"It would be better for new fossil fuel reserves to remain in the ground"

PUBLISHED: 31 Jan 2011

AUTHOR: David Bowden

Share this Topic Guide:

Download topic guide (500k)


Providing easy and plentiful sources of energy is a key challenge confronting any society and is today one of the most fiercely contested areas of policy. Since the Industrial Revolution, global demand for energy has soared, which has been sustained by learning how to exploit fossil fuel resources. A total of 95% of the world’s energy currently comes from fossil fuels and the modern world would be unrecognisable without their use. However energy experts, such as the International Energy Agency, warn the world is facing an ‘energy crunch’, caused in part by the difficulties posed by increasing energy demand as the developing world industrialises, and uncertain supply over fossil fuels, allied with increasing concerns over the environmental impact of carbon emissions [Ref: Financial Times]. European Union countries, including the UK, have pledged to reduce their carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, placing even greater demands on the quest for alternative sources of energy. Some commentators suggest that future energy policy should be predicated on the assumption that the world has a limited amount of fossil fuel left, pointing to the strides countries such as Denmark have made in cutting carbon by investing heavily in alternative energy and imposing heavy restrictions on carbon-intensive sources. Others maintain that fossil fuels must continue to play a vital role in the foreseeable future: not just in rapidly industrialising countries such as China and India, but also in meeting the difficult challenge of keeping the lights on in the developed world [Ref: Economist]. This debate hinges on three questions: how much energy does the world need; how can we best produce it; and what price is society willing to pay for it?

For further reading use the menu bar on the right hand side.


This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

The end of fossil fuel?
The Deepwater Horizon (BP) oil spill in April 2010 offered a stark reminder of the dangers inherent in extracting fossil fuels [Ref: BBC News]. Some warn that oil production has reached a ‘peak’ and that extracting fossil fuels will become increasingly costly and dangerous as supplies become more unstable. Furthermore accessing resources from the developing world has become a core challenge of foreign policy and some argue that it usually comes at an unacceptable cost for poor nations suffering from the ‘resource curse’. While these arguments are disputed [Ref: New York Times], and the long term impacts of the BP oil spill may be less than the catastrophic levels some had feared [Ref: Guardian], for many the wider environmental and social costs caused by society’s ‘addiction’ to oil should be motivation enough for developed nations to force themselves off finite resources and to develop cleaner, sustainable energy supplies [Ref: Independent]. It is argued that the end of government subsidies, alongside controversial moves to set a floor price for carbon that takes into account its environmental impact, is not enough to move into a post-carbon world, and that tougher regulations and sanctions are needed [Ref: Guardian].

What forms of alternative energy are there?
Whilst there are alternative sources of energy, they are not yet in a position to take up the role of fossil fuels: academic Bjorn Lomborg makes the point that to cut carbon emissions by 50% in 2050, every year until then the world would need to build 30 nuclear reactors, 17,000 windmills, 400 biomass power plants, and two versions of China’s Three Gorges Dam [Ref: Project Syndicate]. Nuclear power offers a carbon-free, and comparatively efficient, source of energy but safety concerns, symbolised by the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, and a reluctance to invest in nuclear infrastructure, which is costly and time-consuming in the short term, means that countries such as the UK struggle to maintain even their existing levels of nuclear supply [Ref: Telegraph]. In late 2010, the UK’s Energy and Climate Change Secretary approved the building of new nuclear reactors, but critics are divided over whether this will solve the problem, or create new risks [Ref: Telegraph]. The potential of renewable technologies such as wind and solar are fiercely debated [Ref: Economist]. They currently make up only 5% of total UK supply [Ref: ESRC], and there are enormous logistical problems concerning storage and reliability [Ref: Wall Street Journal]. Some argue that governments should follow the example of Denmark and Iceland, working harder to price out fossil fuels and invest in alternative renewable energy sources [Ref: Scientific American].

