On Monday I took issue with Tom Friedman's suggestion of a "geo-green" strategy for pressuring Middle East petro-states by reducing oil demand and thus driving down oil prices. Now I find that far from being alone in his views, there's a whole geo-green clique out there, including some neo-conservative heavyweights and keen environmentalists. While I stand by my previous posting on how hard it would be to move the oil demand needle appreciably, it's worth looking at the upside potential.
Start with some history. The last time there was a big push on oil conservation, the result was pretty impressive. After World War II oil demand grew steadily--doubling during the 1960s--until the first oil shock in 1973-74 caused it to stall. It resumed its growth path in the mid-70s, but from 1979, following the Iranian Revolution, to 1989 global oil demand was essentially flat. Along the way, the energy intensity of the US economy dropped sharply, even though the economy continued to grow. Even today, we use fewer BTUs, and certainly fewer barrels of oil, for each million dollars of GDP.
Could a similar drive to efficiency motivated by politics and patriotism, rather than just high energy prices or taxes, slow down or reverse recent trends in energy demand? It's entirely possible, but if we want this to have the maximum benefit, we are looking at the wrong target audience. Although getting Americans to drive more efficient cars and use energy more sparingly would have an impact, we have not been responsible for most of the recent surge in demand. The challenge and opportunity comes from the rapidly growing economies of Asia, and from China, in particular.
Between 2000 and 2004, China's oil demand grew by 2 million barrels per day (MBD), compared to an increase of about 1.3 MBD for the whole industrialized world. As its richest provinces reach the "take-off point" at which the demand for personal mobility soars, this trend will only accelerate. The time for cooperation on conservation is ripe, since China appears at least as concerned about its energy security as we are about ours (see my posting of 1/21/05.)
Getting China and India to develop along a more efficient path is the real prize, and it ought to be a money-spinner, since putting in the best and most efficient technology at the start should be much cheaper than retrofitting them here. In the process, this would do a lot to reduce the rapid growth of greenhouse gas emissions from developing economies, and it may turn out that the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Treaty is a handy way to transfer these technologies at a profit.
In essence, being geo-green could be quite beneficial and sensible, as long as our concept of "geo" encompasses the entire globalizing world.