The Carnegie Club of St Andrews put together an excellent IDEAS conference on the 4th October 2013. Organised around the theme of “Powering the Future” the conference aimed to give students an insight into future employment in the energy sector. The conference was well organised with a good range of players in the energy industry. As these gatherings go, it was an outstanding example of what St Andrews can offer students in terms of access to major actors in the industry. In terms of its stated objectives the conference certainly did not disappoint, but I was left with a nagging sense that the debate which takes place at the University of St Andrews about energy supply and its implications for geopolitics and sustainable development was not at the top of the concerns of the people who run these industries.

Image courtesy of Hendrik Geiger, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Hendrik Geiger, © 2013, some rights reserved.

We will all experience the brief letdown that comes after leaving the ivory tower when we face the reality of working life and the discovery that we are at the bottom of a ladder, when we thought we had just emerged at the top. Nevertheless, we justifiably expect that what we are learning at university is at least partly relevant to the outside world and that we must take this knowledge along with us in our lives and future jobs. In the fields of International Relations or Sustainable Development, the effects of the energy sector on international geopolitical relationships, climate change, national prosperity and the shape of our local landscape are at the heart of this learning experience. From this conference, one was left with the impression that the energy sector is happy to ignore these relationships.

It’s clear that fossil fuels will remain our primary source of energy for some time to come. There are some positive changes on the horizon – with the localisation of energy supply that shale gas represents being one of the most important. Significantly, with respect to climate change, everyone was in agreement with the findings of the IPCCC report that was released in the same week. No problems there. But this is where the accord ended. The renewables sector came in for a drubbing for their dependence on government subsidies to remain viable. The cost of fossil fuels, which does not take into account the externalities of climate change, and is thus priced lower than the costs it imposes through climate change, was conveniently ignored. It would be a complex exercise to put a value on this effect, especially since the effects of fossil fuel burning are not restricted to national boundaries, nor is the pricing of fossil fuels. Nevertheless, the acknowledgement of the costs of climate change caused by fossil fuel burning resulted in the renewables sector being discussed in terms of “completely viable at the right price” rather than being placed in the “green, socialist, delusional fantasy” category.

In terms of the social and geopolitical effects of relying on the Middle East, Nigeria, and Venezuela to provide most of the world’s energy there was a complete disconnect. I’m not sure if the panel simply refused to speculate on these issues or whether they were unable to make the connections between increased security (and cost) at our airports and train stations, and the foreign wars fought over oil which causes the resentment that fuels international terrorism. It was astounding to hear people who truly believe that their actions have only one consequence, and that is the one they intend their actions to have. Hillary Clinton, in her recent St Andrews graduation speech, warned very clearly about the challenges (and opportunities) of an increasingly connected world. Barely two weeks later we heard several important players in the energy sector speak about “Powering the Future”, without a single reference to the multiple unintended consequences of powering the future in the same way that we powered it in the past. It was clear that the changing nature of the world, and especially the way interconnectedness (both social and environmental) changes what is possible, has not been driven home to many people who make money out supplying our energy needs.

Carbon trading was dismissed out of hand as a solution to the problems of climate change, and unfortunately it seems that this is increasingly becoming the case. The European Emissions Trading System (ETS) has become almost meaningless as German demands for more credits, issued almost without regard for the effect on carbon prices by the European Parliament, has driven the carbon price to its lowest price ever of around €3/ton. The implications for the ETS and carbon as a commodity are an increasing lack of confidence in the ability of the Europe to manage the system for stability and decreasing liquidity and legitimacy for carbon. The result for initiatives like the United Nations Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD), already floundering on the back of developing forested countries demands will be probably be complete stagnation. Conserving forests and their accompanying ecosystem services depends on a realistic price for carbon as a proxy for costing the contribution which large areas of natural forest make to the global economy through stabilising climate change.

For those with more immediate concerns, like paying off their student loans and getting a foot on the corporate ladder, the conference gave valuable insight into a complicated and potentially lucrative industry. A crash course on interview techniques was especially revealing and no doubt will help those who are less confident in this regard. However, what emerged clearly was the desperate need for a more holistic vision in this industry. The future is complicated and requires complex thinking around energy supply to make sure it can be done sustainably and with a lesser social impact than has been the case in the past. Students of St Andrews – work hard, get qualified and get out there – the world needs you.