In this post, Hiroki Shin considers the agreement reached at the Paris climate conference earlier this week, and points to a longer history of tensions between international and national attempts to control energy.


After intensive and tough negotiations, the COP 21 climate conference in Paris finally reached an agreement on 12 December 2015. Political leaders hailed the agreement as a historic turning point, an agreement in which the global community now shares the recognition that climate change is a threat to human existence, an enormous challenge that has to be tackled with an internationally coordinated system. The Paris pact aims to keep global temperature rise well below 2.0C, while officially acknowledging the more ambitious target of 1.5C. It also envisions the world with zero carbon emissions in the latter half of this century. The new global climate deal is to be implemented through reviews of individual countries’ performance every five years – measured against their voluntary pledges (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs) – and by intensifying efforts to mitigate climate change over the coming years. As much as it is a landmark event in terms of the world coming to embrace a common goal, we need to see the Paris agreement as a headlight illuminating a rough road ahead of us. Furthermore, the agreement’s reference to the latter part of this century might make it sound as though we have plenty of time, but this is not the case. Looking at how things have changed in the past shows that, when dealing with a global problem, decades are a very short unit of time.


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Half a century ago, in 1965, energy was already an international topic, though not for its environmental implications. The world was only beginning to realise, mostly at the national level, the environmental harm caused by human activity. It was still a burgeoning recognition expressed, for example, in the US President’s Science Advisory Committee report Restoring the Quality of Our Environment (1965). The report opened with the statement, ‘Ours is a nation of affluence’, but 1965 was a year when affluence and scarcity formed a curious mix. One of its manifestations was the American Northeast blackout in November 1965, evidence that energy affluence came with disruptions, shortages and the fear of losing power. The blackout, which lasted for more than ten hours on a Tuesday evening, affected over thirty million people in a country that had come to depend for the major part of its normal life on electrical power. What is interesting is not just how Americans experienced and responded to the sudden deprivation of electricity, but also how outsiders saw the event. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in Japan, which still regarded the USA as the model for its economic development and standard of living, news of the Northeast blackout was received with a mixture of surprise and admiration. An article described it as an event caused by ‘a blind spot of the hypermodern city’.[i] The mechanised cities that came to a halt during the power outage were seen as proof of the extent to which energy-using technology penetrated into American life. The blackout was therefore seen as a sign of affluence, the level of energy civilisation the Japanese aspired to achieve.


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The British, less impressed by the American hypermodern, asked themselves the question: ‘Could it happen here?’ The answer of the UK Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) was that, thanks to Britain’s integrated power supply system, it was ‘impossible to visualise a similar situation arising in this country’.[ii] Despite the CEGB’s confident claim, there were a number of blackouts in the UK at the time. Less than a week after the American blackout, on 15 November 1965, a power outage occurred, affecting London, the Home Counties, Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby, Chesterfield and most of East Anglia. The CEGB blamed the exceptionally cold weather that coincided with the operation to overhaul much of its equipment.[iii] The Guardian’s chief editor, Mark Arnold-Forster, exonerated the CEGB by pointing out that the real culprits were ‘millions of customers [who] felt cold at once and switched on direct-acting electric fires’.[iv] Indeed, a sudden imbalance of supply and demand had been the cause of a number of blackouts since the 1940s, including a power outage on the Christmas Day in 1962.[v]

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The Guardian, 27 December 1962.

Energy experts in 1960s Europe were well aware that demand was not the obedient follower of supply. In the spring of 1965, the Committee on Electric Power of the UN Economic Commission for Europe held a symposium in Istanbul to consider the challenge of meeting the rapidly growing electricity demand.[vi] The attendance of 215 representatives from twenty-one countries demonstrated that those countries were facing a similar problem. However, although the problem was shared, their approaches differed. While the USSR delegate referred to a central committee to allocate power to different classes of consumer in times of emergency, the UK delegate – ever so inclined to soft persuasion – presented a paper on how to control load growth using consumer advisory services. While the problem was discussed at an international forum, the solution was sought at the national level. What could be described as the common recognition then was that the problem caused by power demand ‘does not arise only today, but exists at all times’, as expressed by the Turkish chairman.[vii] This amounted to an admission that there would be no future in which everyone’s need for power is fully satisfied at all times.

