‘Energy transition must put society first to help avoid inequality’

The $27 trillion energy transition needs a bottom-up approach to match top-down efforts by governments and business in order to improve the lives of eight billion people globally, a leading expert has said.

Society’s role is critical and is often underappreciated, Dr Angela Wilkinson, the secretary general of the World Energy Council, told the Business Extra podcast.

“People don’t want to be told by their leaders, what the future will be. They want their leaders to enable them to realise their own hopes and dreams and to play their part in it,” she said.

“There’s three sides in energy transition, and we would call that the energy trilemma. You have to think about security, affordability and decarbonisation at every level of society, if we are going to manage a transition that is for everyone.”

A transformation of energy systems is needed to help meet Paris climate deal goals to limit global warming to well below 2°C — and ideally to 1.5 °C — by the end of the century, compared with pre-industrial levels.

“That’s why the emphasis for us would be that there’s multiple energy transitions, and diversity in energy is increasing,” said Dr Wilkinson, who is one of the world’s leading experts on the global energy future, an experienced industry executive and a distinguished Oxford scholar and a published author.

“If we keep talking about technology, innovation and how do we get too big through technology and capital alone, we’ll miss out on the opportunity to improve seven to eight billion lives worldwide,” she said.

“That is the biggest energy transition opportunity. It is not a transition for the energy industry. It is not a transition for capital markets. It is a transition for modern energy societies.”

The World Energy Council was formed about 100 years ago “to overcome national interests in energy”, she said.

“We are a community of communities of deeply local and globally networked energy interests. It is not about climate versus energy. It is about climate and energy security.”

Dr Wilkinson accepted that currently there is a more polarised and fragmented leadership landscape with diverse energy interests, and a lot more competition and conflict, including as a result of the Ukraine war.

“If we see what is happening in Europe, in the US, [and] certain parts of the world, the main focus of the conversation around energy is access to affordable energy,” Dr Wilkinson.

“And the fact that prices have been rising significantly, partly as a result of the fallout from [the Covid-19 pandemic]. But also this year the war in Ukraine has added to the stress.”

Inflation is at a four-decade high in the US and the UK, and is at a record high in Europe.

There have been other factors to do with the industry that have held back “access to useful and usable energy for everyone”.

“The way we actually measure and account for access — whether it is in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or in our own world energy trilemma framework — is, to me, unacceptable in terms of really providing better and decent lives for everybody,” Dr Wilkinson said.

“If one household in a community has an electricity connection for lighting, that counts as access to the whole community, whereas that is not enough energy for people to cook, it is not enough energy for people to refrigerate, for them to have cold chains for vaccines.”

Carbon is not the only metric to follow, she said.

“You have got to think about security, affordability and decarbonisation, and increasingly with attention to resilience and justice.”

It is not only the responsibility of governments or the private sector to make the transition work, said Dr Wilkinson. Communities must play a leadership role.

“If you have a government framed conversation, they will be talking about what how do we allocate energy … where do we get the biggest bang for our buck as a national economy through investments? … markets try to have that conversation about prices … but communities have different conversations about energy,” she said.

“That is really also a missing voice across the world, in these in the negotiations on climate change … food security … energy security … we also need human development and security. So, we need communities at the table.”

Updated: September 14, 2022, 7:03 AM

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