The UN has declared 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, with a clear message that renewable energy can challenge poverty. In this article, Vicky Kenrick explores future trends within the energy and environment sector, specifically identifying how these critical global trends lead to growth areas within renewable energy, energy management, carbon and climate change and waste management.

The energy context

The importance of creating a sustainable future, one that can provide enough electricity for our growing population, is put in the spotlight at the beginning of 2012. The need for progress in terms of clean energy production is clear, with the Earth’s seven billionth citizen being born on 31 October 2011 and given that half the world's population lives without modern energy. The global aim of 30% of the world's energy mix being provided by renewable energy sources by 2050, set out in the Sustainable Energy Trade Agreement (SETA), is core to ensuring future generations are equipped with sustainable energy. However, this target assumes a very rapid growth rate in renewable energy development, which will in turn require significant effort and sustained investment. Not only does this signal a rise in job opportunities for skilled renewable energy professionals but it also reinforces the importance and need to move out of energy poverty in order to reach such targets. With this, a long overdue global consensus is emerging, led by the UN and its Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which “recognises the importance of sustainable energy access for the well-being of the world's people, the future of the global economy and the preservation of our planet”.

Delivering on the energy agenda

It is clear that energy is moving up the political agenda but these high-level declarations must be translated into delivery, in ways that make a meaningful and positive difference across the developing world. However, with the conclusion of the COP 17 climate change talks in South Africa, it is unclear whether the United States , India and China can agree a deal to move forward beyond the current Kyoto Protocol.

Good news points towards an increased awareness and attention on carbon management and climate change brought about by COP 17, and in turn corporations are increasingly becoming more aware of the effects of climate change. Following COP 17, there will be even more pressure on them to reduce and monitor their carbon emissions and adapt to certain mechanisms and processes to do so. Overall, the beginning of 2012 could see corporations worldwide leveraging new green opportunities. These include leveraging green finance, investing in renewable energy and environmental design, combined with a new sustainable marketplace — companies that become aware of these trends and utilise strategic opportunity will obtain a competitive advantage. According to Duane Newman, Director of Sustainability and Climate Change at Deloitte, “Businesses that ignore environmental issues do so at their own peril”.

CRC Performance League Table As recently as 8 November 2011, the Environment Agency unveiled a new league table ranking 2000 organisations according to how they manage energy use under the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC). “The Performance League Table will help organisations compare performance with competitors as well as gain recognition for their efforts from consumers and investors”, says a spokeswoman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. In addition, James Ramsay, Head of CRC at Carbon Clear, said the results show there is still “huge room for improvement”.

The results of the league table show that 40% — including many big brands — failed to score a single point. This is a clear indicator that energy management and monitoring of data is not being carried out as efficiently as it should be, opening up job opportunities for carbon and energy managers and further highlighting the relevance of 2012 being the year for sustainable energy for all.

Waste and water management

According to the UN, between now and 2025, the world population will increase by 20% to reach 8 billion inhabitants.

As the world becomes more densely populated and with a global financial downturn facing everyone, there is inevitable pressure on waste management systems. With predicted changes to the waste composition, there is a definite need for strategic and planned waste management systems throughout the globe being managed by an increasing number of waste professionals. In addition, the strain of population growth also puts pressure on worldwide water usage and management. Water is used to produce nearly all forms of energy and with demands on energy production increasing, the subject of water engineering is becoming increasingly important globally for the future of humankind, not only for the development of energy but also as a vital resource within for food, medicine, land use and mining.

Securing sustainable energy for all

Energy and environmental legislation, cost savings and desire for public environmental credentials are a driving force in the industry. There is sufficient oil supply for another 50 years, according to a research report by HSBC senior global economist Karen Ward, and gas for another 100–200 years. However, with demand for oil and gas increasing, the cost of extraction rising and greater emphasis on the preservation of our natural environment, the industry faces a challenging future, with the focus on renewable energy to secure sustainable energy for all, in the long term. Positive steps have been taken by leading global corporations, which are actively promoting and investing in the production of renewable energy. In fact, global investment in renewable energy has increased by 30% between 2009 and 2010, reaching levels of $243 billion. This growth is attributable not only to the utility companies seeking to comply with carbon emission reduction requirements, but also to corporate organisations’ sustainability efforts.

Also, excitingly, there is an increased trend for larger corporations to become part of the growing global renewable energy revolution themselves and invest in or build their renewable energy projects portfolio. With 2012 labelled the year for sustainable energy for all, a further push is welcome from these corporations. However, moving into 2012, renewable energy is entering a new chapter with winners and losers emerging. Although the renewable energy industry has enjoyed great success over the past decade, with research by RenewableUK highlighting that the number of staff employed full-time on large-scale offshore and onshore green energy projects increased from 4800 in 2007 to around 9200 last year, a boom and bust situation is arising. China is emerging as a key player for renewable energy generation but the UK and Europe face a possible decline in wind energy generation. To eradicate energy poverty, it is in fact a good sign that new renewables markets are emerging in developing countries as governments in Bangladesh, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand and the Pacific Islands set policies designed to cut their reliance on fossil fuels.

Is it too late already?

Making a transition to more sustainable renewable energy production may, unfortunately, not be enough to reverse climate change and we could instead be presented with a lost battle, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned.

The central problem, resulting in this warning by the IEA, is that most of the industrial infrastructure already in existence around the world — the fossil-fuelled power stations, the factories and inefficient transport and buildings — are already contributing to the current high level of emissions and will continue to do so for decades to come.

Meanwhile, the growth of the global population places intense pressure on the demand for resources such as water, which is another area in which the demand for highly skilled professionals is on the increase. Increasing agricultural farming, global mining activities and energy production all put a strain on our limited water supply. Integration of water management is key to effecting environmental and economic factors in business. It is no surprise that water management is becoming a key focus in managing a sustainable business. Industrial and domestic water supply is coming under increasing pressure from demographic and climatic changes; it is the treatment processes and water engineering activities that are playing a key role in delivering safe, reliable water supplies to households, industry and agriculture, and in safeguarding the quality of water in rivers, lakes, aquifers and around coastal areas.

Conclusion

Although the recession has impacted the global jobs market, the sustainability industry is possibly not suffering as much as others may be. Job creation in the expanding sectors described within this article could also help the global economic recovery. The increase in the world’s population points towards a greater stress on our resources and the vital need to address sustainable energy development, water management and waste infrastructures for our future generations; all of which require rare, technically skilled and specialist professionals.

Last reviewed 5 January 2012