Star billing for science

As it is an innovation creator, science is bound to play a key role in the coming energy revolution. It has gradually taken on an advisory position in the political world, a trend reflected by the Group of Inter-agency Experts on Climate Development (GIEC), which has increasingly come to be considered – by the media at least – as the leading authority on the matter.

Those who are relying on research to rescue us from the oil age will have to wait a while longer because, in the short term, research could keep us there. “The oil age is far from over”, warns Antonio Pflüger, Head of the Energy Technology Collaboration Division of the International Energy Agency (IEA). “There are still numerouspotentially exploitable resources across the world. R&D investments aimed at developing new modes for extracting hydrocarbons and new methods for generating them will most likely increase reserves over the coming decades. Non-conventional oil deposits, such as offshore wells in the Arctic Ocean that cannot be exploited using current technology, or oil shales that still cost too much to convert into oil, will almost certainly provide reserves in the near future.”

The IEA is also banking on improving energy efficiency. “This is a crucial strategy because it enables us to not only save resources but also reduce carbon dioxide emissions.”

These measures should allow us to put off an evil day for which Antonio Pflüger warns us we must already start preparing, especially in the area of transport, which consumes some 60 % of the world’s oil. “There is no doubt that research on electric and hybrid cars and on new fuels such as hydrogen and biomass heralds the future.”

Business as usual?

However, not everybody agrees with the IEA’s recommended R&D investment strategy.

Some people are worried about concentrating too much research effort on as-yet unexploited fossil resources because this would only mean prolonging an already obsolete model that does not allow our societies to escape their dependency on oil.

According to Hermann Scheer, Chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy (WCRE) and of the Eurosolar association, continuing to invest in fossil energies permanently undermines our prospects for a sustainable future. In his latest book, Hermann Scheer warns that if we fail to go over to renewable energies in the next two decades, we can expect our world to be rocked by violent conflicts over the control of resources. To shift from one mode of energy to another, not only must we continue to develop renewable energies, we must also end the need for fossil and nuclear energies. This means we have to embark on one type of energy while at the same time quitting another. We therefore have to stop wasting thousands of billions on building new thermal and nuclear power plants, which will only serve to entrench conventional energysupply structures for decades to come. Renewable energies must be deployed both qualitatively and quantitatively much faster than current government programmes foresee – especially since most governments’ overall plan and means of deployment will not even enable them to achieve the stated objectives”(1).

As for energy efficiency measures, David Strahan, consultant for the Oil Depletion Analysis Center (ODAC) and journalist specialising inpeak oil issues, doubts that they will lead to real savings in oil. “We have been investing in energy efficiency since the first oil crisis in 1974. However, these improvements have served only to cut the cost of energy, which in the end has led to increased consumption. It is no use improving efficiency if we do not adopt a parallel strategy of rationalising energy use.”

Carrie Pottinger, IEA Energy Technology Coordinator, accepts this argument, adding that there is no single solution for supplying energy. “The key issue is not what will be the predominant energy source. The real issue at stake is whether governments are prepared to implement appropriate policies to allow replacement solutions to become cost-effective and be deployed on a large scale. Such solutions should play a key role in our energy markets right now if we are to avoid supply problems in the future. Judging by current oil price rises and the way certain geopolitical issues are evolving, it is a future that might be closer than any of us suppose.”

Independence at stake

How, then, should we direct the research that will shape tomorrow’s innovations? Vital issues are at stake, because peak oil could well trigger an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions. Such a crisis, compounded by the expected impact of global warming, could well form an explosive social cocktail. Can science therefore support the politicians’ R&D investment strategy by developing future scenarios that would help us to take the right decisions?

In any event, the rise of the Group of Interagency Experts on Climate Development (GIEC) in recent years seems to have led the scientific world to gradually adopt a political advisory role. It is something that GIEC Chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, welcomes. “The fact that the world’s leaders and opinion-makers have been so profoundly influenced by the GIEC conclusions is, in my view, a tremendous advance, which could be adopted in all political spheres. We are now entering a knowledge age. If we really wish to develop the world sustainably, then knowledge must guide efforts to this end.”

As for the independence of science – so dear to researchers precisely because it guarantees their credibility – the GIEC Chairman is reassuring. “Knowledge cannot be controlled or geared to the wishes of the public authorities. We must do our utmost to prevent politics from interfering with scientific results. Our duty is precisely to disseminate all scientifically established knowledge to the public. It is a duty that I heartily endorse.”

Although the GIEC brings together the views of many researchers whom it is hard to imagine all subscribing to a common ideology, the fact remains that their conclusions (which have been ‘re-examined’ by decision-makers) are based on a compromise, which is normally more the reserve of cabinets than of labo - ratories. And since the media quickly turns a compromise into consensus, then into fact, it is more difficult for some people’s reservations to receive media coverage, particularly those who contest the human-induced origin of global warming. Of course these global warming sceptics – who have even beendescribed as revisionists – often discredit their own case with their aggressive rhetoric denoun - cing a widespread environmentalist plot, or their involvement with politicians – a White House special adviser here, a scientist-cum-minister there. But if a serious scientist were investigating an alternative origin for global warming (such as the action of the Sun), could they receive funding for their research in the current context? Let’s hope that humans are indeed the culprits, if all investigations are being focused entirely in this direction.

The GIEC could herald a fundamental change in the role of science in the coming century, especially in its relations with politicians and with civil society, mainly through the media where its voice is increasingly important but rarely challenged. More than ever, this calls for caution and critical thinking.

Jean-Pierre Geets, Julie Van Rossom

  1. Hermann SCHEER, Energy autonomy: the economic, social and technological case for renewable energy, Earthscan/James & James, 2007