Adding the many complex uncertainties together, the Keynesian quest for low carbon energy, supposedly to save the world from climate catastrophe, could intensify global energy economic volatility with surprising results.
By Andrew McKillop
Published September 22, 2009
State legislation, deficit-based financing and political intervention to accelerate transition to the Low Carbon economy will be further raised on the stage of the December 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change summit. This is not taking place in a vacuum, due to recent and ongoing, massive deficit spending by G20 government to fight economic recession.
For climate change protection and energy transition away from the fossil fuels, amounts demanded or recommended by a spiraling number of interest groups, including state and international agencies, have grown into the range of hundreds of billions of dollars per year, from 2010 through 2020.
Reasons for this ever-rising state intervention and spending on the fight against climate change include the simple need to reduce dependence on declining fossil fuels, led by oil. Shifting the economy away from oil to provide more economic stability during oil price surges is, however, a long-term, high cost and complex project.
The shorter the timeframe for reducing fossil fuel dependence of the economy and society, the higher the costs and greater the complexity. Large spending on energy transition, added to current and massive deficit spending to bail out the bank, finance and insurance sector (and other industries), appears convergent, and coherent to political deciders.
High oil prices are held to be bad for inflation and economic growth; the fossil fuels are not only declining and higher cost, but also high carbon; renewable and alternate energy sources and systems are local, more secure, and in some cases may be less expensive than fossil energy; the green economy may be able to generate more jobs than are destroyed by winding down the fossil-based economy, and so on.
The December Climate Change summit comes in a growing process of climate, energy, and environmental concern, action and legislation - and hard on the heels of what the IMF calls 'the worst economic recession since 1945'.
Pressure for G20 deciders to intervene heavily and spend more to achieve fast energy transition is already high, and may further increase if, for example, oil prices continue rising, or climate and weather events, news and scientific alarms are particularly extreme at the time of this 11-day conference.
One key critique of big-government spending using borrowed funds to jump start energy transition is that this intervention adds to the ongoing and massive deficit-spending to head off systemic failure in the global bank, finance and insurance industry.
One other industry already targeted for heavy government intervention and spending is the car industry. At present this concerns heavy state subsidies to encourage purchases of 'classic' oil fuelled cars, simply to limit job losses in this key industry. In the near-term future, the demand for government subsidies will shift to electric cars and vehicles, seen as the lifeline saviour for the world car industry.
Anti-recession spending since early 2009 is already the biggest-ever deficit spending engaged by OECD governments in previous history, including war-time. Adding hundreds of billions of dollars of new deficit spending, for climate change mitigation, while raising energy costs and prices in the economy through carbon taxes, feed-in tariffs for green energy, subsidies for low carbon goods and services, and so on, could result in surprising and unwanted net results.
These could include, under worst case scenarios, the creation of tipping points in the global economy. If start-up costs and barriers for the entry or penetration of green energy in national energy mixes are higher than initially estimated, and oil prices keep rising beyond certain 'pain thresholds', the potential for double dip recession will increase.
World trade, in the event of special tariffs and taxes to penalize high-carbon goods could be further depressed following the first-ever decline in world trade growth, in 2008-2009, due to the recession.
Economic and socioeconomic differences between the OECD group, and the Emerging Economies could or might be intensified, by moves towards 'climate change protectionism' in global economic relations, perhaps leading to a process that terminates in dislocation and de-convergence of the globalized economy.
Any day that oil prices rise, world stock exchange equity values also tend to rise, along with the gold price, base metals, and food commodity prices. When the US dollar tends to go on falling in value against other major currencies the correlation of daily oil price rises, and rising equity indices and rising commodity prices on the world's big exchanges is even higher.
Despite this 'robust growth of equity values', on the back of, or driven by higher oil prices, these are feared by economic policy makers and central bankers.
Speaking at Jackson Hole, Wyoming in late August 2009, Ben Bernanke warned that 'speculative trades' on oil could drive the price far out of what he defined as the comfort range. He said: "The global economy could not withstand another contractionary shock if similar speculation drives oil rapidly toward $100 a barrel."
Energy security, meaning reducing dependence not just on foreign oil, but on oil altogether, then extending this to the other fossil fuels, is now the common stated goal of all G20 leaderships. Reasons for this in fact start with geological depletion of reserves and environmental impacts of fossil energy, but supply security, an essentially geopolitical concern, is often placed first by political deciders.
This energy security quest is then communicated to public opinion as close-linked or interdependent with the drive to limit climate change by cutting CO2 emissions, through rapidly developing 'green energy' and 'decarbonizing' the economy.
Moving further with what is a double quest, with its own complex interactions, the coming World Climate Summit through December 7-18 in Copenhagen will bring together 192 presidents, heads of government or high level delegations, observers from UN agencies, selected NGOs and commercial sponsors, and the press and media.
This forum will be the scene for world leaders to announce further and probably massive acceleration of their plans to create the sustainable After Oil economy.
Climate security however has credibility problems. These include falling global average temperatures for the last 4 years, making headline statements that 'global warming is a threat to humanity' harder to put across, as the main reason why green energy must be jump started by a growing mix of big government spending, and big government legislation.
This shifts the focus back to energy security, itself riveted on oil since the 2008 oil price peak of nearly $150 a barrel. Since the global economy's dependence on oil needs no proving, energy security is firmly equated with economic security.
This linkage is specially strong during phases of strong economic growth like 2004-2007: when the economy grows, so does oil demand and oil prices. This entrains rising prices for other fossil energy, metals and minerals, and the agro commodities.
As Ben Bernanke's warning made it clear, high priced oil is a traditional fear among economic and financial leaderships. High priced oil is seen as specially dangerous for the still fragile, slowly recovering, heavily indebted economies of the OECD group, if not China and India.
The bottom line is simple: Today, energy security and climate security are twinned, and seen as the gatekeepers and pathways to sustained economic recovery and growth. Within this policy mix, new and emerging green energy and cleantech solutions are seen as a possible way to reduce energy prices, increase energy security, limit climate change, and restore economic growth.
Green economy utopia was prefigured at the April 2009 G20 summit in London, by-lined 'towards a global green recovery'. This G20 summit was set to a background of continually rising Keynesian anti-recession spending, and rising estimates of spending needed for climate change mitigation.
Estimates for this spending, mostly focused on renewable and alternate energy, come from a spiraling number of sources. These range from national governments, regional entities like ASEAN and the European Commission, the UN's climate change panel (the UNIPCC) and UNFCC entity, the OECD and Davos Forum, the World Bank, economic agencies and even NATO.
Outside the official entities, estimates are published by NGOs, professional associations, religious and political groups, and consumer groups.
From relatively low estimates for world climate and energy security spending, of less than $200 billion a year before 2007, estimates have risen fast. Today, NGOs like WWF pile on the pressure with press releases such as:
"WWF is calling on G20 finance ministers to commit to providing $160 billion per year of public funding, to help the world's developing nations to adapt to climate change and set them onto a low carbon pathway for the future. This finance should be additional to Overseas Development Assistance, additional to carbon market finance, and channeled through a UNFCCC recognised institution" (WWF announcement, Sept 2009).
The 2009 Davos Forum forecast that world spending needs would average $515 billion a year through 2010-2020, while other estimates go higher. The exact role of government borrowing in these big spending scenarios is rarely defined, but in all cases it is growing. This makes climate and energy security borrowing the twin follow-on, from recent and current Keynesian deficit spending to fight recession by saving the bank, finance and insurance sector.
Backing these constantly growing scenarios for public and state-backed spending, government friendly media around the world has been instrumentalized to tread a delicate line between climate change doomsterism and hysteria, and green economy utopia.
This uneasy balance of doom and boom is needed to maintain public opinion in favor of coming carbon taxes, job losses, higher energy prices, and legislation to force a change in business practice and lifestyles. The better end in view, media and government spokespersons tell us, is climate and environment protection, sustainable green jobs in a growing economy, and increased energy security from local-produced alternate and renewable energy.
