Tag Archives: energy security

Is China reclassifying energy as a military security issue?

Last week, news broke that China is sending troops to South Sudan to protect its oil interests in the troubled region. The troops will join the UN’s peacekeeping force in the area later this year. The original Wall Street Journal article notes that ‘while Beijing’s troops will operate under UN command, their posting to South Sudan marks a sharp escalation of China’s efforts to ensure the safety of its workers and assets in Africa and guarantee a steady flow of energy for domestic consumption’. It also marks China’s first commitment to send a battalion to a UN peacekeeping force, though they have contributed smaller numbers of peacekeepers to other missions.

The UN mission in South Sudan is backed by a Security Council mandate which permits peacekeepers to protect civilians in South Sudan’s now nine-month long civil war, which has seen thousands of casualties and over a million people displaced. It has also shut down a third of the country’s oil production. The UN mission’s mandate allows it to use “all necessary means” to protect civilians in physical danger, including civilians at oil installations. Rebels have been kidnapping Chinese oil workers during the unrest and some have already been evacuated. Reuters published a response from Joe Contreras, UN spokesperson for the mission in South Sudan, who confirmed that under the mandate peacekeepers will be protecting ‘civilian oil industry workers’ but not oil industry installations, including ‘the refinery or pipeline or storage tanks’.

UN peacekeepers in South Sudan

Reuters also note China’s unusually active diplomatic role in the conflict: ‘Chinese officials have been in regular contact with Western diplomats to help African mediators push for a halt to fighting in the country. China has also pushed rival factions loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar to talk’. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), one of China’s ‘big three’ state-owned energy companies, has big investments in South Sudan – both in oil fields and a 1000-mile long oil pipeline to the coast.

Military interventions to protect foreign energy supplies are hardly new, and the role of energy in foreign policy is well-documented, as are concerns over China’s international energy policy. However, these troops mark a big change both in China’s behaviour internationally and its approach to energy security. China’s international energy policy or expansion has so far been limited largely to investments in actual energy deposits, such as oil fields, or infrastructure. While the current mission is only mandated to protect civilians and workers rather than oil fields or infrastructure, it marks China’s biggest international military secondment in recent years – and is hardly unrelated to the country’s significant economic interests in the area.

China’s growing energy demand is well-established, and energy has consistently been considered an issue of national security in recent years. However, this marks China’s first (relatively) large military engagement in an area where it has significant energy interests. China has so far released very little information about the mission, but is stressing that the goal of the mission is strictly to fulfil the mandate of the Security Council, ultimately to maintain peace and security in the area.

It’s difficult know how much impact this will have on Chinese policy in the longer term, but it is definitely one to watch – especially given China’s increasing international energy investments in volatile regions. It may indicate a further shift in Chinese perceptions of energy security, towards viewing energy as a military security issue. If it sets a precedent for Chinese intervention to defend its energy interests abroad we’re likely to see much more focus on this in the future.

Part five: What is to be done?

Reblogged from Saving humans:

The blog posts this week have raised a series of questions about energy security. Conventional political thinking on energy security has a narrow focus which emphasises the need to secure state energy supplies. Sustainability is largely ignored, as short-term economic benefit is continually prioritised. The political and military survival of states is prioritised over environmental or climate stability, and human security. So what is to be done?

Discussions of energy security are slowly beginning to notice the need to factor in climate impacts in economic and human net-benefit calculations, with the IEA releasing a special report in 2013 to map out what can be done. Improving energy efficiency is central, as is continued and increased investment in renewable energy. Some present nuclear energy or clean coal technologies as part of the solution, but a recent study by Mark Jacobson examined solutions to global warming, air pollution and energy security and took the three as linked, and he found that clean coal technologies and nuclear investments provided ‘less benefit with greater negative impacts’.  The conclusion of the study stated that ‘because sufficient clean natural resources (e.g. , wind, sunlight, hot water, ocean energy, gravitational energy) exists to power all energy for the world…the diversion of attention to the less efficient or non-efficient options represents an opportunity cost that delays solutions to climate and air pollution health problems’.

Organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have also produced extensive reports outlining alternative policy solutions to enable the world to move away from fossil fuels towards a sustainable future. Whichever solution is suggested, it is likely to require a serious change in thinking on behalf of political leaders. Economist Tim Jackson suggests that rethinking notions of prosperity and growth are central to solving the issue. To minimise permanent or long-term climate and ecosystem damage, it is clear that sustainability needs to be prioritised over short-term economic gain. The truth is that we simply do not know the extent of the damage we have already caused the planet, and to save the future of humanity, any further damage needs to be avoided.

Image from Krankys Cartoons

Part four: Energy security as human security

Reblogged from Saving humans:

Not only are current patterns of energy exploitation a key contributor to climate instability, they also affect human security directly. First, we have the ‘indirect’ side-effects of fossil fuel burning: the impact of climate change on human health. According to the World Health Organisation, ‘global warming that has occurred since the 1970s caused over 140 000 excess deaths annually by the year 2004’. This includes not only deaths from pollution related illnesses, but also deaths from extreme heat, increase in the rate and range of weather-related natural disasters, increasing risk of floods and droughts from variable rainfall patterns (both of which increase risk of diseases, particularly in developing countries – including diarrhea, dengue fever and malaria). Changing weather patterns will also affect food security, which in turn increases the risk of malnutrition and undernutuition, particularly in the developing world (see WHO climate change and health factsheet).

Secondly, the energy extraction process has a more direct impact on human security. There are no accurate figures on how many die in coal mining accidents globally, though some estimate mining accidents alone kill around 12,000 annually. Coal miners also suffer a high risk of developing black lung disease from inhaling coal dust, as well as lung cancer and other lung diseases. Climate change is also likely to increase the ‘occupational health hazards’ associated with coal mining. Oil drilling and extraction carries it’s own hazards. The impact on local communities can be devastating. When accidents occur, such as the BP Deepwater Horizon 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it causes a huge amount of damage to ecosystems, marine and wildlife habitats, as well as local fishing and tourism. Both residents and those involved in the clean-up also suffered long-term health consequences.

BP oil spill

Many people volunteered to help with the clean up operation after the BP oil spill, to minimise wildlife damage. Little did they know that they risked serious long-term health consequences in the process

Fracking, which is used to extract both shale gas and oil and which has so far been most popular in the United States, has been lauded for its climate benefits as shale gas is seen to be more environmentally friendly than coal. However, fracking releases methane into the atmosphere – a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Other pollutants released by the drilling are known to cause ‘short-term illness, cancer, organ damage, nervous system disorders and birth defects or even death’. Groundwater pollution has been another big side-effect in areas near big shale-plays, and there is an as-yet unclear link between fracking and an increase in earthquakes.

Clearly, extracting fossil fuels has a serious impact on human survival, health and well-being, and these are all issues largely overlooked in political discussions on energy security.

Part three: Energy security vs climate security

Reblogged from Saving humans:

It is clear that energy security opens up some difficult questions about what or whose security should be prioritised. At the centre of this is the growing conflict between the focus of much energy security policy and discussion on fossil fuels, and the human need for a stable climate and environment. Energy security as currently understood by most policymakers is incompatible with a stable climate. We see perhaps the biggest conflict between energy and climate security today in China.

As recognised by the International Energy Agency, burning fossil fuels for energy is by far the central source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. If climate change and air pollution are also considered, fossil fuels ultimately no longer provide security. China’s rapid economic development has led to a huge growth in its demand for energy. It still relies largely on domestic resources, which makes it ‘secure’ if you equate energy independence with energy security. However, nearly 70 percent of China’s energy comes from coal – which is both cheap and domestically available. Coal is by far the dirtiest source of energy, and contributes more to global warming than any other fossil fuel.

