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(06/23/07) -

The Future of Energy in the West

Will the West go nuclear or will it turn towards biofuels?
Gabriela Perdomo – It took too long for some western countries to realize that their dependence on oil must come to an end. Now the future of energy has turned into a heated political topic that is intrinsically related to issues like stability in the Middle East, global warming, the Iraq war, Russia and even Africa.

Gabriela Perdomo – It took too long for some western countries to realize that their dependence on oil must come to an end. Now the future of energy has turned into a heated political topic that is intrinsically related to issues like stability in the Middle East, global warming, the Iraq war, Russia and even Africa.

Part of the debate is where to find new energy sources. Nuclear power and biofuels such as ethanol are being portrayed as part of the solution. Governments in the United States, western European nations and Australia are pushing for both. Public opinion in these regions seems to be biased against nuclear and very warm to biofuels—mainly because of the obvious dangers of nuclear power. Biofuels appear to have become the new fad, but they have their dark side, too.

In the United States, a recent New York Times/CBS News poll revealed that seven-in-ten Americans support the use of ethanol, while 58 per cent of respondents think of nuclear energy as a bad idea. An April survey by Gallup shows 86 per cent of people in the U.S. want the government to invest in finding alternate sources of fuel for cars, while only 50 per cent would endorse a policy focusing on expanding the use of nuclear energy.

Another New York Times/CBS News study found public opinion is evenly divided on whether the U.S. should build more nuclear power plants. In all, what public opinion in the U.S. shows is widespread support for finding new sources of energy, while backing for nuclear power is less strong even if it means both cutting oil dependency and eliminating pollution—two frequent concerns in the country.

In Europe, public opinion is also cold to the idea of increasing the use of nuclear energy. The January Eurobarometer conducted by TNS Opinion & Social shows only 20 per cent of respondents in EU countries are in favour of nuclear power, while 37 per cent are opposed to it. In Britain, ICM Research found that 49 per cent of respondents are against the government’s decision to build more nuclear reactors, while 44 per cent agree. In Switzerland—not an EU member—more than 60 per cent of people reject the proposed construction of a new power plant, according to an Isopublic poll.

In Australia, which boasts large uranium reserves, the government of John Howard has been pushing for the construction of nuclear reactors. A Newspoll found this year that less than half of Aussies want them, and support dwindles significantly if the reactors were to be built close to where respondents live.

In the rush to find a solution for high oil prices and greenhouse gas emissions, global public opinion has already made its pick: biofuels. In the U.S., the government of George W. Bush has embraced the idea and has stopped talking about his previous proposals of building more nuclear power plants. At the moment, the U.S. Congress discusses a bill that would mandate the use of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022, up from 8.5 billion next year.

In Europe, political leaders have also reacted to the likeability of biofuels. This month, EU governments agreed that at least 20 per cent of fuels used on the streets should come from biofuels by 2020.

Still, the strategy is not free of problems. Critics say the main type of biofuel endorsed by both Bush and the EU—corn-based ethanol—is neither eco-friendly nor good for the economy overall. Ethanol is derived from corn, a food crop, and has the dangerous connotation of driving a basic good into the frenzy of the open energy market. It also takes a vast amount of energy to process, which in the end, critics say, makes little difference compared to oil if the point is to reduce pollution.

On Jun. 15, Jean Ziegler, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, criticized governments for rushing into the fad of biofuels, saying, “The development of biofuels poses a great danger for the right to food.”

Although there are studies suggesting other types of ethanol, such as sugar-based ethanol or cellulose ethanol are cleaner, more sustainable and less intrusive to food prices than the one based on corn, this serious alarm has been widely ignored by governments in the U.S. and Europe—perhaps driven by the public’s enthusiasm about biofuels and their rejection towards nuclear energy. One would think they could have thought of a better compromise.