This context sets the scene for December's Copenhagen meeting. Rational bets on the economic, financial and legislative results are resolutely set on big numbers and major change. Taking a key example of sure and massive support from almost any government, state aid and subsidies, and legislation to force the growth of electric car fleets in G20 countries could swallow several tens of billions of dollars in additional government spending.
This would got to near-term investment, R&D, and subsidies to get consumers to accept untried, and expensive new cars. This will follow hard on the heels of the same car buying populations getting debt-based government subsidy as 'cash for clunkers' for purchase of new oil-fuelled cars in 2009.
Lithium and other rare metal needs for mass producing electric cars may be difficult to satisfy, recharging them en masse, especially in urban areas, will set a massive logistic and economic challenge. These threats to the electric car nirvana are brushed aside.
After the ignominious failure of biofuels and agrofuels as a passport to energy independence, and the mirage of biofuelled cars in every garage and in every 30-mile tailback at the entry to every large city, electric cars are a kind of last best bet. Established renewable energy favorites like wind energy and solar electric power will also be ramped-up further, with feed-in tariff support in the shape of rising electricity prices, both for private consumers and business.
Making a point of not relating the massive growth of public debt to bail out losses from the intensely speculative, high risk operations of banks and financial establishments, combined with the coming wave of climate and energy security spending, government and public media carefully ignores the fact they are cumulative.
Debt-based anti-recession spending, and the same for anti-climate change spending, can only raise the total of national public debt. Repaying, or at least servicing this debt to prevent its growth, is only possible if there is sustained economic growth.
If there is no sustained economic recovery, possible cumulative debt generated by spending to fight recession, and spending to fight climate change could spiral, and become astronomic. Without strong and sustained economic growth, new spending to pursue energy and climate security can only raise the risk of systemic economic, fiscal and monetary failure.
Results to date for current and massive anti-recession spending, almost entirely directed at saving the bank, finance and insurance sector, have been more than somewhat muted in the OECD countries, while China and India maintain their totally classic, totally conventional oil-fired and coal-fired industrial expansion, and urban economic growth booms.
Depending on the dates concerned, for example 2008-2009 or 2008-2010, and of course the source of estimates, including the IMF, Keynesian-type spending will "inject" perhaps $4 trillion through to December 2009, mostly into the bank, insurance and finance sector, only in the OECD countries.
Through the period 2008-2010 estimates for this spending, from sources including the IMF, put the possible amount at up to $11 trillion, on a worldwide basis. To give a comparative idea of what this means, the OICA estimated total turnover in the world automobile industry in its most-recent record year, 2007, at about $2 trillion.
OPEC total revenues at a year average of $100 a barrel would be around $1.05 trillion. Spending by the world oil and gas industry in its recent highest year, also 2007, reached about $400 bn.
These two last global economic indicators can be related to the coming green energy quest of G20 and other world leaders. Assuming that Davos Forum forecasts of likely spending to mitigate climate change through forced growth of green energy were attained, world average spending would run at an average around $515 billion a year through 2010-2020.
This is already far above world total oil and gas industry spending, and equivalent to 50 percent of total yearly OPEC revenues at $100 a barrel and 28 Mbd exports - providing about 55 percent of world total oil export supply.
How this $515 billion a year is sourced and financed, what percentage is public debt-financed, will be two keys to its real long-term costs and impacts, but the basic requirement for minimizing total debt growth and ensuring that energy transition spending continues at this high rate is simple: the global economy must grow.
Taking $4 trillion as the likely deficit spending to head off systemic bank and finance sector failure in the OECD through 2008-2009, this represents around 10.4 percent of total OECD GNP of about $38 500 billion in 2008, using OECD statistics. Economic growth needed to prevent this increase of public deficits from growing further is relatively easy to calculate - and high.
For several most-indebted countries in the OECD group, 2010 will be a make-or-break year, of either strong economic growth finally trimming debt, or recourse to currency devaluation and national austerity programs to prevent national economic catastrophe.
Climate change mitigation and energy transition spending, over 2010-2020, by the OECD group, could attain a cumulative total of $4 to $6 trillion in 2009 dollar value, but this may turn out to be a low estimate.
