Technology alone will not solve energy crisis

Developing alternative technology will not be enough Copyright: Flickr/kquedquest

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The world must not miss its second chance to take a radically different approach to energy consumption.

There is a strong sense of déjà vu in the bleak picture that the International Energy Agency (IEA) –– sometimes described as "the rich world’s energy watchdog" –– painted last week of likely global energy consumption over the next two decades, and its consequences for climate change (see ‘China, India must adopt sustainable energy plans’).

In the early 1970s, open conflict between the Arab states and Israel set oil prices skyrocketing. Simultaneously, the Club of Rome and other organisations warned that the world risked running out of many key natural resources. Both led to widespread calls for massive investment in alternative renewable-energy sources, and for new, non-energy-intensive lifestyles.

Some international and national movement in this direction followed — the IEA and ministries of energy were created, for example. But much of the warning was ignored. And when the price of oil subsided in the 1980s, the political impetus for radical change evaporated.

The foolhardiness of this short-sightedness has now come back to haunt the developed world in the shape of global warming. If the lessons of the 1970s had been properly heeded, even though the risk of human-induced climate change was unsuspected at the time, we would be in a much better position to meet the threat it poses today.

China and India as contributors

Any doubts about the gravity of not taking action are dispelled by a close reading of the IEA report, ‘The World Energy Outlook 2007’. Although this focuses on the particular risks posed by the evolution of China and India into major economic powers, it has comparable, if not greater, significance for the rest of the world.

The report points out that if nations stick to existing policies, in what it describes as a "reference scenario", the world’s energy needs would be more than 50 per cent higher in 2030 than they are today (and carbon emissions 57 per cent higher). China and India would jointly account for almost half of this increase in primary energy demand, with their energy use being set to more than double over the next 25 years as they pursue economic growth.

Much worse is predicted for the anticipated ″high-growth scenario″ in the economies of China and India. This would lead to a further 21 per cent increase in energy demand from these two countries in 2030, and a further 7 per cent rise in global carbon dioxide emissions.

A more modest growth in energy demand, based on government policies under consideration, would lead to global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions levelling off in the 2020s through, for example, widespread adoption of tougher energy-efficiency standards. But even under this "alternative scenario", the IEA report predicts that global carbon dioxide emissions would still increase by one quarter by 2030.

Controlling greenhouse gases

Only under the report’s "stabilisation scenario" — described as a "notional pathway" to long-term stabilisation of levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — would global carbon dioxide emissions fall sharply below 2005 levels by 2030. This would be achieved through improved efficiency in industry, buildings and transport, switching to nuclear power and renewable-energy sources, and the widespread deployment of carbon dioxide capture and storage.

But this will require "unprecedented technological advances, entailing substantial costs". Indeed, one of the main recommendations in the report is for "a substantial increase […] in public and private funding for energy technology research, development and demonstrations, which remains well below levels reached in the early 1980s."

The task is not unprecedented. As countries such as the United States have amply demonstrated in the past, crash research and development programmes — for example, to build an atomic bomb or to put a man on the moon — are entirely feasible, given adequate mobilisation of human and financial resources and, above all, political will.

Global warming is even more of a threat than the factors that goaded the United States into action back then, from Japan and the Soviet Union, respectively. There is no reason why such political commitment should not be generated globally to stimulate a similar type of response. This should be one of the tasks addressed by the signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change when they meet in Bali next month.

Clamping down on energy consumption

But developing new technology to meet the terms of the stabilisation scenario will not be enough. Equally important is the political task of making people worldwide move away from high energy-consuming practices, the only way to create a globally sustainable society. This in turn means curtailing the power of those whose political influence rests on such practices, such as the motor and oil industries.

Global warming is increasingly recognised as possibly the biggest "market failure" the world has experienced. The Economic Outlook report — produced by an organisation that, as part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), represents the energy interests of the world’s leading capitalist societies — implicitly acknowledges this. As Nobuo Tanaka, executive director of the IEA, put it last week, "All countries must take vigorous, immediate and collective action to curb runaway energy demand."

Ironically, even though China is identified as a major contributor to the impending global energy crisis, it is also in the vanguard of potential political solutions. A combination of substantial commitment to renewable-energy research, plus a willingness to impose draconian restrictions on energy-consuming technologies, is the only way forward for China and the rest of the world.

In the 1970s, the failure of those who espoused alternative technology scenarios to take on board the political nature of the challenge they faced led to the marginalisation of their ideas. It would be a tragedy –– and possibly an irreversible one this time –– if history were allowed to repeat itself.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net, and author of Alternative Technology and the Politics of Technical Change (London, 1973).