machismo and energy planning: time for soft energy paths

Submitted by Hélène Connor on Mon, 2011-12-12 11:38

From time immemorial, mankind’s relationship to nature has been far more adversarial than cooperative or convivial. Man has had to fight and scurry in order to ilk out a meagre living. The contest between man and nature remained vastly unequal until the Industrial Revolution when coal, previously considered “evil” as it came from underground, became widely used and thus changed the face of the earth in many ways. One way was the ability of man to be able to harvest more and more with less and less effort. Technical progress has increased man’s efficiency to such an extent that lately nature’s ecosystems have become overtaxed; they are unable to cope. The result is that these ecosystems can not return to a balanced equilibrium that is necessary to be able to provide  the services that man depends on for survival (clean water, air, arable land etc). One consequence is that we will witness "extreme events" with increased frequency.
Indeed the birth and development of the activist environmental movement at the start of the seventies are concomitant to this new phenomenon. The ecological constituency calls for a reconsideration of mankind’s behaviour and a radical change of values: it seems that time has long come for a drastic switch from one of “greed” to one of “sharing” if man is to survive on this planet. The machismo of unrestrained exploitation is no longer the order of the day.

Feminine values not recognised by energy sector 
While the importance of “feminine” values is today acknowledged in most domains, why is it that these values are not recognised in the energy sector? Worse, there is an increasing push to develop mega-projects that are risky and senseless in every meaning of the word: the oil sands pipeline from Canada to the United States, a new Inga dam devoted to energy exports within Africa, European Pressurised Reactors (EPR) nuclear plants that are quasi-impossible to build, ITER and fusion energy (which was already claimed in the 1960s to become a viable energy source in 50 years time) as well as many other initiatives that often uproot entire populations, sometimes treating them no better than livestock.
Even discounting those that are genuine ecological time bombs, economic crises, climate change, and recurring natural catastrophes risk render these projects redundant. Usually undertaken without genuine consultations, nor long term viability studies, many of these energy projects risk ruining not only faltering economies, but also the fragile ecological equilibrium that all life depends on and which few seem to sincerely worry about. Nowhere is this disregard more visible than in the climate negotiations.

COP 17 déjà vu
Durban is the scene of unreal discussions where national delegates rehash the urgency of the situation and in the same breath renege on taking any real measures that will lead to a solution. These climate talks (known as COP 17) exude a sense of distressing 'déjà vu' and of utter, mental dislocation. What some delegates are really doing here is unravelling what has painfully been put together since 1996: recycled speeches from the nineties put forward not to inspire and lead but as a political posturing guaranteeing national re-election. Countries announcing their withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol nevertheless remain at the negotiating table only to block any move proposed by countries that are experiencing first hand the effect of climate change (such as recurrent flooding with every, extreme meteorological event).
How can decision makers any longer neglect the implementation of the adaptable soft energy paths explored by Scandinavian researchers and ecologists in the 1970s? Only such pragmatic and flexible approaches, now embodied in the “negawatt” scenarios in Northern countries, can permit us to envision a liveable future for us and for future generations. Who can continue to deny this?

Soft energy paths
Soft energy paths use soft energy technologies that can be implemented anywhere. They rely on multiple and diverse flows of renewable energy, i.e. on energy income, not on energy stocks that can be monopolised. They are relatively simple to implement and maintain locally, thus creating local permanent jobs. They adapt to local energy sources and are flexible. But most of all they can be easily matched to the actual needs of the people. Why build huge central thermal plants heating water to hundreds of degrees centigrade to produce electricity when most of it is going to be used for heating apartments at 20°C?

Energy planning under the soft energy path approach starts by considering national needs according to the geographic location and the quality of the energy needed. Is it light or mobility that is needed? Is it high/low level heat for industry or a warm home? Answers to this types of questions make a huge difference in the way the available energy resources are harnessed. It is clear that in the transition period there will be a need to to rely on the central systems already in place. But these systems should not be extended beyond their normal life span so that the country is not locked into polluting energy sources.

Once the potential of available renewable energy has been assessed and the genuine needs of the population over the next forty to fifty years have been determined, back-casting can be carried out, defining anticipated needs and resources at five-year intervals.

Participatory governance required for ecodevelopement
This normative approach has implications for the technical and institutional capacity-building of the country. To have a successful energy policy it is necessary to initiate a "participatory governance approach" to the whole process long before it starts. Only then can there be a hope that national energy policies will bring about ecodevelopment, i.e. sustainable and equitable development for all.

HELIO International: Humans, utilising usufructal technologies use natural resources; through participatory governance, markets are controlled and regulated. It is through these processes and interactions that ecodevelopment is achieved.HELIO International: Humans, utilising usufructal technologies use natural resources; through participatory governance, markets are controlled and regulated. It is through these processes and interactions that ecodevelopment is achieved.

Dr. Hélène CONNOR has been working on energy and sustainable development issues since 1971 and is an active protagonist of the environmental movement. She is now coordinating the work of Sustainable Energy Watch, core activity of HELIO International, an independent think tank which assesses and monitors energy policies and, in particular, the UNFCCC negotiations. Helene Connor also worked several years at the OECD Environment Directorate after an interesting career in Canada.

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