The difficulties that Europe faces over maintaining stable supplies of energy are not as well publicised as the threats from global warming. Yet the events of this summer, when two oil pipelines through Georgia were closed as a result of the Russian-Georgian conflict, were a sharp reminder of how vulnerable EU energy supplies have become to supply from potentially unstable areas. As our North Sea reserves dwindle, this is not an issue that British politicians can evade. We have to face up openly to how to reconcile securing energy supply with the rush to save the climate. Some of the targets for the latter give the appearance of ‘state national plans’ with as little credibility as their predecessors. Too many ‘green’ campaigners give the impression that keeping the lights on does not matter.
The current serious energy risks include: greater competition for dwindling energy resources; sharp rises in energy costs as a result of increased demand and interrupted supply; inadequate investment in national grids; political insecurity in the Middle East; the use of energy as a political weapon; the scramble for Africa’s oil and gas; and the forthcoming confrontations in the Arctic over potential drilling rights.
A particular vulnerability for the EU is its dependence on three countries for 60 per cent of its gas imports - Algeria, Norway and Russia. That exposure will grow for the UK as North Sea reserves are gradually exhausted. In our case that will mean our gas imports more than doubling from 40 per cent of our needs between 2010 and 2020. Russia will benefit most from this need for higher gas imports; the percentage of EU imported gas from Russia is expected to rise from the current 25 per cent to 40 per cent by 2030 (but with a higher percentage in some EU countries, such as Germany). And this reliance on Russia is worsened by the fact that much of the oil and gas imported from central Asia has to come through Russian pipelines to reach the West. Europe’s reaction to these challenges has been weak and ineffective. The EU lacks a coherent energy policy (although the Lisbon Treaty would have made one more feasible) either internally or externally. It has signally failed to display a collective response to Russia’s use of energy as a foreign policy tool and has been too compliant in Russia’s tactics over pipeline location.
Energy insecurity could become more evident sooner than the serious consequences of climate change. The only way to avoid blackouts within this decade of our electricity supply may be to set aside some measures planned to enforce carbon emission reduction targets - which would be a really big shock to the current political consensus! For example, we need to question whether it makes sense to uphold EU rules which require the phasing out of high sulphur dioxide producing coal-fired power stations by 2015.
We should revisit other measures to tackle global warming to evaluate their damaging side-effects. Using land for biofuels could reduce food production at a time when there are 70 million extra mouths to feed every year (and a rising demand for meat in the emerging economies). For the first time in history, land can be switched between food or energy production as food and energy have converged in price. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has suggested that the risk of famine over the next three years has increased because of the switch to biofuel production.