EU Science Hub

New Narratives of Energy and Sustainability

Apr 20 2017

Debunking myths and interrogating the universality of global and local integrations.

Inspirational Workshop Series

Joint Research Center and ‘Moving Towards Adaptive Governance in Complexity: Informing Nexus Security’ (MAGIC project)

The task of this series of inspirational workshops is to bring unconventional thinking about different topics. This inspirational workshop focuses on energy and energy policies inside the EU institutions and has ensuing discussions about different insights. Heterodox narratives about energy and more in general sustainability may be useful for enriching the perspectives in the discussion of energy policies. We contend that different stories (telling) are not only desirable but also possible, but they need to be examined within the complexity of current and future energy settings. The MAGIC project seeds this workshop and the discussions we want to have here are expected to inform the project, as its focus is on the nexus energy-water-climate-food.


20th April 2017 9:30 to 16:30, @Berlaymont –Schuman Room

Registration and information:

Registration: Joint Research Centre (JRC) registration webpage


Website: MAGIC Nexus Project


Why we need to look into our Energy narratives

Ângela Guimarães Pereira, JRC.I.1

In this introduction, the framing of this activity will be introduced.

Back to agenda

How robust are the narratives used to frame energy policies?

Mario Giampietro – ICREA Research Professor, ICTA-UAB

In this talk I provide a critical appraisal of three common, misleading narratives used to frame the discussion on energy policies.  The first narrative concerns the idea that importing oil is undesirable for the economic performance of a country.  This idea ignores the fact that the vast majority of developed countries are rich exactly because their energy security is achieved by relying on relatively cheap energy imports rather than more expensive domestic production.  The second narrative is that low-carbon technologies can ‘cure’ the addiction of developed countries to non-renewable energy in a short period of time.  Also this narrative is misleading, in relation to both electricity and liquid fuels.  At present there are no low-carbon technologies that can power, on a large scale, the existing metabolic pattern of energy of modern society. Alternative technologies for the production of liquid fuels are still far away from representing a feasible, viable and desirable supply capable of matching the growing demand.  The majority of alternative energy sources are intermittent sources of electricity; they are neither ‘peakers’ (sources capable of producing electricity when needed) nor ‘base-loaders’ (sources capable of producing a reliable supply in time). This makes their role in the societal electricity supply marginal.  Finally, the third narrative concerns the usefulness of the concept of ‘energy efficiency’ in setting policy targets.  Also in this case, practical examples show that efficiency is an extremely complex concept that requires the simultaneous consideration of many criteria and indicators.  Moreover, Jevons’ paradox has shown that in the long term the use of more efficient technologies increases the consumption of energy by inducing evolutionary changes in the structure of production and consumption, rather than reducing it.  The uncritical endorsement of these three misleading narratives indicates a diffuse misunderstanding of the role that energy plays in the functioning of modern economies. 

Back to agenda

Energy Transitions: Realities and Misconceptions

Vaclav Smil, Univ. of Manitoba

Historical analyses make it clear that energy transitions -- be it in terms of primary energy, electricity generation or specific extraction, conversion and consumption techniques -- are inherently prolonged affairs that unfold across decades and generations. Some of their components can be accelerated by targeted promotion of technical advances and by government subsidies, particularly as far as electricity generation is concerned. But our reliance on fossil fuels is embedded in many key economic sectors, particularly in all forms of transportation, in production of many critical materials (primary iron, ammonia, plastics, cement) and in heating houses for half a billion people living in cold climates. Moreover, modern biofuels, the only non-carbon fuel alternative currently available on a relatively large scale, carry high costs and enormous environmental consequences. But there is something realistic and effective we can do: minimize our energy needs by making our still very wasteful consumption more efficient and thus making any future transitions somewhat less challenging.

Back to agenda

Elephants in the Room Created by Misunderstandings Regarding Energy and the Economy

Gail Tverberg, OurFiniteWorld.Com

This talk will start with a discussion of some of the basic principles of how the economy works:

  1. A growing world economy requires both growing energy consumption and growing debt levels.
  2. Increased energy consumption allows increased leveraging of human labor with tools, and thus allows growing productivity of workers.
  3. It becomes difficult/undesirable to maintain energy consumption per capita at a sufficiently high level, because of climate change issues, depletion issues, and rising population.
  4. Increases in debt become less and less effective at increasing GDP, because such increases no longer truly lead to an increase in the usage of tools per capita and thus productivity gains.
  5. Any economy has both fixed and variable energy requirements; hence, it does not take very much shrinkage of energy per capita to lead to collapse.
  6. Energy problems are likely to appear as financial problems, including low oil prices and inability to repay debt with interest.

Elephants in the room based on these principles include (a) more Arab Spring type uprisings are likely because of shrinkages, (b) closure of nuclear and coal plants is problematic because closure will lead to less energy consumption per capita, and thus falling usage of tools per capita (c) intermittent sources of electricity can’t really scale up, because they add too little energy, at too high a cost, with too much debt; (d) international governmental organizations are likely to find it difficult to maintain their roles, because of shrinking world energy consumption per capita; (e) low oil prices might also be considered an elephant in the room, because of the tendency of low prices to lead to falling oil supply, and thus falling use of tools per capita.

Back to agenda