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A scenario for a greener, but tougher, future

Themes: Energy and environment

A scenario for a greener, but tougher, futureIn the near future, an international alliance of countries committed to reducing worldwide carbon emissions might have to use force to bring recalcitrant states into line, according to new research from Dr William J. Nuttall, Senior University Lecturer in Technology Policy at Cambridge Judge Business School. There is a historical parallel in the nineteenth century when the British Royal Navy started intercepting slaving vessels, having previously been deployed to protect their transit in the same imperial trade routes.

In the 1800s, the British Empire used the Royal Navy to protect its imperial trade routes, which included the protection of an unconscionable slave trade in which recently captured African slaves were transported to the Caribbean for sale to traders. Eventually, in 1807 the British Parliament banned slavery and in 1811 made it a felony for anyone to engage in the trade, which carried on legally and illegally elsewhere until 1866. It was in this period between 1807 and 1865 that the British parliament redeployed its Royal Navy to now intercept 500 slaving vessels and prevent the trading of slaves. In a similar way, Dr Nuttall suggests, a new international force would pull together to put an end to ‘dirty’ energy production, now regarded as wrong, in order to offset the risks of climate change.

In the next few decades international statesmen will have to grapple with a set of new, tough problems. They will have to ensure that the supply lines of oil and gas feeding the world’s big economies remain secure. They will also have to make sure that all nations start to act much more responsibly in the way they produce and consume their energy in order to reduce the threat to the world’s climate and ultimately the human race. Until now, the two issues have been kept more or less separate in the minds of policymakers. But in the future, this may no longer be possible. On the one hand, there are rising global energy prices, growing demands for energy from emerging nations such as China and conflicts in the producer-regions such as Africa and the Middle East putting new constraints on supply. On the other, the continued burning of fossil fuels in ever increasing quantities poses a major threat to the human race through its impact on the planet.

In his research paper, Dr Nuttall, a senior lecturer in Technology Policy at Judge Business School and Mr Devon L. Manz, a Cambridge graduate, explore a future scenario in which the world community forms a new international organisation to reduce global carbon emissions. Called the Clean Energy Alliance, the new body would have the capacity to use diplomatic and, as a last resort, military means to bring recalcitrant states into line for so-called ‘climate crime’ – the burning of fossil fuels in a ‘dirty’ or inefficient manner.

In the last fifty years or so, the US principally has footed the bill to secure the oil supply lines from unstable regions such as Africa and the Middle East to the US and its allies. Today, most of the world is still addicted to oil. For instance, the US imports 60 per cent of the oil it consumes and Japan imports 90 per cent. So, the Clean Energy Alliance would still have to focus on protecting the world’s oil supply lines.

But in this new scenario the alliance would also place restrictions on the fossil fuel trade to minimise its effect on the environment. It would attempt to ensure that all deliveries of fossil fuels only went to nations that were able to demonstrate that they intended to use the latest technology to burn those fuels, ensuring that it was done as efficiently and cleanly as possible. The members of the alliance would of course also be committed to promoting alternative fuels such as wind power and solar power. They could also make a huge difference by utilising new technology to burn fossil fuels, for example, encouraging the use of the latest coal-burning technologies to provide a sustainable basis for electricity generation in coal-rich nations such as the US and China. But it would also have to deal with the much more difficult question of what to do if a State continued to act irresponsibly in regard to its domestic energy industry.

In this brave new world, the advanced industrialised nations would find it easier to change since they are less dependent on industrialisation than the emerging nations. They have also developed new technologies to make the burning of fossil fuels less damaging to the environment, which may be available for wide use from 2010. For this reason, the advanced nations are likely to form the bedrock of the new Clean Energy Alliance. But they cannot expect to make an appreciable different to global warming without an equal effort from the developing nations.

In particular, the alliance would have to embrace the BRIC nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China as well. By 2030, Asia alone is expected to consume more than one third of the world’s energy resources. “These powerful, rapidly developing geopolitical powerhouses must be advocates of action against climate change if the planet’s climate is to be stabilised,” write Dr Nuttall and Mr Manz.

In their future scenario, Dr Nuttall and Mr Manz make a number of assumptions. In the past, policymakers have relied on the fact that there is still a vast quantity of oil and gas in the ground, enough perhaps for approximately forty years, and more if you take into account unconventional sources of oil such as tar sands and shale oil. Therefore, the speed at which policymakers believe nations should make the change from fossil fuels to alternative sources of energy has been influenced by this 40 year timeline. However, climate change caused by greenhouse gases could bring about a series of major catastrophes long before the point at which oil runs out. Therefore, the issue of energy security in the new scenario is governed by another timeline: the need to reduce carbon emissions. This becomes urgent once the emissions have reached a peak, after which any further greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere pose an increasing threat to the stability of the planet.

Dr Nuttall and Mr Manz also assume that the BRIC nations will agree to enter the alliance and take on the responsibility of developing their economies based on a more sustainable use of fossil fuels. Third, in this scenario the price of fossil fuels is likely to drop largely because the advanced economies will be demanding less. This raises a problem. A third tier of nations in the developing world, which are not committed to the aims of the Clean Energy Alliance, would be tempted to continue buying the by now cheaper fossil fuels and burn them using older and ‘dirtier’ technology. This would provide them with an unfair cost advantage in regard to the BRIC nations. Therefore, the advanced nations would have to shoulder the burden of ensuring that recalcitrant states were brought back into line through diplomatic means and if necessary military ones, if they wanted to keep the BRIC nations in the alliance.

So, in the future scenario presented in this research, the Clean Energy Alliance would police a global system to secure the supply of fossil fuels, ensure that it was destined for clean energy producers and act robustly if any states refused to comply with these rules.

In the early nineteenth century, the Royal Navy acted quickly (once the slave trade had been banned in Britain) to close down the transatlantic slave trade and then expanded its remit to all British Dominions. In the modern parallel, the richer nations of the world, which have become wealthy from the unsustainable use of fossil fuels, have a duty to alter the behaviour of others and stop the ‘dirty’ burning of fossil fuels. This new regime will have to be built on persuasion and consensus. But for the recalcitrant few, coercion may be necessary.

Further Reading

Nuttall, W.J. and Manz, D.L. (2008) “A new energy security paradigm for the twenty-first century.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 75(8): 1247-1259 (available online via ScienceDirect)

Nuttall, W.J. (2007) “Nuclear renaissance requires nuclear enlightenment.” In: Elliott, D. (ed.) Nuclear or not? Does nuclear power have a place in a sustainable energy future? Basingstoke, Hants and New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.221-238

Dr Nuttall is an expert on nuclear energy. He plans to continue to explore the parallel between energy security and the ending of the slave trade in the nineteenth century in a future article. The Cambridge Centre for Energy Studies at Judge Business School will continue to focus on energy security matters under the direction of Mr Nick Butler.