China’s air pollution problems became world news last winter, when the air quality hit new lows. The US embassy in Beijing has been measuring air quality since 2008, and publishing the data on a twitter account using a pollution measurement scale from the US Environmental Protection Agency. The air quality index suggests measurements between 101 and 150 are unhealthy for ‘sensitive groups’, meaning children, the elderly and those suffering from asthma. For pollution levels between 301 and 500, labelled ‘hazardous’, they recommend everyone to refrain from doing any physical activity outdoors. Last winter, readings reached 755 – on a scale that stops at 500. The ongoing ‘trend’ has been labelled an ‘airpocalypse’, with high levels of pollution linked to increased levels of some types of cancer, as well as respiratory illnesses. Air pollution is also a cause of acid rain, which contaminates food supplies and damages ecosystems. Air and water pollution has been linked to a new phenomenon of ‘cancer villages’ in parts of China, where inhabitants suffer unusually high rates of cancer.

A photo of the same view in Beijing, on a clear day and during bad pollution during winter 2013

Unsurprisingly, people are increasingly unhappy about the social and environmental costs of development, and the number of environmental protests in China is rising. The government is attempting to tackle the issue, but growing energy demand means that a reduction in coal use is unlikely to happen even in the next decade. The growing conflict between increasing energy demand to support economic development and environmental stability is going to be one of the biggest challenges for China in the next decade. The government has repeatedly stated that economic development does not have to be unsustainable, but it is yet to back this up with serious action.

While the situation in China is at the centre of this debate, the rest of the world has also failed to come up with a clear solution. Existing approaches to energy security still largely overlook the impact policy choices have on the climate or the environment. Some argue that the environment or the climate are not ‘security’ issues, and while I personally disagree, whichever position you take it is clear that these are issues increasingly affecting the lives and livelihoods of human beings. The question we seem to be left with is: do we have to choose between energy security and a stable climate? Is it possible to ‘have it all’?

Part two: Saving humans or saving states?

Reblogged from Saving Humans.

For some states, growing concern over energy security is turning them inwards as they attempt to maximise their own energy supplies. Much of the US energy security debate is centred around the desire for energy ‘independence’, an enticing dream of a United States which does not need to depend on anyone else. A key part of the solution presented by policy makers is to maximise domestic fossil fuel production. Both George W. Bush and Obama have emphasised the need to increase domestic production of oil and gas, resulting in an energy boom with much attention on the current ‘shale revolution’. A recent article in the Economist titled ‘Saudi America’ reflects the current mood well.

Frackin the Bakken shale play, from the Economist, Saudi America

While the internal debate puts the focus on producing more oil and gas domestically, energy independence is unlikely to be the saviour and solution that is hoped for. Shale gas has been hyped as a ‘bridging fuel’ which will replace dirty coal stations, thus moving the US towards a cleaner energy future. However, not only are the ‘green’ credentials of shale gas dubious at best; cheap and easily available shale gas is also replacing renewable energy sources. US coal use may be in decline, but rather than keeping it in the ground for environmental reasons, it is being exported to pollute elsewhere, making any net-climate benefit shale could have produced virtually inexistent.

In practice, climate change is largely off the agenda in energy security discussions, and leaders rarely talk about ‘coal’, preferring to use the term ‘clean coal’ – despite the fact that the effectiveness and reliability of clean coal technology is still unproven. Federal subsidies have tended to focus on fuels which emit high levels of greenhouse gases over renewable energy sources. George W. Bush noted that US ‘dependence on foreign oil is like a foreign tax on the American Dream’ (2005). Obama has argued that ‘homegrown’ sources of energy ‘make us more secure’ (2012) – whether renewable or not.


Photo from USA today: Energy Independence is no longer a pipe dream

Of course, the United States is not alone in its desire to reduce dependence on others. However, securing the American state by maximising domestic supply in this way does not provide security in any meaningful sense. While it gives a much-needed boost to the economy today, failing to invest more in renewable energy sources which will still be here in the future is a dangerous and short-sighted strategy. The US is the second biggest CO2 emitter globally and its continuing high emissions affect human beings within and outside of the state itself, with a huge increase in pollution-related illnesses. Likewise, it contributes to climate change, endangering the future of the planet and climate that human beings depend on to survive.

