Published: Sunday, July 21, 2013

Bitter Truth

Tapping nature for sustainable development

Tapping nature for sustainable development

The global atmospheric clock is ticking. Since 1950, the Antarctic Peninsula experienced a warming of about 3° Celsius. The annual melt season has increased by about 2 to 3 weeks in just 20 years, and Arctic Sea ice thickness has decreased from 3.1m in 1958-76 period to 1.25m today. Although 70% world is covered with water, only 2.5% of it is fresh, and more worryingly, only a fraction of that is accessible.
Each person requires about 50 litres per day. At present, 1.1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water and more than 2.4 billion lack adequate sanitation.
The problem can be solved through efficient use of water and by freeing the rivers, lakes and wetlands from pollution. Agriculture accounts for about two-thirds of the fresh water consumed. The World Summit held in 2002 at Johannesburg endorsed the “more crop per drop” action, which calls for more efficient irrigation techniques, planting of drought  and salt resistant crop varieties that require less water, and better monitoring of soil humidity levels. Improving water delivery system would also help reduce the amount that is lost en route to the consumer.
Energy need and climate are two factors that are likely to bedevil developmental programmes in future. About 2.5 billion people have no access to modern energy services, and the power demands of developing countries are expected to grow by about 2.5% per year. If those demands are met by burning fossil fuels more and more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will hit the atmosphere, which scientists assert, will lead to severe climatic disruptions.
Of more immediate concern is the air pollution caused by combustion of wood and fossil fuels. This highlights the problem of meeting energy needs through cheaper and cleaner sources. That will necessitate providing incentives for alternative energy. In India, there has been a boom in wind power because the government has made it easier for entrepreneurs to get the necessary technology and has then required the national power grid to purchase the energy thus produced.
Although Bangladesh has a coast line of 710 km, hardly any effort has been made to tap this natural bounty. The wind-battery hybrid power project at Kutubdia was running well since commissioning in 2007. It used to supply 1 MW of power daily, enough to meet the needs of Kutubdia sadar upazila. But sources close to PDB circle said that both Feni and Kutubdia wind power plants are not in operation now.
On the road to enlightened energy policy, a few countries offer models of reform.  More than a decade ago, Denmark required utilities to purchase any available renewable energy and pay a premium price. Today, the country gets one-fifth of its energy from wind power. Germany and Spain offer lucrative incentives for renewable sources. Europe today accounts for 70% of the world’s wind power.
Dire predictions, apocalyptic talk and doom-and-gloom scenarios are not enough to inspire people to change either politics or their day-to-day behaviour. But neither can we afford to downplay the problem we face nor think that sustainable development will happen of its own accord. When the world leaders took stock after Rio ’92 on successive World Environment Days, it became apparent that they had not followed up on their Rio rhetoric. Environmental protection, while still a popular slogan, is receding as a political priority. Much of the fund pledged by rich nations to help poor countries meet environmental goals has yet to reach them.
However, some countries and cities have been moving forward taking their own actions and setting their own standards. Entrepreneurs and companies are developing clean technologies of the future. They are motivated not by the fear that all nations will eventually impose tougher environmental restrictions, but by the knowledge that the “Save- the-Planet” movement offers boundless opportunities for making money as well as ensuring a happy and pollution-free life.
Hydropower is considered a renewable clean energy source and is necessary for the assurance of life on earth. Hydropower produces 24% of the world’s electricity and supplies more than 1 billion people with power. Micro-hydroelectric plants are operating in numerous nations. The systems divert water from streams and rivers and use it to turn turbines without complex dams or catchment areas. Each plant can produce as much as 200 KW — enough to electrify 200 to 500 homes and businesses — and last for 20 years.
The momentum toward clean renewable energy is increasing. Globally, solar and wind energy is growing by more than 30% annually, far faster than conventional fuels, and their cost is plummeting. Solar thermal system uses a series of parabolic dishes to focus the sun’s rays and superheat steam, which in turn drives turbine generators. These modest-size systems can produce power for as little as 4 cents (Tk.3.2) per kwh, and are preferable to polluting gas and diesel generators.
With awareness created to build a green century, time for solar energy is fast approaching. In Bangladesh, one company had installed one million solar home systems in rural areas by 2012. Another company has introduced solar power irrigation system that, when fully commissioned, will save760 MW power and 800 million litre diesel every year.
Power from solar-thermal systems costs less than that produced by photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight straight into electricity. Advocates of photo voltaic (PV) cells point out that the gap is narrowing and PV cells have other advantages. Solar thermal systems require direct sunlight, while PV cells can work in cloudy weather.
We can meet our energy needs without fouling the environment. “But it won’t happen,” asserts Thomas Johansson, an energy advisor to the United Nations Development Programme. World Energy Outlook says that fossil fuel subsidies totaled $520 billion in 2012. Around $88 billion was spent worldwide for supporting renewable energy.
If the world had gone for exploiting solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, and even hydrogen fuel, on a mass scale, it could have avoided dependence on oil imports or oil exploration.

The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star.   
E-mail: aukhandk@gmail.com