The first oil shock in 1973 raised worldwide concern about dwindling energy supplies. High oil price was a sign of depletion worldwide energy sources. Since 1960s no big oil resources have been discovered in the world. It suggested that world oil production will reach its peak within one or two decades (Lauber, 2005). The rise in oil prices also affected the developing countries’ development plans, which demand large amounts of energy for their early process of industrialization. For developed countries, the fluctuation in oil prices caused economic and social problems such as unemployment, trade deficits and higher inflation due to their great dependency on oil import (Seitz, 2008). Since the industrialized revolution the consumption of world energy has been continuous. With the contemporary world population growth, energy demand is rising at a rapid rate, especially in many developing nations with a lack of resources on their own land. It is predicted that between 1997 and 2020 energy requirement will increase 60 percent, 120 percent growth will occur in developing countries, especially in Asia (Hill, 2004).
If this trend continued, the environmental problems would inevitably deteriorate even further. As a considerable proportion of the world energy, fossil fuels account for the prime sources of carbon dioxide emissions, which are main contributors to the global warming. Acid rain concentrated by acid gases from fossil fuels, damages ecosystems and corrodes human buildings. It is becoming a severe problem in Asia with the growing consumption of fossil fuels as the process of industrialization accelerates (Seitz, 2008). The rapidly expanding use of gasoline-powered vehicles could cause severe urban smog and spew small particulates, which are the greatest threat to people’s health (Jaccard, 2005). Sanderson and Islam (2007) maintain that the path of economic development inevitably caused environmental problems related to the overly use of environmental resources and climate can also affect some sectors of the economy such as water resources, agriculture, transport and tourism, which are vulnerable to climate change.
In general there are three major solutions for the growing energy demand and worldwide environmental problems, each of which has its attractions. Firstly fossil fuels can be used more cleanly and efficiently, which could contribute to a reduction in energy intensity and reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. Energy conservation can take effect in short term and directly perform on present energy system without great transition. The economy in the United States increased 30 percent while the oil consumption declined 20 percent between 1977 and 1985 because the country used energy much more efficiently (Seitz, 2008). Secondly, nuclear power emits no air pollution which could greatly address the environmental problems. France shifted to nuclear as its major power of electricity in response to the energy crisis, and by 2005 it reached one of the world highest rates by providing 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear source (ibid). Thirdly renewable energy involves continuous energy sources and produces little pollution to the environment. There is huge potential in this new energy sources to meet much of the growing energy demand and gradually replace fossil fuels with adequate support (Middleton, 2003).
For as long as the global economy continues to development and operate on the basis of limited energy supplies, the great demand for energy services in the future would cause severe energy crisis. Increasing energy efficiency can help to offset the rise in energy demand, but it is unlikely to address all the additional needs (ibid). Furthermore, the environmental contamination caused by fossil fuels will continue to need alternatives. Lauber (2005) maintains that while the present cost of saving one ton of carbon by increasing energy efficiency is substantially lower than by using renewable energy to avoid emissions, renewable power will play a role in the long run, energy efficiency can just solve short term problem. Besides the safety and nuclear waste problems, a significant growth in nuclear power use would increase reliance on imported uranium. Dependence on energy imports would still be a first problem for countries with a lack of resources. In addition, the nuclear sources also face energy crisis as it is shown that the known reserves of uranium will only last for 60 years by present counts. (Traube, 2004, cited Lauber, 2005).
Therefore, renewable energy seems to be a better option based on its two prominent advantages: infinite sources and little pollution. Renewable energy may be defined as energy generated from natural resources in the environment such as sunlight, wind, tides and geothermal heat, which are continuously replenished. According to the definition renewable energy will never run out. For this reason, renewable energy could be an ideal solution to the energy shortage problem. Additionally, renewable energy does not generate pollution directly, which will alleviate the serious global environmental deterioration. Renewable energy is actually already in widespread use: about 20 percent of world’s electricity production comes from hydroelectric dams; in many developing countries biomass provides the only power for cooking and heating; India and China both have primary wind power electricity plans, with 2,000 megawatt targets; Some Middle Eastern countries are trying to explore the hydrogen production powered by solar energy as a long-term alternative to dependence on exporting oil; The large-scale federal government in the United States received increasing R&D funding for renewable energy after the 1974 oil shock(Elliott, 1997).
