Renewable Matter # 1 / Next Europe

Energies Sustainability and Renewable Materials

by Edo Ronchi

Renewable energies are to be considered neither plentiful nor inexhaustible nor cheap. Indeed, using renewable energy sources requires – for the production of electricity, usable thermal energy and fuels – institutional regulations and activities, professionalism and work, technologies, facilities and investments and land and non-renewable resources for plants. 

 The exploitation of renewable sources for energy implies using limited, expensive and non-plentiful resources. For these reasons they must be used in moderation, efficiently, always prioritizing energy saving. To mitigate the current serious global climate crisis, the use of renewable energy sources must grow, thus replacing the use of fossil fuels. Such replacement stems not so much form scarcity of fossil fuels: their limited availability affects the oil price, which is expected to rise, but it does not seem to have an effect on gas (because of the augmented availability of shale gas as well) nor on the still plentiful coal. The urgency to replace fossil fuels depends mainly on environmental reasons: the need to reduce CO2 emissions, the main greenhouse gas. In addition, the environmental imperative to use renewable energy sources should not lead us to neglect the environmental impacts of plants, electricity and heat production from renewable sources and biofuels.

Making no concession to corporate interests or groundless scaremongering and bearing in mind the importance of analysis and balanced evaluation of ecological costs and benefits, we should consider that the ultimate goal – renewable energy production – does not justify the employment of any means, so the available ones must respect the environment: a precious and dwindling resource.

Hydroelectric power is precious, but watercourses are important ecosystems as well, requiring adequate water quantity and uninterrupted flow. There is ample room for solar panels and wind farms without affecting quality landscapes and farmed land. Production origin and modes of biofuels need careful monitoring: in order to produce palm oil, most of Indonesia’s tropical forests have been destroyed and the expansion of ethanol production from sugar cane in Brazil is shrinking the Amazon Forest.

When dealing with the issue of renewable matters, such well-grounded considerations on renewable energy sources must be borne in mind. It is important to highlight their environmental advantages and their development potential but also their limitations and danger, avoiding emphasizing their usefulness based on unreliable ecological benefits, such as the definition of renewable matter as “inexhaustible resource”. Renewable matter is amongst the ecosystem services guaranteed by natural capital and as such it is not at all inexhaustible, but it is confronted with at least two constraints: the first stems from natural capital’s limited regeneration ability and resilience. The second depends on the necessity to maintain other ecosystem services. Let me give you an example with one of the main renewable materials: wood. It is true that trees do grow and, if cut, they can grow back and/or can be planted again, but not all of them and not everywhere, not in every soil and generally speaking not in a short time. Moreover, woodland and forests not only provide wood but many more – and often more important – ecosystem services: biodiversity, climate, air, hydrogeological structure, landscape, cultural and recreational opportunities. So, the collection and use of such an important matter – wood – demands care and respect of ecological sustainability criteria, despite being renewable. In addition, fertile soil provides an all-important service: agricultural and food production.

Again, it is necessary to monitor the unregulated mechanisms of the global market that can make corn production fill SUVs tanks cheaper, rather than the stomachs of millions of undernourished or starved people. For instance, they can cause a rise in corn prices for food compared to its use for the industrial sector. Since the global market seems so difficult to regulate, how can such a risk be avoided locally? By eliminating or, when it is not possible, minimizing the use of renewable materials made of agricultural and food products for industrial use and by not using cultivated land for agricultural and food production of renewable materials for industrial use. But how can the development of the production and the industrial use of renewable matters be guaranteed? With the good practices and technologies already available, by enhancing and revamping, with adequate cultivation methods and techniques, vast marginal and uncultivated areas – not crucial from an ecological viewpoint – and by recycling a variety of discarded matter and biodegradable wastes that are normally thrown away or disposed of inadequately.