As a conference on sustainable development begins in Berlin, director of the UN Environment Program Klaus Töpfer says Katrina taught the world that it's time for a new global energy policy.
Katrina shut down 90 percent of the Gulf's oil output
A week after Hurricane Katrina brought crude oil production to a halt in the Gulf of Mexico region, helping oil prices to an all-time high of $70.85 (57.76 euros) per barrel in New York last Tuesday and 68.89 dollars per barrel in London -- double the price of oil in 2003 -- the disaster is still serving as a reminder that the world is precariously reliant on oil and gas. And demand is increasing all the time.
At an annual meeting of the German Council for Sustainable Development in Berlin, guest speaker Klaus Töpfer, head of the UN Environment Program UNEP, called for a speedy change in global energy policies. Referring to the implications of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, he said it was obvious that such disasters could easily lead the world to the brink of a major energy crisis and demanded a quick revision of energy strategies which rely too heavily on crude oil reserves.
In the wake of Katrina, the 11-nation oil producers' group, Opec, has said it was pumping a million barrels a day beyond quotas to help keep supplies running.
"The current oil shock throughout the world is of major proportions and there is no sign of the oil price rise coming to an end," said chief economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Jean-Philippe Cotis on Tuesday.
Klaus Töpfer told the daily Berliner Zeitung that it was time to take action. "We need to become less dependent on oil," he insisted, describing the challenge as one of the pressing economic and environmental concerns of the future.
Escalation all too easy
Flooded street in New Orleans
Aside from ravaging thousands of lives in New Orleans and flattening much of the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina also knocked out US refineries and hammered oil platforms, sending petrol prices soaring.
"There is unlikely to be a significant drop in the cost of crude oil," he said, pointing out that demand on the world markets was simply too great to allow for it. The hurricane had shown how easily disasters can exacerbate problems on the global energy market, he added.
If a lesson is to be learnt, he argued, it is that the world needs to invest in renewable energies, more environmentally-friendly transport systems and other forms of fuel.
Scientists and Green politicians have long been predicting the dangers of climate change, he said, and the growing threat of extreme weather makes the issue a political priority. "We can't wait until the next disaster strikes," he warned.
He also emphasized the peace dividend to be reaped from sustainable development.
Oil terminal at Baton Rouge, New Orleans
"Sustainable development is the best strategy for peace, because it avoids all the known conflicts that usually appear in the wake of ruthless economic expansion, he says. The large-scale destruction of our environment means more poverty, particularly in the third world, and if we don't heed this lesson, we'll never be able to reach the UN millennium goal of halving poverty in the world by 2015."
Time for a sea-change
Katrina served to bring home a message Töpfer has long been trying to convey. "Being dependent on fossil fuels is and will be an increasing burden in the future," he said earlier this year. "A more diversified fuel supply that includes technologies like cleaner coal and renewables alongside greater energy efficiency makes economic as well as environmental sense."
With Germany facing a possible change in leadership later this month, Töpfer appealed to the country to step up environmental protection efforts. He dismissed concerns that ecological concern comes at the cost of jobs. "The environment and economic growth are not mutually exclusive," he insisted, stressing that greater environmental protection would actually create jobs such as through supporting implementation of sustainable technologies in developing countries.
Growth alone won't lead anywhere
The German Council for Sustainable Development was set up in 2001 and serves as an advisory panel of independent environment experts for the German chancellor. In the past couple of years, council members have urged the government in Berlin to invest more resources in renewable energies and low-energy technologies with a view to decreasing the country's dependence on crude oil reserves.
Ahead of the 2005 annual meting, council chairman Volker Hauff sent an open letter to the national parliament, criticising the fact that issues related to sustainable economic growth and environment protection were being given short shrift in the current election campaign.
Addressing an audience of over 1000 politicians and scientists in Berlin, council member Marlehn Thieme said the current high oil price was, in the final analysis, a result of an unsustainable economic policy. She said economic growth for the sake of growth alone wouldn't lead anywhere, particularly if it entailed the uncurbed depletion of natural resources.
"For far too long we have labored under the impression that there's no such thing as environmental capital. People believed that natural resources can be used for free without anything being reinvested. But now we can see very clearly that this attitude makes sustainable growth impossible," she said.