Jeffrey Sachs: ‘We have enough oil, gas and coal to wreck the entire planet’

6 mins read

“We want energy, but we don’t want the side effects. The solution to that is primarily tapping renewable energy – wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric power or nuclear energy, which does not have the carbon emissions – and the way to tap those renewable energies is to transform them into electricity”


“It’s not good enough to say ‘yes’ to renewables, you also have to say ‘no’ to fossil fuels. And that will require a change of politics and understanding”


By Masis der Parthogh

Photos: Andreas Manolis


Jeffrey Sachs, the economics Nobel laureate-turned environmental crusader at Columbia University and a world authority on sustainable development, believes that the consequences of war, especially in the Middle East, are also impacting social wellbeing and fixing the after-effect of climate change.

A key speaker at the Cyprus Institute’s international conference on “Climate Change in the Mediterranean and the Middle East: Challenges and Solutions”, Sachs warned that oil-rich countries should consider cutting back on output as it is destroying the planet.

In an interview with the Financial Mirror, Professor Sachs, a proponent of peace and prosperity, development and education, penning various articles critical of the U.S. overseas policy, adds that clean and renewable sources of energy are the future and electricity generation and transmission will become the universal norm very soon.


Syria and Middle East: fixing the problem on the ground


“We are constantly on the edge of conflict, and unfortunately there is a large arc of violence across Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. I have been very critical of the US approach to that because I think the US has instigated a lot of the violence for geopolitical ambition. That was mistaken. Of course, the US says it’s responding to threats and challenges, but I think the US aims to project power and military bases, without much regard for the consequences. Therefore, we’ve had of course the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but even before that we had the role of the CIA in sending the Mujahedeen into Afghanistan in 1979 and onwards. We had the Iraq War, we had the destabilisation of Syria, which most people attribute to internal protests, but I attribute to the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar deciding to overthrow Assad. This, I believe, was a disaster and put a new proxy war in place. I fault the US, France and the UK for launching the NATO mission in Libya in 2011 that ended with its aim of overthrowing Qadhafi, but created instability that is unsolved.

“So, I believe that the US has tried to achieve hegemonic power in the sensitive regions with poor results. History should have told us that outside empires don’t fare very well. The US is today’s empire and I think it is not to America’s advantage or to the world’s advantage to have this continue. And yet now we see the risks of war with Iran, also a premeditated US-Israel idea, I should say a US-Israel-Saudi idea that Iran is so dangerous it should be confronted militarily. This is also wrong. Iran should be dealt with diplomatically, Iran has all the reason to participate in global affairs as an active participant, it has the right to have its regional influences. It’s a large country, and though I am not saying everything that Iran might want to do is appropriate, the idea that it should have no influence is an arrogance of US hegemonic thinking.”


Consequences of war on ordinary people


“Of course, the consequences of war are negative for those caught up in the war. Many people are killed, infrastructure is destroyed, lives are shattered, children face a future of poor health, poor outcomes, poor mental health. War is devastating. It’s a failure of human imagination.

“But war spills over across national borders. We have millions of Syrians who have moved out of Syria and this has destabilised Europe. Because of the fact that many Europeans don’t want refugees, and European politics first and foremost is driven by the debate over refugees, its led to the surge of rightwing parties and migrant politics, and loss of faith in the European Union. The rebellion of central European countries, with right-wing anti-migrant parties emerging all over Europe, so that’s a second consequence. Third is that war is expensive, caring for the refugees took away money for the poor people elsewhere. Of course, the direct cost of engagement by the US have been several trillion dollars wasted that should have been used mainly for America’s children and schools, environment and climate change, science and all the positives.

“Then you have the massive cost of rebuilding. The massive cost of the poisons sustained after wars. This is something known throughout human history, how terrible war is, but because of our technological capacity to destroy the places that were preserved for 2,000 years. Palmyra [in Syria] and other places are being destroyed on our watch right now, it’s a shame of our generation.”


Environment and new energy – will electricity help develop communities and societies?


“We know that the high level of economic development, which means the kind of prosperity that people seek, depends on a high level of energy use. We need the energy to power our appliances, our buildings, our machinery, our transportation, our cooling and heating. So, there is a direct and very strong arithmetic relationship between energy use and the level of development per person. The question is what kind of energy, and right now the energy is petrol for automobiles, its natural gas for power transmission or coal for power generation. We are a society that is technologically dependent on fossil fuels. We now understand, though, scientifically, that those fossil fuels are creating global warming and creating the environmental stress that has its feedbacks into dislocation, war, famine, heat waves, and many other dangerous consequences.

“We want energy, but we don’t want the side effects. And the solution to that is primarily tapping renewable energy – wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric power or nuclear energy, which does not have the carbon emissions – and the way to tap those renewable energies is to transform them into electricity. And to transform the machinery, including our cars that now use petrol or other fossil fuels, to be able to run on electricity produced by zero carbon sources. I think the future is zero-carbon electricity from these non-fossil fuel sources, plus electrification, and that also means trade in electricity the same way we now trade in oil and coal, or natural gas; we will trade across borders in electricity on a very large scale. This, I believe is the future. It’s a good one because the quality of life would really improve between making this big transformation from fossil fuels to zero-carbon electricity.”


Middle East energy export, European demand and interconnectors


“The idea of energy interconnection is gaining a lot of awareness. And when our cars are electric, then the interconnection of our vehicles with the power grid will also be reciprocal. Sometimes the grid will be charging the vehicles, sometimes vehicles will be charging the grid, putting electricity back into the grid.

“We’re moving to a much more sophisticated energy grid that is transnational and that is also interconnected across different sectors of the economy. Rather than having just one power plant that feeds the economy, we’ll have the whole economy sometimes feeding the power plant. Our buildings of course will have solar panels, solar windows, they will sometimes put some electricity into the grid, sometimes they will take electricity from the grid.

“These are the changes that are underway and where the engineers need to gain a new expertise in how to manage a power grid. This needs a tremendous amount of management to balance the supply and demand to shift the demand across the day or even across the week, or across the year, to have new pricing models, to have ways that grids can be both commercial, but also not only selling electricity, but buying electricity from distributed sources.”


Oil and gas wealth – we have to say ‘no’ to our own resources


“This is, on the whole, very promising and moving, I think, in the right direction. But of course, with oil everybody sees easy wealth. If you discover natural gas in the Mediterranean, nobody wants to give that up. If you have oil reserves in the US, everybody wants to produce it. With coal in Australia, everybody wants to produce it.

“The problem is that if we’re to use all of the coal, oil and gas that we know of and that is economically viable, at around today’s prices, we would destroy the climate. We have to able to say ‘no’ to our own resources, but everybody likes to say ‘no’ for everybody else, but not for themselves.

“This is a question of too easy money when it comes to an oil exploration. Try telling Israel, ‘No, you shouldn’t use the Mediterranean gas’. This will be nearly impossible. But the truth is that, or tell Mr Trump, almost anything, but tell him that you can’t use the oil and gas of the United States. He wouldn’t even understand what you’re talking about. But he would resist that as being unfair.

“Our problem is that we have enough oil gas and coal to wreck the entire planet, that’s the trajectory that we’re on. We’re very bad at saying ‘no’ to our own impulses of wealth. The good news is that we also have enough wind, solar, geothermal and hydro power to power the entire planet in a safe way, if we choose to do so. It’s not good enough to say ‘yes’ to renewables, you also have to say ‘no’ to fossil fuels. And that will require a change of politics and understanding.”