The present buzzword is “sustainable” although that word is often being used without it being properly defined. Most regard the word when describing a thing as meaning capable of being used in a way that will not restrict its use for future generations, and will not deplete it as a resource. There is also a broader and more accurate definition of “sustainable”. It encompasses a meaning which properly involves not just ensuring that the thing itself is “sustainable” but that using it does not deplete the world of some other important resource. Other definitions refer to sustainability as the ability of something to keep operating, indefinitely, without adverse or negative effect.
I suppose that eventually every resource on our planet, even the resource of sunlight, will no longer be around but the time frames for that are far beyond the imagination of most people. I shall restrict the meaning to what we can expect over the next few thousand years.
When it comes to energy creation and use some things are clearly not sustainable on any definition. Fossil fuels and uranium and thorium are not sustainable, as they will run out one day, and those days are not terribly distant. We might well have depleted these resources within the next hundred years, which will be within the lifetimes of the children of the children of today.
Other devices like heat pumps, whether ground source or air source, are not genuinely sustainable because they use electricity, although significantly less electricity than the amounts of energy they generate by using the assistance of heat trapped in the ground or in existence in the air.
Falling and moving water are usually sustainable as an energy source, and so is moving air. Water moves in rivers, waterfalls, tides and in the sea currents, which if harnessed for use as energy by humans is sustainable. Wind turbines depend upon a natural resource – the wind. Although when we build a wind turbine or harness the energy in the seas we are inevitably reducing the energy within the wind and the seas, but there is so much there that it will not affect the amount available, although it will reduce local wind and water energy content, particularly in places where the turbines are placed. It seems that these, on a global scale, do not deplete or negatively affect the resources of the planet, although, for example, building a barrage to harness tidal energy across a large estuary will certainly deplete resource locally.
Using light for energy creation is sustainable, as the use of light in one place does not diminish the light available elsewhere. In the pure sense of sustainability, solar panels that create heat and photovoltaic panels that create electricity are sustainable, as their components can be recycled and in the case of solar thermal panels, recycled 100% to make more solar panels at the end of their useful life.
Biofuels are biomass have highly dubious claims to sustainability; I have written about biomass extensively and will soon post some ideas about biofuels, to add to the ideas that I have already been thinking on this topic.
The trouble with concepts like “sustainability” is when they are adopted by politicians; politics is the art of the possible, and that usually means, in democratic societies, what people will generally accept and that involves comprising between competing desires. Politicians tend to adopt concepts like sustainability because everyone wants the world to behave in a way that does not destroy itself, and this wish can be fulfilled by the concept of sustainability, taking the broadest of my definitions.
Therefore we have policies claimed to be sustainable, but are a compromise; they create less harm than previous policies but still create harm. Creating less harm is good and viurtuous, but climate change is unimpressed. The forces that we interfere with when we act unsustainably in matters where the climate is changed do not comprise, unlike the politicians.
No politician these days wants to commend action or implement a policy which is unsustainable. This would be a sure fire way of not getting elected and politicians of all parties operate on the principle that their party at its worst is so much better than all the other parties. It follows that a politician can no more admit that a policy or practice is unsustainable than he or she can admit to it being bad or harmful. That means that they have to pretend some action is sustainable or complies with the principles of sustainability when it is not genuinely so.
So sustainability has become a relative term, rather than an absolute term. Thus our energy and environmental policies are compromises, rather than genuinely sustainable practices. The policies that the politicians are adopting under the guise of sustainability may mean that we delay the coming climate holocaust, (I use “holocaust” in the sense of an act of mass destruction) but will not prevent it.
Filed under: carbon emissions, climate change, energy, global warming, solar, solar energy, solar panels Tagged: | definition of sustainability, sustainability, sustainabilty of heat pumps, sustainabilty of renewable energy, wind turbines sustainability of solar panels