The price of tidal power

When did it become OK to save our wildlife at the expense of everyone else’s?

There’s no joy in it but it’s got to be done. We have to press ahead with harvesting the tidal energy of the River Severn, despite the havoc it is likely to wreak on local wildlife, because these days there is no such thing as local wildlife.

When we talk about living in a globalised world, we don’t usually think about nations sharing wildlife. But we are now getting other people’s fish. Bluefin tuna and anchovies are increasingly common in British waters and no doubt we’ll be getting into fights with foreign fishing fleets about them soon. Elsewhere, species of Japanese coral are migrating northwards. A few weeks ago, Australian scientists issued a report into the ocean biodiversity in their region. Rather shockingly, their tropical fish are moving away – those that aren’t dying off in the rapidly warming water are migrating southwards, following the plankton that are being carried on currents that are rising in strength.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the blame for all this flux lies with global warming. Rising temperatures leave the inhabitants of the ocean no choice but to embrace change. Paradoxically, though, taking measures to combat global warming – such as building the Severn barrage to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels – will also force changes on the natural world. It’s now a question of whether we value our creatures more than everyone else’s.

The Severn provides Britain with a golden opportunity to exploit lunar power. The moon’s pull causes earth’s water to bulge out from the surface and the geometry of the Severn creates a bigger bulge than most. The difference between its high and low tide is the second largest in the world; only Canada’s Bay of Fundy can beat the Severn’s 14-metre pile of water.

Hold that heap of water back until just the right moment and the resulting torrent on release is a renewable source of energy. A Severn barrage would provide enough lunar electricity to power 5 per cent of Britain’s homes, equivalent to three nuclear or gas-fuelled power stations. It would also last three times longer – at least. According to projections, the barrage could operate for over a century, compared to the few decades of lifetime offered by a nuclear plant.

A cross-party group of MPs is backing a campaign for the barrage to be built and David Cameron has recently instructed the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, to look at the proposal. It still might not take off, however. That is because, from a local perspective, it will be an environmental tragedy.

As with any hydroelectric project, holding back the water floods areas that would usually be dry. In the case of the Severn barrage, many of those areas are mudflats designated as sites of special scientific interest: feeding grounds for important bird species. It’s also worth mentioning that forcing the water through electricity-generating turbines at high pressure cannot help but hurt fish populations, too.

No pain, no gain

The consortium looking to build the barrage has come up with a design that, it claims, reduces mudflat loss by 60 per cent and operates at lower pressures, easing the toll on the Severn’s fish. Perhaps there are other mitigation efforts that can be made, such as constructing artificial mudflats at the water’s new edge. Either way, it is hard to see how we can justify holding back the barrage now. We will have to sacrifice some of our cherished natural environment.

As far as carbon-free, sustainable energy generation goes, this is the low-hanging fruit. If we don’t grab it, our continued emissions will have a similar, maybe greater, impact on biodiversity in other places. Yes, it will hurt but when did it become OK to save our wildlife at the expense of everyone else’s?

 

Surfers ride the Severn Bore along the River Severn. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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