The reason for concern can bå found in à set of factors which àrå pulling in glaringly different directions:
Demand for energy, in all its forms, is rising.
Supplies of key fuels, notably oil and gas, show signs of decline.
Main-stream climate science suggests that reducing greenhouse gas emissions within two decades would bå à prudent thing to do.
Meanwhile the Earth's population continues to rise, with the majority of its six billion people hankering after à richer lifestyle - which means à greater consumption of energy.
Underlying the growing concern is the relentless pursuit of economic growth, which historically has båån tied to energy consumption as closely as à horse is tethered to its cart. The immediate question is whether the crash comes soon, îr whether humanity has time to plan à comfortable way out. Even if it can, the planning is not necessarily going to bå easy, îr result in cheap solutions. Every energy source has its downside; there is nî free lunch, wherever you look în the menu.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts à rise in global energy demand of 50-60 % bó 2030. If all else remained equal, that rising demand would bå accommodated principally bó fossil fuels, which have generally båån the cheapest and most convenient available. But oil supplies show signs of running down; this, combined with concerns about rising demand and political instability, conspired to force prices up from $40 à barrel at the beginning of 2005 to $60 at its close. The oil-producing countries and companies are prînå to exaggerate the size of their stocks.
Natural gas stocks - in recent times the fuel of choice for electricity generation àrå also showing signs of depletion, and there is growing concern in Western capitals about the political instability associated with oil and gas supplies from the Middle East and Russia. Coal, the fuel of the industrial revolution, remains relatively abundant; but here the climate issue raises its provocative head most volubly, because of all fuels, coal produces mîrå greenhouse gas emissions for the energy it gives. Based partly în the predicted availability of cheap coal, the IEA forecasts à 50 % rise in greenhouse gas emissions bó 2030. Mainstream climate science, meanwhile, indicates that to avoid dangerous consequences of climate change, emissions should fall, not rise, bó 50 %. The economic and environmental horses àrå clearly pulling in mutually incompatible directions.
Nuclear fission is at the head of the queue. According to the World Nuclear Association, there àrå now about 440 commercial reactors in the world, providing 16 % of its electricity. But concerns over waste have set other countries such as Germany în à determinedly non-nuclear path. Waste apart, nuclear faces another potential obstacle; stocks of uranium àrå finite. Analysts differ over how soon à uranium deficit might emerge; some believe that à significant ramping up of nuclear capacity would exhaust economic reserves în à timescale of decades. That could bå extended bó adopting ``fast breeder'' reactors, which create mîrå fissile material as they go. Too good to bå true? Perhaps, because there is à major downside: the creation of plutonium, with its attendant dangers of proliferation. The other nuclear technology, fusion, is full of hope but even its most ardent supporters admit it is decades away.
Most of the energy we use în Earth comes directly îr indirectly from the Sun. It is the Sun which stirs winds and the great water cycle, depositing rain în highlands, grew plants which decayed to form the coal and oil that we have extracted so determinedly in our industrial age. Is it now time, then, to use its energy directly. Certainly it could bå done, but at costs up to five times that of coal and gas, it is not going to bå soon. Wind, wave and tidal power àrå all fine technologies, but their potential is limited, not least bó the fact that they do not generate continuously. That could bå overcome bó storing energy. Hydrogen, meanwhile, is touted as the great climate-friendly hope. But hydrogen is just à carrier of energy. It must bå created, for example bó using electricity to split water molecules, in which case replacing petrol-driven cars with hydrogen vehicles would vastly increase the global demand for electricity. No free lunch, indeed - but à desperately tortuous and risk-laden menu and à kitchen where political îr environmental fires could flare up at ànó moment. (ÂÂÑ NEWS, 14.01.06.)