“We can’t rely on technology alone to decarbonise”
New tech solutions will not solve all our energy problems. To become more sustainable, most of us need to change our lifestyles too. Professor Afzal Siddiqui was very clear when he delivered this message to members of the European parliament.
What are the challenges and opportunities for the EU’s future energy supply? Afzal Siddiqui, Department of Computer and Systems Sciences at Stockholm University, was one of the invited experts to an EU conference in Stockholm on April 24, 2023. We were curious to hear his take on the topic, and what his overall impression was from the day.
Hello Afzal, you were invited to Sveriges Riksdag to talk about EU’s energy challenges. What was the occasion?
“The conference that I attended was organised as part of Sweden’s presidency of the EU. In the morning, there was a panel with representatives from government, the European Commission, and think tanks. This served to set the strategic picture, and the afternoon centred on a panel with energy researchers active in Sweden. Each researcher gave a short statement to identify key technological and policy issues before engaging in Q&A with the European MPs.”
Are you used to speaking in front of EU MPs? What was it like?
“I have interacted with members of the European Commission and the British civil service before, but this was really my first engagement with politicians. I was not sure what to expect, but I enjoyed the experience because these MPs did seem to know the energy landscape well. They were genuinely seeking to gain insights about trade-offs, for example around reducing consumption without affecting vulnerable households. Other trade-offs have to do with how to decouple from fossil fuels without becoming locked in strategically to a third country for raw material and components, or how to share resources across the continent without disadvantaging your own citizens. Overall, it was vigorous and done in the right spirit. Even those MPs who held opposing views to mine were willing to listen!”
What was your main message to the participants?
“My perspective was that we can’t rely on technology alone to decarbonise, because power companies that operate the energy-generation and battery-storage capacity can deploy it strategically to create scarcity in certain periods. Instead, policymakers should understand the firms’ incentives to mitigate undesirable outcomes. They can do this by proactively imposing a sufficiently high carbon price, supporting energy-efficiency measures, and approving new transmission lines. Reducing our consumption and having a more flexible demand side will not only blunt the leverage of strategic firms. It will also reduce our need to build as much capacity in the first place.”
“Going beyond the power sector, I see similar issues as other energy sectors – heating, industrial processes, transport – are electrified. This is why I argued for the need to break from our current paradigm. Indeed, just because we electrify our private vehicles and use electricity to heat our large detached homes will not lead us smoothly to a decarbonised future. We need to address our resource-intensive lifestyles. However, the tech-centric vision of building our way out of this predicament resonates with some politicians. It absolves society – and them – of the need to make difficult choices and to change our behaviour. Yet, by pinning our hopes on technology alone, we may simply repeat the geopolitical blunders of the past by becoming locked into a third country to supply us with raw material and components for batteries and other devices as opposed to fossil fuels.”
How can we tackle the challenges?
“Fortunately, at this critical juncture, we have the choice to break with the past by first removing regulation such as fossil-fuel subsidies, tax breaks for private vehicles, and tax breaks for home renovations that do not improve energy efficiency. Next, we could promote energy pricing that induces consumers to reduce load during peak periods, support more energy-efficient buildings, encourage denser housing, and avail of public transit. Capacity expansion in renewable energy and storage will still be required, but sufficient devotion to the demand side will reduce our vulnerability to strategic behaviour by both our firms and suppliers further up the supply chain.”
What was the reaction from the EU MPs?
“I think that this perspective resonated most with delegates from Southern Europe – who have had to make tough choices already – and the Benelux – who are accustomed to density and cooperation. There was some pushback from Eastern European delegates. They are understandably wary of anything that is tinged with collectivisation, and they have been struggling to shift away from Russian energy supplies. Nevertheless, they have the opportunity to pivot towards an energy system that is more flexible but requires cross-border cooperation. Here is where the EU can facilitate equitable sharing of resources, for example by supporting infrastructure to maintain energy balances.”
Do you have a “dream scenario” for the EU energy policy?
“I think that the EU and Sweden are generally moving in the right direction with carbon pricing and energy efficiency. However, regulation often gets overshadowed by technology, which holds the promise of delivering a carbon-free world without affecting our lifestyles. This is only because the costs of subsidising such a resource-intensive lifestyle are well hidden away along with threats from geopolitical adversaries who may become our suppliers of raw material and components. Again, I do think that most of the MPs are aware of this trade-off but perhaps wary of blowback from a public that has already had to endure a financial crisis, a pandemic, and inflation in the past fifteen years. Just as an example, energy communities that foster locally owned supply matched with flexible demand could serve as catalysts for including citizens as stakeholders in a truly sustainable transition that is tailored to our needs.”
A shorter version of this article is available in Swedish
Afzal Siddiqui is a professor in the Department of Computer and Systems Sciences (DSV), Stockholm University. He is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Mathematics and Systems Analysis at Aalto University, Finland.
Contact information and short bio
The interparliamentary conference “Challenges and opportunities for the EU’s future energy supply” was organised by the Committee on Industry and Trade in Stockholm on April 23–24, 2023. The conference was held at Sveriges Riksdag, streamed online and recorded.
Some 100 members of the European parliament participated in the conference, representing a majority of EU’s member states. The event was part of the Swedish EU presidency January–June 2023.
Afzal Siddiqui participated in the panel debate “Sustainable research, development and innovation as a solution for the EU’s energy challenges” together with Liam Hardey, Cellfion, Valentina Zaccaria, Mälardalen University, and Jessica Jewell, Chalmers University and the University of Bergen, Norway. Moderator for the session was Lina Bertling Tjernberg, KTH.
See the webcast from the conference (the panel starts at 4:53:00)
Visit the Department of Computer and Systems Sciences for more information on our research
Text: Åse Karlén
Last updated: May 4, 2023
Source: Department of Computer and Systems Sciences, DSV