Energy security and climate change

Climate change and energy security

If you listen to the speeches being made by presidential candidates in the United States, you constantly hear two ideas equated that are really quite independent: ‘energy security’ and climate change mitigation. The former has to do with being able to access different kinds of energy (natural gas, transportation fuels, electricity) in a manner consistent with the national interest of a particular state. The latter is about reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted in the course of generating and using that energy.

Some policies do achieve both goals: most notably, building renewable energy systems and the infrastructure that supports them. When the United Kingdom builds offshore wind farms, it serves both to reduce dependence on hydrocarbon imports from Russia and elsewhere and to reduce the link between British energy production and greenhouse gasses. Arguably, building new nuclear plants also serves both aims (though it has other associated problems).

There are plenty of policies that serve energy security without helping the problem of climate change at all. Indeed, many probably exacerbate it. A key example is Canada’s oil sands: they reduce North American dependence on oil imports, but at a very considerable climatic and ecological cost. Corn ethanol is probably an example of the same phenomenon, given all the emissions associated with intensive and mechanized modern farming. A third example can be found in efforts to convert coal to liquid fuel – a policy adopted during the Second World War by Germany and Japan when their access to imported oil was curtailed, but also an approach with huge associated greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, it is possible to envision policies that help with climate change but do not serve energy security purposes. A key example is carbon capture and storage (CCS). Building power plants and factories that sequester emissions actually requires more energy, since it takes power to separate the greenhouse gasses from other emissions and pump them underground. If CCS technology allows the exploitation of domestic coal reserves without significant greenhouse gas emissions, both goals would be achieved, but CCS on its own contributes nothing to energy security.

The biggest danger in all of this is the unjustified muddling of two issues that are related but certainly not identical. It is simply not enough for developed states to ensure reliable and affordable access to fuels and power – they must do so in a way that helps to bring total global emissions in line with what the planet can absorb without suffering additional increases in mean temperature. Governments and private enterprises must not be allowed to pass off energy security policies with harmful climatic effects as ‘green.’

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

15 thoughts on “Energy security and climate change”

  1. The best policy that serves both goals is conservation! More efficient use of energy, where such use is really necessary, and a reduction in frivolous usage.

  2. The British government announced today that it was going to construct new nuclear power plants to help fight global warming. Nicolas Sarkozy and John McCain have also made similar arguments for expanding nuclear energy use to combat climate change

    If, and this is a big if, this were a proven strategy that could decrease global warming, would you consider this increased use of nuclear energy to be justified? Everyone keeps saying that we need to develop renewable sources of fuel… but nobody knows how far we are from that goal. Nuclear energy is available now. If you were the leader of a government, would you use it?

    I’m genuinely curious to hear what you think. Global warming is bad, but the idea of nuclear power plants isn’t great either…

  3. Edward,

    I am personally strongly torn about nuclear. I suppose it needs to be evaluated in comparative terms.

    As a first-order problem, is nuclear better than coal? Probably. Is it better than integrated cycle natural gas? That is less clear. Is it better than renewables? Probably not.

    Then, there are second-order questions. Will building more nuclear retard the development of renewables, or will it aid them by providing reliable baseload power?

    I haven’t made up my mind yet, so expect more posts.

    My other posts on nuclear fission are linked from the wiki.

  4. Alberta premier says fuel-emission curbs could harm energy security (01/16/2008)

    Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach warned the United States to avoid climate initiatives that could impair U.S. access to Canada’s oil sands production and called for new U.S. efforts to support increased oil-sands development.

    Stelmach said oil sands are key to U.S. energy security and his province is taking steps to ensure they are developed with strong environmental protections. But climate initiatives such as California’s low-carbon fuel standard, he said, could affect such efforts at a time when Asian markets are “clamoring” for oil.

    “If it is not designed to focus environmentally-friendly investment at the point of production, it will penalize energy imports from Alberta, and encourage energy imports from less stable but perhaps less environmentally [responsible] producers offshore,” he said in a Washington speech.

    The notion of a low-carbon fuels standard has also attracted attention at the federal level. It is included in a major Senate global warming bill approved by the Environment and Public Works Committee last month.

