Action by governments rather than technology development is the priority in correcting inequalities in the global distribution of energy resources, senior engineers decided at a debate held in London by the Royal Academy of Engineering this week.

But also key to solving world energy imbalances will be the interaction between development of new and existing energy technologies and the way governments can regulate and stimulate markets to exploit the technology and deploy real solutions, the engineers decided.

The Academy’s new series of debates on world issues takes as its theme Natural Resources in the Global Economy, with the first debate on 5 September on the non-uniform distribution of energy resources worldwide.

The debate, attended by Academy Fellows and leading engineers from business, industry, government and academia, discussed the motion “… that this house believes that technology will play a greater role than governments in tackling the problems caused by the non-uniform global distribution of energy resources”. In a vote, the motion was narrowly defeated.

Professor John Loughhead OBE FREng, executive director of the UK Energy Research Centre speaking in favour of the motion, said the problems of uneven energy availability should not be under-estimated: the Middle East contains more than half of known oil, and just under half of all known gas reserves. But, Professor Loughhead said, technology developments in areas such as solar power, where there was much more even distribution worldwide, would largely overcome these inequalities.

Not so, said Philip Lowe, director-general of the Energy Directorate within the European Commission who spoke against the motion. While technology was an important factor, he said, it was up to governments to devise ways of working around the inequalities, to provide the infrastructure to exploit new ideas and to guide and control the markets. “What’s essential is creating the stimulus for technologies that won’t take off if there’s no government input,” he said.

In a wide-ranging debate, there was broad agreement that the interaction of government and technology development was crucial, and that governments were perhaps key to the short-term and immediate issues and to resolving crises and conflicts. Over the long-term, however, technology development, both in the form of new ideas and in dramatic efficiency gains in existing technologies, also had a big role to play.

Dr Martin Grant FIMechE, group managing director of Atkins' energy business, said that technology was at the heart of creating solutions to global problems on energy supply. But Alasdair Grainger, from the Department for Energy and Climate Change said that without government action and intervention, technology, no matter how great its potential, ran the risk of impotence.

Notes for editors

  1. The next debate in the Academy series on Natural Resources in the Global Economy, to be held on Tuesday 1 November 2011, will cover strategic metals and minerals and will be held on 1 November. This will be followed by a third debate on issues in the global availability of water early in the New Year.
  2. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0636; email: Jane Sutton