UK options limited by impact of regional instability on world economy

Nov 01, 2001 01:00 AM

British and American officials now talk of the present conflict lasting years, even decades. It is clear that the options are greatly limited by the impact of regional instability on the world economy. Replacing oil as the mainstay of our energy policy should be a vital part of winning the struggle against terrorism and would dramatically improve western policy options.
There has been much talk in recent weeks of asymmetric warfare, the buzz phrase used to describe the new context following the violence visited upon the US. This simply means acting in unexpected ways that do not fit into orthodox methods of fighting. A shift from oil to renewable energy sources would be a strategic way to apply this.
In the present crisis, the oil factor narrows military and political options. Some see the western military presence in the region as a source of further problems, but believe they cannot withdraw because of the threat from Saddam Hussein. Even the most hawkish, such as the US deputy secretary of defence, Paul Wolfowitz, have had to realise that the oil price would rocket if they went to war simultaneously with every state they don't care for in the region.

Even before the attacks on the US, American and western global strategy gave a very high priority to ensuring access to Middle East oil. This priority translates into a massive investment of taxpayers' money, personnel, military equipment and political capital. Around 20,000 British troops are in the Gulf in pursuit of this objective. The UK and other western states give little support to democratic change in the region for fear of upsetting stability.
When traditional strategists look ahead to 2020 or 2050 they still see Middle Eastern oil as the key issue in international energy policy. In the UK this view informs the House of Commons investigation into energy security, which assumes that they will have to import their energy. The US joint chiefs of staff strategy document, Joint Vision 2020, makes the same assumption.

But renewable energy can provide a substitute for oil. Just 3 % of wind resources could provide 30 % of global energy needs. Solar power has the potential to provide a similarly limitless capacity. Wind power is far advanced in other states: in Denmark it already provides 14 % of national supplies. Meanwhile, car companies have developed engines using advanced hydrogen fuel cells. In his presidential campaign last year, Al Gore proposed eliminating the internal combustion engine in 25 years.
Renewable energy has additional advantages to providing strategic freedom of action in the Middle East. It creates jobs. It is decentralised and thus invulnerable to terrorist attack. Unlike nuclear energy, renewables do not bring the risk of catastrophic toxic releases. Many people could make money by selling back to the utility companies surplus energy produced by back-garden windmills and solar roofing tiles. Lastly, the shift to renewables will greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But there are three major obstacles which must be overcome before the UK can take oil off the list of key objectives for their military and foreign policy. These are the difficulty of changing official thinking, the vested interests of the oil companies and the need for a transition strategy.
The difficulty of changing the bureaucratic mindset cannot be overestimated. The power of the oil companies to resist change is immense, though there are considerable signs of change. Shell recently predicted that oil would be an outdated technology by 2050. There is a national security imperative to cease the needless reliance on oil.
Nobody is proposing that the UK gives up using energy and return to the pre-industrial age. A shift to renewables would move industrial society ahead a stage. A transition strategy to renewable energy should focus attention on the leading industrialised nations of the G7 and in particular on the EU and the US. Next month's EU-US summit needs to take some key strategic decisions.

The EU set a target last month of creating 22 % of electricity supply from renewable sources by 2010. This target should be dramatically accelerated by both the EU and the US. In America the policy should fall under the strategy of improving homeland defence through increasing self-reliance. Congressional districts, states and counties could develop programmes with federal support.
These objectives are far-reaching. But they constitute a policy shift towards the world's strategic environment that the public can help bring about. We need worry no more about the Gulf than we do about the Costa Brava.

Source: Guardian Unlimited
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