Grim Reading, Crucial Choices on Energy

Updated: January 01, 2012

That's the message from the International Energy Agency, which issued its World Energy Outlook report earlier this month, the organizations' annual examination of the big picture. That picture itself hasn't changed all that much. The fundamental challenge is still to meet surging worldwide demand for energy, while at the same time coming up with ways to avoid global warming and keep energy relatively affordable.

Basically, the IEA says everything depends on whether or not world leaders get serious about climate change, very soon.

Chances are you've never heard of the IEA which was founded during the 1973-74 oil crisis to "coordinate measures in times of oil supply emergencies." Now IEA serves as an energy analyst, advisor, and think tank for 28 member countries -- the United States and European countries mainly, but also including countries like Japan, South Korea, and Turkey. While the agency has enormous influence among policymakers, it barely registers with the public. And despite the IEA's wonky tone and elite audience, the report has one great strength when it comes to getting the public involved: it focuses on choices and alternatives.

Here what IEA lays out in its 2009 report card:

  • If we do nothing, then worldwide energy demand is projected to soar by 40 percent by 2030. The vast majority of that increase is going to come in the developing world, as people in China, India and throughout Asia see their standard of living rise. Even keeping up with that demand would require investing another $26 trillion. And unless things change, most of that energy is going to come from fossil fuels, which means "dire consequences for climate change" and air pollution, the IEA said.

  • On the other hand, if world leaders committed to fighting climate change increased energy efficiency, greater use of renewable energy, and policies like cap-and-trade or carbon taxes designed to discourage use of carbon-emitting fuels, that would cost another $10.5 trillion (on top of the $26 trillion). But energy demand growth could be cut in half, and greenhouse gases would decline.

The world has decisions to make about energy, and of course, so does the United States. Everything we've learned about how people get engaged in policy decisions shows that laying out choices and being honest and clear about the pros and cons is essential -- not to mention being the right thing to do in a democratic society.

In the energy and environment arena, the choices are far from perfect, but then that's pretty typical with major public policy issues. As we've been pointing out lately, this country's choices on energy and the environment are a lot better than our choices on, for example, Afghanistan.

Changing the way we use energy will cost money and force adaptations that many of us would not choose, given our druthers. But we also have to face that sticking with the status quo will also cost money, and we could well have change forced on us by tight energy supplies and growing environmental destruction. Continuing to rely on the world's default setting on energy -- fossil fuels -- is just not going to work.

World leaders, deadlocked on many of the details, are increasingly trying to lower expectations for the big climate conference in Copenhagen next month. But delay is only valuable if it helps break the deadlock later on. The choices are ours to make, and time is running short to make them.

©2009 Scott Bittle & Jean Johnson, authors of Who Turned Out the Lights: Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis

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