The global energy outlook today easily matches the toughest challenges of the 1970’s oil crises. We face growing energy demands from developing nations, higher projected electricity use in developed countries, unprecedented pressure on global oil supplies, an uncomfortable dependence in Western Europe on Russian gas and an on-going debate about emissions and pollution caused by growing energy use. Despite this, there is no framework for energy governance at a global level. In his article “Confronting the Challenge of Energy Governance” in the new journal Transnational Environmental Law, Neil Gunningham argues the case for a greater prioritisation of energy related issues.

The globalised economy and modern industrial society run entirely on energy, powering an endless range of activities, from basic food production to recharging your latest smartphone. But although it ranks alongside food supply and international trade as an issue of global concern – in fact, food supply and trade are highly dependent upon it – we have no institutions comparable to the Food and Agriculture Organization, or the World Trade Organisation, to scrutinise the price and availability of energy.

Or, to quote Mohammed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency: ‘Energy, the motor of development and economic growth, is a glaring exception. Although it cries out for a holistic, global approach, it is actually dealt with in a fragmented, piecemeal way.’

Neil Gunningham argues that this lack of coherent international governance of energy policy represents a significant weakness in human society, particularly as it now faces the challenge of increasing pressures on both energy supply and the global environment.

As the International Energy Agency, which represents the energy interests of western countries, said in 2008: ‘It is not an exaggeration to claim that the future of human prosperity depends on how successfully we tackle the two energy challenges facing us today: securing the supply of reliable and affordable energy; and effecting a rapid transformation to a low-carbon, efficient and environmentally benign system of energy supply.’

In his article, Gunningham gives many reasons for why there is resistance to an international framework around energy. For example, a carbon economy builds fossil fuels into its infrastructure, creating powerful vested interests which shape markets and influence governments to maintain the status quo. There are also the pernicious effects of fuel subsidies in developing countries. While these are formulated to promote growth and alleviate energy poverty, they also increase both fuel consumption and emissions markedly. Plus, though they benefit the rich more than the poor, ordinary people still fear that governments will end subsidies and allow the price of fuels to rise to market levels.

Despite these concerns, Gunningham sees evidence of changes occurring on many levels. For instance, governments are increasingly aware that energy needs are likely to grow substantially, and that profligate energy use now could lead to a significant erosion of energy security in the future. Concerns about global climate change also amplify demands to harness renewable energy and increase the energy efficiency of transport, buildings and industry.

So while multiple challenges remain, glimpses of a potentially better future are starting to emerge. The question is whether we will grasp these opportunities with the necessary speed to make a difference, or remain fixed on our current unsustainable path.

Neil Gunningham’s article is available without charge via Cambridge Open, an Open Access initiative from Cambridge Journals, to read the article, click here.

The first issue of TEL was published in April 2012, and includes contributions by an impressive line-up of global leaders in the field, including Dan Bodansky and Greg Shaffer, Edith Brown Weiss, Doug Kysar, Liz Fisher, Charlotte Streck, Tseming Yang, Ludwig Krämer, Al Gillespie, Bob Lee, and Koh Kheng Lian.

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