Why not use less energy?
Some argue that the shortfall in supply could be met by focusing on reducing energy consumption [Ref: Battle in Print]. There have been considerable investments and developments made in energy efficiency technologies, ranging from energy-saving light-bulbs (now legally required across the EU) and smart-meters to monitor home usage; to schemes that allow home users to generate electricity using solar panels or wind turbines and plans for low-carbon ‘transition towns’ [Ref: Local Government]. High-profile campaigns such as 10:10 [Ref: 10:10] and the Energy Saving Trust [Ref: Energy Saving Trust] claim that individuals could easily cut out 10% of their carbon emissions by making adjustments to their lifestyles [Ref: Guardian]. However others question whether constraining individuals’ consumption is a desirable goal at all, pointing out that using less energy generally necessitates reductions in freedoms in everyday life such as mobility, leisure time and personal consumption, which we currently take for granted [Ref: spiked].

Shale gas: a future for fossil fuels?
A ‘natural’ resource only becomes an energy source when society develops the technology and knowledge to exploit it: therefore, the definition of what acts as a finite or limited resource depends on context. A significant recent breakthrough for the fossil fuel industry has been seen in the development of ‘fracking’ – a drilling technique which enables energy companies to exploit previously untapped resources of unconventional gases such as shale gas [Ref: Prospect]. Such technologies arguably have the potential to give an abundant supply of low-carbon fossil fuels that can be exploited all around the world [Ref: Washington Post]. As a relatively new method, however, shale gas extraction carries certain risks; and allegations (as yet unproven) regarding the toxicity of the chemicals involved and the impact on water supplies have already led to vociferous opposition [Ref: BBC News]. Furthermore, some argue discoveries like shale gas will only encourage the thirst for fossil fuels and that the long-term solution to resource shortages is not finding another finite energy supply [Ref: Guardian].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Sharing the benefits of Asia’s solar boom

Jeff Spross Business Spectator 12 August 2013

Unburnable fuel

Economist 4 May 2013

Ed Davey moves to shield renewables amid reshuffle

Roger Harrabin BBC News 5 September 2012

A wind of change

Nick Butler Financial Times 23 July 2012

An unconventional bonanza

Simon Wright Economist 14 July 2012

Shale gas: an energy saviour?

Roger Harrabin BBC News 21 December 2010

The biggest energy shake-up for 25 years

Chris Huhne MP Telegraph 16 December 2010

A system under increasing pressure

Ed Crooks Financial Times 12 September 2010


Humanity is on a crash course with carbon

Mark Lynas Independent 22 July 2013

The case for a European low-carbon economy

Lord Nicholas Stern Grantham Research Institute 12 July 2013

Britain’s climate change policy is going up in smoke

George Monbiot Guardian 28 May 2012

It’s green growth or nothing

Chris Huhne Guardian 3 May 2012

Shale gas is no game-changer in the UK

Damian Carrington Guardian 3 November 2011

In defence of renewables

Nick Molho New Statesman 26 October 2011

Obama could kill fossil fuels overnight with a nuclear dash for thorium

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard Telegraph 29 August 2010

Americans should be thanking BP

David Strahan Independent 1 June 2010

Oil, risk and technology: choices we need to make

William Jackson BBC News 18 May 2010

Why is energy a battlefield today?

Duncan McLaren Battles in Print 21 October 2009


German Green Energy Bluster Running Out Of Wind

Larry Bell Forbes 13 August 2013

We cannot afford to miss out on shale gas

David Cameron Telegraph 12 August 2013

Only cheaper ‘green’ fuels will force changes in energy use

Bjorn Lomborg Financial Times 29 July 2013

The Greens Can’t Defy Gravity. They Are Finished

Tim Montgomerie The Times 22 July 2013

Why Nobody Ever Calls The Weather Normal

Matt Ridley Australian 10 July 2013

Shale Gas to the Climate Rescue

Alan Riley New York Times 13 August 2012

This shale rage is threatening to put out the lights

Charles Clover The Sunday Times 22 April 2012

The winds of change

Matt Ridley Spectator 3 March 2012

Forget the Huhne hype about wind power

Dieter Helm The Times 6 February 2012

Shale gas: a welcome energy shock

Rob Lyons spiked 5 May 2011

Cleaning up oil’s reputation

Robert Bryce Wall Street Journal 23 April 2010

Energy independence for Europe

Derek Brower Prospect 22 March 2010

An energy policy re-think is required

Dan Lewis Wall Street Journal 28 December 2009

Low carbon future? Try natural gas

Tony Hayward Washington Post 6 November 2009


What to Make of a Warming Plateau

Justin Gillis New York Times 10 June 2013

Deep sigh of relief

Economist 16 March 2013

Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas

International Energy Agency 29 May 2012

Gas prices: is the only way up?

