The future will not revolve around today's world of combusting fossil fuels, although its legacy of climate change will be perhaps the most significant gift we pass on to our descendants. Bringing about a complete global conversion to an economy based wholly on renewable green energy will be made more difficult the longer the challenge is left unsolved. Certain factors will conspire to make the task of solving the world's energy, water and food supply problems even greater. It is worth considering a few of them.
As a backdrop to any future scenario, it must be assumed that life may well be even harder for large portions of the globe than it is today. Water shortages, crop failure, disease outbreaks, territorial war, large movements of homeless environmental refuges, are all growing problems today. In fifty years they may have coalesced to create the largest on-going human disaster of all time.
We are not really sure...
We have little idea of the magnitude or speed at which surprise changes will impact on our atmosphere and water balance systems. Better computer models are being built in the hope that we can at least be forewarned when the big shift arrives. But many are arguing that even if every nation embraced Kyoto's emissions targets on time, atmospheric change will get out of control before we have developed the suite of integrated technologies necessary to replace the fossil fuel paradigm.
Restricted Oil supplies
Our ignorance of exactly when the global environment change starts to spiral out of control, is matched by our ignorance of when exactly we are going to run out of affordable oil. We still do not know how much oil is left accessible in the ground. Hubbert's point of "peak oil" - when we have used up half our accessible reserves, is hard to locate in time, due to the opaque oil reserve data issued by OPECmembers. This critical point will most likely be identified retrospectively by a massive increase in oil price as demand exceeds supply. This point of economic meltdown only comes closer.
The increasing cost and supply problems of crude oil derived products will affect the way renewable technologies are manufactured and brought to market. The longer the delay in making the transition to green energy the more the costs escalate, adding further difficulties to the problems of managing change of such colossal proportions. Whilst many wait for the price of renewables to come down to "competitive" prices, the rising cost of oil will ensure that the manufacturing costs of such renewable energy devices is sure to spiral upwards.
Waste & Depletion
Oil is only one of a range of raw materials which have become increasingly scarce in recent years. The rampant depletion of the world’s mineral, water and soil resources is shrinking the biodiversity that ensures a stable ecological balance. Damaging environmental feedback systems threaten to accelerate any impact. Just as flora and fauna red data lists are beginning to fill up with “now considered extinct”, elements are starting to flash up on the periodic table, as “rare” or “endangered”. If crucial minerals such as copper and uranium become both scarce and more expensive to extract, the cost of making any device that helps us replace oil is going to cost even more to install. Viewed as a species, we are exhausting or endangering our collective stocks of everything we need to survive. Recycling is bound to become a huge industry at the expense of mining and extraction processes.
Bioenergy, at least that cultivated as field based energy crops will not be able to replace the world’s present need for oil. There is simply not enough land to provide all our food and energy, especially now the planet could well have stepped beyond it's ecological carrying capacity, due to combined effects of record human population, record high temperatures, record breaking weather, soil loss and water table damage.
The race to paint one’s product green involves both those who honestly hone down the lifetime carbon footprint of their activities alongside those operators who see a premium price to be gained even if the green credentials are more superficial than deeply organic. Sustainability standards must be raised by those who presently consider all energy crops to be "green".
Pollution of our Oceans
The combination of GM technology and modern biodigesters and fermenting systems may provide better sources of many future biofuels. However, they can only play a part and at present most of the GM energy crops are being grown in a completely unsustainable manner. Pesticide and Herbicide loadings are unrestricted in many parts of the world, reducing the ecological wellbeing of entire watersheds. Such agricultural runoff and marine dumping has now laced the global marine food chains with toxins, to the extent that marine pollution is rising to worrying levels. Many fish species especially farmed fish (being fed on feed made from other fish) are now demonstrating toxin loadings that are nudging the upper reaches of international food safety standards.
Is there any Hope?
Those of us engaged in renewables believe that increased investment intelligently focused, will be rewarded in a matrix of possible solutions. A few areas offering encouraging advances can be found in future solutions.