Politics, sustainable energy security and the South

Developing countries might want to prepare for a future where powerful governments compete for access to dwindling fossil-fuel supplies by taking a realistic look at what's already available.

Phillip Bruner's picture
Insight by 
Phillip Bruner
02 September 2010

Energy according to Chatham House

There are three things that every decision-maker needs to know about energy, according to Antony Froggatt of Chatham House:

Conventional production from fossil fuels is fast-becoming unreliable

The rapid depletion of conventional oil and gas reserves has become commonly accepted as one of the foremost challenges facing policymakers in the 21st century. In terms of the oil sector alone, every three years a new Saudi Arabia needs to be discovered and exploited just to maintain current levels of global output. This isn't happening in conventional reserves, so oil companies are searching in other more environmentally sensitive areas like the Gulf of Mexico, where we are witnessing the threat that such high-risk operations pose for fragile ecosystems and energy companies alike.

Growth in energy demand, particularly in developing countries, is progressing at an alarming rate

We're currently witnessing an unprecedented rise in global demand for energy, predicted to reach somewhere in the vicinity of a 40% increase over the next 20 years. This is largely driven by developing world economies such as China, where oil demand has increased by 20% over the last five years.

The impact of climate change and the need to reduce CO2 emissions is largely an energy issue

The 'energy-intensive' (that is, manufacturing) sector is responsible for more than one third of carbon emissions globally. Meeting post-Copenhagen targets therefore requires a total transformation of the way in which energy is both consumed and produced. Energy companies need to move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energies and to focus on selling energy services as opposed to energy products. In the meantime, manufacturers on the whole must act to pursue a range of different measures. For those industries classed as energy intensive, there exist real opportunities in terms of reducing energy costs through efficiency and conservation. In an energy-insecure world, resilience will become an essential industry catchphrase, where any major business that fails to comply with the principles of sustainability could render themselves uncompetitive in the near future.

What's missing?

At first glance it's hard to approximate the breadth and depth of Froggatt's outlook. By making an unspecified address to companies he seems to implicate companies everywhere, and by lack of an alternative specification regarding energy demand, he suggests demand globally. But those at IIED are aware of the lack of uniformity that characterises global energy use and consumption patterns along North-South lines. It takes little more than a glance at the CIA World Factbook's listings for electricity use by country to recognise the imbalance between countries – predictably the US, China, EU, Russia, Japan and India are leading the way. The North overwhelmingly consumes more energy, engages in more cross-border trade and pollutes more than the South.

Why keep growing?

The need to curb consumer demand for energy-intensive products has been acknowledged across sectors (though admittedly remains problematic in terms of trying to predict the causal outcomes of consumer boycotts on developing economies). But what can be done to curb supply-side energy use? Although the global economic crisis has slowed energy demand in the US, EU and Russia, India and China are on pace to continue with rapid industrialisation. Given the still-nascent mainstreaming of government-led policies to encourage North-South cooperation via incentivising investment in renewables and carbon markets, we can assume (and can see in Rand's most recent projections regarding China's pursuit of energy security) that energy-intensive industries in developing economies will continue to grow and pollute unless it somehow becomes politically and economically unpopular within those countries not to do so. Energy security in China and India, means keeping the lights on for a sizeable portion of the 2.5 billion people who make up their combined populations. The only cheap and readily accessible means for doing this remains either fossil-fuel intensive or dependent upon precious minerals (uranium for nuclear power, for example).

Realism in an era of dwindling resources

In addition to Doha Rounds and Copenhagen talks, energy security is one of the most politically charged issues debatable. Foundations of modern societies have been built upon fossil- fuel-based technologies and are economically dependent upon the predictable growth of energy-intensive industries. To ignore the unpleasant history of colonial exploitations that have transpired in the pursuit of ever-expanding markets for fossil-fuelled products is unhelpful. Contrary to Thomas Friedman's once famed, yet highly sensationalised assessment of globalisation, which proclaimed that 'The World is Flat', it isn't;. some countries are more powerful than others.

In an era of dwindling resources and rapid growth, the central concern of leading powers is energy security. We can assume, based on a surface evaluation of the history of modern development, that nations with the military and/or economic mite to secure access to remaining supplies will resort to many means in order to protect their populations from the chaos that can accompany 'high' fuel prices and/or fuel shortages. Granted, climate change may incite 'mega-catastrophes', which stand to greatly exceed any trauma brought on by energy crises. So the challenge for the policymaker is to adopt an approach to energy security that includes climate change in the agenda.

What's sustainable about energy security?

The UNEP's Global Network on Energy for Sustainable Development, in their October 2009 'Policy Paper on Energy, Climate Change and Poverty Alleviation', offers guidelines for smaller, less powerful countries, including a careful evaluation of existing energy resources based on geography, poverty, existing infrastructure and level of influence in a globalised world. The report provides a realistic outlook on what is necessary and possible in the world's poorest nations, without calling for Western-style development or a wider focus on global markets. There is no mention of carbon trading or multimillion dollar projects to promote energy delivery. They are less concerned with prospects for industrial growth in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda where the national average for electricity access levels as of 2006 stood at 20%, 12% and 10% respectively. Their concern is how to make do with what is already available – promoting renewable energy use by nature of the fact that other resources are, at least for now, politically inaccessible.

This guest post was written by Phillip Bruner. Phillip is a PhD candidate in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh.