“Almost too Late"

Greenpeace’s Westerhof Warns That Without Immediate Action, the Earth May Have - Literally -A Snowball’s Chance in Hell

News | Mladen Kovacevic | July 2007

As the planet’s supplies of the hydrocarbon fuels are dwindling each year, the world faces an uncertain future regarding energy, resulting in tensions on the global scale, with each country trying to protect what it has and lay claims to additional sources of hydrocarbon fuels, leading to shifting alliances and, as in the Middle East, to wars.

Consumption continues to increase: at currents levels, for example, all the reserves of Saudi Arabia, the world’s top exporter, will be gone in ten years.

Thus the problem of finding alternative sources for harvesting energy is becoming crucial. And the role of environmental organizations like Greenpeace, once considered marginal players of the political left, are becoming increasingly central in discussions of alternative future energy use.

At a conference on renewable energy sources at the Webster University Vienna in late June, Jurrien Westerhof, head of the Greenpeace Austria brought home the urgency of the growing energy problem and its consequences for the planet.

"As time passes, the rate of energy consumption is increasing while energy supplies are running low," Westerhof said,  "Sadly we have had to wait twenty years for governments to take some of our propositions into account. Lots of problems could have been prevented if they have listened to us back then."

These problems are already here. Fifteen thousand people in France and three thousand in Italy died from the heat in 2003 alone as a consequence of global warming and the issue of the climate change tops the agenda of the European Union.

As an alternative energy source, nuclear energy has again become a hot topic, but Westerhof sees this as an unlikely solution, because of the still-unsolved problem of nuclear waste, and an enormous cost of melt-downs and other nuclear disasters.

Another difficulty is the number of nuclear plants that would have to be build in order to meet the growing demands of the current market.

With four hundred forty nuclear plants currently in operation world wide, experts estimate that around ten times more would have to be constructed to satisfy the demand – a prohibitive expense.

Nuclear proliferation presents another great concern because of the up to fifteen kilograms of nuclear waste that disappear from storehouses annually and end up in the hands of so-called rogue states or dangerous individuals, especially in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

What seems more promising, Westerhof suggested, are renewable energy sources, and great increases in energy efficiency. For example to make one car for the primary use of a single individual, a factory needs fifteen hundred kilograms of steel, enormously energy intensive to produce, before the cars is ever even filled with gasoline.

The European Union is considering plans that in 20 years will require cars to use only three to four liters/km of fuel.

Electricity consumption is another good example of inefficiency, Westerhof said, where habits are going in the wrong direction. Even as recently as a few years ago, the highest electricity use was during the winter months. Now, due to the growing use of air conditioning systems, summer use has outstripped the colder months.

On the global level, energy consumption is for heat, electricity, transport fuels and industry, with each category, roughly speaking, using about a quarter of the world’s total.

To change this, according to Westerhof, countries have several options. A good place to being is renewable heat energy from biomass fuels, such as wood, where Austria and some Third World countries have a strong start.

Solar heat, although expensive to install, provides a long-term solution that is inexpensive to use, and here Austria is shining example. Geothermal energy is also good alternative with Iceland topping the list. Other solutions include water power as in Austria and Canada, wind power as in Denmark, biomass as in Germany.

Wind power, however, raises other difficulties, as suggested by one questioner, namely, their intrusive "ugliness," which often degrades the beauty of the countryside that can mean painful choices for communities. Some areas have resolved this by holding a referendum on the question of wind farms in vicinity of their towns.

For transportation, the most likely renewables are ethanol, as in Brazil, bio-diesel, sunflower and rape oil in the European Union, or biogas. Bio-fuels, however,  could solve only 10 percent of the world’s demand, and as in Brazil, could also hasten deforestation.

Unfortunately, that problem is often overlooked in the face of political pressure, Westerhof said.

Looking at current EU consumption, 15 % of use is from nuclear sources, 24% gas, 15% coal, 37% oil and only 6% of renewables, although the current levels of consumption could easily lead to the increase demand for renewables.

Austria’s standing is a little better in comparison, with oil at around 45%, gas at18%, coal at 2% and a full 21% renewable energy sources.

The problem of energy could be easily solved, Westerhof concluded, if all the money spent on wars were invested instead in the implementation of alternative energy.  The European Union also spends billions of euros each year on research on alternative energy sources with uncertain results, only occasionally leading to new insights.

On the other hand, the money spent during the first year of the war in Iraq alone was sufficient to install solar energy collectors on each household in the U.S. or Europe, enough to solve the problem of heating and electricity permanently for generations to come.

A simplistic equation perhaps, but cost and feasibility may be deciding factors. And a need for new energy sources is not a problem that is likely to go away.

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