How do we fight climate change while global energy demand soars?

World leaders and the global press have rightly focused these past weeks on the imperative to fight rising world temperatures and climate change’s impacts on people around the world. Yet, there is another pressing global need the world has to address simultaneously: a rapidly rising demand for energy, especially fossil fuels.

Nowhere exemplifies this contradiction more than the Caspian region. The tragedy of the Aral Sea was an early example of the disastrous consequences of environmental exploitation, losing 90 percent of its water volume, but this is far from the only example. At the same time, Central Asia will require over $30 billion of annual investment into energy infrastructure to meet its growing demand throughout the 2020s, and every country in the South Caucasus consumes more energy now than it did 20 years ago.

Climate disasters will not prevent growing energy consumption either in the Caspian region or the rest of the world. Access to energy is essential for survival, commerce and security. The UN’s Sustainable Energy Goals call for ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, just as they do for urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Energy security remains a core factor in countries’ national security calculations as well as in the dynamics of international relations.  

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Moreover, as we see today in the United States, rising energy prices carry domestic, political, as well as economic effects. And those energy prices are determined by global markets, further underlining the international features of energy as well as climate policies. 

Over 700 million people in the world today have no access to electricity; that is about twice the size of the population of the United States. Moreover, there are about 2.5 billion people without a safe way to cook their food, relying on fuels such as charcoal, wood or dung to heat their homes and make cooking fires, which are often indoors and generate long-term health dangers for the world’s poorest people. The future is even more concerning: another 1.6 billion people are expected to be added to the global population by 2045, and all of those people are going to expect reliable access to electricity, including for information technology, appliances, cars and other things the growing middle class here and in the rest of the world take for granted.

There is no question about the need to confront climate change. Without a comprehensive plan, global temperatures will rise, with catastrophic consequences for our planet. Even a slight increase will lead to rising sea levels, dangerous floods, desertification and dangerous shifts in the world’s water supplies. However, there is also a need to confront the realities of energy demand.

It is not an either/or situation; we must work to balance human energy needs as we fight climate change.

As government, business and world leaders address the global climate crisis, they also have to give reasoned consideration to the growing demand for energy in countries around the world. Confronting that need means a wider, more sophisticated set of actions than the past. Energy security today must focus not just on ensuring uninterrupted oil and natural gas supplies, but also on the integrity of pipelines, electrical grids and other systems. This will reduce the severity and impact of ransomware or other attacks such as we saw on the Colonial Pipeline in the United States or on the electrical grid in Ukraine

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Added to all this is the fact that the drivers for global energy demand are no longer the rich, industrialized states of the OECD. Energy demand in many of those countries is declining — somewhat, but not enough to meet the levels required to fight climate change.  The drivers of world energy demand are the emerging market economies, especially China and India, as well as the growing economies of Africa. 

This global energy reality calls for a new energy diplomacy, for new ways of thinking among countries and engaging to meet the world’s energy needs while also keeping an eye on the imperative of addressing climate change. This diplomacy demands actively incorporating the insights of innovators, including those in the private sector and in government and university labs besides the thinking of politicians and others traditionally engaged in making foreign policy. 

This new energy diplomacy will require listening to the concerns and needs of developing countries, bearing in mind that different countries are facing the problem of ensuring predictable and adequate energy supplies for their populations from different starting points. Steps that sell in Germany or the United States are often non-starters elsewhere, a point that can get lost in the tenor of discussions around climate change. 

It will require looking at how to finance cleaner energy sources, at facilitating the supply and utilization of transition fuels as well as looking towards a potentially significantly different energy future, such as a hydrogen-based economy. It will require accepting the idea that different countries and societies will take different approaches to achieve the same end of a lower carbon future where the energy needs of all people are met. It will need to take into account the reality that there is a tendency to use technologies that are known, that people are comfortable with and that there is a global infrastructure likely worth trillions of dollars already in place that will need to be built upon, modified and improved.

These new discussions in energy diplomacy will need to take into account situations such as in Central Asia where receding Himalayan glaciers may mean water to drive hydropower today, but electricity shortfalls and other economic problems in coming years because of reduced snowfalls in the future. 

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These are just a few of the urgent changes the United States and others must consider and make in their energy diplomacy. We cannot just keep our focus on the oil or natural gas supply energy issues that have long been a feature of our national security and foreign policies. Nor can we ignore the world’s continuing need for uninterrupted energy as we prescribe steps for reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change. We have to acknowledge the conundrum and find ways to do both.

Robert Cekuta served as U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan from 2015 to 2018 and was the principal deputy assistant secretary for energy resources at the Department of State. 

Efgan Nifti is CEO of the Caspian Policy Center, an independent, nonprofit research think tank focused on economic, political, energy and security research of the Caspian region.