TOPIC GUIDE: Energy
"It would be better for new fossil fuel reserves to remain in the ground"
PUBLISHED: 31 Jan 2011
AUTHOR: David Bowden
Providing easy and plentiful sources of energy is a key challenge confronting any society and is today one of the most fiercely contested areas of policy. Since the Industrial Revolution, global demand for energy has soared, which has been sustained by learning how to exploit fossil fuel resources. A total of 95% of the world’s energy currently comes from fossil fuels and the modern world would be unrecognisable without their use. However energy experts, such as the International Energy Agency, warn the world is facing an ‘energy crunch’, caused in part by the difficulties posed by increasing energy demand as the developing world industrialises, and uncertain supply over fossil fuels, allied with increasing concerns over the environmental impact of carbon emissions [Ref: Financial Times]. European Union countries, including the UK, have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, placing even greater demands on the quest for alternative sources of energy. Some commentators suggest that future energy policy should be predicated on the assumption that the world has a limited amount of fossil fuel left, pointing to the strides countries such as Denmark have made in cutting carbon by investing heavily in alternative energy and imposing heavy restrictions on carbon-intensive sources. Others maintain that fossil fuels must continue to play a vital role in the foreseeable future: not just in rapidly industrialising countries such as China and India, but also in meeting the difficult challenge of keeping the lights on in the developed world [Ref: Economist]. This debate hinges on three questions: how much energy does the world need; how can we best produce it; and what price is society willing to pay for it?
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Energy DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
The end of fossil fuel?
The Deepwater Horizon (BP) oil spill in April 2010 offered a stark reminder of the dangers inherent in extracting fossil fuels [Ref: BBC News]. Some warn that oil production has reached a ‘peak’ and that extracting fossil fuels will become increasingly costly and dangerous as supplies become more unstable. Furthermore accessing resources from the developing world has become a core challenge of foreign policy and some argue that it usually comes at an unacceptable cost for poor nations suffering from the ‘resource curse’. While these arguments are disputed [Ref: New York Times], and the long term impacts of the BP oil spill may be less than the catastrophic levels some had feared [Ref: Guardian], for many the wider environmental and social costs caused by society’s ‘addiction’ to oil should be motivation enough for developed nations to force themselves off finite resources and to develop cleaner, sustainable energy supplies [Ref: Independent]. It is argued that the end of government subsidies, alongside controversial moves to set a floor price for carbon that takes into account its environmental impact, is not enough to move into a post-carbon world, and that tougher regulations and sanctions are needed [Ref: Guardian].
What forms of alternative energy are there?
Whilst there are alternative sources of energy, they are not yet in a position to take up the role of fossil fuels: academic Bjorn Lomborg makes the point that to cut carbon emissions by 50% in 2050, every year until then the world would need to build 30 nuclear reactors, 17,000 windmills, 400 biomass power plants, and two versions of China’s Three Gorges Dam [Ref: Project Syndicate]. Nuclear power offers a carbon-free, and comparatively efficient, source of energy but safety concerns, symbolised by the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, and a reluctance to invest in nuclear infrastructure, which is costly and time-consuming in the short term, means that countries such as the UK struggle to maintain even their existing levels of nuclear supply [Ref: Telegraph]. In late 2010, the UK’s Energy and Climate Change Secretary approved the building of new nuclear reactors, but critics are divided over whether this will solve the problem, or create new risks [Ref: Telegraph]. The potential of renewable technologies such as wind and solar are fiercely debated [Ref: Economist]. They currently make up only 5% of total UK supply [Ref: ESRC], and there are enormous logistical problems concerning storage and reliability [Ref: Wall Street Journal]. Some argue that governments should follow the example of Denmark and Iceland, working harder to price out fossil fuels and invest in alternative renewable energy sources [Ref: Scientific American].
Why not use less energy?
Some argue that the shortfall in supply could be met by focusing on reducing energy consumption [Ref: Battle in Print]. There have been considerable investments and developments made in energy efficiency technologies, ranging from energy-saving light-bulbs (now legally required across the EU) and smart-meters to monitor home usage; to schemes that allow home users to generate electricity using solar panels or wind turbines and plans for low-carbon ‘transition towns’ [Ref: Local Government]. High-profile campaigns such as 10:10 [Ref: 10:10] and the Energy Saving Trust [Ref: Energy Saving Trust] claim that individuals could easily cut out 10% of their carbon emissions by making adjustments to their lifestyles [Ref: Guardian]. However others question whether constraining individuals’ consumption is a desirable goal at all, pointing out that using less energy generally necessitates reductions in freedoms in everyday life such as mobility, leisure time and personal consumption, which we currently take for granted [Ref: spiked].
