We need new energy to power the future

Methane: 4 hydrogen bonds and only 1 carbon atom

Ambitions are at an all time low for this week's climate talks in Cancun. It's not hard to see why. At last year's Copenhagen climate summit president Obama made the telling observation that "these international discussions have essentially taken place now for almost two decades, and we have very little to show for it". He is of course absolutely right. Carbon emissions have continued to rise year on year.

While it can be argued that this is an indication of the excesses of the developed world, the reality is that growing carbon emissions are an indication that the poor are becoming prosperous. As the sluggish economies of the developed world have stumbled along, the double-digit growth of China, India and others has powered ahead, largely fuelled by cheap coal.

But let's be clear. Historically, the substitution of hydrocarbon fuelled machines for carbohydrate fuelled human labour has been both liberating and civilising. In the developed world, cheap energy has largely mechanised agriculture, freeing us from the land to become enormously more productive. In many parts of the developing world human potential is still wasted on subsistence agriculture.

In order to meet the future aspirations of the developing world, while slowing and ultimately reversing the growth of carbon emissions, we will need clean energy that's cheaper than coal. Unfortunately many environmental thinkers are lobbying for a future powered almost entirely by expensive renewables, fixating on demand reduction rather than production and obsessing over the minutiae of personal behaviour.

Such well-meaning idealism will not save the planet or the poor. In fact, our unlikely saviour may well be the oil and gas industry.

In recent years there have been significant, but largely unreported shifts in the world's energy outlook. The price of gas has started to decouple from that of oil. Whereas gas was once a by-product of oil production, or an asset stranded at the end of a long pipeline, it is increasingly a globalised commodity. These developments have come about as a result of shale gas.

Shale gas is extracted from deep shale bed rock using recent innovations in drilling technology and is revolutionising energy markets in the US. Recently constructed plants designed to import gas from huge tankers are likely to be reconfigured for export. Many believe that shale gas will have a global impact. Although the message has clearly not filtered through to UK utilities, there is a world glut of cheap gas that is set to last for years of come.

Looking ahead it will be difficult for the more expensive forms of renewable energy to compete with cheap, low carbon gas. We should therefore be wary of over enthusiasm for renewables. There is only so much capital available to invest in clean energy and decisions need to be based on pragmatism rather than ideology. For example, the sole result of ideological opposition to nuclear energy has been that we have simply burned more coal.

Burning cheap, low carbon gas rather than coal is one of the most pragmatic ways to reduce carbon emissions, as is the fissioning of uranium atoms. For over 100 years the carbon emitted per unit of energy produced has been in decline as oil, then gas and finally nuclear energy entered the mix with coal. Each new fuel has a lower carbon content and greater energy density than the last.

The trick now is to accelerate this process by continually tweaking the energy mix away from coal, and ultimately oil, towards methane and uranium. Methane can be a direct substitute for oil in transportation, particularly for fleet vehicles. This is how we will turn the corner on carbon emissions, while ensuring energy production can grow significantly in the developing world.

Our concern over climate change has led to a mood of impending doom. While catastrophe is always a possibility in any historical age, there is a real chance that humanity is in fact on the verge of true greatness. While human progress has never been easy, uniform or certain, the extraordinary improvements in the human condition achieved using cheap energy in the developed world can, and are, being repeated in the developing world.

If we have the vision and ambition, the future can see an economically and culturally rich world of growing, shared prosperity where technical innovation can decouple human needs from the environment. It's time to hang up the hair shirt in Cancun. It has failed both the planet and the poor.

First published at The Herald 30 November 2010