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Science, People & Politics

Science, People and Politics, issue 1, Volume i, Volume II, published 4th January, 2009.

Elephants and donkeys set up the
global energy debate

By Fred Pearce

Energy Security
by Sascha Muller-Kraenner
Earthscan: ISBN: 978-1-84407-582-9
Price $38.95

Through much of 2008 the world was treated to a discussion of energy security through the prism of the US and its presidential election campaign. It was not a totally dispiriting business. Both Barack Obama and John McCain suggested that there might be a synergy between addressing the global peril of climate change and the US nightmare of dependence on hostile powers for its prime energy needs. McCain saw the answer primarily in electric cars and a resurgence of nuclear power. Obama, more convincingly, argued that the ultimate solution would lie in a transformational switch to renewable energy sources.

That much might have been election rhetoric. What suggested that Obama meant what he said was that he began to talk about a major investment in a new high-voltage electricity grid for the US? the only way in which solar power from the desert states of the southwest and wind power from the Midwest could be harnessed on a large scale to meet US energy demand, which is primarily east of the Mississippi.

This book by a leading German energy-policy academic begins to address these twin issues of security of energy supply and security from dangerous climate change on the global canvas. The issues take on different forms in different places.

Europe hopes to cut its fossil-fuel consumption while keeping the lights on in part by underpinning electricity generation and space heating with Russian gas. Natural gas has a much lower carbon footprint than coal or oil. But can gas piped from Siberia and through Russia and its volatile old Warsaw Pact comrades really be a secure source of energy for Europe? Especially when, once again this winter, Russia is threatening its neighbours with cutting pipeline supplies.

Right now it may be Georgia and Ukraine that face a threat of a long cold winter. But why not Germany next? So would Europe be more secure creating its own supergrid links with giant solar power plants in the Sahara desert?

Asia's energy hunger also looms large in this analysis. If it were burned, the coal beneath the fields of China and India could fry us all. So can those countries be persuaded to continue their industrialisation by harnessing instead the Mongolian winds or the heat of the Thar desert?

There are both technical and political answers to these questions. Skilfully this book bridges the chasm between the two. It is as at home discussing Thomas Freidman's infamous claim that oil and democracy cannot coexist as in disentangling the complex infrastructure needed for running a uranium economy; as forensic when analysing the geography of a possible biomass boom in eastern Europe as when looking at the 'resource curse' of energy rich kleptocratic states like Nigeria, Venezuela and (my own favourite crackpot republic) Turkmenistan.

Its conclusion is that what is needed is an all-embracing international legal framework covering energy supply as well as emissions targets for controlling climate change. Something like what the European Union agreed at a summit in Brussels in early December.

That may be a tad optimistic. More likely, I suggest, we will have to rely on blind self-interest. And it is not inconceivable that that could serve us well. Consider this scenario. The US under Obama is determined to end its reliance on foreign oil. At the same time it is willing to invest trillions of dollars in public infrastructure to rescue its imploding economy. The aims are met with a project to green the US energy industry - a project on a scale only Americans know about - a mixture of Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s, the Manhattan Project of the 1940s, the Marshall Plan of the 1950s and the space race of the 1960s.

Such would be the grandeur of the endeavour that nobody in the world would want to be left out. China would want to build all the kit the Americans needed, and would rekit its own energy infrastructure along similar lines. Europe, too, might create its own new electricity grid linking geothermal power from Iceland with hydropower from Scandinavia, solar power from the Sahara, biofuels from eastern Europe and wind power from the North Sea. And maybe some French nuclear power, too. Who knows?

Most technological revolutions happen fast, once a few smart people can see how to make money out of the future. The 21st century could turn into the renewables century. If it did energy security in most nations would gain immeasurably. And so would global climatic security.

This book doesn't chart that course. It is more cautious and more prosaic. But it lays out the energy security landscape with a commendable clarity that I have not seen elsewhere. It could help save the world.

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