Can we get out of the energy policy mess?

Posted on October 27, 2012

Why is energy policy in such a mess worldwide?

Energy has become one of the highest profile areas of political debate.  Energy drives our economies as well as the basic necessities of life. Energy policy affects nations’ wealth, citizens’ well-being and employment opportunities; it impacts national security and geo-political power balances; it effects the profit potential of powerful corporate interests; and, of course, it is central to the environmental debate. It is therefore maybe to be expected that, with so many powerful forces all pulling in different directions, energy policy worldwide is somewhat of a mess.

Maybe it is also to be expected that, given so many considerations, environmental concerns tend to get pushed down the list of priorities when considering energy politics. Yet this relegation of environmental concerns towards the bottom in energy politics is made worse by the lack of a cohesive position within the environmental movement itself as to what would constitute a practicable energy policy that would be optimal from an environmental perspective.

Some environmental ideologues argue that renewables in the form of solar and wind energy are the only acceptable forms of energy generation. This approach is now largely discredited as being wholly unworkable. Others consider nuclear energy to be an important present and future source of ‘clean’ (ie carbon-free) energy that can help mitigate climate change. Yet others argue for natural gas as an interim step in the shift towards a lower carbon economy.

While environmentalists are busy arguing among themselves in ever more strident shouting matches, or, worse, continue to put forward totally impracticable policy suggestions, their ability to influence energy policy decreases by the day. Germany’s much touted Energiewende is running into the buffers as energy prices soar and as the move away from nuclear power is resulting in increasing carbon emissions. In the rest of Europe, environmental opposition to fracking will likely result in higher carbon emissions. Speaking about his recently launched book, The Carbon Crunch, Professor Dieter Helm reportedly came close to accusing environmentalists of making climate change worse by opposing natural gas. Throughout Europe, the economic downturn has more or less destroyed the effectiveness of the cap and trade system while EU Energy Commissioner recently warned “I strongly advise against more stringent [carbon emission] targets after 2020″. In the US, coal-producing states have become key battlegrounds for the Presidential election.

From an environmental perspective, the future of energy policy worldwide looks bleak. It is up to the environmental movement to turn this around. What is needed is an abandonment of ideological extremism that does nothing but marginalize environmental considerations in the energy debate coupled with meaningful engagement with all aspects of the complexities of energy policies. Taxing carbon and subsidizing renewables do not form a sufficient base for a credible energy policy. We need environmental energy policies that are credible and viable – technically, economically and politically. Otherwise our energy futures will indeed be bleak.