Bernardo M. Villegas
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Moral Dimensions of Renewable Energy (Part 2)

           Whenever business people or policy makers justify the use of fossil fuels like petroleum or coal in the generation of electricity, there is always the major argument that these sources of energy are still the cheapest way of producing goods or services and of generating employment, especially for a developing economy.  These arguments, however, do not take into account the following moral guideline contained in Laudato Si:  “In the face of possible risks to the environment which may affect the common good now and in the future, decisions must be made ‘based on a comparison of the risks and benefits foreseen for the various possible alternatives’.  This is especially the case when a project may lead to a greater use of natural resources, higher levels of emission or discharge, an increase of refuse, or significant changes to the landscape, the habitats of protected species or public spaces.  Some projects if insufficiently studied, can profoundly affect the quality of life of an area due to very different factors such as unforeseen noise pollution, the shrinking of visual horizons, the loss of cultural values, or the effects of nuclear energy use.  The culture of consumerism, which prioritizes short-term gain and private interest, can make it easy to rubber-stamp authorizations or to conceal information.”

          Implicit to these guidelines is the very important moral principle of double effect.  Whenever there are actions which are good in themselves (such as producing certain goods or services to meet the needs of consumers) but which have negative side effects (such as pollution), a number of conditions have been specified by moral philosophers to determine whether such an action with a negative side effect is ethically licit. One of the leading business ethicists in the world, Dr. Domenec Mele of the IESE Business School, has written several books in which these conditions are enumerated (Business Ethics in Action, Palgrave, Macmillan, 2009). These conditions are:  (1) There is no better acceptable alternative.  At times, with a little creativity and professional competence, the decision makers can come up with a better alternative than “do this” or “do nothing.”  (2)  There is a just cause for the decision.  This is generally present in any legitimate business involved in the production of goods or services for the market.  (3)  The action itself is not intrinsically wrong.  Again, this condition is easy to comply with in any legitimate business.  (4)  The bad effects are proportionate to the necessity of the action or decision.  Are the goods produced by the polluting technology really of greater human value to the public than the damage to the environment now and in the future.  Basic goods such as food, water, education, health for the masses may warrant the toleration of some environmental pollution.  On the other hand, if most of the goods produced are for the satisfaction of non-basic and frivolous consumption of the affluent, this condition may not be fulfilled.  An analogous case involving the destruction of the environment is the production of sophisticated personal care products for the higher-income markets from palm oil produced by cutting virgin forests.  (5) Reasonable means will be employed to minimize negative secondary effects. This is especially applicable to the renewable energy sector.  As discussed above, both the private sector and the Government must do everything possible to fund research on sources of energy that do not lead to the destruction of the environment.  (6)  “The purpose of monitoring and evaluating the situation periodically.  Circumstances can change and, inasmuch as there are negative effects, practical wisdom requires period monitoring and evaluation to establish whether the situation has persisted and to ensure that the means to minimize negative effects are being implemented correctly, or whether they might be enhanced, perhaps, by technological updates.”  Without doubt, this fits to a T the issue of solar in which, as mentioned above, prices of photovoltaic cells are dropping precipitously and enhancing technologies like battery plants for the storage of solar energy are becoming more sophisticated.  (7) Take steps to find some alternative that avoids actions with double effects in the future.  This again reiterates the need to devote more funding to Research and Development into renewable sources of energy.

          We need more leaders in the energy sector who are really committed to the common good of society, over and above pursuing profits for the investors and higher salaries for themselves. We also need policy makers and regulators in the public sector who truly understand the delicate balance between the advantages of a market approach to the delivery of electricity and other energy products to the public and the indispensable role of the State in incentivizing the appropriate investments (for example, in batteries for the storage of solar or wind energy) and in ensuring that there is no monopoly or oligopoly power that existing players are able to capture in any of the stages of energy production, transmission, distribution, and retail.   The energy sector is too crucial in attaining integral human development to leave completely in the hands of free market forces.  For comments, my email address is