Ethics, energy and the transition to renewables

by | Jun 8, 2023 | Environment

This article was commissioned by The Ethical Agency and authored by Hugh Tyrrell who runs GreenEdge, a research and behavioural design consultancy specialising in the circular economy.

The science is clear. Fossil fuels must be phased out fast, to limit devastation to human and non-human life on our planet. Solar, wind and other sources of renewable energy must be brought in to replace oil and coal-fired energy as soon as possible.

Yet, how will this affect the quality of life of millions of people around the world whose work it has been to provide the energy for the industrial society in which we are immersed?

The moral imperative to move away quickly from coal and oil is undeniable. The enormity of the task however, is demonstrated by graphs like the one below that shows just how much we rely on those ‘dirty’ energy sources. And how far renewables have to go to be an adequate replacement.

Source: Ember 2022 Report, referenced by The Outlier

The task is also about the rights of millions of South Africans who work in the extraction, processing and provision of fossil fuel power. These must be balanced against intergenerational rights – of those who would suffer in future from global warming.This is a major ethical issue that South Africa faces. The plan to address it is the so-called ‘Just Transition.’ While activists protest against fossil fuel companies, it is a pragmatic approach being driven by specialists from a range of disciplines and industries. The task is to find a fair way forward on the path to wean ourselves off fossil fuels with least disruption to those who presently depend on its generation for their livelihoods.

Global dimension to climate change ethics

There is also a global dimension to climate change ethics which is helping South Africa manage this transition. Historically, the development of northern hemisphere countries has been largely based on the use of fossil fuels. Southern hemisphere countries however, have yet to develop to the same level, but now must decarbonise their economies to meet CO2 emission reduction targets set at the UN’s Paris climate change agreements in 2015.

In light of this, northern countries have accepted their moral obligation to support southern countries. The UK, France, Germany, the US and the European Union together they have committed an initial R140-billion to South Africa for funding a just transition away from coal to cleaner energy. This is expected to be a catalyst too for the growth of a greener economy that will help provide employment for those who stand to lose in our coal industry’s slow but steady demise.

Termed the Just Energy Transition Investment Plan (JETIP), the UN says it is:

“long-term and ambitious in its aspiration to support South Africa’s pathway to a low carbon economy and climate resilient society; to accelerate the just transition and the decarbonisation of the electricity system (including rehabilitation and repurposing of mines); and to support the development of new economic opportunities such as green hydrogen and electric vehicles amongst other interventions to support RSA’s shift towards a greener future.“

The project will be led by South Africans, and is also planned to be a model for other countries in the south to follow. Australia for one, is watching its progress with interest as its economy also relies heavily on coal.

Government is not consistent with the JETIP

Since its launch at Glasgow COP26 however, it has become embroiled in the local politics of energy. As Dr Crispan Olver, Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Commission, said recently:

“The problem we have at the moment is one of coherence. Government is not coming across in a consistent way on the JETIP… we stand at risk of other countries assuming a more prominent leadership role and us getting downscaled in terms of the funds that are on the table.”

In Europe, the war in Ukraine and Putin’s tactical control of Russia’s considerable oil and natural gas supply to EU countries has slowed the momentum of the move to renewables there. It is also emphasising the importance of fossil fuel energy currently to these regions.

It has also sparked renewed interest in nuclear which is starting to regain its reputation and influence. Because of minimal greenhouse gas emissions in nuclear energy generation, it is being seen as a ‘clean’ power source. Smaller, modularised nuclear plants that are cheaper and decentralised may be less threatening to public memories of Chernobyl and Japan’s Fukushima disaster however the threats are still real.

Moral dilemmas of nuclear energy

South Africa’s previous flirtation with pebble-bed modular nuclear reactors, having got the brush-off some years ago and were defunded, are probably being reconsidered, even though peer-reviewed research at the time pointed to serious design flaws. With the Koeberg plant now some 40 years old, planning for a new nuclear power station at Thyspunt on the Southern Cape coast is under consideration.

The problems of spent nuclear fuel, and where and how to store it safely for eons remain. Even the question of warning signs and how they should be designed to signify radiation danger for future generations is problematic. The symbols and languages we are know now, may make no sense to Earth’s inhabitants coming across them in 150,000 years time. Toxic nuclear waste has a half-life of that duration. This is the moral dilemma that nuclear generated energy represents.

Ingenuity guided by compassion

As with much of environmental ethics, trade-offs must be made – which option is less bad than the other. We are facing some hard choices of moral justice in dealing with the unintended but now seriously destructive consequences of legacy energy technologies.

The hope is that all alternatives to carbon emitting energy become widely available in time to prevent the predicted widespread catastrophe. Human ingenuity guided by compassion for all species must find ethical ways through the dilemma.

– This article was commissioned by The Ethical Agency and authored by Hugh Tyrrell who runs GreenEdge, a research and behavioural design consultancy specialising in the circular economy.