In July the same year, in Bangkok, another international meeting was held by the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE, later to become ESCAP). The focus of ECAFE’s working group meeting was the development of energy resources – particularly electric power – and how to exploit them for industrialising the ECAFE region that included major developing countries such as China, India, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and Iran.[viii] Some of the ECAFE countries were already experiencing the demand problem discussed by European countries in Istanbul. The demand for power was constantly outstripping supply in developing countries too, but it was simply taken as insufficient capacity building. What is striking about the Bangkok conference is how easily the longing for more energy could overshadow other important issues such as balancing the supply capacity and demand. Another topic that received only a passing reference was the depletion of fossil fuels, even though the Asian energy experts must have been familiar with King Hubbert’s ‘peak oil’ theory, first presented in 1956, which warned that US oil production would reach its peak around 1965–1970.


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ECAFE Electric Power Experts’ Tour in India, 1956. United Nations Photo

The two meetings in Istanbul and Bangkok demonstrate that the different priorities had a profound effect on how some problems were selected while other issues were obscured. Fifty years on from the two UN meetings, the environmental issues are now centre stage at international forums where developed and developing countries participate equally in negotiations. In this way, there have been major changes. Nevertheless, there are uncanny parallels between the situation today and that of 1965. Energy disruption still haunts developed and developing countries; power outages arising from technical problems, human errors and natural disasters abound, and the renewable transition has now been added to the list of disruption causes. For instance, the UK’s attempt to abandon all of its coal-fired plants has narrowed the electricity supply margin to satisfy the nation’s demand. In early November 2015, the National Grid had to appeal to business users to reduce energy consumption to avert a wide-scale disconnection. In Germany, a record number of consumers were disconnected because they could not pay their electricity bills, which had been inflated due to added subsidies for renewable energy. Blackouts have yet to be eliminated in developed countries; they are still alive and kicking. In developing countries, including those that have already achieved significant levels of development, the appetite for energy is unabated. More than anything, the belief that greater energy use leads to greater economic growth remains so strong that it is obscuring other important issues and sacrificing the global environment for future generations.

A brief look at the events of 1965 and 2015 tells us that the length of fifty years has turned out to be far from sufficient in balancing our needs and desires for energy with the resources and capacity we have. During the same period, we have failed to manage our power demands, which has led to severe damage to the global environment. With the coming of a more rigorous emissions control regime, the problem of managing energy demands will become more acute. In addition, as the Paris meeting highlighted, the fundamental divide between energy haves and have-nots has changed very little in the past fifty years, and this is the situation we have to deal with in the coming decades. Aligning our goals is one thing, aligning our acts and deeds is another, and the latter is usually more difficult. To meet the numerous challenges, several decades are equivalent to but a short space of time. This means that we must equip ourselves with ever-increasing determination and will in order to sprint through the long and rough terrain in the decades to come.

[i] Asahi Journal, 9 January 1966, p.88.

[ii] The Guardian, 11 November 1965.

[iii] The Guardian, 16 November 1965.

[iv] The Guardian, 18 November 1965.

[v] The Guardian, 27 December 1962.

[vi] Economic Commission for Europe, Symposium on Special Problems in Meeting Rapidly-Growing Requirements for Electric Power (UN, 1966).

[vii] Ibid, p. 23.

[viii] Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East, The Role and Application of Electric Power in the Industrialization of Asia and the Far East (UN, 1965). A recent review of the ECAFE’s early history is Ikuto Yamaguchi, ‘The Development and Activities of the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE), 1947–65’, in S. Akita, G. Krozewski and S. Watanabe (eds.), The Transformation of the International Order of Asia (Routledge, 2014).


Dr Hiroki Shin is Co-Investigator of the AHRC-funded ‘Material Cultures of Energy’ project (PI: Prof Frank Trentmann), based at Birkbeck College, University of London.