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Daniel Ben-Ami: The world needs more energy – even fossil fuels

Daniel Ben-Ami questions the wisdom of excluding fossil fuel investment

It is a tragedy that a basic truth has been forgotten. The world is going to need huge amounts more energy for everyone to achieve reasonable living standards.

Recent World Bank statistics on global poverty make sobering reading. The trend is improving over time, but, in 2012, there were still 896m people living on less than $1.90 a day. More than 2.1bn people were living on less than $3.10 a day.

For such people to enjoy Western living standards, it will be necessary for them to have levels of energy consumption on a par with the developed world. The same is true for the billions more who are not in dire poverty but whose income levels are still well below those of the West.

That means there is a moral imperative to strive for a world in which far more energy is produced. The alternative – whatever politically correct language it is dressed up in – means condemning billions to remain in poverty. That may be the preferred option of the West’s green-tinged elite, but it should not be acceptable to the rest of us.

In the abstract, it does not matter where the energy comes from. The key criterion should be pragmatic – whatever works best. The priority should be to produce as much energy as cheaply and efficiently as possible.

In practice, at least in the short and medium term, the vast bulk will come from fossil fuels. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015, fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) accounted for 86% of world energy consumption in 2014 compared with less than 3% for all forms of renewables (wind, geothermal, solar, biomass and waste). That is despite a huge drive by many Western governments over many years to promote renewables and stigmatise fossil fuel use. It is also worth remembering that many environmental campaigners also reject nuclear energy (about 4% of global consumption) and hydroelectric power (about 7%). 

Of course, it is impossible to say for certain what will happen in the more distant future. It could be that nuclear fusion – generating enormous amounts of energy by fusing hydrogen atoms together – will finally fulfil its promise. Or possibly solar energy will be harnessed on a much larger scale. Alternatively, an energy source barely recognised at present might come into its own.

What is certain, as things stand, we live in a world where billions of people live in a state of scarcity. That is a huge waste of human potential. It is not some hypothetical future catastrophe but one that is all too present and real. For the time being, at least, boosting energy production by all means available – including fossil fuels – is the truly moral choice.

Daniel Ben-Ami is deputy editor at IPE

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Dear Sir,
    Daniel Den-Ami should be applauded for his prognosis on the critical importance of affordable energy for those communities around the world for whom reasonable living standards are still a distant dream. But his prescription is more likely to exacerbate this condition than provide a cure.

    For it is the poorest communities in the world that are most impacted by climate change. This is one issue – perhaps the only one – on which development organisations such as Oxfam and Christian Aid and the World Bank agree. What’s more, the cheapest way of connecting communities isn’t the centralised fossil-heavy grids that we have relied upon in developed countries, but, local, solar, distributed generation and micro-grids that are so well-suited to these communities in the predominantly sunny parts of the world. It is precisely in these regions where solar PV is now often the cheapest form of power.

    We wouldn’t think of encouraging the world’s poor to adopt landline telephony now that mobile technology exists. Why promote an expensive, dirty technology when the alternative is cleaner, more flexible and now cheaper.

    Yours
    Seb Beloe

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