by Student Energy

Energy: Getting Our Priorities Right

Originally posted by Student Energy and written by JULIEN MATHONNIERE, University of Aberdeen, Scotland

The opening of the New Year has brought its usual load of good resolutions. And when it comes to energy, there seems to be plenty of room for improvement.

Repented green campaigner – and now worldwide famous Danish sceptical environmentalist – Bjørn Lomborg committed a thought-provoking piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago[1], asserting that the poor needed cheap fossil fuels.

While his piece drew attention to the hot-button issue of energy supply continuity and its environmental implications, it also prompted consternation from the believers in a causal link between global warming and the use of carbon energy sources.

Unfortunately, the rhetorical battle that ensued obscured important areas of discussion. One of them is the continuing increases in the production and use of carbon energy sources and how we should address them.

The underlying mathematics of this inevitable trend is deeply entrenched in world demographics: with nearly three more billion people expected to inhabit the earth by 2050, enhanced supplies of energy in general, and electricity in particular will have to be provided.

With the exception of hydro-power, most renewable energies are still in their infant stage, and therefore incapable of sustainable growth without state subsidies or continuous price premiums imposed on consumers.

As a result, predicting the end of oil and its quick substitution with clean energies is beating a dead horse. We just can’t afford it. Peak oil forecasts have proved a consistently delusory exercise. Beyond that, there are no realistic or even remote prospects of renewables meeting the incremental world annual demand for energy, let alone to substitute the countries’ existing use of carbon energy.

Think about the near-exclusively carbon-fuelled transportation world sector. How many people in the world can afford an electric vehicle? And how many will actually own one by 2050?

But don’t be mistaken: this is not to say that renewable energy is a basket case. It is the future, our future. And it is up to our generation and the ones after us to call the shots. We have to decide now what tomorrow’s energy mix will be.

Only we don’t want to jump the gun. Aside from green campaigners, a lot of people have an ax to grind with the petroleum industry, for a variety of reasons. Hence, we must be extremely cautious as to why we should badger developing countries into using clean energies.

The good OECD countries, who have banked their economies on the cursed elixir of carbon emissions, would now want to cut other countries’ way to prosperity out of… self-righteousness.

But world developing countries represent 80% of the global population and rightly aspire to development. Unless rich countries want to lock them out of opportunities, their future energy needs will inevitably come from low-cost coal, oil and natural gas.

Moreover, alternative renewable sources are exorbitantly too expensive for them and very unlikely to help them spark and fuel their industrial and urban transitions.

Given the failure of the Kyoto protocol in achieving any substantial reduction of carbon emissions, a more efficient way to do so might be the increasingly large-scale sequestration of CO2. While technological improvement and increased management efficiency will probably reduce the cost of storage, it seems also a much better alternative to an illusory immediate replacement of carbon energy with clean renewables.

By crying wolf and relentlessly brandishing the threat of global warming, some green energy lobbies may sometimes indulge in bouts of political populism. However, as energy economist Peter Odell puts it: “there can be no economic nor ethical justification for actions which delay or even obstruct the poor world’s needs for sufficiency or energy to secure development and enhanced living standard”[2].

Installing solar panels or building wind turbines is, by all means, a desirable improvement. But the road to hell is often paved with good intentions and imposing such energy constraints on countries that can hardly fund their self-subsistence – not to mention industrial development – is at best foolish if not downright stupid and condescending. We must get our priorities right in framing our energy future, act in a cogent, orderly way and bend appropriate policies into shape. And not prevent other countries from developing to amend ourselves from our own mistakes.


[1] Bjørn Lomborg, “The Poor Need Cheap Fossil Fuels”, New York Times, 3 December 2013.

[2] Peter Odell, “The Long-Term Future for Energy Resources’ Exploitation”, Energy Politics, Issue XVIII, Fall 2009.

Student Energy

Student Energy is a global not-for-profit that is creating the next generation of energy leaders committed to transitioning the world to a sustainable future.

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