What sorts of energy and how much energy will the human race be using in our common future? This was the central question facing the Third Assembly of the European Christian Environmental Network at its meeting in Raubichi, Belarus. The choice of this theme was almost forced upon the assembly, given that Belorussia is the country most severely affected by the catastrophe at Chernobyl just over 15 years ago. Numerous contacts with Belorussian experts and local people during the assembly made us freshly aware of the extent of the destructive, continuing and long-term consequences of that catastrophe.
How, in the future, will energy be generated? How will it be responsibly used? These are key questions. They present themselves inescapably also to the churches, since they concern the quality of the way in which the human family lives its common life. Their faith leads them to a commitment which is guided by the respect for God’s creation, the commandment to love God and all fellow human beings and by the search for justice. On the basis of this faith they claim that there are other and more important horizons than economic criteria for our decisions.
The current social and economic orientation of society presupposes a constantly increasing use of energy. Energy is the driving force of the present economic system. Yet it becomes clearer with each succeeding year that the sources of energy on which we have primarily relied up to now – fossil fuels and nuclear energy – both involve far reaching risks and dangers.
- On the one hand there is the threat of climate change. The warnings coming from scientists are becoming more urgent. The most recent report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the major scientific authority in this area) predicts that far reaching climatic changes are already taking place and will become even worse unless the emissions of greenhouse gases, in particular CO2, can soon be considerably reduced.
- On the other hand there are the hazards of nuclear energy. The degree of suffering to which the population of Belorussia remains subjected even 15 years after the Chernobyl accident is an unmistakable signal of warning. As well as the fears of further accidents, there remains the yet unresolved problem of how to provide secure and long-term storage of the highly radioactive nuclear waste.
In face of these two dangers there is a clear need to arrive at new forms of energy generation and energy use. As we engage in this route, we must at the same time be aware of the fact that the present patterns of energy use involve a deep and decisive injustice within the family of humankind. The energy consumption of the industrialised nations is unbearably high compared with that of the developing nations of the South. It is therefore of decisive importance to concentrate efforts, strength and imagination to the task of developing alternative energy resources and promoting ways of using energy which meet the criteria of sustainability, justice and an appropriate quality of life for humankind as a whole.
After many years when progress had been very slow, there are today in many European countries encouraging signs of a new urgency to promote renewable energy sources. Programmes for increased technological efficiency and energy saving are under way. It is imperative that this switch toward renewable energies and energy saving goes further and extends to all parts of Europe. Too often the public debate on energy scenarios for the future continues to concentrate on the pro and con of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. The threat of climate change is used to promote nuclear energy; the fear of nuclear risks weakens the response to climate change.
We ask therefore the churches to commit themselves to promoting energy scenarios in which priority is unambiguously and deliberately given to energy saving and energy generation from renewable sources. Although we are well aware that the transfer from fossil fuels and nuclear energy to renewables cannot be achieved from one day to the next, we believe that these sources – in the light of their effects – must increasingly give way to alternative ways of energy generation.
Next year will be the tenth since the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro (1992). We ask the churches to do all they can to ensure that the follow-up conference ”˜Rio+10’ in Johannesburg becomes the opportunity for a thorough re-orientation in the area of energy use.
The task has many aspects. Careful account must be taken of what is technologically possible; economic obstacles must be overcome and forward-looking perspective on the responsible use of energy must be developed. The possible contribution of the churches in these fields should not be undervalued. They have therefore also the responsibility to actively participate in the process.
I. The process needs to take place at three levels simultaneously
The first step on the way towards a new energy age consists in using primary energy as efficiently as possible. With the help of modern technologies, services such as heating, lighting, production, transport and communication can already be made available with much less energy than in the past. Among the possible measures we mention insulation of buildings, more efficient heating installations, co-generation, energy saving lighting, modern office and household appliances etc. Energy can also be saved by a more efficient organisation of life in society. Improved city planning and a more deliberate emphasis on regional structures, for example, can considerably reduce the need for transport and transport energy. Traffic and transport policies has a key role in energy scenarios. The fullest possible increase in energy efficiency is no doubt the most productive and profitable ”˜alternative source of energy’. The reduction in the consumption of primary energy is the first presupposition for the transition to a new energy age.
