Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Energy Crisis

There seems to be a chill wind blowing these last few days - one which I cannot seem to inure myself against. I've mulled over how to blog for a few days now, and decided that although my focus is predominantly on the positive, sometimes it's impossible to ignore those moments where progress seems for whatever reason to have stalled.

Last week's Energy and Planning White Papers gave no cause for joy. Indeed, consisting mainly of reiteration of this government's current positioning, they seem to pose more questions than offer solutions. What could have been a prime opportunity to demonstrate leadership in taking steps to addressing our pending energy crisis was effectively sidestepped. Now with 17 EU countries adopting feed-in tariffs to kick-start their markets for microgeneration, we - a country that is just about to enter into net-import of our energy supplies - still refuses to give any form of assistance. Ah, there is one exception. The grand gesture of a one-off supplemental payment of £12 million under the Low Carbon Buildings Scheme - which will doubtless be fully utilised within a week, if earlier applications are anything to go by. Indeed, the largest PV company in the UK is currently looking at laying off staff. And this is a country that, as David Miliband stated this weekend at the Hay Literary Festival, subsidises it's transport sector (read: road expansion) to the tune of £80 million a week. Yes, that's £80 million a week. That's over £4 billion per annum. Mr Miliband, you yourself stated three times that we must take heed of Stern's advice - that to invest in prevention of climate change will be less costly to address now than later. So, Mr Miliband, it begs the question: where is the Climate Change Prevention Pot? There seems to be no evidence of any finances being set aside (or indeed distributed) to assist people in their transition from a fuel based economy to a low carbon economy and controlled energy descent.

There are two good reasons that this needs addressing now. One is that peak oil is about to sweep the world into an energy deficit within a matter of but a few years. The second, equally valid reason is that if we continue to hungrily devour our remaining fossil fuels until they are exhausted we have virtually no chance of retaining our greenhouse emissions at 450ppm - and thus leave ourselves at extremely high risk of runaway climate change.

Nuclear is still on the agenda as a solution in the UK, which is no panacea. After all, Nuclear energy in the UK amounts to but a mere 3.6% of our energy supplies. Even with 100% increase in efficiency, and the first of the new generation being rolled out in 2016 at the earliest, it's going to be a matter of too little too late. With energy deficits of 3 - 5% annually from possibly as early as 2010, this seems at best an ill-thought out plan. It's been calculated that for every £1 invested in renewables equates to £7 investment in Nuclear for the same amount of energy (remember - this is a government that says it will not subsidise Nuclear but will leave it up to market forces. So, who exactly is going to back such an expensive and dangerous venture?). The figures do not add up, especially when other long-term global solutions exist, such as Concentrating Solar Power which would supplement and complement large scale renewable projects as well as decentralised solutions such as microgeneration. This government talks about there being no one solution (true) but it is doing very little to give support to any but the one solution that is the least attractive of all. There is of course Russia - they could give us oil, coal, gas, uranium. All those juicy carbon emitters - and all from a country that all too recently proved it was perfectly capable of flexing it's muscles and turning off the tap whenever suits. Problem is, there is no coherent national strategy, no demonstration of a viable energy policy - at a time when governmental leadership is not just a political but a a moral imperative.

David Strahan, in his thoroughly researched and thoroughly readable book The Last Oil Shock poses the most pertinent of conundrums. Running out of oil should at least be good for climate change, you might think - but the reverse could be true. A growing shortfall of global oil production is likely to send the crude price skywards, and a mad dash to fill the gap could bring even higher carbon emitting alternatives. Strahan examines the most up-to-date evidence, presents the hard facts and proffers some potential future scenarios. Read it and decide for yourself.

The mood of environmentalists has changed. George Monbiot also spoke at Hay, and there was a sense of exigency, a darker tonality that I had not detected before. He was to speak on Solutions, but changed his content on the day. He warned of his concern about our pending energy crisis. His request was for us to become active citizens. Action that is lacking from the top - from our government - must come from the people now. He urges us all to go demand from our MP's that strong action be taken. Time to prepare for our future is now - and we need our government (and all governments) more than ever to help set out a clear road map to navigate the stormy times ahead.

* David Strahan, The Last Oil Shock, 2007, published by John Murray Ltd
* Interactive Oil Depletion Atlas
* What Stern Really Got Wrong, David Strahan, Prospect, May 16th 2007
* George Monbiot, Comment is Free: Our blind faith in oil growth could bring the economy crashing down

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