Tomorrow is another day

We know that our leaders are struggling to set in place effective preparatory measures today to pave the way for the energy transition of tomorrow. But what if they don’t succeed?

“We have reached a humaninduced impasse”, ex - plains David Wasdell, international coordinator of the Meridian programme and GIEC reportreviser specialising in the dynamics of climate change. “On the one hand, the age of unlimited energy is coming to an end. Demand is increasing while energy sources are becoming depleted and oil-extraction methods are increasingly costly. On the other hand, we are emitting too much CO2, precisely because we favour hydrocarbons as our main energy source. It is high time to acknowledge the true nature of hydrocarbons. They are toxic and have no future, so we should no longer consider them as a limited resource to be shared, but as a real threat to humanity.”

Heading for disaster

So what if the price of energy increases? Is that so worrying? “Perhaps one day we will look back nostalgically to the time we paid US$100 a barrel, because the price is very likely to rise to US$200”, predicts David Strahan. He believes that soaring petrol prices could trigger a drastic rise in all prices, followed by job losses, a collapse in buying power and stagnant production. This would plunge the economy into an extremely dark age.

But surely ‘the market’ is there to regulate prices, say some? “Ultimately demand can only decrease because nobody will be able to afford to buy oil, which will cause prices to fall. But it will probably be too late by then because massive job losses are likely to be of much more concern to civil society than petrol prices. We must stop fixating on the oil price and concentrate instead on the consequences of its total depletion”, warns Strahan. In his view, a scarcity of oil is likely to cause a total collapse of our economy, so much has this resource seeped into every aspect of human activity, including trade, industrial production and even the travel of individuals to and from their places of work. “Oil is rooted so deeply in our societies that an oil shortage will trigger a serious recession.”

Structural myopia

Will our leaders be able to anticipate this threat and prepare the ground for a smooth transition to a hydrocarbon-free society? The IEA is pragmatic. “There are three prerequisites for catalysing innovation nationally”, says Carrie Pottinger. “The first is a robust academic environment. The second is increased transfer of R&D results from academia to the private sector. Financing specifically targeted research will speed up the technological breakthroughs needed for innovations to emerge. The third prerequisite is a clear and consistent longterm government policy.” The length of time required for catalysing innovation extends considerably beyond the pro tempore mandate of our political leaders. “Which poses a real challenge, given the nature of our democracies as well as changing priorities and people”, adds Carrie Pottinger.

Perhaps, by their very nature, our democracies take too short-term a view to grasp such longterm issues. Some people believe that the very basis of the democratic system hinders the introduction of coherent measures. “Politicians are incapable of really adopting an effective long-term view. This stems chiefly from the nature of the electoral system itself”, believes Simon Cooper, founder member of Converging World, a British association that funds greenenergy projects in developing countries. “No politician would jeopardise their re-election prospects by imposing unpopular measures. As long-term action is hardly enticing, the public authorities systematically focus on short-term issues.”

This is something that even some politicians acknowledge. “Problems such as peak oil and global warming, which require a planned response over the very long term, frighten leaders so much that they do not know how to react”, says Jonathan Porritt, Chairman of the United Kingdom’s Sustainable Development Commission. “Politicians will only take action if there is a crisis, if the supply of oil suddenly shrinks and triggers a spectacular price rise.”

According to some, such an economic implosion could awaken collective awareness and trigger a radical change to a more sustainable lifestyle. “I think that this is a bit of a simplistic argument”, replies Strahan, “because, apart from oil, there is still gas and coal, the consumption of which will increase and, with it, greenhouse gas emissions, which will compound the problem. And if peak oil were to precipitate the anticipated economic crash, capital, wealth would shrink before our very eyes. Where, then, would we find the necessary investment to build all the new energy infrastructure that we would need?”


Such a state of affairs could undermine democracy itself. “From the macroeconomic standpoint, I do not think that peak oil is beneficial for the democratic system. In fact the democratic system is a poor framework for the changes needed to counter the effects of this crisis, which explains the failure of all policies on the matter. A whole array of scenarios can therefore be envisaged, from greater localcommunity activism to the emergence of a form of authoritarianism within central government. One could even imagine a combination of the two”.

Will the solution come from civil society, then? According to Simon Cooper, “political action is not enough; only individual initiatives agreed and promoted at community level will engender real solutions.” For example, his association is able to finance its projects in developing countries with financial support from private companies in rich countries. Cooper believes that only individual action is capable of bridging the gaps in political decision-making. Will it be enough? Jonathan Porritt has his doubts. “In my view, the social movements emerging at local level can have only a very marginal influence.” Strahan concedes that the coming situation is rather worrying. “But I am nevertheless hoping that peak oil will engender social movements at local level to enable people to take their future in their own hands in cooperation with their neighbours.”

One thing is certain: peak oil and, in the longer term, global warming will radically alter the face of our world. It is up to us to prepare for this amazing transition as best we can. This is how David Wasdell summarises the situation: “Two caterpillars on a cabbage leaf see a butterfly pass by. One of the caterpillars says to the other: you’ll never catch me on one of those things! I believe that the world of tomorrow will be as different from our own as caterpillars are from butterflies.”

Jean-Pierre Geets, Julie Van Rossom


To find out more

  • Public Consultation of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy and Transport