Grupo de Economia da Energia

Energy security and climate change: the hard convergence

In energy on 19/09/2011 at 00:30

By Ronaldo Bicalho

Two main issues dominate the current debate about energy: climate change and energy security.

Initially, these issues belong to different areas of public policy; however, the recent development of events, both in energy and environment levels, made the interdependence between them increases significantly.

According to this, the peculiarity of the current moment is not simply the presence of the environmental issue – climate change – in the energy debate, but the prominence acquired by the subject in the evolution of the current energy situation. As a result, it is not enough to recognize the need to incorporate the environmental variable in the debate, but recognize the need to incorporate it as a relevant issue as energy issue (energy security) is addressed.

The need to balance environmental and energy dimensions in the discussion on energy results from the strong presence of fossil fuels in both climate change and energy security.

For the environment area , fossil fuels are the main cause of climate change as a function of temperature increase generated by the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; in particular, the CO2 from burning fuels.

For the energy area, fossil fuels play a key role for ensuring the energy supply necessary for economic development and social welfare, due to a set of attributes – capacity of storage, density, availability and control – which allows the use of these fuels at scale levels and cost extremely advantageous.

Thus, if fossil fuels are a major problem for the environment, for the energy they represent a great solution. To address climate change it is necessary to get rid of them, to ensure energy supply is necessary to use them.

From this antagonism in the different roles played by fossil fuels in energy and environmental issues arises, at first, the conflict between the objectives – mitigation of climate change and ensuring energy security – and therefore between environmental and energy policies.

This conflict is to achieve the main objective for environmental policy means hinder the goal of energy policy. In other words, mitigating climate change through reducing emissions of CO2 by restricting the use of fossil fuels is balanced by a decrease in the amount of resources, in quantity, quality and price, available to guarantee the security of energy supply.

Clearly the opposite is also true. By complying with the imperative of energy security, through the intensive use of fossil fuels, it accelerates the climate change process, the result of increased emissions arising from the increased use of these fuels.

Thus, the benefits obtained by a policy enforce a cost to other.

Because of this conflict between the two policies, intrinsic to duality of the role played by fossil fuels, the convergence between them has to be built. In other words, convergence does not arise spontaneously; it is the result of an intentional process of technological, economic and institutional construction.

That is, the convergence is not natural, provided or available, but rather it needs to be created, produced, constructed in technically, economically and institutionally manner.

This construction involves a significant mobilization of resources that demand a crucial role by the Sate in relation to major externalities involved in issues involving climate change and energy security, both individually and collectively.

Because of this, the State becomes the main protagonist in managing the trade-off between energy security and climate change. This role makes policy decisions a key element of the evolution of the energy sector in the coming decades.

These decisions will set the strategies to be adopted by National States to address problems regarding this trade-off; however, the strong interdependence between them introduces a number of significant difficulties in decision-making process.

Given the interdependence between the two problems, the chosen strategies must cover the challenge. This approach demands some kind of hierarchy of objectives within this set, which implies the subordination of one policy over another, outlining the priorities addressed by public policy.

In the process of setting priorities, perception of the set of problems in its extent and severity plays a key role; however, the interdependence makes the strategic solution of this set of problems extremely complex. This complexity allows the possibility of different domestic strategies, from different perceptions of two problems and their solutions, whether articulated or not, which difficult extremely the policy convergence about common approach to be a reference and reproduced nationally and internationally.

Thus, thinking about the transition of the current economy based on high carbon to future economy based on low carbon as a defined process with a single trajectory, with a single timing and unique content, is a simplification that does not help understanding the nature of this transition, its possibilities and hindrances.

Indeed, the transition is an undefined and open process with multiple paths, content and possible times.

In other words, there is no a single transition, but various transitions.

If there are several perceptions about the possible transitions, several strategies from the States against the trade-off climate change and energy security and the public policies implemented to reduce it.

Thus, if the energy policy is back to debate, the complexity of the context created a multiplicity of perceptions, policies and possibilities for the future.

Converging perceptions, strategies and policies in a context like this is not an easy task.  Recognizing this difficulty helps creating the necessary conditions for this convergence. However, ignoring this difficulty does not help solving the problem.

Thus, those who ignore the problem and underestimate the costs of solving it make a great disservice to face the crucial issue of current energy developments: reducing the trade-off between energy security and climate change.

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