Energy and Climate Change – Fuelling the Future

Published in The World Today, the magazine published by The Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House. It appeared in the September 2005 issue (Volume 61, Number 10).

Energy security and climate security are two issues that will dominate global politics in the 21st Century. The tragic fate of New Orleans has given us a compelling preview of what a world that fails to provide them might look like.

Katrina was not caused by climate change. But climate scientists have long forecast that extreme weather events become more likely in a changing climate. The latest analysis suggests that hurricanes have indeed become more intense in recent decades.

Those of us living in the comfort of the developed world have been given a graphic insight into what a lack of energy and climate security really means. We in Britain had one foretaste during the fuel price protests. Then we found ourselves living in a country with plentiful supplies of food and no means of getting that food to the people who needed it. We had another in Boscastle last year.

More than two billion people live without access to secure supplies of electricity every day of their lives. When the price of petrol goes up for us it is an irritation, an extra call on the family budget. When the price of petrol goes up in the poorest countries it means that food rots because farmers cannot get their crops to market.

Just as the poorest citizens of New Orleans were unable to avoid the hurricane, so the poorest citizens of the planets will be unable to avoid the manifold threats of a changing climate. Adaptation to climate change may be an option for the richer and most organised societies, though New Orleans is a warning not to overestimate what is possible in even the richest and most organised country, but it will certainly not be an option for hundreds of millions of the most vulnerable.

For all its intricacy in detail, the central task facing governments in this century can be stated simply. It is to deliver secure supplies of energy to some eight billion people without destabilising the climate. The first part of this task has two main elements: delivering the transport fuels to move people and goods and providing electricity for space and water heating or cooling, lighting and communications and industrial processes. The second part means doing both whilst simultaneously, and rapidly, reducing emissions of greenhouse gases eventually to zero.

The $70 barrel has begun to concentrate minds wonderfully on the dangers of a global economy over-dependent on oil for transport. For some analysts, the immediate price spike to $70 is a temporary response to Katrina’s destruction of oil facilities in the Gulf of Mexico. For others, any fall back from this high will itself be temporary as underlying structural change drives the price ever upwards.

Previous oil price highs have been driven by supply constraints. Up until now, these have been readily remedied by increasing supply. Two factors may make this time different. First, there is the continuing growth of Chinese demand. China is now the second largest importer of oil after the United States. It currently imports just over 6 million barrels a day. This could easily rise to 10 million barrels a day before 2030 – the same as the US imports, and Saudi Arabia produces. Second is the growing view that the point of peak oil production may be near, possibly within the current decade.

This is bad enough all on its own. It is made worse by our ill-judged, probably illegal, and definitely mismanaged intervention in Iraq. The real winners from this war of choice are Iran and the most extreme forms of Islamic fundamentalism. With no obvious exit strategy our continued military presence not only undermines our own government at home, it deepens the ever mounting internal threat to the House of Saud.

As these economic and military storms continue to converge, the most immediate, though not the only, threat to energy security grows ever more ominous. We are not going to run out of oil, or indeed any other fossil fuel, anytime soon. As Sheikh Yamani famously pointed out, the stone age did not end because we ran out of stones. But oil can exist without being available. We may well be seeing the end of age of cheap oil. And it is the cheapness that has mattered most in creating our current over-dependence.

None of this is cause for those whose concern is climate security to cheer. For all its pervasiveness in our lives, oil is not the most pressing issue when it comes to dealing with climate change. Certainly everything we do to reduce our dependence on oil for transport fuel will help maintain climate security. But even if we eliminated all the carbon dioxide emissions from vehicle use we would not make the climate safe.

Climate change is not like any of the other problems that politicians must solve. Throughout history, humanity has relied on succeeding generations to correct the mistakes of their predecessors. Failure could always be redeemed by lessons learned the hard way.

Climate change is different. The huge geophysical systems that keep our climate stable respond to change slowly. Many of the climate processes we are setting in motion today will take centuries or longer to reveal their full impacts. But once started, these processes are irreversible. Succeeding generations will not be able to redeem our mistakes. They will have to live with them.

Global average temperatures have already risen 0.60c above their pre-industrial levels. This hardly sounds awesome but the average conceals a far greater increase in some parts of the world, especially the poles. We can already see the effects of this rise in retreating glaciers, collapsing ice shelves, thawing permafrost and changing patterns of animal behaviour.

Even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today we are already committed to another 0.60C rise in the next few decades. The EU and climate scientists now say that we must keep the eventual temperature rise to below 2.00C if we are to remain safe. Recent research suggests that we have less than fifteen years to put in place the necessary measures to be sure we can stay within this limit.

The world will invest many trillions of dollars in energy technologies in the next 25 years. As things stand the bulk of this investment will be into carbon intensive technologies, especially for electricity generation, that will make climate stability impossible. Changing the trajectory of this technology deployment is the single most urgent political imperative of climate policy. Doing so will cost less than has already been spent on the war in Iraq.

Events will not stand still while politicians consider their options. China is currently building a new large coal fired power station every five days to meet its burgeoning demand for electricity. Over the next 25 years it plans to build almost 600 more. India will build close to 200 in the same period. The remaining countries of the world will build another 600. If all these power stations are built with conventional coal technology there is no prospect at all of ensuring climate security.

The 1973 oil price hike also raised considerable fears about energy security. The response then was to partly a drive to decouple economic growth from growth in energy consumption and partly a rush to build nuclear power stations. The nuclear industry has been quick to find opportunity in the twin crises of energy and climate security. There is a constant drumbeat of headlines offering more nuclear power as the answer to our prayers.

In reality, the nuclear option now, as it was in 1973, is a distraction. And a dangerous distraction at that. Even if we could solve all of the problems of economic viability and public acceptability – a very large ‘if’ indeed – more nuclear power does little to help us either here in the UK or in the world.

In Britain, even with the most heroic assumptions about the time to design, permit and build new nuclear power stations, most of our existing reactors will be closed before we can bring a new nuclear station on line. We will have to replace the electricity they currently provide some other way. China has the most ambitious nuclear programme in the world. It plans to build 40 new reactors by 2030. Even if it does so, such is the pace of their economy’s growth that it will still only provide about 6% of their electricity. Most of the rest will come from coal.

Although there may be technically and economically possible routes for China to generate electricity without using coal, these routes are not politically available in today’s energy insecure world. This means moving very rapidly to using coal as gas and sequestering the emissions geologically. Furthermore, the same coal gasification process used to generate electricity without damaging the climate is also the starting point for producing transport fuels that are not dependent on imports.

We know we can do both. We have considerable experience in the gasification of coal and in the management of the deep geological reservoirs in which to store the emissions. Managing those reservoirs is exactly what the oil and gas industry has been doing for over a century. Technology developments in the processes for turning gas into liquid fuels have made them affordable at current, let alone future, oil prices.

The single most urgent priority in meeting the twin goals of energy security and climate security is to invest in accelerating the deployment of advanced coal technologies with carbon sequestration and storage both here and in China. This does not guarantee our security in either case, but it does keep open the door to an energy secure future in a stable climate that will otherwise shut in the next two decades.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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