Could OPEC save us from ourselves?
The global oil cartel may not be to the tastes of many environmentalists, what with its penchant for fossil fuels and all, but there is a very real chance that the actions of OPEC over the next few years could be the deciding factor in precipitating the emergence of a genuinely low carbon economy.
In an open letter to King Abdaullah of Saudi Arabia, environmental campaigner and some time pursuer of alleged war criminals George Monbiot urged the head of state to resist US calls for OPEC to increase oil production, arguing that a continuation of high oil prices represents the global economy's best hope of weaning itself off carbon intensive energy.
He has a point. The longer OPEC refuses to increase supply - and let's leave aside the on-going debate as to whether or not it has the reserves to do so - the higher oil prices will climb and the more attractive both alternative energy and energy saving technologies will look.
Much has been written about the time it will take many clean energy technologies to become cost competitive with conventional alternatives and solar manufacturers and electric car firms are currently focusing on the speed with which they can exploit economies of scale to bring their own costs down. They will get there in the end, but it is worth remembering that if the cost of fuel continues to rise at its current rate they will reach the Promised Land of cost parity far quicker.
Given the current outlook all those alternative energy firms pledging cost parity within five to ten years, must be revising their timelines downwards at a rapid rate of knots.
The longer the price of oil remains high the easier it will become for clean tech firms to make their business cases and secure investment.
Of course, the upward trend in energy prices could be reversed. With complaints over rising fuel prices becoming ever more vocal governments can seek to slow this process by cutting green taxes on energy. But such a move would not turn the global tide of rising oil prices and would attract fierce criticism from environmentalists, including the head of the UK government's climate change committee Adair Turner who last week defended the principle of green taxes on fuel.
Moreover, assuming it has the reserves OPEC could eventually open the taps and increase supply, prompting a short term drop off in oil prices. But again you have to ask if any increase in supply can keep pace in the long term with booming energy demands from the emerging economic giants of China and India.
Faced with this prospect of a sustained perion of high oil prices, the energy sector has two options, neatly embodied this week by ExxonMobil and Abu Dhabi.
The short term option is to make hay while the sun shines and exploit the high oil price for all its worth. But as that price continues to climb alternative sources of energy begin to look ever more attractive to both investors and customers, and as the group of dissident shareholders who were defeated in a vote at the company's annual meeting last week warned, should those clean technologies develop at a pace comparable to the IT revolution of the last two decades it will "seriously undermine Exxon's assumptions in demand for petroleum".
Meanwhile, the oil rich state of Abu Dhabi has taken a markedly different approach, investing billions of its oil wealth in the development of alternative energy sources such as solar power. The country will undoubtedly continue to benefit from the high price of oil, but should that price get too high and economies begin to switch to alternative technologies it will be ready to meet that demand too.
If I were an investor with even the smallest understanding of risk I know exactly which approach I'd be backing.
Right, I'm off to try and work out why everyone's so obsessed with offshore wind.
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