Nairobi: energy as politics

Maurice Strong, a former United Nations official, is the founder of Petrocanada and, more recently, the International Energy Development Corporation.

The United Nations Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy, now meeting in Nairobi, provides a timely reminder that, despite the current oil "glut," the world still faces an energy crisis in making the long and difficult transition from dependence on low-cost oil to a variety of other energy sources.

The fact that the formal agenda is restricted to "new and renewable energy sources" -- many of them neither "new" nor "renewable" -- and specifically excludes oil and nuclear energy, points up the political sensitivites which continue to constrain international dialogue on energy issues. And clearly the times are not auspicious for major new international initiatives, particularly those which require nations to commit themselves to creation of new institutions or provision of additional funds.

Nevertheless, the conference promises to be an important political event, whatever the formal results it produces. This is due in large part to the effective efforts of one of the international community's most dynamic public servants, Enrique Iglesias of Uruguay, who took over responsibility for preparation of the conference as its secretary-general only a few months ago. He succeeded in enlisting such international heavyweights as India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Canada's Prime Minister Trudeau, Mexico's President Lopez Portillo, and Saudi Arabia's Sheikh Yamani with an accompanying galaxy of energy ministers, senior officials, and experts as conference participants.

The attention of these leaders is now focused on the profound impacts of the energy transition on all countries and on international relations. Most acutely affected will be those developing countries which today depend on oil imports for most of their supplies of commercial energy. And their oil consumption must inevitably grow, even while they are making the trasition to alternatives. They will thus require a growing portion of dwindling world oil supplies. This will only be feasible if industraialized countries, which have already begun to demonstrate their significant potential for conserving oil, continue to reduce their proportionate demand on world supplies of oil.

The report of an international group of experts, convened by the North-South Roundtable as part of the preparation for the Nairobi conference, makes the important point that today's developing countries confront tremendous disadvantages compared to those countries which made the transition to industrial economies in the era of cheap oil. for, although the nature of the transition from the oil era differs amongst countries as will the mix of alternative sources which they choose, the common denominator for all sources is the need for the capital, management, and technology to develop them.

All in all, the World Bank estimates that the total capital needs of developing countries for energy investment alone over the next decade will amount to some $60 billion to $80 billion per year, of which renewables may account for about one-fourth.

Papers prepared for the conference make it clear that new and renewable energy sources offer no panacea. Each requires difficult tradeoffs between environmental and social as well as economic costs and benefits, whether the alternative be solar, wind, geothermal, or any other of the 14 sources on the agenda of the Nairobi conference.

A case in point is the conversion of biomass into liquid fuels where the experience of Brazil has demonstrated both its significant potential as an energy source and the potential conflicts with food production and environmental preservation. Each country will have to make its own choices, but the conference must consider the special needs of developing countries for the help they will need in making these choices.

Industrialized countries will be challenged to consider the effects of their own patterns of energy consumption and supply on the developing countries as well as the part that they must play, together with the oil-exporting developing countries, in the international mobilization of resources that will be required to meed the needs of the energy-deficient developing countries.

It is clear that the Nairobi conference will not solve all these problems. but, if it creates a heightened awareness of the issues on the part of the world's people and their leaders and commitment to an ongoing process of cooperation in dealing with them, it will represent a significant step forward.

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