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TWAS Newsletter
The Academy's quarterly magazine. Download PDF files of individual…

Renewing our energy future

Renewing our energy future

"Energy demand is skyrocketing in the developing world and, if current trends continue, it will exceed the level of demand in the world's richest countries by 2015," says Mohamed Hassan, executive director of TWAS.

Renewing our energy futureHassan made his remarks at the MIT Energy Futures Conference held in the Principality of Monaco, 23–25 September 2010.

"By 2035, developing countries could be consuming nearly 10,000 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) annually, compared to some 6,000 Mtoe in the world's wealthiest countries," Hassan notes.

As many studies show, there is a direct correlation between energy demand and economic development. "The good news," Hassan says, "is that projections of rising energy demand in developing countries indicate that rapid economic development is on the way."

The discouraging news is that fossil fuels currently comprise more than 85% of world energy consumption. A continual rise in fossil fuel use, as many studies show, will have serious consequences for the global climate.

As Hassan notes, "a critical question for the global community is how can they boost their economies without placing the environment at risk."

"Part of the answer," says Hassan, "lies in the accelerated use of renewable energy."

Here again the news is both good and bad. Renewable energy is the most rapidly growing energy source. Hassan acknowledges, however, that "this growth is taking place from a low base." Consequently, if current trends continue, renewable energy will account for less than 15% of total energy consumption by 2035. Simply put, for the foreseeable future, oil, coal and natural gas will continue to drive the global economy.

This much we know, Hassan observes: "To save the planet and, as a consequence, to ensure sustainable economic growth, we must invest in green technologies."

The knowledge base for renewable energy is increasing and, so too, is the level of investment. In fact, from 2004 to 2009, annual investment in new sources of renewable energy rose nearly eight-fold from USD20 billion to USD150 billion. In addition, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has proposed that 1% of each nation's gross domestic product should be invested in green initiatives – a recommendation that has been endorsed by the Group of 20. Today, China and South Korea spend 3% of their GDPs on green technologies, the United States spends 0.7% and Europe 0.2%.

Both the funding and focus on renewable energy is welcome, Hassan says. But if the world is to make headway on substantially increasing the level of global energy derived from renewables, the critical issue will be "how", not simply "how much" money is spent.

That's why Hassan calls upon both developed and developing countries alike to intensify their commitments to cutting-edge technologies, including nanotechnology, to increase the efficiency of solar cells, and to develop biofuel fuel stocks from cellulosic sources that do not rely on plants needed to feed the world's growing populations.

The issue "lies not only in developing new technologies but also in building scientific capacity to develop these technologies." For this reason, Hassan calls for the creation of national and regional centres of excellence for renewable energy, particularly in developing countries, and for generously supporting programmes that encourage young scientists to pursue multidisciplinary research in renewable energy based, in part, on North-South and South-South scientific collaboration.