Thus securing the US state by maximising domestic fossil fuel supply does not produce security in the longer term. The obsession with energy independence works to reinforce national borders and the state-system, making the need to secure ‘us’ with ‘homegrown’ sources of energy appear common sense. However, in an increasingly globalised world even an energy independent US cannot be isolated from the world. Climate change crosses borders and cannot be dealt with in these terms. The human impacts also cross borders – the West coast of the United States, for example, suffers from air pollution drifting across from China.

Traditional political thinking on energy security emphasises the need to secure state supplies of energy, focusing on fossil fuel supplies. Part of this is of course about providing citizens with energy. States also require energy to keep their economies stable, and any government which fails to ensure enough energy to keep its economy going faces the threat of uprisings, protest or even losing power. Energy shortages have a huge impact on human lives, too. However, continuing focus on fossil fuel exploitation is hugely problematic, and energy security understood in these terms is fundamentally incompatible with human security or a stable climate.

Energy security brings together a wide range of security issues and leaves us with serious and difficult questions about whose security should be prioritised. When it comes to energy security, should we save humans, or save states? Conversely, to save humans, do we need to save states? What about the current economic system? In a world with an ever-greater list of issues regarded as threats, how do we prioritise or decide which threats or security issues are more important?

Energy security and saving humans

This week, I’ll be doing a series of blog posts on the theme of energy security and saving humans, written for the  Saving Humans initiative in the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Birmingham, and reblogged here Monday-Friday. Part one:

Energy Security and saving humans

Energy security is increasingly the subject of headlines around the world. Most states rely heavily on fossil fuels to serve their energy needs, and as these fuels are finite they will eventually run out. There is an ongoing debate over whether or not we already have or will hit ‘peak oil’ in the near future, but either way there is increasing worry over the availability of, and access to, energy in years to come.

Energy security is a nebulous term which is often used by politicians to justify a range of different policy choices, but the term itself is rarely explicitly defined. Generally, it is used to refer to the availability of secure and reliable energy supplies at stable or reasonable prices. It is worth unpacking this a little further. Unlike renewable energy sources like wind and solar power, fossil fuels are geographically bound in a territory. They are not considered part of the global commons, but rather as the ‘property’ of the state in which they are located.

In this way, ‘secure supplies’ tends to refer to energy resources which are supplied from one state to another, implicitly putting the focus on fossil fuels which are traded openly on the global market. The emphasis on security of supply also suggests a state-centric focus – energy security policy aims to secure energy supplies to the state. The focus on ‘stable prices’ indicates a heavy focus on oil, as the energy resource most vulnerable to volatile prices in the global market. These factors are at the centre of most discussions of energy security today.

EIA map showing world oil chokepoints, which are at the centre of discussions on security of energy supply

There are a number of problems with understanding energy security in these terms. Firstly, securing states through continuous fossil fuel supplies is clearly not sustainable, neither geologically nor environmentally. It’s biased towards developed, energy importing countries, and large scale energy industries – energy exporting countries conversely need security of demand, and in parts of the world many still rely on locally collected firewood for energy. It also does not consider the impact of current energy exploitation on human security.

There are a number of issues and unresolved questions around energy security which are relevant to saving humans, and this is what I’ll be blogging about this week. At the centre of this is the growing conflict between the focus of much energy security policy and discussion on fossil fuels, and the human need for a stable climate and environment. Current patterns of energy exploitation also affect human security directly, which will be the subject of another post later in the week.

Ultimately, the planet cannot survive if we continue to consume fossil energy at current rates. Yet, continued energy supplies are essential to maintain human life as we know it. The world still depends largely on finite and dirty sources of energy, and the growing pace of human development has been accompanied by ever-faster resource depletion. Energy security is one of the most important issues today, bearing direct impact on the continued survival of human civilisation as we know it.

For more on this and related issues, have a look at Saving Humans – this interdisciplinary initiative can also be followed on twitter via #savinghumans – enjoy!

