Now is not a good time to be a climate change campaigner. Concern about our legacy to future generations has given way to more immediate concerns about economic growth and high energy bills.
However persuasive the facts, those of us engaged in the issue are in danger of losing the argument in the face of implacable nimbyism and the seemingly impossible: mainstream denial of incontrovertible scientific facts.
The current depressing political debate masks a hopeful fact, though. The UK, at least on paper, remains on the path to decarbonising its economy by 2050. Amid the political and media in-fighting, it’s easy to lose sight of why it is so important for government to stay the course. How should climate NGOs ensure the bigger picture of reducing our levels of polluting greenhouse gasses isn’t forgotten?
First, some policy background. The UK’s strategic energy and climate interests can be best viewed through the energy “trilemma”, the need to balance the triple objectives of security of supply, affordability for the public and the need to fulfil the UK’s international obligation to reduce polluting greenhouse gasses. This trilemma is set against the backdrop of the UK’s own commitment to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by at least 80% before 2050.
At a time of soaring energy costs, is this policy in the public interest? Put bluntly, yes. The UK’s dwindling domestic fossil fuel reserves have increased our dependency on an increasingly volatile world energy market. This is relevant to the first two parts of our trilemma. Not only has our increased exposure to the world market been one of the leading factors in the increase in energy bills increase over recent years, but much of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves are to be found on countries upon which we ought not to become too reliant. Energy diversification is in our strategic interest.
The third part, the dangers of climate change, are underlined by the latest report by the United Nation’s (UN) International Panel on Climate Change, which should leave any remaining doubters certain that that human activity is the cause of climate change, and that if we do not change course the effects over the coming century will be disastrous.
But diversifying our energy supply means taking some tough decisions – something the Government has not always been as keen to do as it claims. Over time and under pressure, the messaging has become mixed and public concern has increased.
Local people are particularly vocal on the subject of localised energy production, with the big targets being onshore wind turbines and drilling for shale gas. Tellingly, the government’s reaction has been very different in each case.
Prompted by vocal minorities in their constituencies, a large number of Conservative MPs have been quick to express concerns about onshore wind. In 2012, over 100 Conservative MPs wrote to the Prime Minister demanding that subsides for wind energy be cut. In contrast the reaction to public concern about shale gas could hardly be starker. Massive public demonstrations in the Sussex village of Balcome were widely dismissed by Conservatives, including by the local MP, Francis Maude, who described the intensity of the protests are “a little premature”. In their eagerness to address concerns about a looming energy crunch and the lights going out, there has been a clear “dash for gas” by the Conservatives.
The contrast in approach belies a more concerning dynamic at the government level. As the Sectary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Davey, tries to keep the UK’s strategy on course, rightly aware that no one facet of the energy trilemma is independent from the others. The Chancellor, George Osborne, seems determined to undermine this balanced long term approach. Publicly pushing for shale gas – in the mistaken belief the effects will be the same as those in the USA, i.e. cheap gas and energy independence – and even moving to water down the UK’s climate targets. This does nothing to bring the public on-board.
It seems inescapable that in the future increasing numbers of people will live close to the source of energy they consume, be it renewables or shale gas. The impact of this changing energy landscape won’t be easy. People won’t sit quietly amid media hysteria about our green and pleasant land being covered in windmills or shaken by drilling rigs. Genuine concerns needs to be met with sincerity from the government, regardless of the technology in question. Local communities need to be assured that rules are in place to protect them, and that they will be compensated for any disruption.
The truth is that the future of energy in the UK is going to be diverse, and for our medium term energy security we may well need a whole range of technologies, but hitting our longer term climate targets will remain vital.
And what of climate NGOs? Well, we have a responsibility too. We need to make sure the government approaches the energy trilemma in a balanced and transparent way. We need to ensure the long term goal of decarbonisation is kept in focus. In doing so we must invoke both the scientific consensus on climate change and the economic and political imperatives driving us towards home grown clean energy. The road to a low carbon future is going to be long and fraught, and the climate movement must not allow the government to forget why we are on this path, let alone divert from it.