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Nairobi: energy as politics

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Maurice Strong, a former United Nations official, is the founder of Petrocanada and, more recently, the International Energy Development Corporation.

The United Nations Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy, now meeting in Nairobi, provides a timely reminder that, despite the current oil "glut," the world still faces an energy crisis in making the long and difficult transition from dependence on low-cost oil to a variety of other energy sources.

The fact that the formal agenda is restricted to "new and renewable energy sources" -- many of them neither "new" nor "renewable" -- and specifically excludes oil and nuclear energy, points up the political sensitivites which continue to constrain international dialogue on energy issues. And clearly the times are not auspicious for major new international initiatives, particularly those which require nations to commit themselves to creation of new institutions or provision of additional funds.

Nevertheless, the conference promises to be an important political event, whatever the formal results it produces. This is due in large part to the effective efforts of one of the international community's most dynamic public servants, Enrique Iglesias of Uruguay, who took over responsibility for preparation of the conference as its secretary-general only a few months ago. He succeeded in enlisting such international heavyweights as India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Canada's Prime Minister Trudeau, Mexico's President Lopez Portillo, and Saudi Arabia's Sheikh Yamani with an accompanying galaxy of energy ministers, senior officials, and experts as conference participants.

The attention of these leaders is now focused on the profound impacts of the energy transition on all countries and on international relations. Most acutely affected will be those developing countries which today depend on oil imports for most of their supplies of commercial energy. And their oil consumption must inevitably grow, even while they are making the trasition to alternatives. They will thus require a growing portion of dwindling world oil supplies. This will only be feasible if industraialized countries, which have already begun to demonstrate their significant potential for conserving oil, continue to reduce their proportionate demand on world supplies of oil.

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