Climate change spending, in the current and emerging context, will only add to systemic risk. Many concepts underlying the forced march towards the green economy are essentially "postindustrial", and also anti-urban or rural-suburban oriented, in their best and easiest fields of application. This runs right against current social-economic reality, of the most intense-ever per capita consumption of industrial products, energy and natural resources.
This structural factor of hyper dependence on industrial goods starts with with the world automobile fleet of about 900 million units, 98 percent oil fuelled. Growth of the world fleet was about 50 to 55 million units a year in 2009, a year described as one of 'outright crisis' for the world car industry.
While many leading OECD countries can be called "postindustrial", but intensely urban, this does not at all apply to China, Brazil and India, which are rapidly industrialising and rapidly urbanising. Russia also is not "postindustrial", but rather re-industrialising after a ten-year experience of de-industrialisation in the 1990s.
Forced energy transition to the green economy may be credible for some policy makers in many OECD countries, but is not applicable in the so-called BRIC countries. This has led to, and will lead to policy and programme conflicts, for a common G20 framework and programme for energy transition and growth of the 'sustainable green economy'.
To date, G20 spending plans for energy transition still lag behind recent and current anti-recession spending, the biggest-ever deficit spending spree the world economy has ever known. However, as noted above, state plans to spend on low carbon energy are on the rise, everywhere.
Under any scenario for achieving a "CO2 free economy" and society, public debt from the recent and present anti-recession spending will remain high, and will spiral if strong economic growth does not return. State intervention to favor the Low Carbon economy, such as raising energy prices through carbon taxation, increased government borrowing to finance costly and untried green energy, and legislative and policy intervention, is already heavily criticized by New Economy liberals.
As they point out, borrowing to finance a "decarbonized" economy and society will likely hamper economic growth, and comes on the back of pre-existing and extreme high levels of corporate and private debt, which helped trigger the global crisis in 2007-2008.
This underlines the high risk surrounding results from the Copenhagen summit: the take-off in Global Green Growth is ever more critical, and major failure even more dangerous. Exactly like the Keynesian anti-recession spending boom in response to the global finance meltdown of 2007-2008, however, the climate change and oil depletion crises are linked with the global economy in complex and contrarian ways.
The higher energy prices that will come on the back of carbon taxes, feed-in tariff subsidies for green power, the probable retrofitting of carbon capture systems to coal power plants, and other measures to tax fossil energy and subsidize green energy could or might generate stronger economic growth, if they acted the same way as oil prices, through 2004-2007, but not 2008. On the current outlook in OECD countries however, a growth fillip generated by higher internal energy prices is very unlikely.
The myth of green energy being cheap is given heavy support by COP-15 media. A linked symbol of the green economy, the coming electric car revolution is also given heavy support. COP-15 and linked government-friendly, and sometimes government-sponsored sites rival each other with claims the entire world car fleet could Go Electric by around 2030, despite current high prices for electric vehicles.
The clear need for large subsidies, to start the process of consumer acceptance is very clear. The hope that present (and future) total world electric power generating capacity could be substituted and replaced by wind and solar power, one day, is communicated by COP-15 media as both feasible and economic. Claims extend to suggesting this electric power transition will generate heavy economic savings and benefits, over and beyond climate change mitigation benefits.
The fight against climate change through a forced march towards green energy can only cause a rise in energy prices in the short-term. Energy costs will rise through carbon taxes, high cost R&D needs, such as CO2 sequestration R&D and pilot projects, feed-in tariffs for renewable source electricity, support to green energy innovation, and other state-initiated intervention to favour the rapid growth of green energy and tax fossil energy.
Growth of electric car fleets, for example, will surely need big subsidies to achieve fast replacement of current oil fuelled car fleets. De-carbonizing electric power systems, agriculture and transport will also require heavy spending, especially if the transition is given a shortened timeframe.
The under-appreciated first response to the debt-and-finance sector crisis of 2007-2008, was followed by the most massive ever, deficit financed spending, to 'save the world's bank, finance and insurance sector'. The grandiose plans laid at COP-15 to fight climate change by massive spending on green energy can quickly follow the same path. Short-term spending, and borrowing requirements will almost certainly radically rise.
