A Sustainable Ethics for Future Energy Systems

Sustainable energy systems are undoubtedly a positive technological development from a moral point of view. Many of these systems, however, are themselves not free from ethical controversies. Some controversies emerge from the conceptual confusion accompanying the notion of sustainability, and some appear when sustainability is confronted with other environmental, economic, and socio-political values. This research project aims at (i) the analysis of the notion of sustainability in the context of the discussion of future energy systems, (ii) the development of a normative framework (a sustainable ethics) for the moral evaluation of sustainable energy systems, and (iii) recommendations for the use of such an assessment framework in R&D processes.

Problem formulation

Recent reports by the UN Commission on Climate Change and the public discussion that followed have once more confirmed what specialist already knew for a long time, namely that sustainable development and sustainable energy are imperative.

The notion of sustainability and sustainable development is not new to the public and scientific discourse, and to moral theory. However, there is no agreement about the very concept of sustainability, both in the media and among the specialists. There is a conceptual vagueness leading to many misunderstandings and confusions. But apart from this distinction between more appropriate and less appropriate uses of the term, there is a real difference between narrow conceptions of sustainability that only focus on ecological aspects, and broad conceptions that include economic and social-cultural dimensions as well.

In the meantime the public and scientific debate on sustainability and sustainable energy has acquired a new sense of urgency. Consequently there is a real need to clarify these concept¬ual differences, and to settle them if possible. In the public domain there is also a justified demand for a concept of sustainability concept that enables one to differentiate more easily between actual sustainable practices and those which only pretend to be such.

Internal and external complexities

The situation gets even more problematic when we are to evaluate a particular technology as sustainable. For example, there is no agreement whether nuclear power systems such as light water reactors could be regarded as sustainable energy systems, given the non-infinite resources of uranium. The question whether energy sources should be renewable introduces a time horizon in the discussion: a short term versus a long term notion of sustain¬ability. But even if this issue could be settled, it is still very hard to determine whether nuclear power energy systems fulfil the requirements of “intergenerational fairness”, or of “living harmoniously with nature.” The conceptual difficulties and ambiguities of the notion of sustainability on the one hand and the lack of clear criteria for the application of the concept in concrete cases on the other, are called the internal complexities of sustainability in this research project.

These internal complexities are accompanied by another set of obstacles involved in the evaluation of technologies that are being implemented. These external complexities are twofold. Firstly, the requirement of sustainability may conflict with other environmental, economic, and cultural or socio-political requirements. For instance, building big windmills closely to the human settlements could therefore be problematic. Although the technology it¬self probably fulfils the requirements of long-term sustainability, it wrecks the landscapes, it constitutes hazard for animals, and finally, it might get noisy and hence disturbing for the people living nearby, which contrasts their right to “live long dignified, comfortable, and productive lives”. There is a real question how to settle these issues.

Secondly, the pluralism of notions of sustainability is often related to the interests of the various stakeholders invol¬ved. One should not be naive in thinking that a conceptual analysis of the notion of sustainability by itself will solve problems in the application of the concept or that conflicts of interests can be settled this way. There is a real need here for an approach that digs up and exploits the common ground of the various stakeholders and that shows a way out in the labyrinth of the debate about sustainability. In this study the common ground will be investigated from an ethical point of view.

Towards a sustainable ethics

The conceptual analysis of the various notions of sustainability will predominantly be carried out in terms of the ethical norms, values and principles involved. On the basis of this analysis an outline will be formulated for a sustainable ethics, i.e., a normative framework that could serve both as a theoretical background for addressing sustainability problems and as a practical tool for the evaluation of particular sustainable (energy) technologies. This framework, meant to address both the internal and external complexities of sustainability, will contain both substantial and procedural elements.

Case studies will function as a source of inspiration and as a reality check for the framework developed. More specifically, direct and indirect (biologically stored) solar energy technologies that are currently being developed in the 3TU.Centre for Sustainable Energy Technologies serve as a case study and starting point of the research. The focus on the R&D phase of new technologies is not meant to exclude the implementation phase of new technologies. On the contrary, it is meant to anticipate in the R&D phase possible moral issues in the implementation phase by developing better alternatives.