    Stelmach told reporters that emission standards should take a fair view of the overall greenhouse gas emissions associated with fuels. “My concern would be how those are calculated,” he said.

    “In terms of the overall emissions, if you develop the oil conventionally in, say the Middle East, how much energy is required to bring it to the United States” must be considered, Stelmach added, urging focus on cumulative greenhouse gas emissions.

    Canada is already the largest supplier of oil to the United States. And Stelmach said he would like to see exports from oil-rich Alberta to the U.S. increase. “All of the economics are in place for that to happen,” he said.

    But he called for several steps the United States could take to support increased oil sands production, including “expediting pipeline regulations,” and “providing access to markets for refined products,” as well as greater labor force “mobility” and increased cooperation on enhancing the environmental sustainability of the oil sands.

    Stelmach and other provincial officials are in Washington for several days of meetings on trade and investment in the country’s farming and energy sector. He made his remarks at an energy forum hosted by an Alberta business group in a Senate office building.

  5. Editorial

    Nature 451, 746 (14 February 2008) | doi:10.1038/451746a; Published online 13 February 2008

    Down on the farms

    Efforts by the Ministry of Defence to block offshore wind farms is at odds with Britain’s long-term security.

    When the UK government set out its energy policy in the spring of last year, it was heralded as one of the most ambitious programmes in Europe. The government pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from 1990 levels by at least 26% in 2020 and by 60% in 2050.

    Wind energy is poised to play a small but critical role in the government’s green scheme. Wind power is among the most competitive of all renewable energy sources, and it will help the government to meet near-term goals — most notably, a 10% reliance on renewable energy by 2010. At present, there are 2.3 gigawatts of installed capacity in Britain, and current projects in planning could bring that number to 33 gigawatts by 2020.

    That is, if developers can convince the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to let them build. The MoD has opposed wind farms for more than a decade, on and off, on the basis that they interfere with air-defence radars. Construction of turbines requires MoD approval during the planning stages, and last week the ministry announced that it is blocking four offshore wind farms planned for the North Sea. The farms, it claimed, would interfere with radar stations along the coast.

  6. “There are a lot of great investments that you can make. If you are investing in tar sands or shale oil then you have a portfolio that is crammed with subprime carbon assets.

    And it is based on an old model.

    Junkies find veins in their toes when the ones in their arms and their legs collapse.”

    Al Gore

  7. Green.view
    Time to cut the knot

    Jun 23rd 2008
    Security and greenness are two separate goals

    WHEN the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, they declared that increasing America’s energy security and tackling climate change would be among their main priorities. The two goals were seen to go hand-in-hand. Indeed, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, created a special new taskforce to address them both: the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

    Many people seem to think that energy security and global warming require similar policies. George Bush has dubbed his personal initiative to advance a new global agreement on global warming “The Major Economies Process on Energy Security and Climate Change”. After a summit last year, Mr Bush and the leaders of European Union piously agreed that the two issues were “interlinked global challenges”.

  8. Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Renewable Fuel Standard

    The President also announced the Environmental Protection Agency’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Renewable Fuel Standard. This proposal outlines the EPA’s strategy for increasing the supply of renewable fuels, poised to reach 36 billion gallons by 2022, as mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

    Increasing renewable fuels will reduce dependence of foreign oil by more than 297 million barrels a year and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 160 million tons a year when fully phased in by 2022. EISA will establish four categories of renewable fuels.. The new categories include:

    Cellulosic biofuels;
    Biomass-based diesel;
    Advanced biofuels; and
    Total renewable fuel.

    In 2022, the proposal would require 36 billion gallons annually of renewable fuels, of which 16 billion gallons must be cellulosic biofuels; and 1 billion gallons must be of biomass-based diesel. At most 15 billion gallons of the renewable fuel mandate can be met with conventional biofuels, including corn-based ethanol.

    For the first time, some renewable fuels must achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions compared to the gasoline and diesel fuels they displace. Refiners must meet the requirements to receive credit toward meeting the new standards.

    EPA also will conduct peer reviews on the lifecycle-analysis methodology and the results for various fuels and feed-source combinations. Lifecycle refers to the greenhouse gas emissions over the life of the fuels.

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