By Maria Petrova, Ph.D, Program Co-Director of the Masters of Science in Environment and Sustainability Management, Georgetown University
If you are a college student born at the turn of the 21st century, you have helped create a paradigm shift in how people live, how companies operate, and how policymakers lead in response to the century’s most pressing crisis: the climate disaster. Your generation – Gen Z – value sustainability more than any other generation, affecting how you eat, shop, and vote. A recent UK survey found that three quarters of Gen Zers value the sustainability of a product over a brand name. As your generation joins the workforce, your buying decisions will gain increasing purchasing power which will add pressure on companies to ramp up their sustainability efforts. Importantly, you’ll gain power to implement changes within the organizations you work for.
At its core, sustainability is about questions of energy. If you are pursuing a degree or have already entered the workforce, think critically about the way we produce and consume energy. Learning about our energy system and acting to change it will have a monumental impact on the 21st century’s paradigm shift towards a sustainable future.
Here are seven reasons to learn about energy:
- Energy is at the heart of everything.
Energy is ubiquitous: It turns on your computer, charges your phone, heats your shower on a cold day and cools your house in the summer heat. Energy powers the economy. If you haven’t considered the importance of energy before, try naming one thing you’ve done today that doesn’t require a form of energy.
Action item: Find out where your household’s energy comes from. Take a look into your city’s energy infrastructure. Which sectors consume the most energy in your state? How does this compare nationally? Globally? You might find, for example, that the average American uses almost twice the energy than the average person in France and more than 11 times the average in India.
- Global energy access reduces inequality.
In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal #7 calls for ensuring global access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services by 2030. In 2020, 733 million people lacked access to electricity and 2.4 billion people – one-third of the world’s population – lacked access to clean cooking. Many in developing countries continue to get their energy from obsolete technologies such as biomass.
Action item: Work towards achieving the SDGs. Learn how to enhance international cooperation to facilitate access to clean energy, expand infrastructure, and upgrade technology to supply modern and sustainable energy services for all. Get involved in global energy access efforts. Contact your representatives. Support or join an organization dedicated to universal access to sustainable energy.
- The more energy consumed, the more carbon emitted.
The per capita energy consumption has grown sharply, leading to a spike in greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the energy sector is responsible for three quarters of current carbon emissions. The volume of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere shot past a critical milestone in May 2022: 421 parts per million, more than 50% higher than pre-industrial times. For comparison, prior to the late 19th century industrial revolution, carbon dioxide levels were at 280 parts per million. Scientists warn that to reduce the human impact on the environment and keep temperatures steady, carbon dioxide should stay at a level of 350 parts per million or below.
Action item: Work to reduce energy consumption in your own life, and urge others to do the same. In 2020, the CO2 emissions per capita in America reached 13.68 tons. According to BCC, taking one less long-haul flight per year can save 1.68 tons of CO2 equivalent, taking public transport can save 0.98 tons, and using renewable-based heating can save 0.64 tons. Even small actions make a difference: Buy local or in-season produce, take the stairs, turn off the lights when you leave a room (an LED light saves up to 90% of energy compared to a traditional bulb of the same output). Propose to the organizations, institutions, and workplaces that you are part of steps on how they can change their energy consumption and efficiency.
- A switch to renewables is urgently needed.
Scientists, business executives, and policy makers agree that to prevent climate change, we need to rapidly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and switch to renewable sources of energy. Yet, to date, renewable energy constitutes only 17.7% of total global energy consumption. The speed and scale of this transition must accelerate to reduce the effects of climate change. Although wind and solar plants became 70% and 89% cheaper in the last ten years, respectively, their capacity must exceed that of coal and gas in less than five years. Fortunately, when countries like the U.S. deploy renewables, they lower the costs for everyone and make the technologies accessible to the entire world. It helps that the world’s largest economies–those part of the G7–have agreed to stop funding any overseas fossil fuel developments from the end of this year, which will help shift about $33 billion a year from fossil fuels to clean energy sources.
Action item: Understand how renewable energy innovation works and encourage organizations to adopt renewables faster. Research green energy procurement and ensure it is a good fit for your home and the organizations, institutions, and workplaces that you are part of. Help policy makers streamline policies and targets to increase the adoption of renewables. Get in touch with renewable energy installers to inquire about putting solar panels on your roof or installing a heat pump.
- Electrification across all sectors is a good starting point.
Worldwide, the share of renewables in electricity generation has increased to almost 30% in 2021– up from 27% in 2019. However, electricity production is only 18% of total energy use; heat production and transportation complete the other 82%. Cars, trucks and other parts of the transportation sector are some of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. The transportation sector is the top source of emissions in California and the second largest in New Zealand. It is commendable that California is moving to ban sales of new gas-powered cars in the state by 2035 and New Zealand wants 30% of all car sales to be electric by 2035 as well.
Action item: As competition in the electric vehicle market grows and electric vehicles become more affordable, think about programs that offer incentives for people and organizations to get rid of older, gas-guzzling cars. Many EVs are very expensive and beyond the reach of the average U.S. household income; however, economies of scale and proper incentives can make EVs more affordable. Understand the complexities of electrification with its requirements for robust energy grid infrastructure.
- Energy is a job-creator.
The energy transition is expected to generate jobs. The International Labor Organization estimates that the green economy could create 24 million jobs by 2030. For example, the number of jobs in energy efficiency is expected to soar to almost 36 million in 2050 from about 17 million today. The increase in renewables and environment jobs will go up much faster than jobs in the oil and gas sector as well. According to a 2022 LinkedIn report, “In the last five years, the number of Renewables & Environment jobs in the U.S. has increased by 237% in stark contrast to the 19% increase for Oil & Gas jobs.” With this rate of increase, LinkedIn predicts that jobs in the Renewables & Environment sector will exceed jobs in the Oil & Gas sector by 2023.
Action item: New jobs will be created by adopting sustainable practices in the energy sector, including changes in the energy mix, promoting the use of electric vehicles and improving the energy efficiency of buildings. Take energy-related courses, get a certificate, and try to learn as much as you can about energy. Pick an energy field that interests you and become a leader in it.
- Energy can help create stronger communities and serve as a bridge for reducing inequalities.
Falling energy prices mean that people’s real incomes rise. Investments to scale up energy production with cheap electric power from renewable sources are an opportunity not only to reduce emissions, but also to achieve economic growth – particularly for the poorest places in the world. In addition, the transition to renewables provides an opportunity for communities to decide where and how they want their power to come from. Installing community energy projects via a collaborative spatial planning process will lead to stronger, more collaborative communities with expanded self-governance.
Action item: Learn how spatial planning and stakeholder engagement can aid the energy transition and help lead the way. Work with communities to help them envision what type of energy future they want to invest in. Understand how the adoption of renewable energy spreads, analyze the barriers for adoption and work with communities to help with the implementation and increased access to renewables.
In a time when sustainability requires transformative leaders, understanding the opportunities that energy can provide is key for spearheading the path to a brighter and more sustainable future: a future, designed and led by YOU.