I was asked during the UNEP Symposium in Philadelphia yesterday how I thought shale gas and ‘tight gas’ projects — which are at an early stage of operation in various parts of the world such as the United States, China  and Argentina — may affect the development of existing renewable energy sources, such as geothermal, biomass, wind, solar, tidal.

There are different dynamics in advanced economies versus emerging economies as each responds to the shale gas opportunity.

In the advanced economies, the values framework for evaluating shale gas tends to emphasize the environment at the expense of economics.  This is the so-called “3 C’s” orientation of carbon and climate change.  Under this framework, shale and tight gas are only somewhat less carbon-intensive in comparison with traditional fossil fuel sources and their extraction entails media-ampliflied but not yet proven environmental risks associated with ‘fracking’ et cetera.

In the developing world, the tendency is instead to focus on economic and energy security benefits — the “3 E’s” of economics and energy exploitation.  From this viewpoint, the positives of shale gas — a relatively cheap and abundant and lower carbon energy source for a country like China — far outweigh negatives of as yet unproven environmental risk.  In any case, under the Chinese framework of development, industrial growth and wealth creation come first, and clean-up from the environmental impacts of fast growth come later.

The hard truth is that these the viewpoints in North America and East Asia should not be so divergent.  In a world of finite resources and global pollution, we can ill afford to be seeing different problems and talking past one another.  The common denominator and linchpin is long-term energy efficiency .  Efficient energy utilization is environmental stewardship at the same time that it is good business and the basis for good economic policy.  Efficient and diversified energy utilization promotes jobs, investment and a sustainable environment.  Neither the advanced world nor the developing world should be sequencing energy and environmental policy or prioritizing between them.  Both the U.S. and China could be pursuing a common approach, based on energy efficiency and designed to yield both economic and environmental benefits simultaneously.

By splitting the difference between the “3 C’s” and the ‘3 E’s” both countries could reframe the challenge as the “3  D’s” of diversified energy sources, dollar-accountability, and developmental sustainability. And by re-framing objectives on a realistic and common basis, strategic efforts such as the U.S.-China Shale Gas Resource Initiative may be able to get better global traction.

In the real world, it’s not shale gas versus renewables.  It’s shale gas and renewables balanced together for economic and environmental sustainability.