Photograph by Adnan Abidi, Reuters

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A woman cooks bread over burning cow dung in New Delhi, India.

Photograph by Adnan Abidi, Reuters

Sustainable Earth: Energy

At Rio+20 the challenge is to power our planet without ruining it.

The energy powering our wired world is easily taken for granted. But about one in five people still lack access to affordable modern electricity for lighting or heating. Two times that number, about three billion people, still heat and cook with fuels like wood, dung, coal, or charcoal. These people suffer ill health, including some two million annual deaths, from bad air quality caused by burning such fuels in poorly ventilated buildings.

The lack of access to modern energy, particularly acute in parts of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, is a serious hurdle to all types of sustainable development. "Energy is the currency of modern communications, education, sanitation, and health care," said Sally Benson, director of Stanford University's Global Climate and Energy Project and adviser to National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge. "So there is a short-term imperative to provide energy access to the developing world," she added, spotlighting a major challenge for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in Brazil from June 20 to 22.

In nations like China and India, people are rapidly gaining access to power—which presents another problem. "Demand is growing at a rapid pace as a result of the developing world growing richer and the growing middle class there," Benson explained. "That's a good thing in terms of human quality of life. But it also means that by perhaps 2050 we'll need double the energy that we use today."

Benson stressed that meeting this enormous demand will require new ways of thinking about energy. "We need to create another energy system as big as the one we have today, which was developed over 150 years, and we have a very short time to do that. And the resources underpinning this enormous, complex system—fossil fuels—won't allow us to meet demand by simply doubling today's existing system. We need to bring on new energy resources," she said.

Seeking Solutions

Part of the problem is that much of the world's reserve of cheap and easily accessible fossil fuels has already been burned. The means to bring more of these limited resources to market, including mining Canadian oil sands, sinking deep ocean wells, and hydraulically fracturing rock—"fracking"—to release natural gas, likely carry higher costs for both the environment and the economy.

Meeting the world's enormous energy demands sustainably will be one of this century's great challenges.

In the world of developed energy infrastructure, newly exploited natural gas deposits, which burn cleaner than other fossil fuels, can be part of the picture in the short to medium term, Benson said. Growth in renewable energy sources also has her even more excited for the future.

"There's been enormous progress in solar and wind," Benson explained. "These technologies are much cheaper and more reliable than they used to be. In certain circumstances they are cost-competitive today, when located in the right places."

Benson believes that the historic knock on renewables, their excessive cost, is becoming less of an issue. The remaining challenge, she said, is creating a renewable-heavy system that can deliver the kind of "always on" energy required in today's world. "I'm optimistic that we can achieve high penetration of renewables by load shifting (leveling out periods of peak and low demand), improving storage, and using natural gas to provide flexible power when needed," she said.

In the developing world, sustainable energy options may often be the best choice to enable the "energy poor" to quickly begin reaping the benefits of power. Mini solar panels can fuel computers, windmills may drive irrigation, and medical testing and treatment can come online even in villages far from established power centers.

"Much like the cell phone has enabled some countries to jump ahead in access to communication, rather than slowly building landline-based systems, generation at the point of use may allow people to leapfrog ahead in terms of energy accessibility," Benson said.

Looking Ahead

Today's energy use is also impacting the world of the future. Industrialized countries produce some 60 percent of the world's greenhouse emissions, the major contributor to anthropogenic-driven climate change. This impact may be eased with a shift away from fossil fuels to less carbon-intensive sources of energy—and by simply using energy more wisely.

"There are huge opportunities throughout the developed world to reduce energy use by more efficient transportation, and more efficient heating and cooling," Benson said. "There is a lot we can and need to do in places like the U.S. and parts of Europe to significantly decrease the energy intensity of the economy while maintaining a high quality of life."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is spearheading a Sustainable Energy for All program aimed at creating sustainable progress for the critical energy issues of both the developing and developed world.

One goal is to ensure that all people have access to modern energy at affordable prices, breaking a cycle of poverty and sparking economic growth among the poorest of the poor. The initiative also strives to double the efficiency of energy use around the world, and double the contribution of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030—two vital keys to creating a sustainable future for our increasingly energy-hungry world.