İçeriğe geçmek için "Enter"a basın

An energy crisis, fear of nuclear power, public discontent – 90s Armenia has lessons for the UK

The post-Soviet country found a way through its cataclysmic crises. Rishi Sunak surely can find solutions to Britain’s milder problems


I can relate to Rishi Sunak. Britain’s new Prime Minister has inherited a state of affairs that feels eerily familiar. In 1996, when I became the prime minister of Armenia at the age of 43, my country appeared mortally bruised by a combination of  war, skyrocketing prices, and scarcity of food and fuel. …

The toll of the winters tore at the soul. Yerevan, the Armenian capital known as the “city of lights” because its streets and buildings remained always lit, was plunged into darkness between 1991 and 1995. Trees, revered by Armenians, were felled for fuel. Families cooked meagre meals with wood and children read by candlelight. There wasn’t a flower in sight, hospitals ran on a few hours of power supply, and the cold claimed many lives. 

In the early 1990s whenever I flew home from London — where I was serving as Armenia’s inaugural ambassador to the United Kingdom — all that was visible from the plane was the tarmac. Everything else was pitch black. 

Hardly anyone anticipated such misery. You see, before the Soviet Union’s collapse, Armenia’s energy needs were amply met by the local nuclear and hydropower facilities and cheap gas supplies from Russia. The nuclear plant was closed in response to the public outcry following the devastating earthquake of 1988. It hadn’t been affected, but the people and the authorities thought emotionally, not rationally, taking for granted the gas supplies from Russia. 

Three years later, when the USSR disintegrated, we, the erstwhile citizens of a so-called superpower, lost that lifeline and became wholly dependent on various foreign sources, some of them hostile. Crucial pipelines running through neighbouring Georgia were sabotaged by our adversaries, and a black market for the commodity came into existence at home. 

It took intense diplomatic work in Europe over several years to reopen the nuclear plant. When I became prime minister, there was a profusion of crises that demanded my attention. The government, however, had to prioritise. 

Having learnt the importance of energy security from my difficult negotiations over the nuclear plant, I made the supply of uninterrupted power 24 hours of the day to every Armenian household and business our chief priority. We elevated it to a matter of strategic importance. It took tremendous effort, creative thinking, and even risk because it involved harsh measures against corrupt officials and individuals — but we were able to achieve our goal in a matter of months. 

The British Prime Minister has been bequeathed problems that are testing his country in other ways. But efficiency, sharp management, discipline, and firmness are invaluable everywhere. What is unfolding today, for all the obvious differences, is not so dissimilar from what I had to confront nearly three decades ago. 

A once-in-a-century pandemic gave way to the war in Ukraine, which, in turn, has precipitated what the head of the International Energy Agency last month called “the first truly global energy crisis”. Any hope that the UK might weather its consequences intact was dispelled by the Met Office, which recently forecast a colder than normal winter. If this prediction holds, there will be a surge in demand for heating from consumers and households, and potential blackouts to meet it. 

Britain is a nation of intrepid people and (despite the political drama of the past two months) mostly responsible government. This is why, in addition to the obligations to his own compatriots, the Prime Minister has a duty to set an example for others. 

I say this as someone who has observed Britain closely since arriving in Cambridge as a young scientist in 1984: A Britain flailing under the burden of challenges is not good for the morale of the world. 

In my long years advising governments and energy giants and working on energy security at Davos and the Euro-Atlantic security initiative, I have seen Britain overcome seemingly insuperable hardships. With wise and resolute leadership, it can not only ride out this crisis. It can also, I believe, rouse members of the international community into meaningful action at home and abroad. 

The Government’s foremost priority should be identifying and deploying targeted support for vulnerable people and families most in need. For what we are seeing is the beginning of an emergency, and it is not an exaggeration to say that in some ways the hardships introduced by the energy crisis may exact an even more haunting social price than the pandemic. 

The coronavirus pushed individuals into isolation, where, thanks to the support devised by the then chancellor, it was at least possible to survive and anticipate the arrival of the vaccine. 

In contrast, the energy crisis, by spawning a broader cost of living crisis, will be degrading on a deeper level. Communities, families and individuals will be compelled to economise and make fundamental choices between warming their bodies and starving them. There are credible warnings that children’s health will be put at grave risk by the cold and damp. 

Some businesses are already closing due to soaring energy costs. The hospitality sector, one of the jewels of Britain’s economy, is bracing for a fresh crisis this winter. Inaction will not only cause harm to Britain today but also torment it in the years to come. 

Britain has a stellar record of leading the world. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher transformed this country into a centre of global finance. Today’s Britain has the potential to reinvent itself as a flagship country for the research and development of new forms of energy. Such an endeavour will require an honest reckoning with past choices — such as the decision to close down storage facilities, decommission nuclear fleets, and squander nuclear engineering skills and scientific knowhow —that have hurt Britain without producing compensating benefits.

The lesson is clear: No source of energy — from oil, gas and hydrogen to nuclear, solar and wind — should be rejected if it can help mitigate the current crisis. Fortunately, the government can also draw on the exceptional expertise of those working on energy as it moves forward. Lord (Adair) Turner, chair of the Energy Transitions Commission, is one of the many names that come to mind when I think of Britons who have devoted themselves to producing a responsible roadmap to a cleaner and greener future for the planet. 

In addition to such enviable talent, Britain is home to the world’s leading research institutions that could — let’s be frank — play a leadership role with adequate funding, guidance and incentives. 

The activist clamour to go green tends to be seen as a threat or a nuisance: governments either pander to it or bypass it. It should be welcomed, instead, as evidence of an engaged citizenry. Democracy is an interactive mechanism, however, and the onus of allaying the impression that the transition to clean energy is being delayed for some sinister reason rests on the Government’s shoulders. Yielding to panic and pressure can produce results that are counterproductive: Note that the shortage of gas has prompted power stations around the world to revive their dependency on coal  — an immeasurably dirtier fuel than nuclear. 

Britain is not an outlier in the fight against climate change. King Charles, to cite only one example, has long been a pioneer and a tireless champion of this cause on the international stage. The government should tell Britons that the transition to green energy, while necessary, desirable and unavoidable, cannot happen in an instant. It is a long and tortuous road the country, and the world, have to tread carefully. 

To relinquish reliable sources of energy before alternatives are fully developed and widely available will not accelerate the transition to clean energy. It will paralyse the economy in the present, shrink the government’s options (a poorer government has fewer choices), and hurt the most vulnerable in the society. We can achieve a brighter future only if we can survive the present and figure out exactly where we are headed.

People will endure adversity if they have clarity, and supplying that is the job of the government. Now is the time for Britain to be proactive in aiding the vulnerable, transparent with its people about the immediate challenges, and relentless in encouraging out-of-the-box ideas that may place this country at the head of the march to a carbon-free world. 

Dr Armen Sarkissian, a former professor of theoretical physics and diplomat, served as the 5th Prime Minister and the 4th President of the Republic of Armenia. His book, The Small States Club: How Small States Can Save the World, will be published next summer by Hurst 


İlk yorum yapan siz olun

Bir Cevap Yazın