Future Fuels:Moving Beyond Ideology to Meet the Sustainability Imperative

(Originally posted Tuesday 19 July, 2011)

Tomorrow at the Customs House in Brisbane I will be speaking at a Future Fuels Workshop organised by engineers and scientists from The University of Queensland.

Attended by delegates from around Australia and overseas, the workshop, comprised mainly of fuels researchers, aims to share information and ideas about the opportunities to be exploited in the alternative fuels sphere.

Mindful of the issues of peak oil, energy security and the geo-politics and economics of energy flows around the world, much of the focus in the workshop is on gas to liquids, coal liquefaction, and biomass to liquid sources of fuel.

The title of my talk is ‘Future Fuels: Moving Beyond Ideology to Meet the Sustainability Imperative’ and the theme of my presentation is pitched in the following abstract.

Current human development is both unsustainable and calibrated increasingly with inefficient energy intensity and wasteful consumption of non-renewable resources.

Over the coming half century any possibility of humankind achieving sustainable development as well as effectively addressing the causes of anthropocentric global warming will require disruptional levels of technical, economic and social innovation in the human fuel cycle.

Ending energy poverty, de-carbonising the global economy, pre-empting peak oil and climate change impacts while embedding the efficient use of clean sustainable energy is an ambitious agenda which require more than new technologies.

To start with we will not meet the challenges of sustainable development by having an energy debate couched in the old ideologies.

Indeed, the requirements of a sustainable fuel cycle for 11 billion people necessitates a future so different to the past century that the challenge itself can be reduced to a question of whether we humans wish to survive or not.

Assuming humankind has not yet lost the primal instinct for survival, the real questions become ones of at what cost, how, when and at what speed will we resolve the future fuels conundrum?

All of this involves pathways and choices and costs and benefits,  decisions about which should be made using scientific and empirically valid evidence stripped of political prejudice.

The future-defeating claims of fading industries and the distorting gifts and subsidies of pork-barrelling politicians also have no place in building the sustainable energies of the future.


Because on one thing we can be confident: there will be room for all the major energies – nuclear, chemical, photo-mechanical, biological, thermal and hydro – as well as vastly transformed generation and distribution, and utilisation models.

And if the 20th century was an era of proliferation in fuel sources and applications, the 21st century is likely to witness a move toward convergent technology pathways and the hybridisation and integration of differing technologies – all with a view of making the future human condition energy efficient.

It means that in our research and development, we should focus on ensuring future pathways that lead to open doors and optimal options for sustainable resources utilisation, economic and technical efficiency and healthy social dividends.

The technology and investment choices nations make in the next two decades will be important – determining their eventual competitiveness and broader resilience in a late 21st century world almost unimaginably different from today.

Author: Professor John Cole OAM

Professor Emeritus and founder of the Institute for Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and Honorary Professor, UQ Business School, The University of Queensland.

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