(September/October 1998)

"No Simple Recipe"
interview with Umberto Colombo
by Valentina Sereni

Chairman of LEAD-Europe and former Italian Minister for Science and Technology

The energetic problem is in the middle of a complex entanglement: issues strictly tied to resources, environmental problems and delicate economical balances. To find satisfying solutions there is need of an extraordinary innovative effort, at the same time technological-scientific and political-institutional

The problem of energy is one of the main issues on which the future of humanity is based. For the future to be not worse than the present, one should reconcile in a good way some apparently contrasting exigencies: not to endanger the welfare level of industrialised countries, to favour the development of the countries in the South of the world, to safeguard- and better- the planet health. It is not easy, there are questions regarding not only directly the exploitation of energy sources, but also ecology and world economy. To give an introductory picture of the current situation complexity and of the possible future development, we asked some questions to Umberto Colombo, Chairman of LEAD-Europe and former Italian Minister for Science and Technology.

Scarcity of exhausting energy sources, environmental pollution, limited exploitation of renewable sources. Professor Colombo, what are the terms of the energy problem today?

On a world level, scarcity of exhaustible sources is not yet a worrying problem. Fossil fuel reserves are large, the market does not give any signal of alarm, prices do not become higher, even though it is clear that the will be a decrease in the ratio between ascertained reserves and annual consumption of oil and gas, and this sooner or later will affect prices.

In the last years the green-house effect is increasing because of the continuing huge consumption of fossil fuel. I think that environment and climate represent the most critical aspect of the energetic issue. Even though we do not have a definitive scientific evidence of the cause-effect relationship between the emission of green-house gases and global warming, I think we should adopt "no-regret" policies to prevent the increase of emission, we should in fact reduce them consistently in the industrialised countries, until there are innovative solutions which allow the replacement of fossil fuels. It is important therefore that every country adopts policies that are compliant with the Kyoto Protocol on reduction of emissions. This opens a lot of options, since there is no simple recipe for all cases. Every country should reflect on the different options, keeping in mind the available resources, the structure of the economy, the state of the environment, and devise short term policies that are coherent with long-term strategies.

Which are the most urgent problems to solve?

There are some positive trends which we should second and accentuate. I am thinking of the increasing penetration of natural gas in the energy system, replacing in part coal and oil, and I am thinking also of the increase of the efficiency in the use of energy, resulting in lower consumption of primary energy for a given increase of GDP.

This latter trend is particularly significant and it has to do with the growing importance of emerging technologies, especially ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) and new structural and functional materials. Energy efficiency will further improve with the penetration of advanced biotechnologies and of new renewable energy sources. Technological innovation with favourable environmental effects is something to pursue in any case, not only in relation to the energy problem.

This means that having a strategy in scientific and technological research and in the bettering of the quality of human resources through training in science and technology, is an urgent and strategic action at the same time. Many countries understand fully these priorities and act toward this goal, some other countries on the contrary (among which, I am afraid, Italy) seem to accept the point but in practice do not respond adequately.

The question is complex, because there is the need for an unprecedented effort in innovation, not only scientific and technological, but also economic and political-institutional. There are also other priorities in the energy field. Public decision-makers should concentrate on some system interventions to reduce energy waste where this is more evident, like in transport and urban traffic.

What are the energy choices you consider best, in the middle and long term, looking at the world economy as a whole?

If for energy choices one refers to which primary sources to privilege, it is clear that one should reduce coal consumption (coal is in fact the source emitting the largest quantity of green-house gas for a given energy content), reduce that of oil, use more gas and use renewable energy sources, encouraging research, development and demonstration, so as to make them economically convenient.

One should also consider nuclear energy, now that we can analyze its safety in more relaxed terms than it was possible immediately after Chernobyl. From the point of view of global climate, nuclear energy is incomparably less devastating than fossil fuels, but it is unlikely that it will become a socially acceptable source until the following conditions are fulfilled:

-demonstration of the technical-economic feasibility of a new generation of nuclear reactors endowed with a "passive" or "intrinsic" safety;

-development of reliable technologies for all phases of the nuclear fuel cycle, down to the final disposal of wastes;

-solution to the problem of proliferation of nuclear weapons.

It is clear anyway that to ensure a future to renewable and nuclear energy (even in the light of a long-term development of nuclear fusion), it is necessary that these sources can be compared, under the economic profile, with fossil fuel, the price of which should reflect the diseconomies tied to greenhouse gas emissions. Next to hydro-electricity (presenting a huge unexploited potential in the developing countries), and considering wind energy as usable only in countries with a favourable wind regime, I think that the solar photo-voltaic and new biomasses are, in perspective, the renewable sources on which to count in the long term future, and the ones to concentrate most upon as far as research and development are concerned.

The fact is that current prices of the fossil sources are so low that alternative sources are not competitive. If you want to avoid waiting for the moment when prices of oil and gas will increase consistently because of their imminent exhaustion, one should introduce some correction to their present prices. I am referring, for example, to the imposition of a conspicuous tax on emissions (which could be applied keeping constant the overall fiscal draw, decreasing the taxation of labour, and thus contributing to reducing unemployment). Some countries are moving in this direction, even though too slowly to reach the objective referred to above. Having broken a taboo which was not easy to overcome is good, since contrary interests are so powerful.

