The planetary perspective

The world is going through epochal upheavals: the climate crisis, pandemic and wars necessitate a renegotiation of socio-political issues. The same goes for energy supply, because aside from innovation and technology, the way we want to live as a society counts here too, Dr. Frederic Hanusch maintains.

Dr. Hanusch, there is a lot going on, on our planet right now – does it actually make sense to look at major crises separately?

What we are seeing now are multiple developments that influence each other. We see how we need to look at the big picture, at the interactions between societies and what is happening to our planet. We need a new perspective.

We need to realize that we don’t live on a planet, we are part of it.

What perspective do you suggest? 

We need to realize that we do not live on a planet, we are part of it. Planet Earth will continue to exist even if we humans aren’t there anymore, but each of our actions or inactions has an impact on our continued existence here. This is the perspective we would like to spread with planetary thinking. 

A planetary view might make you think that the energy issue concerns the global population as a whole, and not just individual societies, right? 

Exactly, if we look at energy and its use over long periods of time, we see that new dependencies have always emerged. It makes a difference whether societies collect firewood and dung for their own energy needs, use nuclear power, or whether they develop oil fields so they can export and establish state-owned, mostly autocratic structures with the ground rent. It is with this in mind that we should discuss the use of hydrogen. 

You say that social and sociological research on forms of energy is also important for holding a differentiated discussion. Why? 

There are proven interactions between cultures and the types of energy they use. There is always an exchange between the technology itself and the way societies come to terms with it, how they build and use the necessary infrastructure.
So energy and its production often go hand in hand with how societies function in the long term. A purely technological view is not enough to answer a question like: “What kind of hydrogen society do we actually want to live in?” 

Environmental awareness is on the rise – but so are CO2 emissions.

How do today’s societies view the opportunities and risks of different energy sources? 

Large-scale survey models, such as the World Value Surveys, can help us gain insight into the landscape of values the global population has at present. How has environmental awareness changed, for example? However, people’s shifts in attitudes towards specific issues do not necessarily mean that they act accordingly. We see in these surveys that environmental awareness is on the rise – but so are CO2 emissions. 

Could we then use the planetary crises we are currently struggling with as a kind of impetus for developments in the energy sector – and for hydrogen research in particular? 

This constellation has already come up many times over history, yes. Crises such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can serve as such a motivation. Think of the second nuclear phase-out after Fukushima, for example. Sometimes a window of opportunity opens up in which changes are more likely to happen. This could also be the case in the establishment of a hydrogen economy. 

How could producing more energy from hydrogen affect our social structures? 

This is just what we need to explore. We have to study which hydrogen infrastructures prove themselves or where there are conflicts, which ones are socially accepted, and which ones people might even help shape. And we have EU-designated pioneer regions for hydrogen use known as “hydrogen valleys” to help us do so. That is incredibly exciting. Interdisciplinary research would have to be carried out here to find out what is a good fit for the people, the ecological conditions and the local economic actors, while keeping an eye on global interdependencies of future hydrogen exporters. Ideally, the results can provide suggestions for other regions that can be scaled to the local conditions. 

You argue that these results should be classified from a planetary perspective. What opportunities does this present? 

We humans intervene immensely in the Earth system without having suitable political institutions to manage and offset this intervention. This is just where planetary thinking comes in, and we are using our research to develop solutions for this. Our question is: do we want to impose energy carriers upon ourselves? Or do we as humanity want to set something in motion that we will then have to keep under control for a very long time – even generations? Or should we focus on options that we can keep track of over time, like hydrogen as an energy carrier produced with renewable energies? That way, future generations will not have to worry about legacy issues, and we will enable them to live in true freedom.