4 November 2012

Long on carbon, short on planning

Will the long-awaited energy bill, which is due out this week, mean that the UK finally has an energy policy worth having?

I, for one, would not bet any money on it, having taken due note of Andrew Simms’ article in the Observer: “Every part of our society depends on energy. Yet we don’t have a plan” and the accompanying leader on 21 October.  But there definitely ought to be a sense of urgency in the air – an urgency from the culmination not of months, or even years, but decades of inaction in a country that has taken energy supply for granted due to the geological fortune of North Sea oil and gas.  But this sea-bed fortune has been squandered by a succession of governments. The UK now needs a source of secure and sustainable energy.

Since 2008, two different governments have had the chance to create countless jobs, build a better energy system, ensure Britain has warmer homes in winter and tackle climate change by investing in a “green new deal” but they have failed.  In spite of high prices and climate change targets, there is still a sense in which energy policy is stuck in the mindset that characterised transport and energy policy back in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, the market is over-concentrated, with too few, too large self-interested energy companies that regulators cannot or won’t regulate in the public interest. Second, it is precisely because Britain has failed aggressively to diversify its energy supply, that it remains highly vulnerable to changes in the prices of fossil fuels. 

It cannot be exaggerated how much the fate of transport, farming, households and industry is sewn into the fabric of the energy system. The Government talks the need for a “mix” of fossil fuels and renewables to meet our carbon output targets but it is actually cutting the amount of investment in renewables like solar, wind and tide, while writing a blank cheque in subsidy for the nuclear and gas industries.   Chancellor George Osborne is pushing the so-called “dash for gas” above all else, while the Committee on Climate Change (the government’s official advisor) has warned that extensive use of gas is incompatible with carbon targets and therefore should not be government policy.  Focusing on the two most economically and environmentally expensive forms of energy – nuclear and gas – at a time of austerity proves that the government’s thinking on energy supply is shambolic.  Why is the UK so out-of-step with other countries – like Germany - for instance?

Following the nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, the German government announced a new energy strategy that is nuclear-free, affordable and sustainable. This strategy is based on:
• A fundamental commitment to energy reduction
• Focussed investment to ensure that renewables and energy storage are fit-for-purpose in the 21st century
• Proven bridging technologies such as combined heat and power (CHP)
• A decentralised power supply tailored to regional/local needs
This decision was underscored by courage, vision and commitment. To quote from its report, Germany’s Energy Turnaround – a collective effort for the future:
“Germany must walk down the path of phasing out nuclear power with the courage to try out the new, with confidence in its own strengths and with a fixed procedure in place for monitoring and guiding the process.…Germany could demonstrate to the international community that phasing out nuclear power is the opportunity for a high-performance economy.” 

In contrast, the UK government’s position on our energy future, and nuclear energy in particular, is short-sighted and cavalier. Its determination to secure a new generation of nuclear power stations is undermining our environmental and economic future by:
• compromising the viability of the renewables sector
• increasing the risk of contamination from low-level radiation emissions and from long-term nuclear waste storage
• making us hostage to higher energy bills under the monopoly of the Big Six providers

Yet there is one drastic difference from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Although Margaret Thatcher warned about climate change, then there was still time to turn on the calamitous ship she was steering. Now it is today that we need to effect root and branch reductions in carbon emissions. We must do it today, and for the next nine or ten years, to have any chance of keeping the temperature within anything like reasonable limits. And those years are exactly the years in which any nuclear renaissance would be belching out carbon dioxide most flatulently, as the pilings are driven, the steel forged, the seas dredged for ballast, the concrete poured, the land mined for uranium and the stations erected by monstrous cranes – all done by fossil fuel. Without a watt of electricity to show for it, and without any marked change of direction at all planned by a feckless government.

Look please again at the first bullet point on which the German strategy is based - a fundamental commitment to energy reduction. Lacking that – and sadly there is no genuine sign of it – the government’s energy bill can only be the stuff of bad dreams.

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