Have your say about one of the most important issues facing our generation at a series of debates this autumn organised by the British Academy and Prospectby Nicholas Stern / August 24, 2015 / Leave a comment
The public will be invited to debate the momentous changes in the way we generate and use energy during a series of events this autumn organised by the British Academy and Prospect, in collaboration with the Royal Society.
Across the world, a growing realisation of the impact of energy systems on human health and the environment is shaping urgent discussions about how we can increase standards of living and tackle poverty, in the context of strong growth in the world economy, increasing population and intense urbanisation.
Increasing awareness of the risks posed by the burning of fossil fuels, particularly through climate change and local air pollution, is leading to an understanding of the need for a rapid transition to alternative sources of energy.
But concerns about managing radical change, including around who might win or lose from such a shift, and the practical challenges of abandoning the traditional consumption of oil, coal and gas, have made energy one of the most contentious areas of public policy in many countries.
While there has been much discussion of the scientific and technological advances that are driving the low-carbon transition in the global economy, there is a rising appreciation of the important role that the social sciences and humanities should play in analysing these concerns.
For this reason, the British Academy is teaming up with Prospect and the Royal Society to allow audiences in England, Wales and Scotland to listen to the experts and have their say about one of the most important issues facing our generation.
It all begins in London in September with an event that will explore the overall challenge of providing energy for a global population that is expected to rise from over 7bn today to 9bn by 2050.
During the next 35 years, the global economy will continue to undergo profound structural changes, as the majority of the output of goods and services transfers to what are currently described at developing or emerging market countries.
Over this period, most of the population growth will occur in cities. Urban populations will rise from about 3.5bn people now to around 6.5bn in 2050. How the cities are structured and function will largely determine how well the world meets the challenge of cleaner and more efficient production and consumption of energy.
Governments are beginning to recognise the true costs of the dirty use of fossil fuels, with millions of people across the world, including about 29,000 in the UK, dying prematurely each year from the effects of air pollution, most of which is generated from burning hydrocarbons.
And scientists also warn that the carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels is driving an increase in the Earth’s average temperature, which could, by the end of this century, reach levels not experienced on Earth for millions of years, long before modern humans appeared.
In order to have a reasonable chance of avoiding a dangerous rise in global average temperature of more than 2 centigrade degrees compared with the late 19th century, total annual emissions of all greenhouse gases will have to halve by the middle of the century.
This means that average emissions per head of population will have to decline from about 7 tonnes per year today to less than 2 tonnes by 2050.
That will mean we will have to stop pumping carbon dioxide from fossil fuels into the atmosphere in the second half of this century.
This will represent fundamental change for developed countries that have grown rich through the unmitigated use of fossil fuels. It will not be easy. It will be even more difficult for developing countries. On the other hand, there can be immense opportunity in charting a different path. It can be full of discovery, innovation and growth, and can create a world that is cleaner, more biodiverse and much more attractive.
So, the second debate in Swansea in October will examine the crucial role of ethics and behaviour in understanding and assessing the challenges and options, and finding ways forward.
Worldwide, about 1.3bn people do not now have access to electricity. Providing power for every poor person will be key to overcoming poverty over the next few decades. But their lives will be profoundly damaged if this is achieved by exposing them to great harm through air pollution and climate change.
The world must find a way to combine economic growth, poverty reduction and sustainability. This is the task that the members of the United Nations will face when they meet in New York in September to agree new Sustainable Development Goals.
Already poor rural communities are discovering that they can access electric lighting through locally-generated solar energy, more easily and cheaply than through a centralised power grid. And they can escape from the manipulation and corruption that they often face from those who control the grid.
Indeed, the potential of decentralised renewable energy generation is beginning to transform the relationship between communities and power systems in rich countries as well.
In both rich and poor countries, the distinction between consumers and producers of energy is becoming blurred, and new technology is allowing homes and businesses greater control over both supply and demand.
The potential of such changes are perhaps most profound in our cities, currently home to about half the world’s population and set to grow rapidly over the next few decades. Cities will be the focus of the third debate in Edinburgh in November.
Decisions about energy production and use can determine the extent to which cities are polluted and congested or clean and efficient.
Many cities are at the forefront of the clean energy revolution because their citizens are often more aware of the risks of air pollution and climate change, and more able to exert direct influence on the politicians who govern them.
While it is action at local level that will ultimately determine whether the greenhouse gas emissions from energy use are curbed enough to avoid dangerous climate change, it is more likely to succeed if there is also international collaboration, the subject of the fourth debate in London in November.
It will take place just before the United Nations climate change summit in Paris at which an new international agreement on climate change is expected to be finalised.
Climate change is a truly global problem, and while no country will be immune to the impacts, no single city or country can manage the risks alone. A successful outcome in Paris will be possible only if all countries recognise both the enormous national opportunities on offer if we make the transition to cleaner energy, and the huge collective risks that the world faces if we do not.
Lord Stern, President of the British Academy and Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Lord Stern will be speaking at the fourth British Academy Debate on Energy and the Environment at the Royal Society, London, on Tuesday 24 November. It’s free to attend but you need to book a place online: http://www.britac.ac.uk/events/2015/future-energy-provision.cfm