Appetite for Energy: Working Together

Pollution and power lines in northern China. (AdamCohn/Flickr)
Pollution and power lines in northern China. (AdamCohn/Flickr)

World leaders have a big dilemma on their hands. Scientists say the way we use the Earth’s resources to fuel growth and prosperity for the world’s 6.6 billion people is unsustainable. If the situation doesn’t change, they predict we’ll soon have an environmental crisis. But will changing global energy consumption mean halting economic growth for some countries? What will that mean for businesses, employees, and consumers? What can governments do to manage the Earth’s limited resources responsibly and still ensure development for their citizens?

"Working Together" was made by Harrison, a high school student who went to China to explore energy issues.

Most countries rely on fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas to provide the energy that drives their economies—from factory smokestacks to cars and electricity. These fuels emit greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), that experts believe cause climate change and health problems.

In addition to affecting climate change, as non-renewable natural resources these fuels will not be around forever. Developed countries like the United States, which uses as much as 80% of the world’s annual supply of energy, worry about having enough fuel to meet their high demands. Increasingly, large developing countries, like China and India, also have monster appetites for energy. Their economies are developing at the fastest rates in the world and they are the second and fifth largest energy consumers in the world.

Oil-rich countries, like Ecuador, Angola, and Kazakhstan, benefit from selling their natural resources to high-energy consumers through bilateral agreements. But since there is a limited amount of these resources, countries like India and China often compete for them. They may pay high prices or go without fuel if the resource-rich country signs an agreement with another country.

For these reasons, neighboring countries sometimes participate in regional agreements to alleviate competition for energy security. In 2005, the European Union agreed to cut 50% of CO2 emissions by 2050 because they realized they could not afford to compete with each other for bilateral deals with resource-rich countries. To cut emissions they cooperate on setting guidelines to develop clean energy, improve trade with resource-rich countries, and open markets for the sale of alternative energy.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has had similar cooperation since 1999. They are developing projects that no one country could do by itself, such as a pipeline that distributes gas to all the countries. Unlike the EU, ASEAN does not have mandatory emission cutbacks, nor does it include Asian countries with the most demand for energy. Should Asia set up a formal framework for energy cooperation, like the European Union?

Multilateral agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol provide a worldwide plan to handle these issues through trading carbon credits. Under the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries, like the United States and the European Union countries, are responsible for reducing CO2 emissions and developing cleaner energy for themselves and developing countries. Developing countries, like China, Brazil and India, are encouraged to use cleaner energy, but are given more time before they have to cut emissions.

Some developed countries, like the United States, prefer unilateral decisions about how much energy to use and where to get it from, but work with other countries on developing clean energy. President Bush said that CO2 emission cuts would hurt the United States’ economy if China and India do not have to cut back also. However, countries like the United Kingdom say this structure gives these countries an opportunity to develop first. Do you think developing countries will have an unfair advantage if they do not have to cut CO2 emissions?

Instead, the United States participates in the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate along with five countries in Asia. Together they have initiated over 100 projects to develop cleaner energy, but maintain voluntary emission cuts for both developed and developing countries. Do you think this will be as effective as mandatory emission cuts?

The many disagreements about how to reform energy use are stalling efforts to reduce climate change. Between 2008 and 2012 world leaders will meet to figure out what to do next. They can choose to address the problems with any combination of approaches, but they have to decide now or else risk further damage to the Earth. What do you think they should do?

Author: Adina Matisoff