For the past 200 years human beings have depended on fossil fuels, and this doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon. Despite sustained pressure from environmentalist groups, it looks like gas and oil are here to stay. A few light bulbs may be turned off earlier, a couple of cars might run off electricity, but it is hard to imagine a huge shift in behaviour.
As the economy grows, so do our energy needs. Millions have been taken out of poverty by the economic development that relies directly on greater energy consumption. The energy industry is booming – consumption is expected to double by 2050.
Along with this, it is getting harder to source oil and gas, governments are clamping down on carbon emissions, and the economy is moving towards a different vision of how we feed our systems. The challenge for the world’s leading energy companies is to meet the needs of the economy while dealing with concerns from consumers, communities, environmentalists and politicians.
But there is also a challenge for consumers. Patterns of consumption vary across the planet: the average US citizen uses roughly three times as much energy for personal transport as the average European. Without taking a hairshirt approach, it seems possible to change our habits in order to modify energy use. Yet the way we use energy is tied not only to social factors, but to geography: the size of countries, and the way towns are laid out.
A change is coming but it could be a gradual one. Technologies move fast, but vast and established infrastructure is harder to shift. Solar PV, solar thermal technologies, wind technologies can all grow, but it will be some while before they are truly material at the global scale. Innovation is needed not only in design but in deployment, and will come from collaboration between sectors: between industry, government, academia and NGOs. Local changes take a while to filter through globally, so persistence is as big a challenge as the changes themselves.
Without putting a limit on increasing standards of living in the population, demand will only increase.