Remaking energy for peace and progress

16th February 2022


Remaking energy for peace and progress

This article was originally posted by Dr Angela Wilkinson, World Energy Council Secretary General and CEO, on LinkedIn

As we look forward to the 25th World Energy Congress in October, it is useful to recall Congress’ origins and reflect on important lessons from the last 100 years in energy.

In 1924, the first Congress in London - then called the World Power Conference - convened diverse energy interests with common purpose and shared ambition.

Firstly, energy for peace could be made possible by pooling knowledge and know-how for the benefit of humanity. Secondly, avoiding the risk of further wars between nations was paramount despite unevenly distributed energy resources, such as oil, gas and uranium. 

As an era of empires ended, and with the tragedies of a first World War and Spanish flu pandemic still raw in peoples’ hearts and minds, a new spirit of internationalism spread like a blanket of peace.

The birth of civil society as a peace builder

Governments responded with the formation of a League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations) and the new international order included the creation of powerful civil society movements.

The BBC, the International Chamber of Commerce and the World Energy Council were all formed in the early 1920s with widespread public support. These institutions were guided by socially purposeful missions. Each recognised that to be successful they had to cultivate a culture of impartiality and independence and learn to operate in the productive ‘middle ground’ between States, Markets and Local Communities.

One hundred years later, global governance is progressed through international state-centric and/or market-centric frameworks and international agreements like the Paris Agreement as well as the UN Global Compact. The emphasis has been on the adoption of voluntary standards rather than the use of hard power or the development of new international laws.

The use of public-private partnership (PPP) mechanisms in addressing global sustainable development challenges has grown since the early 1990s. These partnerships have sought to resolve the growing tensions between global market forces and sovereign states, fuelled by the forces of globalisation and digitalisation.

Recently, the flurry of global ESG frameworks and voluntary corporate reporting requirements, however, has exposed societies to new risks of corporate greenwashing and capital market arbitrage.

Meanwhile the challenges of effectively coordinating global civic society has triggered a return of nationalism and populism. It has always been easier for diverse interests to unite against change rather than build forward together.  

Energy for peace, not conflict

In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that conversations around energy are siloed and polarising, ridden with conflict-laden language and overtone. Good vs. bad energy, ‘zero fossil’ vs ‘net zero’ policy pathways, ‘clean’ vs. ‘green’ taxonomies and even “the weaponisation of energy” has crept back into parlance.

The role of energy systems as leveller and peace maker in globally connected and interdependent societies is at risk of being overlooked, or worse still forgotten altogether.

Energy is too important to the future of humanity to fight over, yet the fragmentation of responsibility for managing energy systems as enablers of peace and prosperity presents a considerable risk to global order.

National governments cannot deliver energy security or meet their commitments for clean and just energy transitions through hard power. Nor can they deliver without partnership with integrated energy networks and increasingly diverse place-based communities. Global markets cannot continue to extract value and accelerate the flows of new ideas, goods and services without attention to matters of co-custody, co-benefits, energy justice and de-colonisation.

The achievability and affordability of global ambitions is currently gridlocked by global power struggles. It’s time for a new kind of energy diplomacy – one which involves soft power and polycentricism; one that puts the ‘P’ for people, into Public Private Partnerships.

Today, around two billion people worldwide  – or 25 per cent of the world’s population – still don’t have access to the benefits of clean, affordable, reliable energy products and services. Yet few of us appreciate the scale and scope of the invisible energy systems – the connections and interactions which deliver convenient and reliable heating and cooling, power, fuel and storage solutions on which our modern lives depend.

For those households recently noticing the rising costs of their petrol, gas and/or electricity bills, the uncomfortable truth is that the energy use represented in these bills is only a small part of the real cost.  

The basic access gap – measured as one billion or so people across the world who lack access to any source of electricity – highlights the divide between the “haves” and the “have nots”. Digitalisation has created an ever expanding “digital divide” and a new risk of market power monopoly which is coined by the question ‘Is Big Data the new oil?’.  

Billions more people are now at risk from a combination of energy market failures, the return of nationalist agendas and a growing shortfall in productive energy access for decent jobs, human wellbeing and a healthy planet.

New global civil society movements include demand for radical transparency – using integrated and forward-looking assessment frameworks, science-based metrics and Big Data analytics – to engender trust and enable more effective coordination and collaboration.

Lessons from the last energy transition

Energy veteran Tim Eggar, the former UK Energy Minister and Chairman of the UK Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), hit the nail on the head in an opinion piece last week. He said: “....we largely failed to replace the jobs lost in coal-mining communities: thus contributing to the need for levelling up in the 2020s”.

In the UK, communities are still feeling the effects of the country’s rapid energy transition 30 years ago from coal to gas.

Today, the full costs to society generated by energy transitions across the world are still being overlooked.

More, yes MORE, energy for sustainable development and climate change management is key to the future of humanity in a rapidly globalising, increasingly unequal, warmer and wobblier world.

Delivering on COP 26

The new political agreements reached at COP-26 have kept the hope of a 2°C climate change future alive, but fell short of 1.5°C expectations. The focus has now shifted from what we can implement by 2050 to how we can deliver before 2030.

Progress in delivery will depend on engaging with the increasing diversity in energy systems in the broadest sense, and working across industry silos and sectors. There is no silver or green technology bullet.

There is an urgent need to better understand changing energy uses, the choices and behaviours of customers, citizens, users and prosumers, and avoid the growing risk of stranded assets, regions and communities.

Simultaneously, we must encourage more open conversations about the full costs of whole energy system transitions and to courageously share learnings from failures as well as successes.

Humanising Energy

100 years from the time of the World Energy Council’s creation, the world has fundamentally changed and yet many of our realities – conflict, pandemic, the role of energy as a driver for peace and prosperity – remain virtually unchanged.

Humanity can still escape from the geopolitical poker game between States and Markets. Humanity can also address the new ‘double edged sword’ of digitalisation in energy systems by mobilising the missing middle – the civic sphere – and connecting the dots between new cooperative communities at all levels of society.

Delivering energy for peace, people and planet is still possible. How? Humanise energy. Adopt an agenda of more energy for sustainable development and climate change management.  Focus on systemic leadership challenges. Identify whole system change tipping points. Intervene in action learning that addresses hard and soft system capabilities.

Three important steps in humanising energy for clean and just transitions are:

- Global and local step-changes in energy literacy.

- The diversification of energy skills.

- The creation of an open-source energy user data platform.

These and more critical issues will be called to action at the 2022 World Energy Congress. It is a significant moment in energy and world affairs - Let’s transform energy and transcend ourselves!

It will be an opportunity to showcase the place-based, community-led solutions that are being codeveloped and co-created in diverse communities at all levels of society.

I look forward to seeing you at the 25th World Energy Congress. 

Follow Dr Angela Wilkinson on LinkedIn.

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