Fuelling multilateralism

Bagher Asadi
says that an internationalist approach can resolve differences between developed and developing countries over energy, climate change and sustainable development and build a sustainable future.

The role of energy in the economic life of societies, particularly in modern times, is established beyond dispute, academically and otherwise. It has come to occupy a central role in almost all economic activities in all societies of our times, albeit to varying degrees depending on the level of industrialization and technological sophistication. Aside from the allure of pure nostalgic feelings for the simple, easy ways of life of a pre-modern past, we – wherever we happen to find ourselves on either side of the development divide – do consider energy as an irreplaceable ingredient for the economic/industrial activities of our societies. In the developed world, it is needed to keep the industrial/technological complex moving on, and to sustain and further promote the advanced way of life already achieved. In the developing world, it is an altogether different story.

Energy’s paramount role in the economic life of societies is only one aspect – however important – of a much bigger picture. A few decades ago energy economics used to deal only with such fundamental concepts as competitive price, supply and demand and, in general, market-related matters. As a graduate student of economics at an American university in the mid-1970s, I can hardly remember even once hearing the word ‘environment’ in an energy context.

Now, it is totally different. The paradigm has changed, and changed substantially. The question that now confronts us is not merely that energy production and use have environmental impacts. That is given. Instead the issue – as in any other matter of global import and impact – has assumed far more complex dimensions. Current patterns of energy production and use, particularly those of fossil fuels – which are considered highly polluting – are characterized as damaging to the environment, unhealthy, and hence unsustainable. This kind of message is heard from quite an important part of the industrial, developed world. Given their economic/industrial wherewithal and political prowess, not to mention their international/multilateral influence, they have succeeded quite largely in advancing their clean, green ideas and placing them effectively on the global agenda. Let me underline that there is nothing wrong with that per se.

Energy for the developing world, on the other hand, is, first and foremost, a ‘development’ issue. It is a matter of bread and butter for economic and social development. I tend to suppose it should now be rather axiomatic that development comes through growth, which in turn depends on a higher level of economic activity and consequently an inevitable increase in the use of energy.

Energy, therefore, is essential for economic growth and development, and for the prospect of a better life for the citizens of developing societies. At the same time, however, it is deemed to be harmful to the environment and to the sustainable development of the planet. It is quite a predicament for these countries, which comprise almost two thirds of the world’s population. And sheer statistics ruefully remind us that currently 2 billion people, mostly in developing societies, do not have access to modern energy services, particularly electricity. This is, of course, only one measure of the lack of development, or underdevelopment, in the greater part of the global community.

This dichotomy is one aspect of the energy picture. Another, equally important, relates to facts and figures, including hard scientific research and data. Science and economic forecasting tell us much about the parameters of the energy scene and about how it has been, and will be, developing on a global scale, including both developed and developing worlds. At one level, we have to reckon with the fact that energy use accounts for more than two thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions addressed by the Kyoto Protocol. And at another, as the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points out, the average annual growth rates of primary energy consumption were 1.6 per cent for developed countries between 1990 and 1998 – and 2.3 to 5.5 per cent for developing countries. The indications are that energy demand in developing countries will increase further and that fossil fuels will probably provide the dominant means of meeting their needs. The same report also shows that developed countries were responsible for over 50 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 1998 – not a bad measure of their unsustainable patterns of energy production, consumption and distribution.

These facts and figures very clearly point to quite unsustainable global patterns and trends which no doubt do not portend a rosy outlook. But militating against a rather bleak future situation must not be at the cost of the developing world. Its countries cannot reasonably be expected to forego badly needed economic growth and long-awaited development because of the dangers posed by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. What these societies – and, to be more precise, their polity – have to deal with is much more immediate and close. The ever increasing demands of apparently hard-to-control growing populations – with all the attendant socio-political ramifications – pose much more formidable immediate tasks and challenges at home. In the face of the hard and harsh reality of underdevelopment – and all its attendant and associated ills, especially dehumanizing poverty – ameliorating greenhouse gas emissions could indeed look more like a leisure and luxury than a pressing need to many a developing society.

The dichotomy seems stark, and apparently irreconcilable. Looking, however, at the picture in the aftermath of COP-7 in Marrakech – and relishing that the Protocol is finally ratifiable – I tend to believe that there is a real possibility of a rather balanced approach to the questions of energy and climate change, and more generally, of sustainable development. There is an important, potent message in the very fact that the international community could – thanks to close cooperation between the developing world (G-77) and the European Union – overcome all the nagging difficulties and agree on a wide range of decisions, measures and mechanisms to render the embattled instrument ratifiable. Multilateralism and international cooperation work.

The same is true for energy and its long-term relation with, and impact on, sustainable development. The objective of ‘energy for sustainable development’ could become achievable through genuine international cooperation, which takes into due consideration both the requirements of developing countries for long-term development and the exigency of combating the consequences of environmental and climate change. This requires using a combination of energy sources and options, including developing renewable energies and improving energy efficiency. Developing advanced fossil fuel technologies in general – and ensuring their accessibility to developing countries in particular – should be an important ingredient of this overall approach and policy.

The closely related objectives of making energy sources available, accessible and affordable to developing countries depends, in the final analysis, on other requisite elements and conditions – namely, providing financial resources, building capacity, and transferring environmentally sound and economically viable energy technologies.

These objectives can and should be pursued at both regional and international levels. Various existing forums and channels – including the on-going international dialogue between producers and consumers of energy – should be utilized within the general framework of international cooperation.

I believe a genuinely multilateralist approach to the question of energy and climate change should be able, in the long-run, to address it in all its diverse and multiple aspects and dimensions and to develop desirable, and yet viable, policies and measures acceptable to both developed and developing countries

Ambassador Bagher Asadi of the Islamic Republic of Iran is Chairman of the Group of 77.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Secure and sustainable | Fuelling multilateralism | Meeting growing needs | Make way for the zero-litre car | Power sharing | Oil and rising water | Energetic challenges | At a glance: Energy | Competition | Power to the people | Cutting carbon | Winds of change | Power and choice | Rising sun | Give us a wave! | Less energy, more wealth

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate and Action December 1998
Issue on Climate change December 1997
Gerhard Berz: Insuring against catastrophe (Disasters) January 2001
Pier Vellinga: Flip-flop to catastrophe (Disasters) January 2001
Fazlun Khalid: Guardians of the natural order (Culture) August 1996

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Climate change
Air pollution