Surely under-perceived or ignored, rising anticipations of massive green economy spending, and anticipations of rising energy prices in the oil-intensive OECD economies, could themselves change the nature and type of recession we are experiencing.
One example could concern Ben Bernanke's favorite whipping boy: oil prices. Adding carbon taxes that in some EU27 countries already extend beyond $150 a ton of CO2 is equivalent to pricing oil at an additional $40 or $50 a barrel. Producers can argue that if consumer countries can pay $45 more per barrel inside their economies, they can pay perhaps $33 a barrel more for international traded crude.
Electricity prices in OECD countries already show a high positive correlation between percent renewable, and final consumer and user prices. At present, electricity prices are certainly low in most countries, and will certainly rise. Energy transition may accelerate and raise the process of rising electricity prices to a large degree.
At least 55 percent-60 percent of total climate change mitigation and related spending will go to the energy and transport sector, possibly attaining $300 billion a year only in the green energy sector within 18 months, by 2010-2011, and continuing to grow rapidly after that.
Yet entire spending by the global oil and gas industry was at most $400 billion a year in 2007. Taking the example of the world car industry, the challenge of All Electric, even by 2050, is awe inspiring. Replacing the world's current estimated car and light road vehicle fleet of close to 900 million units in a shorter timeframe, for example by 2035, producing lithium-based (or other) batteries for this new fleet, and recharging these at around 3kW to 5kW each, sets challenges not only for financial ingenuity but also for global economic and resource credibility.
Impacts of a sudden growth in world energy spending, on the energy industry and inside energy trading, can also generate a worst case scenario. Even under optimistic scenarios, inflation in world energy will sharply rise, whatever the oil price, for example in the electric power sector.
Higher energy prices, simply due to rising intervention, as well as industrial and financial energy sector impacts, will quite rapidly spill over to food prices. As we know, equity and commodity traders were quick to enthusiastically recycle chunks of the "injected" Keynesian anti-recession largesse falling from above.
Financial operators will fully profit from a new wave of funding, and rising uncertainty on energy prices, this time driven by the fight against climate change and to head off peak oil.
The key buzzword of 'sustainability' surely does not fit the current outlook for OECD economic recovery, nor the coming wave of spending to fight climate change. Both are predicated on strong economic recovery. Green energy and sustainability goals have now joined the wish list set in the aftermath of the Lehman Bros collapse and a string of finance, bank and insurance sector catastrophes.
Retrospective analysis of how the crisis unwound through 2008-2009 suggest that initial under-reaction was followed by massive over-reaction. Exactly the same arguments can be applied to climate policy and deficit-financed spending to mitigate climate change by accelerating the transition to green energy.
G20 leaderships, at COP-15, will surely reiterate their determination to accelerate the shift to low carbon. They will set ever tighter CO2 emission limits across the economy and around the world, they will move towards an international carbon tax and/or carbon penalizing trade tariffs, with further and large financial and economic aid to Cleantech in both OECD and emerging economies. This will need further government borrowing.
Why they are doing this is in fact complex. To be sure, oil prices attained a peak of $147 a barrel in 2008, then crashed by about 75 percent before rebounding to around $70 a barrel as of early September 2009. Like oil prices, world climate trends are also fast changing and increasingly unpredictable, in a context where scientific evidence of climate change is massive, but contradictory as to its likely or probable most economically damaging results.
Yet leaders of the 20 biggest economies in the world have sighted and fixed CO2 emissions, and to a lessening degree global warming (because evidence for this is now very contradictory), as the nearest-term, most powerful, public reasons to spend on non-fossil and oil saving energy sources and systems.
Oil depletion is, however, certain to trigger both energy saving, and the growth of new supply sources, in a complex series of energy economic changes through the same 2010-2020 period.
Many different but interrelated factors are in play. One piece of this complex puzzle will be the short-term impact of low priced LNG, and continuing low traded coal prices, but rising uranium prices, in a context where there are multiple impacts of low carbon policies and legislation. Overall energy price trends, inflation and economic growth forecasting for the energy intensive economies can only be made more difficult.