How much can energy conservation influence the world energetic balance?

Energy saving, conceived as reduction of wastes in the whole energy cycle and in the adoption of more efficient energy technologies, is already very important and it will be more so in the future. One should add that measuring the result of energy conservation policies is not easy, because as said before, there is a spontaneous trend to improve the energy efficiency, which is connected to the so-called "dematerialization" of the economy (in fact, producing goods with less matter means generally using less energy). In these conditions the risk is to attribute merits to the policies they do not really deserve.

If one should go beyond the Kyoto objectives to achieve more stringent targets of energetic saving, the so-called "no-regret" policies could reveal insufficient. In this case it would be necessary, perhaps at the level of the International Energy Agency and even of the United Nations, to define a kind of "global emergency plan" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 15-20% for each decade. This plan is to remain a dream if citizens do not realize the complex nexus between energy, environment and the economy and decide to end with many "business as usual" policies, the effects of which influence the climate and the environment. The plan could partly be based on the application of technologies to "sequestrate" carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas produced in the burning of fossil fuels, such as re-injecting it into the underground or the deep ocean, to take it away from the atmosphere. Some technological options are currently being studied, from chemical absorption to separation with membranes, to the use of solvents, to cryogenesis, but it is necessary to go deeper into these studies with experimentation, so that to underline costs and advantages of the different options, which could be applied already in the middle term in large fixed plants, like thermoelectric power stations.

You think that renewable sources are a solution for the future?

I do not have any doubt that renewable energies are going to be one of the main components of future energy systems. Once fossil fuels will have been used up (or available only for nobler use giving value to their molecular architecture, like petrochemicals, instead of simply burning them to obtain energy from their consumption), relying on alternative sources will be necessary. At that point there will be the alternative between nuclear energy and a decided development of solar energy and other renewable sources (new biomass, wind, geothermal power). Really more than an alternative between the nuclear and renewable sources, the best choice would be to develop both, since they are complementary, because electro-nuclear energy can be used in relatively large plants, and for a top-down management of production and distribution, whereas renewable energies are normally used in decentralized plants and a bottom-up management.

As far as things go now, however, the development of renewable energies is limited by their limited competitivity compared to hydrocarbons, unless in very special conditions. Also, hitherto there have been little or no incentives for research and development of these sources, of the same kind as those that in the first decades after World War 2 were adopted to favor the development and penetration of nuclear energy. We should not wait for the market to signal the scarcity of fossil fuels through significant price increases: waiting would mean too be fatally late for activating renewable sources, not allowing an orderly transition of the energy system. For this reason it is good to integrate market mechanisms with precise planning actions, and this is the role only governments can take.

Which are the countries the energy policy of which you mostly agrees upon?

Japan demonstrated its capability to set in place a coherent strategy, based on continuously bettering of the energy efficiency and on the gradual substitution of fossil fuels. In Europe I consider positively the Dutch, Danish, German and Norwegian policies (this last country is experimenting also innovative technologies for capturing carbon dioxide). Also the French energy policy has been very effective, even though too concentrated on nuclear, so it is vulnerable under certain aspects.

In Italy, paradoxically, the absence of a longsighted energy policy ended up with allowing the country to profit of the international low price of oil and gas since the middle 1980s, which still lasts. Industrialisation in our country has taken place later in comparison to other European countries, and this too has a positive side, reflecting in a greater energy efficiency of industrial activities, and in the more relevant weight that smaller, low-cost cars have in our country, whose energy consumptions are relatively low. The moment as now come for Italy to define strategic objectives in energy and the environment, and to create conditions to achieve them using market forces as far as possible.

The United States have the highest per capita energy consumptions among the larger industrial countries, but the country will make the bigger steps forward in technologies also regarding energy efficiency and, under the institutional viewpoint, in bringing about innovations to spread new technologies without a top-down approach. In these last years there was the example of the "emission trading rights" (if a country cannot reduce their emissions in compliance with the International conventions, it can help financially another country, less developed technologically, to reduce emission proportionally). This proposal was taken on an international level as a matter of principle at Kyoto.

Finally, we should not believe that the most interesting policies come from the industrialised countries. The People's Republic of China, for example, is well aware of its environmental responsibilities and of the weight of its energy policy as regards global warming. For this reason it tries to orient its energy choices toward the introduction of advanced technologies, enabling an improvement of the general performance of its energy system. But China should be helped, both technologically and financially, in this effort, because its economy grows at a very fast rate, and coal is in practice the energy source on which the country bases its future, at least in the next 30-40 years. If one only considers that China is the country whose population is about a quarter of mankind, sustaining China in this effort and financing energy projects based on efficient and clean coal technologies, would be, quoting the unforgettable Aurelio Peccei, on the part of affluent countries, the demonstration of an attitude of "long-term, enlightened self-interest".

(Translation by Simona Bernabei)