The widespread use of renewable energy in many countries clearly shows that the promotion of renewable energy technologies provides great advantages for both rich and poor countries. In industrialized countries, solar or wind energy require highly skilled and knowledge-intensive employers, which will be an impetus to a new job hunting tendency. Using biomass with more efficient technologies for cooking and heating in developing countries where the biomass is usually used inefficiently and wastefully can bring large benefits such as a reduction in deforestation. Examples are the widespread use of improved wood and charcoal cooking stoves in Kenya as well as the production of ethanol from sugar cane in Brazil (A€mann, Laumanns and Uh, 2006).
However, “one renewable source may produce little or no pollution, but have other adverse environmental and social effect” (Hill, 2004, p.325). Hydroelectric dams generate low greenhouse gas emissions but affect both up- and down-stream ecosystems and force many people who live along the river into removing from their homes. Solar power does not produce direct pollution. During the process of manufacturing and transporting solar panels, energy storage and maintaining machines, however, pollution will be generated.
Renewable energy has to face three challenges in its practical application. Firstly, the sources of energy are not continuous. For example solar power cannot be accumulated at night and less is generated on cloudy or rainy days with little sunlight (Hill, 2004). The problem with wind power is that the wind may not be blowing when and where it is needed. Therefore the large-scale storage of solar and wind energy is necessary and needs both technical and financial support. Secondly, renewable energy has relatively low energy density. Take the case of solar energy, to meet the large energy demand, large areas of land are required to be covered with solar panels. According to the US Electric Power Research Institute, to meet 25 percent of America’s electricity demand about 6000 square miles of solar farms, an area equals to the Connecticut State, are needed (Hill, 2004). Biomass energy will face the same challenge. Large land areas used for biomass energy need to remain forested. This could cause land-use conflicts because the significant growth of the world’s population will require increasing food production and more land dedicated to agriculture. There is a trade-off between the two methods of land use (Jaccard, 2005). The third challenge involves inconvenient location of power plants. Large-scale solar power plants need to be located in areas with plentiful and long-time sunlight. The best wind power need the energy sites with dependable and strong winds. These locations are usually far from energy consumption centers. Transporting the power to customers requires infrastructures and complicated power line organization. People usually do not want power lines near their homes or schools and a lack of transporting infrastructures are all obstacles to the actual feasibility.
There are also political and finical barriers to the adoption of renewable energy system. Many governments prefer conventional fossil fuels to renewable energy “due to tradition, familiarity, and the size, economic strength, and political clout of the conventional energy industries” (Geller, 2002, p. 43). In developing countries loans for constructing renewable energy projects have been rejected by the World Bank and multilateral development banks due to their small project scale, unfamiliarity with the technologies and higher investment risk (Martinot, 2001, cited in Geller, 2002).
In conclusion, despite those barriers and disadvantages, the widespread use of renewable energy meets the requirements of sustainable development in a long term. Whether in terms of increasing energy efficiency, shifting to nuclear power or developing renewable energy sources, the future effects cannot be avoidable. Even though renewable power technologies were in most cases not fully competitive commercially and the switch to renewable energy system will take a long period, their costs had the potential to fall rapidly, and by 2020 should be able to outdo fossil fuels (Lauber, 2005). Nuclear power was evaluated as being more expensive than renewable energy and as holding little chance of cost reductions in the future. At the present stage different sources should be used together and the development of renewable energy should be given more emphasis.
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- Geller, Howard (2002) Energy Revolution: Policies for a Sustainable Future. Washington, DC, USA: Island Press.
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- Jaccard, Mark Kenneth (2005). Sustainable fossil fuels: the unusual suspect in the quest for clean and enduring energy Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Jamie Sanderson and Sardar M.N. Islam (2007)Climate change and economic development : SEA regional modelling and analysis. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan.
- Lauber, V. (Ed.) (2005) Switching to Renewable Power: A framework for the 21st Century. London, GBR: Earthscan Publications.
- Middleton, Nick (2003) The global casino : an introduction to environmental issues (3rd ed.)London : Arnold.
- Seitz, J L (2008) Global Issues (3rd ed.). Blackwell: Malden MA (USA).
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