Alternative Energy and Global Energy Security In Aftermath Of Rio+20
Alexander Mirtchev, Contributor
Forbes, August 27, 2012
“Life always gets harder toward the summit–the cold increases, the responsibility increases.” These words by Friedrich Nietzsche aptly characterize the atmosphere among global leaders at June’s international summits.
G20 leaders convened in Mexico on June 18-19 and from there the caravan of ministers headed south to Brazil for the Rio+20 UN Earth Summit.
With the Greek political drama (again) and euro zone debt crisis (again) consuming leaders’ attention at the G20, and developed and developing countries unable to bridge their mutual distrust on ‘green economy’ issues in Brazil, the aftermath of was a resounding global yawn.
Rio+20 was branded an ‘epic failure’ by environmental groups and a ‘disappointment’ by the head of Britain’s delegation, Nick Clegg. China and the United States were a bit more upbeat.
China was relieved that the final declaration reaffirmed that poorer countries should not have the same responsibilities as wealthier ones; the U.S. was relieved that the declaration did not commit wealthy countries to providing $30 billion annually to developing nations. Both cohorts were absolved from assuming additional responsibility.
‘Green Economy’ Conflict
The concept of a ‘green economy’ enjoys support among the G20 and was a central theme at Rio+20. This begs a question: If everyone from members of civil society to corporate and government leaders vigorously nod their heads when ‘green’ is mentioned, why doesn’t the issue ever get advanced in a global context?
One answer seems to lie in the inability to agree on a definition of what is meant by ‘green economy’ or ‘green growth.’ Another answer stems from the increasing divergence in previously established positions and attitudes that served as bonds among geopolitical alliances, unions and informal groupings.
As we have witnesses seen with the EU’s ongoing–and unsuccessful efforts–to devise a unanimously acceptable (or even barely tolerable) scheme to address the euro zone crises, when question of economic security arises, all other considerations fall by the wayside.
Fundamentally, the developing nations believe that any ‘green economy’ commitments could circumscribe their development choices and result in unfair burdens. They also see ‘green economy’ as a euphemism for ‘protectionism.’ The developed countries equate green economy commitments with open checkbooks and transfers of key technologies to competitors such as China, India and Brazil.
This mutual mistrust is heightened because the oil-producing nations at the table are hostile when terms such as ‘renewables’ or ‘alternative energy’ become part of the ‘green economy’ conversation.
Moreover, this multitude of voices has become much more forceful in the 21st century multi-centric world–one characterized by many centers of power that have emerged after the unipolar and multipolar post-Cold War order. These emerging centers of power are becoming increasingly influential, which in turn raises the complexity of global dialogue on issues such as alternative energy development.
Alternative Energy Reboot
The indecisive outcome of the Rio+20 summit could in fact open the horizon for an alternative energy reboot. Nations should act in the context of global forces and focus on a common goal of bolstering global energy and economic security because it makes sense for everyone–not just for some countries.
Despite the ambiguous attitudes toward alternative energy technologies, their development has altered the energy security equation. Alternative energy technologies have begun contributing to the stability and safety of the international energy system, energy resilience, diversity of supply, local energy independence, and global interdependence.
Furthermore, energy prices now influence every corner of the world economy. Energy security equals economic security. Indeed, renewables development is now reshaping global economic security calculations, offering new catalysts for growth and providing a springboard for technological development.
Alternative energy can be a universal buffer against energy supply disruptions and price shocks, as well as broader economic volatility and global cyclicality.
Such optimal outcomes depend on the tenuous balancing of state control with the imperative for broader private sector participation. The answers to energy are in the private sector,” noted Kandeh Yumkella, the UN industrial development organization director general during Rio+20.
Despite increased corporate engagement in all levels of energy security and sustainability efforts, the state plays a disproportionate role in shaping the form and development of alternative energy technologies due to the significant technological and financial needs underpinning their growth.
The creation of an alternative energy market is critical. The transition to a global renewables market entails a greater degree of private and state collaboration, with the private sector gradually taking over the role of market maker. Achieving greater clarity in government policies, avoiding the temptation to micromanage markets, and remaining open to innovation should be overarching strategies that take into account the shifting international balance of power.
Adroitly managing this shifting international balance of power from summit to summit could prove to be the biggest challenge. The ‘green economy’ must move beyond being just a statement of intent, or, in some cases, a lightning rod for mistrust between the emerging geopolitical and geo-economic power centers worldwide that have put alternative energy developments on their strategic interests’ agenda.
To achieve this, global leaders and summiteers will need to undertake the confidence building necessary for global cooperation and for maintaining global economic security–developing common goals for the majority of state and non-state players, and building consensus on how they can be achieved. This task is made doubly difficult by the fact that economic security for one stakeholder is often considered a security threat to another.
Where does alternative energy fit in that balance? The technological developments are acquiring their own momentum, while the environmental goals of world summits are becoming stalled because of divergent national interests and policy intentions. If Rio+20 is any indication, the environmental considerations would more and more be guided by the trend of alternative energy developments, rather than the other way around.