Most people, when talking about a sustainable future for Europe, think in terms of energy supply. That is one-sided. It is true: the energy conflict still deepens, as the incumbent powers start to be challenged just recently, forty years after the first oil crisis. But on the other hand: let us not be blinded by the energy problem. We will have to tackle the problem behind it as well: how will Europe earn its wealth in a sustainable way, in twenty, thirty years’ time?
Solar power will win
Forty years ago, thirty years even, energy was among the major problems of society. Energy use produced environmental harm, like acid rain. And there was the threat of energy shortages. Because of political tensions and boycotts; or in the longer run because of the enormous production growth and the corresponding demand for energy. The motor of wealth, energy supply, was in great danger. It was the time when some people saw just one solution: nuclear power stations, by the dozens.
But the energy problem has found the direction of its solution. First of all we have learned to tackle the huge amount of waste that characterised our energy system. A still ongoing process. And furthermore, sustainable energy (wind and particularly solar power) will become the backbone of energy supply, all over the world. The price dives of solar cells, and the vast array of possible technological improvements in the pipeline leading to better quality and falling prices over the next decades, will guarantee that development. Consequently, electricity will become the main energy carrier, and energy production will become much more dispersed. Present clashes are mainly about the way in which we will execute this program: how fast, and how. The concomitant interests are immense. The conflict will be fierce. But the outcome is clear from the outset: the sun will prevail. And before we arrive there, energy conservation will have lent us enough fossil reserves to keep society running.
Now ‘merely’ the stability of our planet is at stake
Now a new energy problem has emerged: the greenhouse effect. Potentially, climate change destabilises nature and the economy alike. But so far, international talks have not resulted in reducing CO2 emissions. So on the one hand, the situation calls for very urgent action: the trend in CO2 emissions must finally be curbed. But on the other hand, there is no urgent need to act: fortunately enough, the effects of climate change so far are much less than could be expected at present CO2 levels in the atmosphere, it looks as if nature holds its breath.
Therefore there is a fundamental difference in the position of the energy problem in society, then and now. Then, energy shortages threatened to undermine the economy, and to cause us to embrace the madness of nuclear power. Now, the economic component is missing. It is ‘merely’ the stability of our planet that is at stake – no doubt with huge effects on the economy, but these are not perceptible to the economic mind. The financial crisis dwarfs all economic concerns about the greenhouse effect. So, proponents of sustainability find a deaf ear to their views. Businesses and governments do not react adequately, because they do not feel a sense of urgency. Unfortunately so! But in order to attract their attention, the sustainability movement will have to connect its views with themes that have a greater appeal to the business community.
Towards a sustainable industry
In Europe, below the surface there is much anxiety about the future. Virtually nobody thinks that the younger generation might be better off in the future than present adults. Pessimism pervades the general mood. BRICS countries will take over our place. The US have economic power – and recently they consolidated their industrial future with their drilling of shale gas. But Europe?? Here is where green chemistry comes in. Green chemistry, like green energy, is better for sustainability. And moreover: green chemistry is going to earn the wealth of future European generations. Sharply formulated, but true: green chemistry will help us build tomorrow’s industry, green energy will ‘just’ provide the inputs that will make it function.
If we call for sustainability, we should also address the question of what a sustainable industry that will earn our future wealth will look like. Which technology do we need for its development? Which R&D do we need for that? The outlines of a new green chemical industrial sector that will replace petrochemical industry start to emerge. Green chemistry is the linking pin between two worlds, that of the economy and that of sustainability, that are fully mutually interdependent, but often do not want to know it.