooking; mobility, either for transporting oneself or one’s stuff; illumination so you can read in your home at night; and electricity, for everything from charging a mobile phone to running the television. Fossil fuels also have non-energetic uses, for instance in manufacturing plastics and fertilizers. Nowadays, the role of commodities and technologies often overlap. This website begins with people, because in the end, energy is there to serve people’s needs, not the other way round.
People need mobility for all sorts of reasons: not only to get around but also to move their goods, and those of others. The car is taken for granted in many countries but usage patterns differ widely between countries. The uptake of electric vehicles (EVs) as an alternative to diesel- and gasoline-fuelling will transform patterns of mobility in the decades ahead. Gas-fuelled vehicles will also be used more widely, particularly by heavy-duty vehicles which use diesel currently. The mobility revolution will not just entail using alternative fuels. The prospect of driverless cars and car-sharing wll transform the roads. And hydrogen, already in use in bus fleets, could be scaled up to allow long-range carbon-free travel.
Keeping warm is a basic human need. Mankind has moved from using firewood to coal to diesel and gas for heating. Many homes use paraffin, diesel or natural gas for heating, making this a challenging part of the energy chain to decarbonize. The next phase of the development of heating systems will be to use renewables to deliver low carbon electricity, with backup from gas or energy storage systems. But developments in nuclear, hydro-electric and geothermal power could bring these into the mix more widely in the future.
For the last several hundred years, the paramount need for energy fuels was heating rather than cooling. As the world’s population expands from 7.5 billion to as much as 10 billion people by 2050, demand for energy for cooling is set to skyrocket. Most of this population increase will be in emerging markets in Africa, Asia and South America, and as wealth levels increase, people will expect the same level of comfort as people have enjoyed in the developed countries. Air-conditioning is set to eclipse heating as a growth market in these economies, putting enormous demand on electricity grids.
Lighting is taken for granted in developed countries, but for many people living in the less developed emerging markets, lamp oil and candles are the only illumination source after the sun goes down. Electricity expands the range of leisure activities but more importantly, it brings opportunities for learning. A simple solar lamp can allow school children to do homework in the evenings. Good lighting also prevents accidents and provides security.
Electricity demand is increasing by the day. No matter whether it is generated by fossil or renewable fuels, the demand for power looks set to grow as the population increases and people get wealthier. Fuel switching will also put greater load on the system, as gasoline and diesel vehicles switch to electric-fuelling, and power storage systems such as batteries become more efficient. Electricity has become such an essential part of modern life that existing without it seems unthinkable. Even people in under-developed countries nowadays depend on their mobile phones and the Internet. Indeed, recent power cuts in both developing and industrialised countries have wreaked havoc with infrastructure systems that have an impact far beyond the grid itself.
Energy is essential for making stuff that people need. Petrochemicals derived from refined products such as LPG, naphtha and gases such as ethane are part of our everyday reality, from the plastic casing of your mobile phone to advanced coatings on the piece of paper you thought was derived solely from wood pulp. Fertilizers are manufactured from methane produced from natural gas, and new technologies allow gas to produce a wide range of other industrial materials. Carbon is also increasingly being captured, sequestrated and then used to make carbon products ranging from CO2 for greenhouses in flower production to solid carbon used in manufactured goods. The world is changing, but few people realise the scale of the transition that is taking place.
Doughnut Economics is the title of a best-selling economics book by Kate Raworth.
Bothered by the mathematical focus of economics, and what seemed to be a complete lack of interest in the role of people, Raworth challenged the idea that humans were passive actors whose behaviour could be modelled using formulae and computers.
Having studied economics at Surrey University, the book immediately struck a chord with me. I subsequently attended a number of lectures by Raworth, at universities and also on the web,
The basic idea of the doughnut is that, rather than maximise economic output at all costs, the task of an economist is to identify optimal pathways that meet human needs but also do not harm the planet. Raworth identified planetary boundaries beyond which the future of human life is likely to be at risk.
