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How sustainable is renewable energy

2024-05-14

How sustainable is renewable energy?

Timberland footprint in the sand

Unless one wants to “Make America Great Again” and spent the past few years in a nuclear bunker waiting for the apocalypse, we can all agree that global warming is no hypothesis but a scientifically proven fact. We should engage in maintaining the maximum temperature increase to 2° celsius united global community, and the best way to make it possible is to switch to sustainable energy sources.

There are nonetheless arguments that are brought up consistently in discussions over the tautological sustainability of a complete reliance on renewable energy, and in particular How much of an economic impact this would be. Renewable energies are by definition those energies that come from a source that is not depleted by use (cf. English Oxford Dictionary), and therefore can only be more efficiently realised through technological support. As stated in early April, Portugal’s production of renewable energy covered 100% of national demand more specifically, it hit 103.6% of consumption. Non-renewable energies were produced through conventional methods producing carbon emissions in the atmosphere: however, this was balanced by the overall usage of renewable resources.

If all countries would follow Portugal’s example we would possibly avoid reaching the 2° threshold. There are economic complications that must be addressed nonetheless. A study published in “Energy & Environmental Sciences” showed that the production from the current number of renewable resources installations would cover, for example, only 80% of the US national needs. Thus reaching a fully sustainable autonomous system would require the construction of a large number of wind farms and solar panels, as well as vast energy storage facilities. Alternatively, one would have to build complex transmission networks to be able to move the "supplies" from one side of the country to the other in the event of a blackout Predictably, this would require an investment of billions of dollars.

The US is one of the countries most contributing to pollution. Small progress made through Obama’s regulations have been almost completely dismantled by his successor, whose domestic policy calls for a centralisation and strengthening of coal industry. This approach is strongly in contrast with the proclivity of major companies like Google and Apple, currently relying on 100% renewable energies sources. Countries such as India and China demonstrated an interest into eco-friendly production of energies, and this is particularly relevant since they are both top of the list for carbon footprint emission. Following the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement, China tuned into a lodestar in the crusade against carbon emissions. According to the 2018 British Petroleum Energy Outlook report, China has great potential in the sustainable energy sector: the fossil fuel dependency is dropping (reduction is estimated from 62% to 34% by 2040) and the usage of sustainable resources is increasing (up to 31% by the same year).

The Chinese government is also pushing for the employment of “green” and eco-friendly vehicles, along with the prospect of reforesting areas recently allocated to agriculture; similar to the project of Timberland in the desert of Horgin, by planting 2 millions of tree in 2001. Leading to a better and more responsible future there is New Development Bank, a financial institution founded by BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) during the summit that took place in Fortaleza (Brazil) in 2015. The following year the president of BRICS announced that 60% of the financial resources would be allocated for the development of renewable energy.

To bring the discussion back to a global level, the Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investement 2018 report, published on the 6th of April, stated that in 2017 a total of 157 gigawatts in power stations was produced by sustainable energy mostly solar energy, compared to the 143 gigawatts for the year 2016. Moreover, the power of these new sustainable power plants is more than twice the size of the fossil fuel’s one.

If on one hand the transformation of the current power sources into completely sustainable ones will indeed require a certain economical effort, on the other hand one can happily observe that many countries showed an interest in making this happen. The allocated money for the project increased by 2% in 2017, for a sum of 279.8 billion dollars. Not surprisingly, China is leading the rank with a 126.5 billions dollars (45% of the total investment) allocated for the transitioning to sustainable energy.

What remains uncertain is the cooperation from the US and Europe: the US reduced their investments by 6% from the previous year, allocating 40.5 billions dollars only. Europe allocated a total of 40.9 billions, decreasing its contribution by 36% compared to 2016. The European countries that insisted on reducing the money to be allocated are the UK and Germany, which is curious to note since the latter managed to rely on renewable energy supply of up to 35% and that it is planning to completely abandon nuclear resources by 2022.


One’s decision not to act today is going to significantly affect the few next years. The countries that are risking the strongest impact of climate change – BRICS in primis – are those that are investing the most; however, it would be sensible for every country to contribute equally to the safeguard of our planet, independently from the direct and most immediate repercussions. It is necessary for our response to this emergency situation to be global, rather than being mined by financial interests. The first challenge to be faced will be the complete transition to sustainable energies, the moment of truth for proving our sincere care of the planet.