Shale gas: a future for fossil fuels?
A ‘natural’ resource only becomes an energy source when society develops the technology and knowledge to exploit it: therefore, the definition of what acts as a finite or limited resource depends on context. A significant recent breakthrough for the fossil fuel industry has been seen in the development of ‘fracking’ – a drilling technique which enables energy companies to exploit previously untapped resources of unconventional gases such as shale gas [Ref: Prospect]. Such technologies arguably have the potential to give an abundant supply of low-carbon fossil fuels that can be exploited all around the world [Ref: Washington Post]. As a relatively new method, however, shale gas extraction carries certain risks; and allegations (as yet unproven) regarding the toxicity of the chemicals involved and the impact on water supplies have already led to vociferous opposition [Ref: BBC News]. Furthermore, some argue discoveries like shale gas will only encourage the thirst for fossil fuels and that the long-term solution to resource shortages is not finding another finite energy supply [Ref: Guardian].
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
Roger Harrabin BBC News 5 September 2012
Nick Butler Financial Times 23 July 2012
Simon Wright Economist 14 July 2012
Roger Harrabin BBC News 21 December 2010
Chris Huhne MP Telegraph 16 December 2010
Ed Crooks Financial Times 12 September 2010
Economist 6 August 2009
George Monbiot Guardian 28 May 2012
Chris Huhne Guardian 3 May 2012
Damian Carrington Guardian 3 November 2011
Nick Molho New Statesman 26 October 2011
Green Alliance June 2011
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard Telegraph 29 August 2010
David Strahan Independent 1 June 2010
William Jackson BBC News 18 May 2010
George Monbiot Guardian 25 February 2010
Duncan McLaren Battles in Print 21 October 2009
Alan Riley New York Times 13 August 2012
Charles Clover The Sunday Times 22 April 2012
Matt Ridley Spectator 3 March 2012
Dieter Helm The Times 6 February 2012
Rob Lyons spiked 5 May 2011
Rob Lyons spiked 1 June 2010
Robert Bryce Wall Street Journal 23 April 2010
Derek Brower Prospect 22 March 2010
Dan Lewis Wall Street Journal 28 December 2009
Tony Hayward Washington Post 6 November 2009
IPPR 30 August 2012
Royal Academy of Engineering June 2012
International Energy Agency 29 May 2012
Friends of the Earth March 2012
Policy Exchange 18 January 2012
Colin McInnes spiked 6 January 2011
Clifford Krauss New York Times 16 November 2010
Scientific American 1 October 2010
Bjorn Lomborg Project Syndicate 14 July 2010
Chris Goodall Guardian 1 September 2009
Economist 19 June 2008
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Guardian 17 April 2012
National Statistics 28 July 2011
Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology April 2011
Telegraph 12 January 2011
Economist January 2011
International Energy Agency November 2010
BBC News 24 September 2010
New York Times 1 July 2010
US Energy Information Administration 7 January 2010
Wall Street Journal 21 September 2009
Nathanial Gronewold Scientific American 22 May 2009
Economist 5 March 2009
BBC News 2 April 2008
New Statesman 2 July 2007
New Scientist 4 September 2006
UK Trade & Investment
British Geological Survey
Department of Energy and Climate Change
Department of Energy and Climate Change
ESRC Society Today
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
Reuters 7 September 2012
EurActiv 7 September 2012
BBC News 7 September 2012
Guardian 5 September 2012
Telegraph 30 August 2012
Recharge 22 August 2012
Scotsman 11 August 2012
E&P 3 August 2012
Financial Times 25 July 2012
Financial Times 23 July 2012
BBC News 23 July 2012
EAEM 23 July 2012
EurActiv 18 July 2012
Telegraph 21 June 2012
EAEM 8 June 2012
Guardian 29 May 2012
Wall Street Journal 29 May 2012
Telegraph 31 March 2012
Guardian 21 March 2012
Financial Times 18 January 2012
Oil & Gas Journal 5 January 2012
Statesman 28 December 2011
Guardian 30 January 2011
Guardian 17 January 2011
BBC News 17 January 2011
Guardian 3 January 2011
Telegraph 2 January 2011
Guardian 16 December 2010
Reuters 1 December 2010
BBC News 30 November 2010
Guardian 13 October 2010
BBC News 23 September 2010
Reuters 18 September 2010
Guardian 4 August 2010
MSNBC 2 June 2010
Guardian 4 May 2010
Telegraph 15 December 2009
Independent 9 November 2009
BBC News 6 October 2009
Independent 3 August 2009
Telegraph 26 January 2009
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