“We’re using a lot of energy, and we’re doing it in an extremely uneven way”

This post was first published for the Nobel Prize Dialogue.

The UK Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander recently claimed the new government energy bill cutting plan was a “win, win” policy.

But can there really be any such thing as a win-win policy when it comes to energy? Because even putting aside specific scepticism about the UK context of that line, the simplistic binary of ‘win-win’ limits the sorts of questions, perspectives and expectations we might have about energy policy. It glosses over the diversity of people within such groups and the diversity of ideas or impacts they might have. There are more people on the planet, and more people yet to be born in the planet to consider than simply those charging and playing bills in one country today. There also other businesses, other ways people interact with energy than simply bills, other ideas, other frames, other ways we might weight our concept of winning.

As Sujatha Raman, Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Nottingham, said when I asked for questions to take with me to the Nobel Dialogue: ‘Can we have affordable uninterrupted energy supply (the International Energy Agency’s definition of energy security) without the exploitation of somebody somewhere?‘

With that in mind, one of the most interesting themes I saw emerge in the Nobel Prize Dialogue was discussion of difference. As Chris Llewellyn Smith, Director of Energy Research at Oxford University, started off his discussion on energy outlooks: ‘We’re using a lot of energy, and we’re doing it in an extremely uneven way.’ On a very simple level, some people are getting to use more energy than others. There are big emitters, who also get the value of these emissions, and low ones, who simply don’t have access to such value.

Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA, stressed issues of difference perhaps most of all the introductory morning talks. As well as making a moral case for a pro-poor global energy strategy with drive to even out access to energy resources, he outlined some of the complexities of the global energy market, showing that what is true for one country is very different for another. He also stressed change; difference over time. Or, as he put it, the ‘job descriptions of key energy players are being re-written’. Countries which had previously been major energy importers are being significant energy exporters. There’s the US and its so-called shale gas ‘revolution’ but also Brazil, which is becoming a significant exporter due to the impact of two major policies – increasing production, but also pushing biofuels – which are quite different from the picture we’ve seen in America. Conversely, more established energy exporter countries are looking for new markets, largely in Asia. Back to the pro-poor dimension, he also discussed how divergent prices for energy are in different countries (gas is cheaper in the US than in Asia) and how this price differential provides an important dimension for different economies. Above all, perhaps, Birol stressed the role of subsidies to change to appearance of energy prices, especially in terms of picking between energy choices: ‘For me, fossil fuel subsidies are number one public enemy of sustainable energy development’ as governments are putting money from their own citizens to push the price of fossil fuels down, encouraging us to use them in a wasteful manner.

We also heard a moving speech from the UN’s Richenda Van Leeuwen outlining why increased energy access is so important; not just in terms of fuelling economic growth and improving lives by opening up new possibilities but also to save people, especially women, from the sorts of energies they current rely on. Fuels that cause burns. Fuels that choke. Fuels which put young women in danger of rape if they go out to collect firewood.

What we hadn’t heard much of however – at least by lunchtime when I wrote this – was the impact of climate change on poorer parts of the world. References to poverty are often used in calls for greater use of one energy or another – and it was indeed mentioned by BP’s Carl-Henric Svanberg in his address at the start of the dialogue – but unless the views of the people in the countries you are talking about are discussed, with full inclusion of concerns about the impacts of climate change too, it seems a bit like empty rhetoric. I’m totally in agreement with Van Leeuwen about this element of the energy challenge, but I can’t help thinking that if we in the west really want to take the well-being of the rest of the world seriously, some sort of sense of their ‘growth’ is going to have to give. And pro-poor rhetoric from the likes of BP looks a bit crass. Because I still have hope that Raman’s wrong and that we don’t need to exploit people for energy, but we might have to change how we live our lives, and recognise how much exploitation it is built upon.

A postnote though: As Christof Rühl (also of BP) noted in his talk on energy outlooks, we’re seeing a convergence in fossil fuel mix, and this is a big deal because for the first time in human history, we don’t have a dominant fuel. Maybe there’s a sign of hope for change there, even if the use of non-fossil fuel options are still way behind.

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