EM SC 470
Applied Sustainability in Contemporary Culture

Sustainable Energy?


Okay, now let's tie this all together. Modern society is inextricably tied to the availability of energy, as we explored in Lesson 1. We just went through more than two full lessons outlining a lot of reasons to be concerned about the sustainability of modern society, in terms of the 3E's of sustainability and otherwise. Putting these two broad concepts together begs the question: What is sustainable energy?

At the risk of sounding glib, the short answer is that there is no short answer. You will probably not be surprised to know that there is no single or even "correct" answer, that is to say, an answer that everyone can agree with. This has a lot to do with the fact that a singular definition of sustainability remains elusive, but in addition to that there is a lot of uncertainty with regards to both the long- and short-term impacts of energy use, and even how much energy (non-renewable in particular) is left to harvest. I want to be clear that the analysis that follows is not meant to answer the question once and for all, but to help frame some of the key considerations to make when answering the question. As you'll see, I've divided the analysis into sections for a number of energy sources, and subsections that provide information regarding supply, feasibility, and sustainability impacts.

Important Note to Keep in Mind

One last thing you should consider prior to reading through this lesson: No matter what mixture of energy sources/technologies that we decide to use, we cannot continue to emit CO2 like we are for long. As detailed in the previous lesson, the reality of anthropogenic climate change and its negative impacts have near universal agreement among experts. You may have read about a United Nations study in 2018 that asserted that humanity will likely need to cut global emissions by 40% - 50% by 2030 (that's really not long from now!) and would need to be 100% carbon neutral by 2050 in order to prevent the worst impacts of climate change (here is an NPR summary and here is the official "Summary for Policymakers" from the UN). In case you were wondering, global emissions have only increased since the start of the Industrial Revolution (see below). In addition, a report authored by 13 federal agencies in the U.S. found that consequences for the U.S. will be dire if emissions are not significantly reduced. This report was particularly notable because it was released by the Trump Administration, which is no friend to climate regulation. (It was only released because it is mandated by Congress, and was immediately downplayed by the Administration, but still.) 

Figure 3.1: Annual carbon dioxide emissions by world region, 1751 - 2015. (Data available for download here.)

Please keep this in mind as you read through these summaries. There is near consensus that humans must significantly reduce net emissions to near zero by mid-century, or we face a very dire future. No energy solution should be considered sustainable in the long term if it emits any carbon dioxide unless carbon reduction technologies are sufficient to offset these emissions. Right now, it is much cheaper to not emit in the first place than to capture and store them.

Figure 3.2: Carbon dioxide emissions per capita by region, 1751 - 2016. (Data available for download here.)