Hinkley C and UK energy security

Energy security is becoming an increasingly ‘hot’ topic in UK politics. Ed Miliband recently announced a freeze on energy prices should Labour win the next election, and just a couple of weeks ago week prime minister David Cameron announced a deal allowing EDF energy to replace the old Hinkley B with a new UK nuclear power station – the first to be built in two decades.

The Prime Minister and Edward Davey, Secretary of State for Energy, view plans for the new nuclear site at Hinkley, Somerset.

(David Cameron and Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy, view plans for the new nuclear site at Hinkley, Somerset)

Politicians have a frustrating tendency to use the term ‘energy security’ to refer to any number of different things, in the UK and elsewhere. Generally, however, the term is taken to mean some form of continuity in energy supplies, at stable prices. The UK energy system is largely privatised, the idea being that the energy market should look after itself with minimal government interference beyond regulation. At the same time, like for most states, the combination of finite and declining fossil fuel energy resources with the growing threat of climate change make energy security a growing priority for the government. The need to keep prices at a level acceptable to consumers has to be juggled alongside this changing reality.

It is clear that the UK energy market, dominated by ‘the big 6’ energy companies, is increasingly dysfunctional. On top of this, the existing relationship between corporate and state power leaves a lot to be desired  – profit-driven corporations, unsurprisingly, do not place consumers or climate change high on their priority list. In the words of Caroline Kuzemko (University of Exeter), ‘the current design of our energy system and policy works to the detriment of delivering on climate change mitigation, energy security and affordability goals’.

While Secretary of Energy Ed Davey said that the new nuclear plans ‘will increase energy security and resilience from a safe, reliable, home-grown source of electricity’, it is clear that whatever your stance on nuclear power, these plans are deeply problematic. To say that they will increase ‘energy security’, is to take a very narrow interpretation of the concept. If it works as planned (which there is no guarantee for – EDF has been building a similar plant in the north of France which has been plagued by delays and cost increases), it may improve supplies, but it is unclear whether or not it would have any positive impact on prices – particularly given the length of the contract EDF has been given. Nuclear energy is extremely expensive – the EDF contract is costing the UK £16bn, and comes with serious environmental risks. The government made the case that there are no alternatives, but this is simply not true.

The announcement of the Hinkley C plans, moreover, come at a time when many countries are veering away from nuclear power. Germany, previously a big proponent of nuclear power, are closing their stations down after reviews following the crisis at Fukushima in Japan – in favour of safer and more sustainable energy provision. Even George Monbiot, who is actually in favour of nuclear energy, has spoken out against the Hinkley plans. He describes the technologies to be used as outdated, committing the UK to ‘to 20th-century technologies through most of the 21st’, also noting that the plans are overpriced, providing a safe income for corporations while leaving any risks to be assumed by the taxpayer. Even more problematically, the government has no plans for how to clear up the nuclear waste created by the plant.

The coalition has ‘rebranded’ nuclear power as a low-carbon energy, and it may help the UK meet carbon emissions targets. However, it is not a renewable source – the materials needed are finite and on top of this, it leaves nuclear waste. Safety is a huge concern, and the Japanese situation has clearly shown that even in technologically advanced countries where safety is a top-priority, nuclear power is not a ‘safe’ option. However, there are other options, as the German case clearly shows. While cutting nuclear power, Germany is radically transforming its energy supply system to move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources of energy, while reducing emissions and improving energy efficiency. It has also made the German energy market much more decentralised – another lesson the UK could clearly benefit from.

Nuclear power is not the solution to the UK’s energy security problems, particularly not in the form of the Hinkley plans. Any efforts to improve UK supply and prices have to start with reforming and decentralising the energy market. This is also noted by Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, who has spoken out in favour of reforming the energy market to loosen the strangehold of the big six energy companies, asking the government to increase ‘support for community and co-operatively owned renewable schemes, where people benefit from generating their own power’, noting that such support is ‘pathetically poor compared to the lavish subsidy the nuclear industry has just received’.

The Hinkley plans call into question the governments priorities, and suggests they are more concerned with securing big business and continued profit for energy corporations in an increasingly dysfunctional energy market, than with actually developing a longer-term sustainable solution that leaves both citizens and the planet more secure.