Energy is not just about economics
Does Europe need an Ethical Framework for Assessing Research, Production and Use of Energy ? Interview with Prof Emmanuel Agius.
Emmanuel Agius is Professor of Philosophical and Theological Ethics at the University of Malta and one of the Rapporteurs of Opinion 27 of the European Group on Ethics (EGE), the independent advisory body to the European Commission on ethics in science and new technologies in connection with Community legislation or policies.
Prof Agius, does the European Group on Ethics (EGE) advise the EC essentially on bioethical issues?
In its current and previous mandate, the European Group on Ethics (EGE) embarked on Opinions whose focus has moved away from the ethical issues exclusively raised in life sciences, medical research and biotechnology to a much wider range of issues related to the responsible use of all areas of science and technology, both within the EU and beyond.
Indeed, at the beginning of the current mandate (2011-2016), President Barroso stated in his welcome speech to the new EGE that the “European Union is founded on values: respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.” As concrete policy sectors where these values need to be implemented, he referred to “the EU digital agenda, the future 8th EU framework programme for research, the innovation union, international rules on global trade, new applications of science and technology, EU policies on climate change and sustainable use of natural resources, [and] the EU energy policy.” He also exhorted the EGE to play an important role in this process.
And did the EGE explore these new fields and manage to provide expertise?
In contrast to the Opinions produced over the last half-century which addressed primarily ethical analyses in medicine and biology, the first two published Opinions in the current mandate departed from these traditional positions and focused on the ethics of information and communication technologies (Opinion 26) and on an ethical framework for assessing research, production and use of energy (Opinion 27).
Opinion 27 was the subject of a request to the EGE by President Barroso resulting from the political agreement reached on 28 June 2011 at the Competitiveness Council on a Commission proposal for a nuclear research and a training programme for 2012–13. Although the Council’s discussion has been successfully concluded, some Member States felt that a broad discourse on ethical issues and the sustainable energy mix in Europe should take place and indicated the need for having an EGE Opinion.
On 19 December 2011, the President of the European Commission requested the EGE to “contribute to the debate on a sustainable energy mix in Europe by studying the ethical impact of research on different energy sources on human well-being”.
How did the EGE proceed in order to enlighten EU policy-makers on the best energy mix?
First, we decided to identify the ethical criteria regarding the manner in which decisions concerning research on sources of energy (in view of the Council’s decision) are to be taken on an informed basis and the implications arising from the use of energy in different areas; then we proposed an integrated ethics framework for the purpose of addressing the ethical issues related to the production, use, storage and distribution of energy; and finally we identified the ethically relevant areas of energy research.
In its Opinion, the EGE has adopted an integrated ethics approach to achieve an equilibrium between four criteria - access rights, security of supply, safety, and sustainability - in the light of social, environmental and economic concerns. These four criteria are complemented by a horizontal principle, namely justice, which is the foundation for the realisation of human dignity and human rights.
Opinion 27 proposes a number of significant and innovative recommendations for future directions in EU energy policy which so far have been welcomed by EU institutions and many interested stakeholders.
What are your leading recommendations to the EU Commission ?
1. Access to energy: In accordance with the Millennium goals, the right of access to sufficient energy services by European citizens should be secured. This right should be endorsed in the next revision of the Treaty or the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Moreover, an action plan to tackle energy poverty should be implemented.
2. Safety and impact assessment: Data must be transparent on all risk factors in the production and transport of energy, health and environmental consequences, and on the total costs of any kind of energy production. Moreover, impact assessment of any energy source, through its entire life cycle (energy production and use, transport, storage, residues, dismantling and permanent disposal of waste material etc.) should be carried out on a comparative basis including the question of accountability in line with the Lisbon Treaty and the precautionary principle. Strict environmental, safety and social conditions for fracking were recommended.
3. Security of energy supply: Vulnerability due to imported energy sources should be decreased as much as possible by a coordinated policy and by developing European energy smart grids.
4. Sustainability: Policies to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases producing green house effects should be implemented. Moreover, the development and use of low carbon technologies with special attention to renewables should be encouraged. Furthermore, citizens’ awareness (starting from an early age) must be enhanced to adopt new attitudes and lifestyles for responsible uses of energy by promoting and financing educational projects and awareness-raising initiatives (e.g. promoting sustainability in schools).
5. Research: Research on technologies that would contribute to the development of European smart grid infrastructure and storage of energy should be encouraged.
6. Democratic deliberation, participatory instruments and responsibility for future generations. The European Union and its institutions should set up a structure called 'Ombuds-person' to protect the interests of future generations. Its function would not be to decide, but to promote enlightened decisions by bringing into discussions the long-term effects of all political, socio-economic and technological decisions.
Let us hope that future generations will show some gratitude to the present one for the efforts taken to hand over to them a better world with clean, sustainable, secure and safe energy services which are accessible to all.
The interview was conducted by José Ramos-Ascensão