How do we incentivize sustainability?
In previous articles, I have touched on various aspects of sustainable development. I have yet to mention economics, which is arguably one of the most important aspects of sustainable development. Ideally, developing countries would invest in more sustainable energy sources, understand- ing that while temporarily low supplies of energy may slow economic growth, the resulting energy is clean and will allow future generations to sustain themselves. However, it appears developing countries prefer a route similar to industrialized nations when they were developing. By this, countries quickly build infrastructure to support an industry centered on fossil fuel consumption. My question is this: What can be done to persuade countries wishing to develop to invest in sustainable energy sources and thus, develop sustainably?
To start, I believe it is worth reiterating that the term “developing countries” contains an inherent assumption that non-industrial countries wish to develop, which is certainly not always the case depending on a wide range of factors such as culture and governmental structure.
While it is true that emerging economies, such as China and India, are making great strides toward sustainable en- ergy, the majority of infrastructure being established tailors to the oil and gas industry. In China’s case, particularly, oil and gas consumption is unlikely to lessen in the next 25 years given the rate at which China’s infrastructure and economy is expanding, despite the fact that its economy has appeared to plateau. According to the International Energy Agency as of 2015, China’s coal, the primary energy source for the country, is expected to plateau at a little more than 50 percent by 2040. Given how polluting coal is, this is less than desirable news. However, the age of fossil fuel consumption is far from over.
Oil and natural gas control a large sector of the global economy, and because these finite resources hold the achievements or demises for some countries, and because infrastructure in both developed and developing countries requires oil in some instances, the control oil and natural gas have over the global economy is unlikely to change soon. Some years ago, before the discovery of shale oil and hydraulic fracturing technology, oil seemed much more finite, much scarcer than it had ever seemed before. However, now with the more recent knowledge of massive shale natural gas reserves across the planet, looking toward sustainable energy could appear relatively unimportant to some audiences.
While more advanced extraction technology works in the favor of the oil and gas companies, it is undeniably more difficult to access fossil fuels nowadays. As a result of fossil fuels being more difficult to extract, there is a greater environmental impact for extracting it, including seismic activity in some areas. The energy return on investment is significantly less as well. These factors combine to create a world that is not only perpetually unsustainable, but also uninhabitable in certain areas.
While the drawbacks of maintaining a lifeline to fossil fuels are great, I believe this is unlikely to deter countries from con- tinuing to exploit these finite resources. The economic stronghold that the natural gas and oil industries have the global economy in will make it invariably difficult for countries that wish to develop to develop sustainably. To answer my question from before, “What can be done to persuade countries wishing to develop to invest in sustainable energy sources and thus, develop sustainably?” the answer is relatively simple: we must give the developing nations something they want. Whether the desired object is money or political gain, the road to sustainable development will be long and difficult.