The second important step consists in learning to limit the need for energy by a deliberate reshaping of our life-styles, both corporately and individually. More and more, energy must come to be known and handled as a valuable good and no longer as a resource that is available in unlimited measure. This is all the more vital in that savings which have been achieved by technological efficiency during the last decades have been more than compensated for by new demands. Thus an energy-conscious life-style, comprehensive ecological management schemes and the renunciation of non-essential uses of energy are the second indispensable presupposition for the transition to the new energy age.
Renewable energies must gradually replace non-renewable energies. The future belongs to sources such as wind, solar radiation, biomass, water power, tides, geothermal installations, as well as to the rapidly developing technologies in the area of hydrogen. They are the only genuinely sustainable option. They have, in addition, other advantages. They offer the possibility of a more regional and even local energy production and can therefore more easily be controlled by local authorities. Their introduction creates new jobs. Thus every effort must be made to promote their entry into the market; where necessary, deliberate support must be given to further research and technological refinement. The fact that renewable energies, though at present rapidly expanding, will need time to have a decisive impact on the energy market, must not be used as an argument in favour of the status quo.
II. This Threefold Effort cannot be easily realised
The realisation of this vision meets with obstacles and resistance. They differ from country to country according to geographical, historical, political and economic circumstances.
The following obstacles can be mentioned:
- Generally, short-term considerations prevail. To advance to the new energy age, long-term planning is required. Often, investments in energy saving technologies and installations for the exploitation of renewable energies are not available because of erroneous priority setting.
- It is essential that governments establish framework conditions which enable both scientific research and economic decision-making to set the appropriate priorities
- Some renewable energy sources are already competing economically with fossil fuels, but many are not economic under the present system of energy financing which demands short pay back on investments and disregards future benefits of renewables.
- The implementation of many promising renewable technologies is seriously hampered by the fact that the market is skewed by the failure to tax fossil fuels to pay for the environmental damage and other external costs they cause. A deliberate price policy is required. The real cost caused by the use of both fossil fuels and nuclear energy must be fully included in the energy price. Prices must tell the truth. This applies equally to the risks involved in the use of renewable resources.
International liability insurance regulations for climate-related and atomic catastrophes could contribute to making more transparent the financial risks arising from non-renewable energies and to bringing about a new consciousness.
An International Agency on Renewable Energies in the framework of the United Nations – comparable to the Agency on Atomic Energy – could provide a stimulus for the exploitation of renewable enerhgies and help to remove many of the difficulties ahead.
III. The Vital Role of the Churches
In their commitment to preserving God’s gifts in Creation, the Christian churches stand for a fundamental transformation of the currently dominant values: Quality of life instead of constant expansion, justice instead of short-term maximisation of profits, solidarity with the poor and future generations instead of further increases of consumption. Energy is a tool to serve life. It must not contribute to its destruction.
So the witness of the churches is needed at several levels at the same time:
- At the global level, they are committed to promote the principle of sustainability and a just and peaceful sharing of resources. They will support all initiatives which further sustainable patterns of economic activity and international solidarity, e.g. technology transfer.
- At the national level they will support governments in their effort to establish the appropriate framework for sound energy policies. They will seek the dialogue with partners in government, society and economy. Wherever possible they will act as an ecumenical fellowship.
- At the local level, churches will seek to stimulate new initiatives. Through a life-style characterised both by responsibility and joy they will seek to contribute to consciousness building in congregations and ecologically effective education in schools.
Many Christians in all parts of Europe are engaged in these tasks. Congregations and church institutions are making the effort to evaluate their energy consumption and seek to achieve savings. Given the magnitude of the challenge they are still too few. It is therefore important that the churches commit themselves to an even greater extent. By dealing responsibly with the gift of energy they bear witness to their belief in God’s creation.
We are all called to be witnesses, and we ask therefore the churches to contribute whatever they can to the pilgrimage into the new energy age.
At our assembly we were struck anew by the riches of our various spiritual traditions. In more than one respect we differ in our understanding of God’s creation; there are different experiences of God’s presence with his creatures. Precisely through these differences we became aware of new aspects and perspectives. Basically, we are one in the conviction that the light of Christ’s victory is with all creation. The future is in God’s hands. As we engage in common prayer and deepen our communion through the bond of love, we shall find the courage to address the issues of our time and to bear witness to God’s love in our fragile world.