We’re still reeling from the ‘credit crunch’ – what might the effects of an ‘energy crunch’ be like? And how might it affect devolved nations like Wales?

Last night’s Cafe followed on from Robin Attfield’s examination last month of the ethical dilemmas that surround the idea of sustainability. When it comes to what kinds of goods we need sustainable access to in order to keep a society like ours (with its key values, like liberty, equality and democracy) viable, energy is bound to be at the top of the list.

English: Twin sources of energy

Yet the ways we produce (and consume) energy may be becoming increasingly unviable. On the one hand, our reliance on fossil fuels is problematic because they are non-renewable. On the other, our reliance on them seems to be accelerating climate change, which as Robin Attfield pointed out last month, is a threat to sustainability which needs to be tackled urgently.

As Robin argued, concerns about sustainability are also concerns about justice as much as they are concerns about natural limits. We are used to thinking about the social good in societies like ours in terms of individual liberty, of ensuring that individuals are left alone as much as possible to seek what they desire. But this assumes that growth is a given, that there will, in the future, be more to go round of what people need in order to pursue their desires. This has been as true of social democratic philosophers (who focus on human needs) as libertarian ones (who focus on liberty and preferences): John RawlsA Theory of Justice (1971), for example, sets out an ideal theory of social justice that depends very much on the continuation of economic growth.

The UK government has recently rowed back on setting targets for decarbonising energy production in the UK. In Wales, the Assembly Government has sought to build onshore and offshore wind, yet has also supported the building of new gas supply infrastructure and power stations, and the renewal of Anglesey’s Wylfa nuclear plant. It has stated [PDF] that Wales should ‘by 2050, at the latest, be in a position where almost all of our local energy needs, whether for heat, electrical power or vehicle transport, can be met by low carbon electricity production’ (A Low Carbon Revolution, p. 6).

At this month’s Cafe, Professor Calvin Jones (Cardiff Business School) presented two different views of the ‘energy crunch’. First, we watched a film, ‘One Million Years of Sunshine’, scripted by Calvin, in which some of the choices facing us were set out in a blackly comedic style. Rising prices for fossil fuels present us with choices that need to be made about how substitutes may be found: the film offers human slavery or risky technological solutions as alternative (and equally undesirable) responses.

Calvin then enlarged in his talk on the extent of the difficulties facing any attempt to substitute alternative energy sources for fossil fuels, and oil in particular. First, he outlined the meaning of peak oil – not a situation in which oil physically runs out, but one in which new discoveries of oil are not enough to supply demand. The result of peak oil is that prices go up – not continually, but with a rising trend over time. He pointed out that, despite reduced demand as a result of the 2008-13 recession, prices were still going up, to around three times what they were in the early 2000s.

The use of oil in manufacturing (e.g. plastics) and agriculture (as an input to the manufacture of fertilisers) compounds this problem. Fatih Birol, economist at the International Energy Authority, has stated that cheap oil the equivalent of ‘four new Saudi Arabias’ will be necessary by 2030 to maintain existing demand. To assist economic development (and social justice) in rising economies like China and India, more will be needed.

Non-conventional sources of oil may be available (such as tar sands in Western Canada), but the extraction costs (as well as the environmental impacts) of exploiting these will be considerable – eight times as much as it cost to extract the easiest-to-reach Saudi oil in the 1980s.

The problem is that fossil fuel represents the largest return of energy on energy invested. Calvin drew an analogy with investing money: a return of £10 on every £1 invested is a phenomenal rate of return. Similarly impressive rates of return are possible on Saudi-type oil. But other sources – from nuclear to alternative oil to shale gas and even renewable sources like solar – have much lower rates of return. It costs more energy, using these methods, to produce energy. In addition, there are moral trade-offs at every level – for example, choosing biofuels means that there will be less arable land to grow foods crops thanks to pressures on poorer countries to develop biofuel crops for export. More fuel for the rich will therefore mean less food for the poor. We face, Calvin argued, a precipitous descent from the energy abundance we have been used to, to a new situation in which the equitable provision of social needs requires careful thought and radical action to transform our expectations and how we provide for them.

This is particularly the case, he suggested, in Wales. As one of the economically poorest regions of the UK, Wales is also in the unenviable position (together with Yorkshire and the North East of England) of requiring the largest inputs of energy in order to produce its income. London and the South East, by contrast, are not only economically richer, but less energy intensive.

In discussion, the audience were asked to think about how well an adequate response to the energy crunch might fit together with some form of democracy. Given the ‘forced movement’ which peak oil and its aftermath threatens to impose on us, can we respond gracefully in ways that preserve rather than destroy the moral and political values we consider important?

“PPSD (Post-petroleum stress disorder)!”
“Don’t bother about justice, science will solve it all!”
“Private companies should be made public.”
“Payback – less developed world will win.”
“Get rid of old industry, longer term government.”

From the audience…

Given the short time horizons democratic governments operate with, it was asked whether more stability might be derived from governments with longer (up to 20 years) terms of office. Others wondered whether technological solutions should be prioritised in the short term via planned public investment. Calvin suggested that what might be needed could be a broader reorganisation in society, both of how science and knowledge are organised and used, and of how goods are provided. With science and knowledge, he asked whether it might be more suitable to locate research and innovation in regions, providing research and knowledge for the needs of specific places. He asked whether decentralisation of energy production but also of the systems of provision for public goods (like education and social care) should be pursued in order to create a society better structured to cope gracefully with the challenges of ‘energy descent’.

Questions of ‘who will do it?’ become as pressing as ones about ‘what should we do?’ In such a society, he foresaw the State becoming less relevant to the everyday lives of citizens, as community-based action and production would become the main means of providing for needs. In Wales, he argued, the devolved administration would suffer from the retention of key planning powers by Westminster, meaning that large-scale changes to how energy is produced were beyond its remit. The main benefit of having devolved government might be in how it facilitates community-level initiatives, such as those germinated by the Transition Towns movement, which has initiatives running in many towns, villages and cities in the UK and globally, including Cardiff.

Is the Welsh government providing an adequate response to the problems Wales will face in providing for its energy needs? Check out the Low Carbon Revolution [PDF] document, take the poll below and comment below this post to continue the debate.

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