Environment, Energy, Economy: a threefold challenge to sustainable security

Phillip Bruner | Exclusively written for sustainablesecurity.org | December 2010

Issues:Climate change, Competition over resources

As we turn a watchful eye toward COP16 it’s tempting to get sidetracked by other major events going on around the world. There are, after all, a host of developments which stand to have an impact on security in the immediate future and arguably, many of us have become perhaps too accustomed to placing economic and energy woes ahead of the environment on our individual lists of urgent priorities. We are, after all, in the middle of the worst global financial meltdown since the Great Depression and as banks stop lending, governments cut spending, unemployment rises, public outcry gathers momentum and as we’ve already seen in Ireland and Britain recently, even in highly-developed economies social unrest can translate into violence toward governments. We’re also running out of cheap and easy access to oil, which is “the lifeblood of modern civilization,” according to the 2005 Hirsch Report - not to mention modern militaries - and as developing countries continue to rapidly industrialise, Western governments grow weary of asymmetries in energy demand per capita as well as huge demographic shifts in population size and age, which tend to favour the East. That said, it helps to be reminded that economic and energy woes go hand-in-hand when it comes to addressing climate change. Therefore, in order for activists and government representatives alike to find common ground on which to build lasting and constructive partnerships for addressing major security threats, an interdisciplinary approach is needed that can help to elucidate how environmental, energy and economic dilemmas are deeply intertwined.  

On April 11th, in a Joint Operating Environment report from the US Joint Forces Command, the announcement was made “that surplus oil production capacity could disappear within two years” and by 2015 “the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day.” While the Department of Energy has shied away from making similar assessments, it’s significant to note the possible relationship between declining rates of extraction, erratic fluctuations in oil prices and volatility in the wider market. At the height of the financial crisis, oil prices swung from $147 in July 2008 to $32 in late December 2008 and then back up to $70-80 from late August 2009. Chris Skrebowski, adviser to the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas’ (APPGOPO) has said that “the credit crunch, the collapse of oil prices and uncertainty about the length and depth of recession” require investors to examine “how the recession stands to impact the trajectory of oil demand growth.”

In his keynote address to the Chatham House Conference in London on February 1st 2010, OPEC Secretary General, Abdalla S. El-Badri highlighted the link between oil scarcity and economic recession as one in which government “concerns over security of supply” may come into conflict with “the need for a low-carbon future.” According to OPEC projections, demand for OPEC crude could be anywhere between 29 million and 37 million barrels per day by 2020. In response, El-Badri noted: “This translates into an uncertainty gap for upstream investments in OPEC Member Countries of over $250bn. There is therefore the very real possibility of wasting financial resources on unneeded capacity.”    

How does a decline in cheap and easy access to oil coupled with an economic recession stand to impact the environment? Well, we all remember how COP15 failed to live up to the hype and while serious climate change practitioners and academics were and are perhaps too seasoned to expect miracles, Copenhagen served as an important reminder that the emergence of a legitimate international regulatory regime for GHG emissions is as far off as one to regulate cross-border capital flows or commercial and domestic fuel efficiency standards. The implications are that if leading governments and NGOs can’t broker a deal to cut carbon emissions and create incentives for renewable energy investments, private firms are left with the responsibility for generating a colossal $160 billion in capacity investment that will be required to meet rising global energy demand by 2015 and another $150 billion needed for capacity maintenance and replacement of lost capacity. Renewable energy, for many, holds the promise of a greener and brighter future in which coal, natural gas and even nuclear can be phased out. But in the context of economic stagnation in the West and rising energy demands in the East, it isn’t hard to imagine a large percentage of investment moving in the direction of what are at the moment and by comparison, low-risk endeavours.

Whether or not ‘low risk’ to readers, can be ascribed to mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia, deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico or tar sands and oil shale extraction in Alberta, depends largely on one’s list of urgent priorities. If we can’t reach an intergovernmental deal to regulate GHG emissions and incentivise renewable investment (or by virtue of the same deal establish at least a regionally-competitive price for carbon that will help boost finance and innovation in carbon capture and storage), then firms are left with few options but to continue investing in fossil fuels in order to meet demand. If we can’t reach an intergovernmental deal to regulate speculative trading and irresponsible lending, then we can expect more erratic boom and bust cycles to follow after we’ve recovered from this one, standing to stifle what will become even more crucial investments in renewable technologies. Yet the present course of discourse, if you will, tends to view these issues as separate and distinct.

Some analysts, representing both governmental and non-governmental organisations, appear convinced that economic matters have little to do with climate change and that the politics of energy supplies is not the domain of environmentalists. But if we take into consideration the myriad factors which tie energy supply and demand for fossil fuels in with rising GHG emissions and a recession that has stifled investment for much-needed innovation, then the case for a more interdisciplinary approach becomes readily apparent. From a national security standpoint, a lack of investment and innovation in renewable technologies challenges both the US and UK governments to make do with existing fossil fuel-intensive technologies, while under pressure to reduce overall expenditures. The US military in particular as the “largest single user of petrol in the world” according to BP, faces an overwhelming uphill battle in fighting two already costly wars. Meanwhile, the Joint Operating Environment report also reminds us of what has happened historically on occasions when there is serious economic upheaval: “One should not forget that the Great Depression spawned a number of totalitarian regimes that sought economic prosperity for their nations by ruthless conquest.”

To complicate matters, a recent paper published by the Harvard Kennedy School cites ‘Mega Catastrophes,’ that may ensue in the event that average global temperatures increase by more than 4 degrees – putting pressure on both climate activists and government representatives to work more closely together in pursuit of a coordinated response. According to their most recent assessment, “melting and collapse of ice sheets in the West Antarctic or Greenland leading to drastic sea level rise (several meters over time)” could have significant and perhaps even irreversible consequences for vulnerable populations. The report goes on to note that: “Traditional responses to the risk of extreme events are of limited value in mitigating risks of a mega-catastrophe. The underlying changes in the climatic system could not be reversed over any time scale relevant for decision makers, limiting the efficacy of traditional recovery measures… Impacts could be difficult to smooth over time, even for governments.”

Whether it’s the economy, energy or the environment which you value most, when it comes to security, each holds equal weight. If security can be defined in terms of what is or isn’t sustainable, then it must evolve to incorporate additional elements that transcend more traditional views on geopolitics. Depleting oil supplies and price volatility, vulnerability to economic shocks and climate change are all issues which are deeply interrelated. Any government in the West or the East that wishes to protect its citizens from further and/or ensuing trauma should devote ample time to coming up with more holistic models and methods for understanding the causal factors which interconnect all three. As such, I propose a new slogan for sustainable security: the three Es - ‘environment, energy, economy.’ In terms of priority, all are of equal importance to the future of modern civilizations.

Phillip Bruner is Founder of the Green Investment Forum and a guest lecturer in global political economy at the University of Edinburgh

Image source: NCPA Photos


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