19 February 2009

Global Warming is irrelevant

With oil prices in a state of collapse and investment grinding to a halt, maybe global warming is no longer a priority. With the survival of the global economy at stake, is the search for alternative sources of energy really so urgent? Actually, yes it is. The argument for increasing investment in energy research is undiminished and the possible dangers of global warming are irrelevant to the argument.

Leaving aside the question of the human impact on the environment, there are arguments both political and economical for the pursuit of new sources of energy that are as relevant now as they have ever been.

First, the political argument.

After the Second World War, food security was high on the European agenda. Those populations that had during the course of the war lost access to imported food stuffs and had been unable to feed themselves from domestic production had faced starvation. As a result, when the European Economic Community was formed it made the support of agricultural production a primary goal.

Ensuring the viability of farming at a level that was capable of keeping Europeans fed regardless of the vagaries of the global market would end up swallowing most of the EEC budget over many decades, creating vast food mountains of unsold produce, causing havoc on global food markets and impoverishing Third World farmers. It made no economic sense. But it met the goals of the politicians who framed these policies. It ensured that Europe has been able—despite the marginal viability of much of European farming—to feed it populations from within its own borders.

Through several rounds of World Trade Organization negotiations, the Europeans—along with the Americans—have successfully kept agriculture off the agenda, despite the best efforts of unsubsidised food exporters. And our governments have continued to pour money into domestic agricultural production.

In doing this, they are acknowledging that it is not necessarily wise, even though it may be economical, to rely on global markets to supply the necessities of life. Spices, yes. Tobacco, yes. Tulips, yes. And latterly, toys, hi fi, iPods and luxury cars, yes. But not those goods whose absence might cause the breakdown of civil society.

Food, of course, falls into the category of such goods. And so does energy.

Our dependence on overseas suppliers for much of our energy needs in the form of gas and oil is a political risk that has been at the root of much instability in the world (at least two Gulf wars come to mind) and it leave us vulnerable to future events that may be beyond our control.

For this reason, we need to develop new sources of energy that can be generated locally.

Secondly, economics.

It is an argument that I have made elsewhere many people have made before me—that our current economic problems can be most clearly understood as the inevitable result of the build up over several years of large imbalances in global trade.

One of the most significant sources of those imbalances has been—and remains—the trade surpluses of the oil exporting nations.

There are other sources of imbalance—notably the manufactured exports of China, Japan and Germany—but as long as the oil export surpluses continue, the global economy will be subject to continuing instabilility.

So, until alternative—and locally generated—sources of energy can be found to replace oil, the world trading system will be subject to imbalances that will continue to beget crises.

World trade is a wonderful thing, but just as it has long been recognised that food security requires self sufficiency in food production, energy security requires self sufficiency in energy production. We almost certainly have the means now to make energy independence possible for all nations within a span of a few years, but it requires the single-minded pursuit of that goal. While it is an ambitious target and it will require not insignificant resources, it is on the face of it a more plausible goal than either the development of nuclear weapons must have appeared in about 1940 or the landing of a man on the moon in 1960, and—given adequate resources—it can quite possibly be achieved on a similar time scale.

I look forward to a world where energy and food and the necessities of life are sourced locally (quite possibly within walking distance of our homes) and make up no more than 10% of our household budgets while the balance of our disposable incomes are spent on leisure and luxuries that we will happily source from all corners of the globe.

d. sofer