The World Needs More Energy, Not Less

This week, a few major media outlets covered my take on the effectiveness and judiciousness of President Obama’s call, at the U.N. Climate Summit, for all countries of the world to make pledges of how and how much they are going to reduce their national carbon dioxide emissions. It should be no surprise that I think such actions would be ineffective and imprudent.

My biggest criticism is that not all countries of the world are at the same stage of energy development. While the developed nations may have all the energy supplies they want and need, most developing countries do not. So, while developing countries pursue  “luxuries” like indoor lighting and clean cooking facilities (not to mention improved sanitation), developed countries are awash in the luxury of debating whether to alter the relative components of their fuel mix in hopes that it may (or may not) alter the future course of the climate.

Since historically (and today) there is an extremely tight coupling between energy production and carbon dioxide emissions (since fossil fuels are used to produce the overwhelming bulk of our energy), calls like those from President Obama to restrict carbon dioxide emissions are akin to calls to restrict energy usage and expansion.

Imposing carbon restrictions on developing nations would have large-scale negative implications, not only to those directly affected, but to the world as a whole, as a large expanse of human ingenuity–arguably humanity’s greatest resource–would remain constrained by basic survival efforts and 50-year life expectancies.

Basically, no one is going to go along with this. So despite promises, when adhering to plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (whether informal or formalized in a treaty) comes up against economic expansion and human welfare improvements, the latter are going to win out every time (or so we would hope).

Consequently, it is a lot easier to “talk the talk” on this issue of cutting carbon dioxide emissions than it is to “walk the walk.”  Even in the United States, where carbon dioxide emissions have been on a gentle decline for the past 7-8 years (something that the President likes to take credit for, despite that being impossible), a substantial portion of that decline has come at the hand of the recession and the rather stagnant recovery.

Some countries, however, are straightforward enough to publically recognize this and dispense with appearances. Take India for example. The new environmental minister there was forthright in a recent New York Times article:

In a blow to American hopes of reaching an international deal to fight global warming, India’s new environment minister said Wednesday that his country would not offer a plan to cut its greenhouse gas emissions ahead of a climate summit next year in Paris.

The minister, Prakash Javadekar, said in an interview that his government’s first priority was to alleviate poverty and improve the nation’s economy, which he said would necessarily involve an increase in emissions through new coal-powered electricity and transportation. He placed responsibility for what scientists call a coming climate crisis on the United States, the world’s largest historic greenhouse gas polluter, and dismissed the idea that India would make cuts to carbon emissions.

“What cuts?” Mr. Javadekar said. “That’s for more developed countries. The moral principle of historic responsibility cannot be washed away.” Mr. Javadekar was referring to an argument frequently made by developing economies — that developed economies, chiefly the United States, which spent the last century building their economies while pumping warming emissions into the atmosphere — bear the greatest responsibility for cutting pollution.

My guess is India is not alone in this sentiment, whether publically expressed or not.

The bottom line is that the world needs more energy, not less. Humanity’s overall well-being will be tied to the success of such pursuit.

Here’s is how I summed things up in my USA Today op-ed:

Overall, the world needs more energy, not less. Whatever changes in the climate that are to come, humanity will be better prepared and more resilient if we are healthier, wealthier and wiser. Restricting our ability to progress in these areas is not the best way forward.