Giancarlo Elia Valori
The years 2020 and 2021 will go down in history as the two-year period of the Covid-19 pandemic, a global health catastrophe which, although less severe than the two great pandemics of the 20th century – the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920 and the Asian flu pandemic of 1958-1960 – has caused and is still causing not only extremely severe health problems for millions of world’s citizens, but also severe negative social and economic repercussions.
Once the world has overcome the health emergency, thanks to vaccines and ‘herd immunity’, all nations shall deal with the economic and social consequences of the pandemic, against which the governments’ ability to ensure their citizens not only health protection, but also new and more appropriate living conditions, will be measured.
It will be a complex challenge which, however, could also be a historic opportunity to launch new development models capable of improving not only people’s living conditions, but also the environment in which we live, with new and daring energy policies.
Fortunately, the plans for recovering from the disastrous economic consequences of the pandemic are all oriented towards what has been defined in Italy – even at institutional level – as the “Ecological Transition”, a formula aimed at planning and orienting the exit from the economic crisis towards an ever wider use of alternative energy sources.
According to the latest report (December 2020) by the International Energy Agency (IEA), “renewable energies can be defined as almost immune to the economic aspects of the pandemic”.
Although global energy demand fell by 5% in 2020 due to the collapse of industrial production, the consumption of solar, wind and wave energy increased by 7% over the same period.
Furthermore, the health crisis is leading to the gradual closure of old fossil fuel infrastructure.
The IEA Executive Director, Faith Birol, however, said that ‘renewable energy is resilient to the Covid-19 crisis, but not to political uncertainty… governments should contribute to achieve sustainable recovery with the transition to clean energy’.
As emphasized by Birol, if “the policies promised by President Biden during the election campaign are implemented in the United States”, America could provide a major contribution to the decarbonisation of the energy sector in the coming years.
However, a symbolic step of great political significance has already been taken by the new President who, as first measure adopted just a few hours after taking office, signed the directive bringing the United States back within the scope of the 2012 Paris Agreements on combating climate change – agreements from which Donald Trump had blatantly dissociated himself.
According to the IEA study, renewables will grow substantially worldwide in 2021, driven by the commitment and efforts of China and the United States, while India and Europe will also play their part with a 10% growth in clean energy production.
The most successful technologies will be those in the wind, hydroelectric, marine and photovoltaic sectors.
Again according to the IEA, “the total installed wind, solar and marine capacity is bound to overtake natural gas in 2023 and coal in 2024”.
In all experts’ opinion, however, the rise of renewables and the consequent greater environmental protection shall be guided and led by politics, with a view to winning the bet of a positive exit from the Covid-19 crisis not only with a return to the pre-pandemic status quo, but also and above all with the laying of solid foundations for a better world.
As mentioned above, China is proving to be the driving force behind the ‘turning green’ in energy production.
After being one of the countries mostly responsible for global pollution and global warming due to the whirlwind pace of its economic development, the People’s Republic of China has launched a new five-year plan (the 14th one) within which – as said by the young Minister of Natural Resources, Lu Hao – “China shall develop and promote the harmonious coexistence of man and nature, through the all-round improvement of resource use efficiency and a proper balance between protection and development”.
It is an important commitment that China has immediately undertaken, by concretely promoting research and development in the field of electricity production from sea waves and hydrogen production through water electrolysis, also through innovative models of scientific cooperation with Europe.
In its five-year plan, China foresees that in 2030 carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP will be reduced by 65% compared to 2005, and that renewable and clean energy will rank first in energy production.
The European Union will invest 470 billion euros in research and development projects in the field of clean energy, with a particular focus on energy production from hydrogen – as part of a project launched in the summer of 2020, called “Hydrogen Energy Strategy” – thanks to which by 2024 the European Union will equip itself with devices for the electrolysis of renewable hydrogen, capable of outperforming non-renewable and polluting energies, with the production of one million tonnes of clean hydrogen.
Europe has always been at the forefront of marine energy production and has developed technologies that have rapidly spread to the United States, Australia and, above all, China.
Italy is at the forefront of research and production of clean energy from waves and hydrogen.
It has developed the ‘Penguin Wave Energy Converter’, a device which – placed at a depth of 50 metres in sea water – produces energy without any negative impact on flora and fauna.
The same holds true for the Inertial Sea Wave Energy Converter (ISWEC). It is a device which, occupying a sea section of only 150 square metres, produces 250 MWh of electricity annually, thereby cutting production and CO2 emissions by 68 tonnes a year.
Equipment for hydrogen production through electrolysis on an industrial scale will also be made in Italy and will produce 100,000 tonnes of ‘clean’ hydrogen annually within the next 15 years.
It is in this perspective that the ‘China-Europe Cooperation Project for Power Generation and Hydrogen Production from Sea Waves and Other Renewable Energy Sources’ is taking shape, upon the initiative of the Rome-based International World Group and the Shenzen-based ‘National Ocean Technology Centre’.
The agreement is designed to laying the foundations for the development of synergies and coordinated efforts, which will spread from Europe to the rest of the world through the “Belt and Road Initiative”, for the production of clean energy from sea waves in a world where 40% of population lives within 100 kilometres of the nearest sea.
In the coming decades, the production of clean energy and the gradual abandonment of the most polluting production sources will not only have positive economic effects in the field of industrial production.
Clean energy is destined to become a factor of balanced and sustainable growth, thus laying the foundations for new socio-economic development models paving the way for effective globalisation of the climate and environmental problems created by these twentieth-century production models which, albeit having contributed to the progress of humanity, had also reached the point of causing its collapse.
Europe, the United States, China and Italy can become the centres of gravity of a strategy for ‘turning green’, capable of protecting not only the wellbeing of future generations, but also their health.
In the world to come after the pandemic, the environment must stop being merely an asset to be protected and safeguarded, but must become the engine of a new more humane, more efficient, cleaner and more intelligent development model.