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The energy crisis in the world today

29 Marzo - 2022

Antonio Turiel
Scientist & Researcher
Institut de Ciències del Mar (ICM) del CSIC


We are entering a global energy crisis unprecedented in human history. The increasing availability of fossil fuels from which we have powered our societies is coming to an end, and with it the end of cheap energy.

This is the structural cause behind the growing scarcity and higher cost of energy, even though circumstantial factors such as the pandemic, logistical problems, the increase in digital demand, production just- in-time and, more recently, the war in Ukraine. Each of these factors can help explain "spikes" in the price of energy at a given moment, but they are not the root cause, which is structural in nature.

Imagining a world in which renewable energies can replace the energy reduction that fossil energy sources are already leaving is a chimera

In recent years we have reached supply peaks for the main fossil energy sources, that is, their maximum annual production. The one for conventional oil took place in 2005-2006 (diesel in 2015), the one for coal in 2014 and the one for gas is expected to arrive very soon. Even the world production of uranium has decreased since 2016, something that the International Energy Agency (IEA) has tried to cover up in its latest report on the state of energy in the world: the World Energy Outlook 2021, as I explain in the analysis recently published by the JHU-UPF Public Policy Center (UPF-BSM). The scarcity of these energy sources is so evident that, for example, the IEA has been warning since 2013 that the "lack of investment" in oil fields can lead to problems in terms of energy security, that is, that supply cannot cover the demand.

All this translates into the fact that, for the first time in contemporary history, energy availability begins to decrease, which not only causes an increase in the price of energy (always with fluctuations), but also generates a great deal of instability both in the energy system (with the possibility of electrical blackouts, as the Austrian and German authorities warned in the fall of 2021) as well as in the economic system (soaring shipping costs, factories going out of business, interruptions in global supply chains , etc.). This is why the energy transition is an urgent imperative, not only from a climate point of view, but also from an economic and systemic point of view. Hence the recent commitment to the "green transition" made by economic and financial powers, traditionally insensitive to climate and environmental issues.

However, imagining a world in which renewable energies can replace the energy reduction that fossil energy sources are already leaving and that allows production and consumption to continue increasing without end is a pipe dream. Currently, only 20% of the final energy we consume is electricity and, although there is a wide debate about the potential offered by electrification, it seems very unlikely that it will be possible to exceed 50% of the total (a good part of which, in addition, produced by fossil sources). In this sense, the IEA itself recognizes the difficulty of "implementing clean technologies" in long-distance transport and heavy industry, emphasizing the need to develop "greater innovation" in these areas.

It seems inevitable to conclude that sooner rather than later we will have to adapt quickly and very broadly to a less energy-intensive world

Furthermore, the transition to renewables implies an unprecedented increase in demand for critical materials. For example, the IEA predicts that, if the famous goal of zero net emissions is achieved in 2050, the demand for lithium (essential, for example, for the manufacture of electric car batteries) will multiply by 100, and that of nickel and cobalt by 40. Reaching these enormous values ​​is not plausible, both due to the lack of oil for extraction and transportation (mining is highly intensive in the consumption of fossil energy) and due to the insufficient reserves of these minerals.

For all these reasons, it seems inevitable to conclude that sooner rather than later we will have to adapt quickly and very broadly to a world that is less intensive in energy consumption, with all the social implications that this entails at an economic, political and cultural level. From the point of view of science and technology, we know that it is feasible to maintain a good quality of life for everyone, but with a much lower consumption. To do this, the first thing to do is recognize the problem in order to start making policies that are as local as possible, taking advantage of renewable energy, improving its performance and without consuming so many scarce materials.

It is therefore necessary to propose more local and redistributive systems, forgetting about building large global networks of production and consumption or infrastructures that cannot be used. We have to prioritize people's basic needs, such as the production and distribution of food, sanitation and water distribution, and the provision of basic services such as health and education, among others. For this, the first step is to open a truly democratic debate from which to adequately face the transition to this new reality. The alternative to all this is a social collapse of unimaginable consequences.

ODS Antonio Turiel ESP
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