The G7 pledge earlier this month to phase out fossil fuels by 2100 is a historic announcement. The statement by world leaders from the United States, Japan, Canada and Europe put energy and the environment at the centre of the summit and could now help catalyse a new global agreement on climate change, to replace the Kyoto Protocol, later this year.
However, important as the pledge is, it needs to be put in the context of the fact that many countries are already signed up to deep carbon emission cuts by mid-century. For instance, the United States has committed to an 83% reduction in such emissions on 2005 levels by 2050, while the United Kingdom has proposed cuts of some 80% on 1990 levels by 2050. Outside of the G7, others, including my own country of the Netherlands, have pledged similar reductions.
As we prepare for deep cuts in greenhouse gases and decarbonisation of the global economy, a key question is how can we best prepare for the complex changes this will necessitate. And this must be achieved, of course, at the same time as ensuring our continued prosperity.
Much of the debate, right now, is focused on the optimal energy mix between fossil fuels and clean energies like solar and wind. Important as this debate is, a potentially bigger and broader issue we face in Europe is creating 'new' flexible systems and infrastructure for clean energy which is much less transportable than fossil fuels.
At present, transport and storage of fossil fuels are mainly operational activities: we simply arrange them. However, it will soon be necessary for better conversion and storage of energy to form a strategic bridge so that supplies of renewables like wind and solar, and fluctuating demand across the continent can be better balanced out, with shortfalls in demand or supply in one part of the continent matched elsewhere.
Upgrading Europe's transport, storage and conversion from operational to strategic activities will require system integration: of technical systems, commerce and infrastructure, and especially regulation and policy. Such a coherent and coordinated system will offer massive possibilities given the diverse range of energies across Europe from solar energy in southern Europe; wind energy in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Northern Germany; nuclear power in France; and hydroelectric power in Scandinavia and the Alps.
However, to realise the potential we need a clear and coherent strategy to make it work, especially given the upcoming window of opportunity offered by the Dutch presidency of the EU in 2016. And this is the reason why Delft University of Technology has produced its European energy plan or vision for 2050 building upon Dutch best practice in the academic and corporate spheres.
Delft's ambition, along with partners such as Groningen University, is to set a comprehensive energy agenda, including for research, in this vital area by offering a clear, future direction for policy, market actors, science and other key stakeholders. The plan draws upon the massive knowledge and expertise that The Netherlands has in the energy arena, with its best-in-class physical infrastructure, strategic location, strong business know-how and innovation and scientific strengths.
Energy and Delft University are inextricably bound to each other. At Delft, our capabilities include more than 700 energy scientists and several thousand students, with the Delft Energy Initiative the key access portal to the energy research, education and innovation at the university.
While relevant technologies currently exist 'on the shelf', our aim is catalysing collaboration and debate between scientists and students and between academia and businesses, government bodies and politicians, to develop the breakthroughs we need, including in energy conversion, storage, trade and transport. In this way, Delft and the Netherlands can make a major contribution to energy innovation and ensure that the issue is made an urgent priority for society as a whole given that availability of clean, reliable and affordable energy is one of the greatest issues facing the entire world in the twenty first century.
All of this can enable what could be one of the most important European economic and political initiatives in decades. That is, facilitating the Netherlands as the potential energy gateway of the continent whereby energy and resource flows come in and are processed, stored and traded in order to serve Europe in a role that parallels the country's centuries-old positioning as a leading centre for trade, transport and handling.
The challenges are real, but if we can surmount them, the prizes will be greater continental energy security, and a new foundation stone for sustainable growth. Will our leaders seize the opportunity, or let it slip?