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The New Paradigm of Energy Ethics

By Erin Lothes
Global Energy Affairs
December 2014

Since 1981, when the US Catholic Bishops published a letter on energy and ethical principles, the ecological, economic, and technological landscape for assessing renewable energy has undergone shifts of seismic proportion. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report states that society’s dependence on fossil fuels is driving severe disruption of ecological systems worldwide and accelerating socio-political disruption. While the realities and possibilities of renewable energy remain hotly debated, the ethical imperative to eliminate the impacts of fossil fuels is clear.

In April 2014, Bishop Mario Toso of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, stressed that “in view of the realization of peace... it is necessary that energy be thought of, produced, distributed, and used, according to a new paradigm.” This new paradigm is the necessity of assessing social cost in tandem with economic cost.

Climate change poses an ethical challenge to global society because it is a life issue. Catholic social teaching upholds the values of human dignity, human health, socio-economic stability, respect for ecosystem integrity, and sustainable development. Access to affordable energy for lower-income households and developing nations is critical, as poorer communities suffer most from climate change, and are least able to adapt or mitigate its effects. The rights of informed participation in energy choices and the personal and societal freedom to change current lifestyles are also key principles. These values complement national goals to create affordable, clean, and secure domestic energy for a competitive economy.

Affordable Renewable Energy “Revolutions”

Why start the discussion with renewable energy? Simply put, renewable energy is needed at an enormous scale. A recent study that examined multiple models of global energy systems concludes that the global energy supply must use 50 to 75% renewable energy by 2100 – in order to have a 70% chance of remaining below the two degrees Celcius temperature increase. But in the United States, renewable energy currently provides only about 10% of total energy produced in April 2014. Thus, haste in moving toward renewable energy is essential.

Ethical energy policies should support low-income households through efficiency measures that reduce household costs and greenhouse gas emissions. One proposed initiative offers vouchers and guaranteed loans for the purchase of efficient cars, appliances, and home renovations. Such initiatives can reduce energy bills by more than 20 percent. Zero-emission buildings also represent opportunities for sustainable development and job creation, as does infrastructure that supports walkable communities.

Industrial Capacity

Ensuring global income equity and meeting a 450 ppm emission target require greatly reducing the carbon intensity of global economic output. A report by the British Sustainability Council quantifies the reduction from 68 gCO2/$ in 2007 to 14 gCO2/$ in 2050. Creating such a shift to a low-carbon macroeconomics is a big challenge.

However, constructing a straw man argument for a 100% renewable energy baseload, and then concluding intermittencies make this impossible; this evades the opportunity to engage the present options for renewable energy supply. Maximum shifts to renewable energy for transport, heating, and electricity can be achieved, limiting fossil fuel use to its most necessary applications, and using the smart grids that are increasingly cost-effective.

A 2011 study concludes that “wind, water and solar (WWS) energy can be supplied reliably and economically to all energy-use sectors,” and that the barriers “to 100% WWS power worldwide are socio-political, not techno-economic.” Overcoming such socio-political barriers requires the political will and ethical resolve to insist upon the necessary R&D- the same resolve that created the Model T and the Manhattan Project.

Investing at the Necessary Scale

McCollum et al. calculate that creating sufficient renewable energy to remain below a two degree temperature increase requires investments of $1.1 trillion annually. Current annual investments into renewable energy amount to $200-250 billion globally. “In other words, a substantial ‘clean-energy investment gap’ of some $800 billion/yr exists. Unless the gap is filled rather quickly, the two degrees Celsius target could potentially become out of reach.”

And according to economist and IPCC co-chair Ottmar Edenhofer, “If we lose another decade, it becomes extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization.”

Notably global fossil fuel investments in 2010 amounted to $500 billion for extraction, fossil electricity generation, pipelines, refineries, and liquefied natural gas terminals and $523 billion are spent on present-day subsidies for fossil energy and electricity worldwide, six times the subsidies for renewables. Redirecting these funds to meet the $800 billion clean-energy investment gap is an economic, political, and ethical choice.

The costs of shifting to renewable energy are estimated at two to 6% of GDP. The Apollo Project cost 4% of GDP; digging London’s sewers after deadly cholera outbreaks took two% of GDP. Investing in a sustainable planet is at least as valid. And according to economist and IPCC co-chair Ottmar Edenhofer, “If we lose another decade, it becomes extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization.”

Given that global society must act now, some solutions may not be fast enough. The 50% climate advantage of natural gas over coal is unlikely to be achieved over the next few critical decades. Natural gas, which appears to be a “bridge” forward, may instead lay down a “gangplank” to a warm future. Nor is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) immediately deployable within a plan to reduce emissions by 2030. The current development of CCS risks perpetuating fossil fuel use if its research and development is restricted to coal plants or enhanced oil recovery, instead of clean technologies like air capture and fiber development.

Energy choices and investments must be assessed with the aim of creating an economically stable, equitable, peaceful, ecologically vibrant global society. Social cost must be included in honest energy calculations to protect human health and wellbeing. Participatory decision-making requires disclosure of subsidies and externality pricing, which is essential to register the impact of climate change upon those most vulnerable.

Because the energy infrastructure of the developed world is largely fully built-out, phase-out programs must be accelerated. But investments into transitional or “backup” technologies must be carefully evaluated lest they become permanent technologies. Given the long lifespan of energy infrastructure, the immediate investment can become the de facto energy system of the future.

Investments can be assessed using the just war principle of “violence as a last resort.” Translated to energy ethics, this suggests that all non-fossil fuel options must be exhausted before justifying fossil fuels. If “one of the biggest hurdles to overcome on the path to energy system transformation and the [two degrees Celsius] target will be to mobilize the necessary investment flows” – then society must view creating the necessary investments in renewable energy as a major ethical imperative.

Erin Lothes, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Theology at the College of St. Elizabeth (USA)