TOPIC GUIDE: Green Energy

"We should invest now in a low carbon economy powered by renewables"

PUBLISHED: 01 Aug 2013

AUTHOR: Tony Gilland

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Fossil fuels have provided the primary source of energy since the industrial revolution. Despite investment in nuclear power from the 1960s and a variety of renewable energy sources over the last two decades, the proportion of energy production accounted for by fossil fuels has changed little since the early 1970s [Ref: Financial Times]. Until recently a major concern about fossil fuels has been when they will run out. However, technological innovation has allowed for the successful extraction of conventional oil and gas in ever more challenging environments and the extraction of unconventional oil and gas from previously uneconomic sources. In the United States this latter development has delivered an unprecedented boom in oil and gas production [Ref: EconoMonitor]. A greater abundance of economically viable fossil fuels would be straightforwardly good news were it not for the pressing issue of climate change. Scientists report that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million this year for the first time since records began in 1958 and warned that such levels have not occurred since before humans existed three to five million years ago [Ref: BBC News]. Another report, Unburnable Carbon 2013, warns that burning the resources already identified by the world’s top 200 fossil fuel companies would lead to an unsanctionable 6C of global warming, and argues that this demonstrates over investment in fossil fuels [Ref: Guardian]. Is it now time to invest in a low carbon economy instead?

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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.

Climate change revisited
Throughout the late 1990s and early part of this century, climate change was one of the biggest issues on the international political agenda. However, following the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference to reach agreement on reducing carbon emissions, climate change has received far less political attention. For critics of our ongoing dependence on fossils fuels, this situation results from a lamentable lack of leadership on the part of politicians adopting a short-term point of view and refusing to face-up-to the enormous difficulties we are storing up for future generations [Ref: Guardian]. Whilst few disagree with the basic physics that tells us increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere caused by burning fossil fuels will result in atmospheric warming, the debate has centred on the extent and consequences of the warming that is likely to ensue. Some fear that we are already locked onto a path of global warming with worrying and unpredictable consequences [Ref: World Bank]. Leading scientists have pointed to the increased likelihood of heat waves, heavy rainfall and hurricanes to warn of how severe the consequences are likely to be if we don’t radically alter our energy production and consumption patterns soon [Ref: Guardian]. Others have criticised these scientists for using alarmist tactics and highlighting the very worst case scenarios to frighten the public and to scare politicians into taking action. Those critical of the consensus claimed on behalf of climate science - frequently dubbed ‘climate sceptics’ - argue that our scientific knowledge of the implications of rising CO2 levels is inadequate for catastrophic predictions [Ref: Australian]. Recent recognition that recorded average global temperature has substantially slowed, or even plateaued, over the past decade or so, has generated much discussion over gaps in our knowledge and understanding of climate change [Ref: New York Times].

‘Frack, Baby, Frack’?
There are many reasons why a significant shift away from fossil fuels now is neither practical nor desirable. First and foremost is the fact that access to affordable and plentiful sources of energy is necessary for economic and social development, both in the developing world and the developed. According to the United Nations initiative Sustainable Energy for All, 1.3 billion people lack electricity to light their homes or conduct business, whilst nearly 40% of the world’s population ‘rely on wood, coal, charcoal, or animal waste to cook their food’ [Ref: Sustainable Energy for All]. In this context, the fact that global energy demand has and continues to grow significantly is a good news story. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) global energy demand doubled from 6,030 Million Tonnes of Oil Equivalent (Mtoe) in 1975 to 12,380 Mtoe in 2010 – and is predicted to increase by a further 35% by 2035 [Ref: IEA]. Nevertheless, the fact that the proportion of energy supplied via fossil fuels has remained above 80% for decades, is a key concern for many. However, the CO2 emissions associated with each type of fossil fuel differs. Coal is widely regarded as the fuel associated with the highest emissions whilst natural gas is thought to produce up to 50% less CO2 than coal when used to generate electricity [Ref: Wall Street Journal]. Consequently there has been a lot of interest in the role natural gas - whether produced conventionally as with North Sea gas or unconventionally as with shale gas in the United States - could play as a ‘bridge fuel’ to significantly reduce carbon emissions if it supplants the use of coal, especially in Europe and North America [Ref: The Energy Collective]. This, coupled with its downward impact on energy prices, has caused much excitement about the ‘shale gas revolution’ in the United States, which has been variously credited with: boosting manufacturing, reducing carbon emissions, providing consumers with lower energy prices, creating jobs and – especially when the boon in unconventional oil is also taken into account – making the country far more self-sufficient in meeting its energy needs [Ref: Economist]. Other countries, notably Australia and China, are keen to follow the US and exploit their shale gas and oil deposits. Earlier this year the British Geological Survey announced that the likely scale of shale gas deposits in the UK was far higher than previously thought – estimating that one major field covering 11 counties in northern and central England, Bowland Shale, contains about 1,300 trillion cubic feet of gas [Ref: BGS]. The BGS warn that the amount of gas that is economically recoverable is currently unknown and will depend on ‘the economic, geological and social factors’ prevailing at each operation [Ref: Telegraph].Leaving aside specific concerns about environmental and social impacts, not all are convinced shale gas will move us towards a lower carbon future. For example, a study by the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research argues that the US might be burning less coal as a consequence of shale gas, but it is also now exporting more coal for use in other parts of the world, so the overall benefits of switching fuels is not so great [Ref: Financial Times]. Nevertheless, Prime Minister David Cameron made a major intervention into the public debate in August to argue that the UK must seize this opportunity [Ref: Telegraph].

Renewable energy - a necessary expense?
For some, the potential consequences of global warming necessitate a far more rapid shift away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy and nuclear power. However, rather than viewing this as an economic burden, they argue that we need to recognise it as an economic opportunity. The eminent economist Nicholas Stern has recently argued that we already have the technologies to allow us to decarbonise the European power sector by the 2030s and that a time of depressed economies is ‘exactly the time to invest in the growth story of the future’ [Ref: Grantham Research Institute]. According to Stern, investing in a new sustainable energy infrastructure will have multiple benefits: from curbing the impacts of climate change, to stimulating economic growth and insulating Europe from the negative economic impacts of volatile fossil fuel prices that have, in part, been responsible for driving up the energy bills of domestic and businesses users. This summer, Energy and Business Minister Michael Fallon opened the world’s second largest offshore wind farm off the coast of Suffolk, stating that the technology could power 11 million homes by the end of the decade [Ref: Reuters]. Advocates of renewable energy, whilst recognising they still require subsidies, point to the dramatic strides that have been made in developing the technology. This summer a number of reports pointed to the rapidly falling costs associated with solar power, with prices plummeting by 80% in the past five years, and predictions of solar power becoming economic without subsidy in parts of the world that benefit from high levels of sunshine [Ref: Financial Times]. The case for immediate investment in renewable energy becomes clear, advocates argue, once we take account of the full economic costs of fossil fuels. [Ref: Guardian]. Bjorn Lomborg has argued that far too much public money has already been spent on subsidising renewable energy for far too little gain because the technology is simply not ready. In his opinion, it makes no sense to make a massive investment in a new renewable energy infrastructure now when the technology is insufficiently advanced. Rather, we should keep the climate change problem in perspective and make major investments in R&D to develop renewable energy sources for the future [Ref: Financial Times]. From this perspective, the switch to green energy should and will occur when it is cheap enough – and not before. For others, this type of thinking will simply lead to more ‘market irrationality’ of the type seen in the recent financial crisis; only this time leading to an attempt to burn the vast fossil fuels reserves with unconscionable consequences for us all [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


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


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


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

Renewable Energy


Good Ideas



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


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