A new paper recently published in the international journal Energies explores the energy-related, technological, and consumption patterns necessary to achieve a sustainable future on this planet in a way that benefits everyone – human and otherwise.
Rather than portraying the current lack of sustainability as a function of the uptake of carbon emissions, the paper introduces a “Renewable Energy Equivalent Footprint” (REEF) which “depicts a hypothetical world in which the electricity and fuel demands are met entirely from renewable energy”.
The paper lays out how powering our civilisation in such a manner would require a large-scale electrification of the current energy mix, which could lead to potential conflict between land demands for the production of sustainable fuel.
“Firstly, the high fuel needs of today’s high-income countries would have to be reduced as it would require an unsustainably vast amount of land to be covered with biomass plantations if we were to produce enough fuel to satisfy the same levels,” said co-author Luca Coscieme.
The research suggests that the massive shift to electric power in high-income countries would ultimately have to supply roughly 75% of society’s final energy demands. In addition, a “green” Earth would require the development and adoption of technologies that use electric power to convert atmospheric gases into synthetic fuels.
Overall, the REEF model demonstrates that a sustainable future based around renewable energy:
(i) “may be possible, depending on the worldwide adoption of consumption patterns typical of several key exemplar countries” (such as Argentina, Cyprus, Greece, Portugal, and Spain);
(ii) is highly dependent on future innovations that would enable mass-scale electrification of the energy supply and the development and production of viable synthetic fuels;
(iii) would still likely require the “appropriation of a substantial, but hopefully sustainable, fraction” of the world’s forests or land of lower bio-productivity.
The task is, no doubt, a difficult one, yet the stakes could not be higher, considering the future devastation that could be brought on by unmitigated climate change.
In conclusion of the paper, the authors further advocate making the changes as quickly as possible, as the world’s growing population will only “increase the burden on the world’s forests and make a renewable energy future proportionally more difficult to attain and sustain”.