Climate Change and Global Energy Security

By Bryan Walker 18/09/2011

Academics Marilyn Brown and Benjamin Sovacool, who have impressive credentials in the field of energy policy, are co-authors of the recently published Climate Change and Global Energy Security: Technology and Policy Options, a substantial and detailed study of a very wide range of technologies covering both the promise of those options and the obstacles to their effective employment.

I was deeply depressed by the time I got to page 64 of the book. That was where the tale of five challenges ended. The authors had enlarged the energy and climate change scope of the book somewhat to identify five challenges threatening the prosperity of future generations: electricity, transportation, forestry and agriculture, waste and water, climate change. They do it thoroughly, and it seemed well-nigh impossible that the growing population of the world could possibly cope with these problem areas. But the reader is counselled in the final paragraph of the chapter not to give up in despair, as the issues can be broken down into more manageable challenges to which technology and policy solutions are readily available.

And that’s what the rest of the book is about. Advocacy is not its obvious thrust so much as explanation of how in myriad ways it will be possible to configure energy use to avoid the worst consequences of climate change and to adapt to what cannot be avoided. Its survey of the technologies available is consequently patient and thorough. The improved use of fossil fuels is prominent, as the authors expect them to maintain a large share of the energy market for some decades yet; carbon capture and storage is as a result given a significant role in mitigation. Energy efficiency, renewable energy sources and nuclear power are all the subject of attention, and the book offers interesting observations on integrated or hybrid systems which are particularly relevant to renewable energy.

The authors strive to be realistic about the likelihood of new technologies being adopted. The book is about policies as well as technologies, as a chapter on barriers to effective climate and energy policies makes all too clear. They write of incumbent technologies being locked in, of the difficulty of getting externalities priced in a market system, of the financial risk perceived in innovative practice, of innumerable cultural, social and institutional barriers, and of how the restraining influences reinforce one another.  But they also write of how these barriers can be overcome, starting with an illuminating discussion of the precautionary principle. That principle includes the need to anticipate harm before it occurs and the obligation to prevent or minimize harm when a significant risk exists, even if it is difficult to predict with certainty the likelihood and magnitude of the harm.  Contrast this with the ’risk paradigm’ which misconstrues lack of data as evidence of safety and looks for clear definition of thresholds of harm. It’s an inadequate approach, considering the dangerous and unknown tipping points that climate change may encounter, the surprises, irreversible changes and non-linear interactions of which the climate is capable. On the basis of this discussion of the two paradigms the book examines the various ways in which governments can intervene to enable the deployment of new technologies, starting with a price on carbon but including a range of regulatory interventions. It argues for a polycentric implementation of policies which captures the benefits of both global and local action, combining uniformity and economies of scale with innovation and experimentation.

This polycentric approach guides the selection of eight real-world case studies forming a substantial section of the book, in which the authors demonstrate the empirical success of the efforts of communities, companies and countries in successfully reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving energy security. They relied on their original research in each case, as well as reference to secondary sources. The substantial development of wind energy in Denmark since 1970 is the first study. The book notes that the Danish experience demonstrates that an upstream carbon tax is not harmful to the economy and possesses advantages over cap-and-trade programmes in simplicity and directness. Denmark’s case also underlines the importance of guaranteed open access to the grid in the promotion of renewable energy. Not least in significance is the participatory nature of the country’s development of wind energy, evidenced by the large proportion of its wind farms owned by individuals and cooperatives.

Germany’s employment of a feed-in tariff to promote renewable energy supply is the next case study. The book concludes that experience to date suggests that feed-in tariffs are the best single tool available for the rapid promotion of renewable energy, and highlights the surprising result that, despite extra initial cost for consumers, feed-in tariffs end up benefitting them in the long run by depressing electricity prices.

The other case studies cover Brazil’s programme to promote flex-fuel vehicles, Singapore’s urban transport policy, Bangladesh company Grameen Shaku’s programme to promote solar home systems, small biogas plants and improved cookstoves, China’s Improved Stove Programme, Brazil’s Oasis Project to protect Atlantic Rainforest and the US Toxic Release Inventory to aid the management of toxic waste. The authors note the ability of the programmes they describe to be quickly scaled up and implemented almost anywhere, tailored to suit different environments.

’All humanity has to do to ruin the planet for future generations (by melting the Arctic glaciers and Greenland ice sheet, flooding low-lying islands and coastal cities worldwide, reducing biodiversity, polluting the air, and acidifying the oceans) is continue along the current trajectory.’ That’s the background statement against which the authors summarise the salient conclusions of their book. The energy-security and climate change challenges facing the world are both technical and social, involving not only technologies but also people. This complexity is a robust justification for government intervention in such matters as putting a price on carbon, increasing research for low carbon technologies, assisting people to make clean-energy choices, implementing payments for ecosystem services and requiring extended producer responsibility. To achieve the necessary speed, scope and scale, individuals, cities and corporations must act alongside regulators and government officials. This is the power of polycentrism, which the case studies have shown can work to considerable effect in the real world. The case studies also point to the importance of policies being coordinated, progressive and consistent.

It can be done. The authors point out that the money the US and the Soviet Union spent on the cold war was enough to replace the entire infra-structure of the world at the time, and this on the basis of merely possible threats and potential destruction. We face already real risks from climate change and unsustainable sources of energy.

How often does this message of achievability have to be delivered, one wonders, before the naysayers fall silent and we mobilise against the threat so clearly confronting us? Anyway, here the message is presented again with cogency and care. It’s not a book for a quick read. It is carefully analytical and packed with tables and figures. The authors are painstaking in their coverage of both technologies and policies. They are not gung-ho about the prospects for success. But if patient persistence is important to the process then theirs is a model contribution.

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