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Energy: Jaw-jaw or war?

Hywel Lloyd asks will Gordon Brown embrace a Marshall Plan to avert a new kind of global conflict

In the May/June edition Dave Toke described the present climate change situation as something akin to a phoney war, reflecting that we know something bad is about to happen, we sort of know who the 'enemy' is and we are waiting for something real or significant enough to happen to provide the pressure for us all to act.

Reading his article I am also reminded of a recent story in a Demos publication -

"A village policeman decided that he wanted to find out more about the concerns of local residents, in order to understand how he could be most helpful. Through a series of conversations he discovered that their biggest worry, by some distance, was speeding in the village. He agreed he would set himself up in a siding with a speed gun and catch the offending motorists, in a quest to reduce the problem. However, after a week of doing this it emerged that in fact most of the people he had booked were themselves residents of the village" (The Co-production Paradox, Sophie Parker, The Collaborative State, Demos).

I doubt there are many readers who are generic supporters of the concept and the reality of war. Yet our very behaviour and aspirations may be leading us relentlessly ever nearer 21st century wars for resources, particularly for energy resources.

Fundamentally much of human economic activity is facilitated by the energy provided in fossil fuels. Oil, gas and coal are highly concentrated forms of complex carbon based chemicals produced by millions of years of geological action on once living organisms. Since we first industrialized their use in Britain some 150 years ago we have collectively become very good at finding them, extracting them and burning them to fuel our economic activity.

Now though we are beginning to realize there are two fundamental problems that result from such uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels.

The first is of course climate change, the impact of the consequences of burning carbon to produce carbon dioxide at rates and volumes which have begun to significantly affect the planet's weather and ecosystems. We have started to understand we must find other sources of energy if we are to continue to receive the benefits of economic activity at anything like the levels we have become used to (I mean used to in the western world).

The second is that these fossil fuels are limited. We know they are limited because we are finding less and less of them. While many argue about when we will run out of oil and then gas, the fact is that they are finite 'geological fuels' (as is, of course, fuel for nuclear).

Geological fuels are those that consist, or have been created from, the Earth's original 'complement' of elements. In the case of nuclear fuels such as Uranium it is a rare element thinly distributed in certain geological formations. Carbon fuels take millions of years to create while we are burning millions of tons of them in seconds.

Meanwhile we and the wider world expect to be able to use more and more energy as our expectations grow. So is it conceivable that we work together to agree how we share energy resources, which of course are unevenly distributed across the globe? Or that we agree how they should or should not be used so as to make them last and also reduce carbon emissions? Or even that we agree how to replace them across the globe with renewable energy sources of solar, tidal and wind, potentially connecting up energy grids across continents to capture energy where it is available (e.g. solar in the desert) to where it is needed? Or will we, sooner or later, fight for them as our expectations exceed supply and we, or our leaders, expect supplies to continue ad infinitum.

Some might argue we have started to fight for them, given the nature of the oil reserves in Iraq and the involvement of US oil firms in the 'reconstruction' of Iraq. It is possible that if Iraq is the first energy war it could also be the last.

But how? Belatedly the US President has begun to understand that dependency on others for energy has its downside, while in Europe we are all told to fear Russia's control of gas supplies (though we should note that 70% of UK gas does in fact come from Norway).

Every nation should seek to maximize its indigenous renewable energy sources. The UK can show how this can be done given our wealth and worldwide relationships. We have wind, solar and tidal energy that can meet a significant proportion of our energy needs for heat and for electricity (while nuclear can barely address the latter). We could, with application, reduce our dependence on overseas oil and gas through bio-fuels and fuels from waste - all of which would improve our energy security and the energy security of the world. We also have significant supplies of coal and must pay to prove carbon capture technology - it is fundamental in avoiding energy wars of the future.

And of course we can improve prospects for energy peace across the world by ensuring we share the technologies we invent and invest in with the developing world. Gordon Brown could make it the basis of a 21st century 'Marshall' Plan, building a renewable indigenous energy infrastructure across Africa - it would cost something, but nothing as great as the cost of energy wars across the continent.