Friends of the Earth March 2012

How humankind was liberated from localism

Colin McInnes spiked 6 January 2011

There will be fuel

Clifford Krauss New York Times 16 November 2010

Could Denmark be fossil fuel free by 2050?

Scientific American 1 October 2010

Affordable green energy

Bjorn Lomborg Project Syndicate 14 July 2010

How to reduce your carbon emissions by 10%

Chris Goodall Guardian 1 September 2009

The future of energy

Economist 19 June 2008


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Clean Energy

Greenpeace 2013

New shale gas resource figure for central Britain

British Geological Survey 2013

Technically Recoverable Shale Oil and Shale Gas Resources

US Energy Information Administration 10 June 2013

Bridging the Gap? Natural Gas and Long-Term Climate Change Goals

Grant McDermott The Energy Collective 4 April 2013

Q&A: shale gas and fracking

Guardian 17 April 2012

UK Energy in Brief 2011

National Statistics 28 July 2011

Unconventional Gas

Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology April 2011

World Energy Outlook 2010 fact-sheet

International Energy Agency November 2010

Q&A: will shale gas deliver?

BBC News 24 September 2010

Nuclear energy overview

New York Times 1 July 2010

Energy and the environment explained

US Energy Information Administration 7 January 2010

Will Canada’s tar sands destroy the global climate?

Nathanial Gronewold Scientific American 22 May 2009

Special report: Energy in the UK

BBC News 2 April 2008

Energy: what lies ahead

New Statesman 2 July 2007

Introduction: energy and fuels

New Scientist 4 September 2006

Renewable Energy


Good Ideas


Good Ideas


Renewable Energy UK (UKTI)

UK Trade & Investment

Shale Gas Project

British Geological Survey

Climate Change Act 2008

Department of Energy and Climate Change

Renewable energy


Energy Bill

Department of Energy and Climate Change

UK by numbers: Energy

ESRC Society Today


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Major changes for government renewable energy subsidies

James Landale BBC News 4 December 2013

Renewables: A rising power

Financial Times 8 August 2013

Giant gas platform sinks below waves

BBC News 5 August 2013

Shale gas benefits called into question

Financial Times 29 October 2012

South Africa ends fracking freeze

BBC News 7 September 2012

100% renewable energy ‘attainable’

Scotsman 11 August 2012

Coalition spat on energy set to resume

Financial Times 25 July 2012

Osborne offers deal on wind power

Financial Times 23 July 2012

Shale Gas Could Fracture Energy Market

Wall Street Journal 29 May 2012

US on path to energy self-sufficiency

Financial Times 18 January 2012

Statoil seeks to prolong oil bounty from NCS

Oil & Gas Journal 5 January 2012

Dangers of fracking still becoming clear

Statesman 28 December 2011

MPs rule out deep-water drilling ban

Telegraph 2 January 2011

How BP’s oil spill costs could double

Reuters 1 December 2010

US drops oil-drilling moratorium

Guardian 13 October 2010

Oil firms attacked for tar sands pollution

Telegraph 15 December 2009

10 new nuclear power stations named

Independent 9 November 2009

Downturn is ‘climate opportunity’

BBC News 6 October 2009

Warning: oil supplies are running out fast

Independent 3 August 2009


Good Ideas


Renewable Energy UK (UKTI)

UK Trade & Investment

Shale Gas Project

British Geological Survey

This site contains links to websites operated by parties other than Debating Matters. Although we make every effort to ensure links are current, they will sometimes break after Topic Guide publication. If a link does not work, then the publication reference and date should enable you to find an alternate link. If you find a broken link do please send it to the webmaster for review.

© 2005-2023 Debating Matters Competition, boi, Unit 208, Cocoa Studios, The Biscuit Factory, Drummond Road, London, SE16 4DG, UK

Tel +44 (0)20 3176 0827 - | admin login