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1 1 Why sustainable energy matters

One of the greatest challenges facing humanity during the twenty-first century must surely be that of giving everyone on the planet access to safe, clean and sustainable energy supplies.

Throughout history, the use of energy has been central to the functioning and development of human societies. But during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, humanity learned how to harness the highly-concentrated forms of energy contained within fossil fuels. These provided the power that drove the
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Learning outcomes

When you have completed this unit you should:

  • have an understanding and awareness of the importance of sustainable energy;

  • have an overview of the main sources of renewable energy.


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Introduction

The search for sustainable energy will dominate the twenty-first century. This unit provides an introductory overview of the present energy systems and takes a brief look at where the world may find energy in the future – cleaner use of fossil fuels or renewable energy sources?

This unit is from our archive and is an adapted extract from Energy for a sustainable future (T206) which is no longer taught by The Open University. If you want to study formally with us, you may wish to explo
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Acknowledgements

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Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following sources for permission to reproduce material in this text.

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References

Blackmore, R. and Reddish, A. (eds.) (1996) Global Environmental Issues, Hodder & Stoughton in association with the Open University.
Blowers, A. (ed.) (1993) Planning for a Sustainable Environment, A report by the Town and Country Planning Association, London: Earthscan.
Brezet, J.C. and Van Hemel, C. (eds) (1997) Ecodesign, a promising approach to sustainable produc
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Glossary

Glossary itemDefinition
atomthe smallest amount of a chemical element that still retains the properties of that element.
biodiversitya contraction of ‘biological diversity’, in general it describes the variety of life on Earth and specifically the total sum of the genes, species, ha
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6.4.4 Environmental limits

There are many different definitions of what sustainable development means; you were given one in Section 5.3, and how this should guide policy. The underpinning concepts are: equity for human development, and limits on the capacity of the environment. The idea of environmental limits on the ability of the Earth's biophysical systems to cope with and adapt to pressures from human activity, whether from demand for natural resources, the waste products of modern economies, or from habitat modif
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6.4.3 Problems and solutions

These concepts apply equally to our interactions with the environment. As we have seen in Case Studies 1 and 2, our use of technology can contribute to environmental problems (the release of ozone-depleting chemicals and greenhouse gases) and at the same time is the basis of environmental solutions through the control of CFCs, HCFCs and HFCs, and improved energy efficiency. The general point is made by the following passage from Our Common Future, the report for the United Nations Conference
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6.4.2 A broad view of technology

This dual nature is not because machines or chemicals are inherently good or bad; it arises from the way societies decide to use them (or not). This makes sense if you take a broad view of technology, outlined at the beginning of this Introduction. This is the understanding that technology, and it's uses from artefacts to infrastructure, is the product of human and social action. It is a major driver of the development of societies and their economies, but the forms and directions thes
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6.4 Technology and environment

At the start of this unit I asked a simple question: am I damaging the environment by using my fridge? I warned that it wasn't my intention to give a simple answer that we should all stop using refrigerators or all carry on regardless. Instead, we have explored the issue more widely, calling on a range of ideas and background information in the Case Studies. It is time to review some of the concepts we have been using.


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6.3 Sustainable development

The third approach to balancing human needs with environmental protection is to try to come to grips with what we mean by sustainability.

The most widely quoted definition of sustainable development is the one used by Gro Harlem Brundtland in the highly influential book Our Common Future (Brundtland, 1987):

‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present with
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6.2 The hierarchy of human needs

A second approach is to look at the human needs and wants from a more theoretical perspective. One such model was developed in the 1950s and 1960s by Abraham Maslow. Although it exists in many variants it is generally known as Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. In the most common interpretations it places the fundamental material needs of survival, such as food, shelter and safety at the base of a triangle, rising through social needs of belonging in human society, to
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4.4 Discussion

In this second case study, I have described two different trends in energy use by cold appliances over the last few decades. On the one hand the efficiency with which appliances use electrical energy has improved but, in spite of this, their consumption of electricity has increased significantly in recent decades. Since 2000 consumption has started to decline, probably as a result of the introduction of minimum energy standards. The trend will only continue if we demand and use the most energ
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2.4 Changing environmental attitudes

So, from the start of the Industrial Revolution, people have been aware that the development of an industrial economy brings problems as well as benefits. But the benefits, in terms of productive capability, mobility, convenience, cheap consumer goods, and profits, were usually felt to outweigh the disadvantages, particularly by those in positions of power. Many of the accompanying negative factors, such as poverty and unemployment, or the creation of more destructive machines of war, if they
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2.2 We are part of nature

Take a few minutes to look around at your surroundings before you read on. What do you see? Obviously this depends on where you are at the moment: at home, at work, or perhaps travelling in between, or maybe you have the misfortune to be laid up in hospital. Possibly like me you are at home. I am fortunate to have a study where I do much of my writing and you won't be surprised to hear that I'm looking at a computer screen at the moment. What else can I see? Books and bookshelves, furniture o
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7 Conclusion

One might think of the different interpretations of internationally recognised notions of rights and justice as running along a spectrum, from which we shall now identify four different positions.

  • The first interpretation would argue that, overall, the extension of rights to the international sphere has been benign and effective. It has led and will lead to further successful claims for justice.

Evidence for the development of a globa
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5.7 Relating individual rights to state sovereignty

The fourth set of problems is really a specific example of the third set and relates to the ways in which individual rights relate to state sovereignty. The Millennium Conference of the UN in 2000 endorsed the need for people-centred changes to the institution and renounced its previous ‘state-centred’ structure. The human-centred logic of rights regards human rights as a value which places legitimate constraints upon the politics of national self-interest and interstate competition. Chan
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5.4 The influence of the Western perspective

With regard to the first set of problems – that the rights discourse is not universal but is deeply informed by a Western perspective – it is striking that many actors and commentators on the international stage now frame their arguments and assertions in terms of the language of rights and justice. Yet we need to ask to what extent this language of rights and justice really underpins shared understandings and values. There is a strong case for saying that if there are shared understandin
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Introduction

This unit is about rights and rights claims, and the idea of implementing justice in the international sphere based on the concept of rights. It is agreed by most people that ‘rights are a good thing’ and in many respects they are. However, this unit deliberately takes a critical view. It seeks to examine closely why rights are a good thing and highlights some of the problems associated with rights. In this way, we hope that the sense in which rights are still, ultimately, ‘a good thing
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3.3.4 Dispute settlement

The lack of expertise in the developing countries shows up at a subsequent stage as well. One of the undoubted plus points of the WTO, compared with its predecessor the GATT, is its streamlined mechanism for settling disputes between members – on the whole quite impartially. But although many of the larger developing countries have won cases against the most powerful members like the EU and USA, the smaller ones are hamstrung by their inability to field lawyers specialised in international
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