Underlying the carbon certitude of G20 leaders, despite the complexity of these subjects, the same leaders are forced to accept very low visibility on what is happening to their real economies. Perhaps worse, the basic driver for making a massive and rapid change to alternate and renewable energy, the stalking horse of Peak Oil, does not even figure in the public rationale and reasoning offered for why there must be ever-rising, increasingly massive spending, and muscular legislation to force a rapid energy transition away from the fossil fuels.
COP-15 web site and hard copy publications carry little or nothing on the subject of oil depletion, despite this driver for energy transition being a lot more real than "runaway climate change", in the 2010-2020 short term.
We are therefore left with an almost open field for analysis using complex systems methodology, to map out probable trends in the 2010-2020 period. What we are sure of is huge long-term intervention in the economy and energy economy, as Peak Oil reinforces the need to shift away from fossil fuels, whatever the public claims of there being a CO2-only climate crisis, marked by runaway or extremely rapid global warming. As noted above, the myth of CO2 being the sole cause of climate change, and global average temperatures rising fast, are perhaps the two biggest climate myths that exist.
Much more prosaically, in the real world, strong economic growth and high oil prices are the two-only rational drivers for rapid and non-subsidized growth of alternate and renewable energy sources. This means 2008-peak level fossil energy prices, for oil, natural gas, coal and uranium, and the rip-roaring Petro Keynesian growth of 2004-2007. Only these provide a rational economic basis for spending plans of the type forecast at the 2009 Davos Forum.
Radically increasing energy sector spending is only economically justified when there is high economic growth. When economic growth is depressed, possibly on a long-term base, the energy economic rationale and urgency for energy transition will diminish, without strong intervention and heavy government spending.
This context is one of multiple and complex interactions, extending far beyond the already low visibility economic arena. In the economic domain, we can note, deficit-spending and legislative forcing of alternate and renewable energy, added to existing public debt, can itself trigger a new economic and business cycle. This would be a cycle of much higher energy costs in a context of increased uncertainty, faster global economic change, and rising energy price volatility for any market, anywhere.
Further distortion of energy markets could or might quite rapidly de-converge or re-segment the painful and cumbersome unification of energy markets - which is one key part of the European Union's decarburizing strategy, given the misleading title 'unbundling'.
In this case, as in other regions, the net result will be higher final energy costs, especially for enterprises. On purely theoretical grounds given the certainty of rising intervention, the implicit trend of 'post fossil' energy economic structure is a rapid shift towards a heavily electrified economy, due to most major present alternate energy systems delivering electricity as their useful output. On pure energy economic theory, this presents as many challenges as opportunities.
More than 35 years of studies by hundreds of analysts and scholars have as yet to resolve the basic question of oil prices and economic growth. Through 2007-2008 the constant rise of oil prices to extreme highs was surely one driver in the mix of factors that led the global economy into recession, but just as surely not the only factor.
Over the past ten years, coal and natural gas demand has risen much faster than oil, mainly due to price, in a global economic context of rising energy intensity. The market driven shift to increasing electricity demand in the economy could appear an open door for now heavily intervening to force the role of alternate and renewable energy, but how fast this process can go is a major unknown.
The global economy itself is also an unknown. Like energy markets, it could itself de-converge, with Chinese and Indian de-coupling meaning what it implies, that is more national-centric and autonomous economic development and growth, with reducing, not rising linkage to the OECD economy.
Factors like international transportation costs, closely oil-linked and difficult to substitute with alternate energy, will tend to re-localise economies, over and beyond any government moves to intervene in the energy economy, raising final energy costs.
In the short-term, nothing assures a smooth and rapid rebound for the economy, perhaps even the reverse in the form of double-dip.
Adding these complex uncertainties together, the Keynesian quest for low carbon energy, supposedly to save the world from climate catastrophe, could intensify global energy economic volatility in many ways, with surprising results.
The likely and probable net results can be identified and forecast with the appropriate forecasting methods and tools, but energy and the economy will certainly generate massive challenges for rational and efficient management of a complex and difficult future.
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