We need to balance energy and climate needs to keep our planet livable
There is nothing generational about caring for the planet and worrying about global warming or pollution of the air, the ground and our oceans. The worries are real and it is all of our responsibility to stop talking and start acting. We need to act fast and responsibly, because our delicate ecosystems are on the verge of collapse. But so is the social “equilibrium” of the world.
The issue of the environment and climate cannot be dealt with in isolation. It is part of very complex relationships that must be balanced with basic human needs. Solutions and actions need to be part of strategic thinking that will save the planet, lift billions of people out of poverty and secure a life of quality around the globe. Energy is a critical part of the equation.
We like Greta Thunberg. We like her innocence, her determination and even her naïveté at times, without which there is no dream — and without dreams there is no solution. She represents the view of a very large part of the global population. We are, however, less impressed by men and women in their ripe age falling to her feet with adoration, as if she were the Oracle of Delphi. Didn’t they know we were in trouble before she appeared?
It is only recently that populations in a large part of the world became consumers. Those who lived in the former Soviet bloc, for example, experienced deprivation and shortages. Thirty years ago, few understood the dramatic impact of overconsumption on the planet. We also are concerned about the less fortunate among the world’s population, those living under dismal conditions because of a lack of clean water, heating or cooling, lack of education and health services. Their aspirations are limited to more goods, better clothes, warm or cool homes, enough food. Understandably, they worry about the end of the month, not the end of the world. The obstacles to these aspirations have one common element: the lack of affordable and sustainable energy.
Even in more developed societies, populations are extremely sensitive to the consistent and secure availability of energy at an affordable price. This has created conflicting interests. The demonstrations in Europe advocating steps to reverse climate change have been accompanied by demonstrations in some countries against the government raising the price of petrol. Pressure comes from two sides. Both are legitimate. Both need to be addressed, and there is a danger of disruption to societies by not addressing both simultaneously. We cannot risk that social unrest will undercut our goals to reverse climate change.
What we do to save the planet must be done in a sustainable manner. There is no magic wand. Cleaning up cities in rich countries is an important priority. The electric vehicle (EV), of which we are fans, will help. But it comes at a price: producing batteries, mining rare earth minerals, and the increasing demand for electricity to fuel EVs will be a challenge to lowering the environmental footprint. New technologies such as 5G will demand more energy. The latest International Energy Agency (IEA) findings show that the growth in energy needs outpaces the growth in energy efficiency — which suggests that we need to rethink the energy mix and focus on the end product being clean, rather than hastily abandoning one source or the other.
Finding a balance between the urgent climate goals and providing for energy needs must be at the center of our efforts. To be successful, we need to build an alliance that includes scientists, the public, governments and business. Technology indeed is key to the desired result. Politics must support the technology community, whether it is basic research at universities or in the private sector. Businesses are an important part of the solution. They need to be treated as allies and not enemies. We must keep in mind that political decisions and pressure can accelerate the process, but that does not, in itself, necessarily guarantee success.
We need to step up joint efforts across the Atlantic to find sustainable solutions for new technologies. We can work to make renewables more effective. We can jointly achieve a breakthrough in storage and batteries. We must cooperate to make advances in artificial intelligence in support of energy efficiency. We need to reduce the use of coal and oil as fast as possible. But we need to tread carefully with how we abandon traditional sources of energy, primarily gas.
Natural gas will remain important to complement base-load generation, including from renewables. Gas also will be critical for major short-term reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. The gas industry is making more of an effort than any other “legacy” industry to lower emissions, targeting zero methane emissions in the production process and, in some cases, aiming for 100 percent water recycling. The U.S. gas industry has been a key to America’s energy self-sufficiency, reducing U.S. emissions and, through exports, helping to reduce emissions in other parts of the world.
The task ahead of us is daunting. Our success hinges on the courage to make bold moves and resist the temptation of easy fixes. We need to be careful, smart and courageous — with the goal to achieve the balance of a livable environment and a life worth living for our children and grandchildren.
Andras Simonyi, a former Hungarian ambassador to the United States, is a senior visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Richard Morningstar is a former U.S. ambassador to the European Union and Azerbaijan and founder of the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council.