Raworth envisaged the inside of the doughnut as a zone in which human needs were not being met (extreme poverty, malnutrition, illness etc) and the outside as a zone in which the planet was being put under too much stress by human activity (global warming, climate change, pollution, biodiversity impacts etc).
The Doughnut refers to an optimal pathways in which economic development meets human needs but does not put intolerable stress on the planet.
The sub-title of Doughnut Economics is Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. The book advocates the need to change the goal of economics from GDP growth to living within the boundaries of the Doughnut. The theme is consistent with that of other books such as Prosperity Without Growth which have urged a decoupling of the concepts of wealth and economic growth.
What exactly is the Doughnut? Put simply it’s a radically new compass for guiding humanity this century. And it points towards a future that can meet every person’s needs while safeguarding the living world on which we all depend. Below the Doughnut’s social foundation lie shortfalls in human well-being, faced by those who lack life’s essentials such as food, education and housing. Beyond the ecological ceiling lies an overshoot of pressure on Earth’s life-giving systems, such as through climate change, ocean acidification and chemical pollution.
Actors and Institutions
The Paris Agreement of 2015 saw a multi-national coalition reach the first comprehensive agreement for global action to combat climate change. But while the unprecedented alignment around climate goals was hailed as a success at the time, the momentum for change has faltered since the United States threatened to withdraw from the treaty. Recent COP meetings have failed to deliver concrete results, and there is a growing feedling that the targets identified in Nationally Determined Contributions to mitigate climate change are becoming bargaining chips rather than firm commitments.
As the multi-national coalition fragments, and some nation states commitment to climate action wavers, there has been a growing recognition that action will be needed at many different levels to avoid the risk of a climate catastrophe.
Cities and states have taken up the baton, particularly in the United States where populism and Trumpism have undermined many of the policies put in place by President Barack Obama. As the world’s population becomes ever more urban, smart cities are emerging as a potent driver to meet cliamte targets.
Coal is a widely available solid fuel. It can be transported cheaply and is used for power generation, in industry and manufacturing, as well as for home heating.
Communities and Energy
The need to engage with local communities when developing energy projects — whether it be fossil fuels such as coal, oil or gas, or renewable energy projects such as wind and solar — is now widely recogmised. The days when a multinational company could make decisions without any consultation with the people affecterd by a project are numbered in many countries. But not everywhere.
Decisions about resource projects are often controversial. The recent decision by the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in Canada to partner in an LNG project has been opposed by many environmentalists.
In recent years, I have done a series of interviews with leading figures in the energy sector, on behalf of the British institute of Energy Economics.
Talking to people about energy brings you closer to the actual decisions and frustrations felt by those who can influence the future. Most of the leaders I have met are first and foremost decent human beings, whether from the oil and gas companies, visionary entrepreneurs, or from those in government tasked with implementing change for the common good. Even when they were on different sides of the climate debate, these seemed to be people with integrity and vision. Certainly they were far from being the stereotypes portrayed in the media and by opposing pressure groups: the hackneyed images of grasping villains hellbent on polluting the world for personal gain, or the unkempt anarchists who hugged trees and had no concept of the complexities of delivering energy on a global scale.
I believe that interviews have the power to transform discussions and to get people talking together more constructively. As a journalist, I always used to dislike the transactional nature of the standard business interview: 10-15 minutes with a minister to get the headline, and then on to the next story. This was very much the pattern when i was covering OPEC meetings — the main point of the discussion was how much you could move the market. After that, whatever was said was forgotten entirely.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, I started writing a book on Sustainable Transitions in Energy, and I have started a series of interviews through which I aim to understand the issues more fully. I have met people either in person or, due to Corona Virus restrictions, in Zoom discussions. My goal is to engage more personally with their stories – not only the sound bites, but their aspirations, dreams, hopes and fears. As a mentor and coach, I believe everyone has the right to be heard, and I welcome views from across the spectrum. Rather than the dialectic of polarisation that has typified the debate so far, I believe this is the best way to achieve a workable consensus for action, one that will result in meaningful change rather than hot air and empty words.