DESERTEC: The Future of Energy… for Europe?

The concept of the DESERTEC project is a new and elaborately devised energy-production scheme. The main goal is to bring clean energy to Europe by transporting it from large solar-collection stations in North Africa. The general aim is that it will help solve the potential European energy problem at the moment when oil becomes a scarce resource and will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The website of the European Parliament describes it this way: “the world’s most ambitious solar power project is meant to develop carbon-free energy that could supply up to 15 percent of Europe’s needs by 2050, in the deserts of North Africa.” Put this way, the end result is very desirable, but these might be the wrong reasons to develop this project.

In recent years, we have obtained data showing that oil reserves are expected to run out by 2050. This will have a significant economic impact and will pose a threat to the energy security of Europe. In order to prepare and prevent an energy crisis, we have to start developing alternatives right away. To this end, the DESERTEC project is an excellent idea. It will use the Sun as a renewable source of energy in places where it is plentiful and can be harvested without harming the local environment. After all, the deserts of North Africa are technically great open spaces where the sun shines continuously every day. Solar energy does not compete with plants in desert zones, so there is no harmful environmental impact. Also, there is the potential for large-scale job creation. From the viewpoint of a European, this is a project worth investing in and which will help solve some of the greatest problems of our generation, including climate change.

The European stance on emission reduction is widely known. After all, Europe is part of the industrialized world and produces around 13% of global CO2. Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is of great importance for all industrialized nations if we are to contain the current climate problems. For these states, the objective is clear – altering economic and social activity to zero-carbon production. This is often referred to as mitigation – decreasing the adverse effects of a carbon-based economy. The great mistake that most Europeans make is to project these aims to other states outside Europe.

We have to remember that there is another point of view to be considered – that of the developing world. Most of the countries which are to be exploited for their resource (in this case the Sun) are developing ones and they emit around half of what Europe does. In the words of Christopher Jones from DG TREN of the European Commission, it is this gap in emissions which is “why we are rich and they are not”. The big difference is that while the stress in the West is on attempts to invent solutions through different strategies of mitigating the problem, the states of North Africa and the Middle East are industrializing and increasing emissions with every passing year. Conventional and energy industry, the biggest polluters in the European economy, accounted for 52% of emissions in the EU in 2006. In time, developing countries will also industrialize and reach these levels. What do we do then?

The answer is that we should not allow these economies to develop in the same way as Europe did during the industrial revolution. The current levels of energy consumption in the industrialized world are unsustainable and cause an over-exploitation of the planet’s resources. If Africa develops along the same lines, the situation will become impossible to maintain. The wrong strategy is that of rapid unsustainable development and only then to begin mitigation; preventive measures should be taken to adapt these growing industries to a sustainable mode of production from the beginning. In the industrialized world, it is too late for adaptation, but for the developing states it is the way to make sure that they do not face the same problems. Helping these economies develop in a sustainable way should be the goal.

Taking all of this into account, we should consider the DESERTEC project once again. The idea is excellent – to construct solar-collecting plants in the desert regions where they can convert the Sun’s rays into useful energy which can power industry and households alike, without emitting a single particle of greenhouse gas. The objection is that this energy should not go to power Europe but rather be used to help the developing economies of the region. Reducing and preventing harmful emissions in North Africa is just as important as making Europe ‘green’ and we should not forget this. In that sense, the project will not aid the mitigation of the European problem, but would contribute to the creation of sustainable energy production system in the developing world. The result would be a win-win situation: the states of North Africa and the Middle East will have adapted their economies to low-carbon production and their energy industry will be sustainable in the long-run with reduced, or zero, emissions. In this sense, the DESERTEC concept can really be considered as the future of energy production, just not for Europe.

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