Back to the Energy Crisis: The need for a coherent policy towards energy systems

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Back to the Energy Crisis: The need for a coherent policy towards energy systems

Nigel Dudley


The modern environmental movement has been highly influenced by concerns about energy supplies and the need for a coherent energy policy. However, consensus amongst NGOs has recently disappeared and it is possible to find mainstream environmental groups opposed to every realistic energy source. This creates strategic dangers and weakens the environmental position in future debates about energy supply. The article argues for the development of a strategy and an NGO agreement.


Thirty-five years ago, a perceived “energy crisis” was one of the driving forces behind the modern environmental movement. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace were both established in 1973, after a sudden oil price rise and growing concern about the expansion of nuclear power. For several years there were attempts to develop a coherent policy towards energy supply, based around opposition to nuclear power, promotion of renewable sources and energy conservation and, until evidence emerged about the seriousness of the greenhouse effect, support for coal1. While there were certainly voices raised in opposition2, the mass of opinion within the NGO sector, and within virtually all environmental organisations, was aligned and provided a powerful lobby.
The immediate energy crisis did not materialise, in part because of the existence of far larger stocks of oil than had previously been recognised3. However, the problem of declining fossil fuel sources has been deferred rather than eliminated. Indeed to some extent the situation today is more serious, because knowledge about the greenhouse effect has increased arguments against fossil fuel use and a mixture of safety concerns and poor economic performance has led to a significant downturn in the world’s nuclear industry. The peak oil theory has gained widespread credence4. However it has also generated some opposition5 and there are few signs that governments are taking a likely energy shortage very seriously; recent falls in oil prices will continue to foster a sense of complacency.
Unfortunately, just at the time when the need for a coherent NGO response to energy policy is probably greater than at any time for the last 30 years, there has also been a virtual collapse of the consensus once shared amongst environmental groups about future energy scenarios.
Today it is possible to find mainstream environmental organisations opposed to virtually all energy sources, including almost all renewable sources. Table 1 provides a brief summary and some examples. Any energy proposal is likely to have environmental groups opposing it; and these are not just front groups set up by the traditional energy industries (although these certainly exist6) but mainstream and genuine environmental organisations. This situation seriously weakens any chance of environmental NGOs making a coherent case for a particular energy strategy.

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