ECONOMY

Back to energy savings

The price of oil, now hovering in the region of $40 per barrel, is still half of what it was 20 years ago in stable terms, that is, after deducting inflation. Even if the nominal price remained at its current levels, the negative impact on the growth rate of developed countries would not be greater than 0.5 percent – much smaller than the effect of delaying the implementation of bold economic restructuring measures, or of the inability of these economies to boost production by reducing unemployment. There is an essential difference between today’s crisis and those caused by the OPEC embargo in 1973, the Iranian revolution of 1979 and even the first Gulf war of 1990. The big economies are richer and their tools of macroeconomic management more efficient, making them more resistant to oil shocks. The danger of a knock-on effect on inflation and currency parities remains under control. Nevertheless, this does not mean we are not living in a different reality. Oil will remain expensive and its price will probably even rise. Our societies are burning up increasingly larger quantities of energy, the result being that consumption of existing reserves is outpacing the discovery of new deposits. This alone drives prices up. A strong speculation factor, fueled by the crisis in Iraq, sends them higher still. We easily forget that known oil deposits will run out within this century. China’s environmental agency has calculated that if the Chinese were to reach the American average of one car for every two inhabitants, the country would not be in a position to buy all the petroleum required, nor, evidently, would the global economy be able to digest the prices such massively higher demand levels would cause. It is time to take seriously the need to limit the consumption of hydrocarbons and to develop new forms of energy, particularly those from renewable sources that are friendly to the environment. This is not simply a matter of benevolence. The International Federation of Industrial Energy Consumers underscores in a recent report the high costs for enterprises of adjusting to the use of environmentally friendly forms of energy. Real success will be achieved when the consumption of renewable energy sources (RES) is no longer subsidized by governments, the report adds. For this to be realized, an even stronger focus on the development of new technologies is required, at a time when the International Energy Agency notes that public investment in research and the development of new forms of energy in western economies has fallen by about two-thirds of the 1980 level. However, the rich and developed economies do have some relative progress to show, having increased the consumption of energy from solar and wind sources by 18 percent between 1970 and 2001. Germany, for instance, has an installed capacity of 14,000 MW in wind power, representing 5 percent of its total energy consumption. Greece, by contrast, has an installed capacity of less than 500 MW from wind power, or 1 percent of total consumption – a common story with less developed economies, which spend about two-thirds of export currency earnings on oil imports.