The world has collectively breathed a sigh of relief at the announcement that scientists are closer than ever to reproducing a controlled nuclear fusion, the ‘energy of the stars’. I argue in this article that looking at sustainability ‘as a system’, the promise of limitless and clean energy might accelerate, rather than slow down (or even invert) our trajectory towards a non-sustainable society if we don’t address its root cause: the current predatory, inequality-prone economic paradigm.
Energy is essential to the functioning of our societies and the provision of a better quality of life. It is the driving force in the economic growth of countries, corporations, households. It is essential to end poverty, increase life expectancy, and distribute evenly the resources needed for social and economic development. The more, the merrier.
However, energy production and use are the largest sources of greenhouse gas emission (carbon dioxide — by far the most significant energy-related greenhouse gas — methane, nitrous oxide and three fluorinated gases, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulphur hexafluoride). In 2019, they accounted for almost 38 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions, more than two-thirds of which came from non-OECD countries (one-third from a single country, China). 91% of total energy-related greenhouse gas emissions come from fuel combustion (43.5% from coal, 33.7% from oil, and 21.2% from gas).
And this is not improving. Despite political commitments and an enhanced engagement by corporations on reducing their ecological footprints, the year 2021 delivered very bad numbers. For example, according to IEA, electricity produced by burning coal has reached new highs in 2021 and is expected to increase even more in 2022 and plateau subsequently. Despite the intensifying regulatory landscape, global shipping’s 2021 carbon dioxide emissions increased 4.9% from 2020, surpassing 2019 levels. On February 7, 2022, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached 419.33 parts per million, almost 1% more than the same date last year.
It is often said that economics is a maximisation problem subject to constraints…