Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs is a world-renowned economist, global expert in sustainable development and special advisor to the United Nations Secretary General.
He is also naïve.
In his April 2018 article ‘China’s Bold Energy Vision’, Professor Sachs lauds a recent initiative by China to globally phase out fossil fuels. But this isn’t just (another) clarion call to reduce emissions. Professor Sachs says the Chinese have a replacement system. They propose to use a global energy distribution grid based on new ultra-high voltage (UHV) transmission technology. This would allow renewable energy to be cheaply transferred to areas not currently producing enough of their own renewable energy. If the sun is not shining or the wind not blowing in one location, locals can get their energy elsewhere – globally.
It sounds nice, doesn’t it? It is a nice, simple solution to energy poverty and promoting the use of clean energy. But it is a plan to save humanity, without accounting for the inherent politics of humanity.
The Chinese Government supports it. The United Nations supports it. Professor Sachs supports it. All are ignoring politics.
A transition to a single electricity grid controlling the flow of global energy is the dream of every pundit wanting to stop conflict over energy. Actually, it is a pipe-dream. What country willingly lets another entity control something as vital to their way of life as energy? There have been attempts over the years, both internationally and intranationally, to make it work but not one energy receiving entity has done so happily, let alone given 100% control of their energy market to someone else.
Russia has long supplied Europe with gas but the arrangement is described as a hostage situation, where Russia can demand that European nations heed their demands or they turn off the tap. But let us consider the other extreme, where energy is generated in country and transferred between states. In Australia, all states and territories agreed to a National Energy Market. But even they hedge their bets and promote internally generated electricity for their jurisdictions.
At this stage you may be thinking that perhaps the article by Professor Sachs is incomplete? The nature of his article is a short essay and he has surely decided to focus on the technological potential of GEI, while omitting the sophisticated political strategy required to deliver it. A strategy is also not available on the website of the organisation delivering the GEI, the Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organisation (GEIDCO).
Not only does the GEIDCO not have a plan online, but they do not even have a separate division in their organisation devoted to political strategy. Just how does GEIDCO intend to persuade the political leadership of other countries to place control of their national energy supply in the hands of a Chinese corporation? And what gives Professor Sachs reason to support it?
China is developing the technology to achieve the GEIDCO and China will control it. The power to cut off electricity to any participating country is a powerful strategic weapon. Is Sachs really advocating for a Chinese global monopoly over power distribution – or did he think China would gift it to all mankind? Both scenarios are too far-fetched and no one is providing a political bridge to either of them. The 19th Century statesman, Lord Palmerstone, identified this formidable chasm between reality and a brotherhood of nations Utopia when he said of countries: “We have no eternal allies or perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow…”
In a world of lights and laptops, a vital interest is energy security.
Despite these criticisms, I sincerely hope such an energy grid could be implemented. Universal access to reliable, low cost renewable energy would contribute to a marked reduction in global poverty and to substantial economic growth. But not this way.
Despite all the hype, remember the technology is not the issue. Politics is. And lauding the former while myopically ignoring the latter only results in an offer of false hope to millions of people who presently exist in desperate conditions. The fight against energy poverty does not want your good intentions. It wants workable solutions which take account of the politics. And those who cannot distinguish one from the other are diverting attention from practical projects based in political reality.
Professor Sachs, do you want to solve energy poverty? I’m sure you do but do not be so heavenly bound as to be no earthly good.
Nicholas Filer is a Brisbane based writer with honours degrees in law and international relations.