The Oxford Martin School Blog
Energy and externalities - how to meet the challenges ahead
12 Jul 2012 2 comment(s)
A lecture by Prof Amartya Sen on 11 July prompted a fascinating discussion among expert academics and audience members. This blog summarises some of the key points from the lecture and panel discussion. Links to the lecture text, photos and further information are available at the end. Please add your own comments and insights at the end...
The lecture was held to mark the launch of the new Oxford Martin Programme on Resource Stewardship. Prof Myles Allen, who is one of the academics leading the programme, gave us an introduction. This new research will bring together academics working across the sciences, social sciences and humanities to radically rethink global resource stewardship. It was fitting to launch such an ambitious programme of research by sharing Amartya Sen's vision for a more sustainable approach to energy policy.
Prof Ian Goldin (Director of the Oxford Martin School) primed the audience to hear from Prof Sen, describing him as a world-renowned and highly respected academic who has shown throughout his career “unwavering commitment to justice, human rights and poverty reduction”. Sen did not disappoint, as he gave a deeply thoughtful exploration of the nature of the environmental and energy challenges we face today.
Sen was talking about “Energy and Externalities”. It’s an approach that comes from economics – what are the factors that bring third party benefits or costs, and how do you weigh these risks? The challenge today is that market decisions, which arguably drive our society, do not take adequate note of externalities. Sen explained that decisions on energy production, in particular, are based on completely wrong indications of costs and benefits. Nuclear power is what concerns Sen most at the moment. He claimed, “The terrible externalities of nuclear power, including civilian nuclear power, is far less understood and acknowledged than even the under-recognised dangers of climate change.”
Ultimately, Sen argued, we need to advance the usability of renewable and alternative sources of power generation. And we need powerful and well-assessed public initiatives, including incentives for market response and funding for research, to drive this advance.
The panel discussion that followed was lively, engaging and highly informative.
Professor Sir Chris Llewellyn-Smith, Director of Energy Research at Oxford University, said he was more sanguine about nuclear safety than Prof Sen but less sanguine about its costs. He then proceeded to reel off extraordinary statistics, for example about the amount of subsidies the fossil fuel industry receives (in the region of $400 billion per year) and worldwide annual deaths from coal mining (5,000). Of course, there is no room for complacency in assessing the risks of the nuclear industry, but the bottom line is that we probably can’t do without it if we are to meet our energy demands in the future.
Professor Ngaire Woods, Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford, gave insights into the role of government in seeking energy solutions. She identified as needed governmental regulation (and independent oversight), incentives (public finance) and a balance of public-private interests that would ensure more effective stewardship of natural resources. She emphasised that the research of the Oxford Martin Programme on Resource Stewardship, which was launched with this event, could play a vitally informative role in identifying these kinds of solutions.
Professor Steve Rayner, who will be co-directing the new Programme on Resource Stewardship, identified ‘risk thinking’ as a more effective approach to evaluating technologies, instead of the more traditional cost-benefit analysis. At the end of his comments, he stressed that nuclear is likely to play only a limited role in our future energy mix. Most vitally, we need to be thinking about adaptation strategies to deal with the environmental and energy challenges ahead.
- Download Amartya Sen's lecture (pdf)
- Professor Steve Rayner comments on themes raised by Professor Sen and suggests a need for adaptation to existing climate variability
- View photos from the event
- Details about the event
- About the Oxford Martin Programme on Resource Stewardship
- Professor Sen is on the Oxford Martin School Advisory Council - see the full list of distinguished members