On my way back to Paris, I had to go through one of the most heavily guarded airport in the world. Unfortunately for last Thursday’s passengers, the scanner wasn’t very cooperative, and we ended up going through it again and again – without any shoes, belt, jackets or any potentially harmful garment of the sort of course. Once partially cleared by the defective scanner, we were all offered a complimentary and thorough body search before finally boarding our flight.
This whole debacle left me ample time to contemplate why in the world we routinely accept to be handled as would-be suspects and methodically groped by total strangers, with an (un)healthy helping of X-rays on top of it. I saw but one plausible reason: the magical powers of the word “security”.
Now that’s something we hear a lot of at the IEA, except it’s always tied up with the word “energy”. This powerful pair, “energy security”, has been with us from the very beginning – the whole IEA was even set up for that purpose. And interestingly enough, when you go through the dusty reels of the now famous IEA archives, you discover that from the start, energy efficiency and energy security were going hand in hand (emphasis mine):
“The perception of energy security risk varies across countries, yet disruptions to primary energy supplies remain a major threat to energy import-dependent economies such almost of the IEA member countries. The oil crisis of 1973-1974 and the need to reduce oil dependency were the catalyst for IEA member countries to develop energy efficiency policies. Three common government responses to the threat of such oil supply disruptions were to develop policies to reduce the growth rate of primary energy consumption, eliminate energy waste and use energy more efficiently (IEA, 1994)”.
So if we’ve been aware of it for the past 40 years, what have we done about it?
Nothing much, unfortunately.
Let’s take a look at natural gas for example: in 2010, the average IEA dependency rate was still 60% for that fuel. Now guess which sector consumes 58% of natural gas consumption in IEA member countries?
Ok, that’s an easy one – buildings, of course.
This shouldn’t be surprising when you consider the energy guzzlers we’ve been building over the past four decades. Even natural gas producers such as the UK or the US have to import some of their gas because of buildings consumption.
More broadly, energy expenditures place a heavy burden on most IEA member countries’ balance of trade; only four countries, Australia, Canada, Denmark and Norway are net energy exporters. Impressively, in a number of countries, reducing the energy deficit could even bring the balance of trade back in the black – such as in Austria, Italy or in the Slovak Republic.
We seem to universally consider airline security as part of state sovereignty. We even go so far as to throw concerns over cost-effectiveness, human rights and radiation poisoning out the window to ensure that our flights are safe. Yet any time someone mentions energy renovation as a means to improve energy security, all of a sudden short-term effectiveness, payback periods and consumer choice become absolute priorities.
Maybe we lack ways to convey the downsides of a failure to ensure energy security? Maybe we should try to picture the risks incurred by a highly energy-dependent country in a more graphic manner? In the meantime, governments keep investing tax-payers money in short term measures that lock the savings potential and fail to create badly needed new industrial activities.
Surely one day we’ll finally wake up. Yet chances are, by then, it will be too late.