In defence of renewables

Huhne is right on climate sceptics and "armchair engineers".

WWF-UK yesterday launched Positive Energy, a report demonstrating that renewable technologies could provide the UK with well over 60 per cent of our electricity needs by 2030; and that we could do this without breaking the bank. The report was welcomed by a wide range of major companies, consumer associations and key commentators. Yet it comes at a time of increased anti-renewable energy sentiment in the media, to the extent that energy secretary Chris Huhne, speaking at the RenewableUK conference today, felt the need to directly rebut the "faultfinders and curmudgeons who hold forth on the impossibility of renewables".

Not only are renewables being blamed as the main reason for energy bill increases, but some outlets are increasingly arguing there is no point in the UK trying to fight climate change: the rest of the world is doing nothing anyway. "Let's focus on shale gas instead", cries the increasingly vocal anti-renewables lobby, claiming that this "wonder gas" will solve all our energy problems. These claims are inaccurate at best, downright disingenuous at worst, and should be seriously challenged.

Saying that renewables are the main driver behind people's bill increases could not be further away from the truth. The wholesale gas price, which rose by 84 per cent between 2004 and 2009, has been the main factor in increasing UK electricity bills by 63 per cent over that same period. Support for renewable technologies has, in contrast, represented only a small fraction of consumer bills to date. Furthermore, the industry is crying out for political certainty to drive costs down, belying the argument that we shouldn't support renewables until their costs drop.

By creating a low-risk environment with clear renewable targets and stable financial support schemes we can reduce the cost of capital, attract companies such as Vestas to invest in renewable energy factories in the UK, incentivise companies to mass produce renewable technologies and increase investment in R&D. All of these are critical to cost reductions -- and to job creation. Look at Germany, which already employs some 367,000 people in its renewable energy industry; something which the UK, which has seen the share of manufacturing per unit of GDP halve in the last 20 years, should surely want to emulate.

On the point that the rest of the world, especially China, is doing nothing to tackle climate change, that again is far from the truth. In terms of investment in renewable energy, the UK -- not even a top-10 world investor -- is playing catch up. According to a recent report from Pew, China is now the world's leading investor and installer of renewable energy, having ploughed over $54bn (£34bn) into renewable energy in 2010 alone;equivalent to the entire world's investment in the sector in 2004.

It's not just compared to China that the UK is lagging behind. Germany and Denmark are already heading towards a 100 per cent renewable electricity future and even Italy and France (well-known for its focus on nuclear) have substantially more renewables than the UK.

Saying that shale gas is the answer to all our energy problems is also fundamentally flawed. Leaving aside the environmental uncertainties around fracking -- such as groundwater contamination and methane gas leakage -- do we really think that relying even more heavily on a single fossil fuel (which already accounts for 80 per cent of our domestic heating and almost half our electricity) is a sensible idea?

Continuing to rely heavily on gas will take the world on a path to at least 3.5C of warming, according to the International Energy Agency. This is almost twice the temperature limit which scientific consensus says we should not exceed if we want to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Unfortunately, climate change seems to have completely dropped out of the current energy debate, which is a tragic oversight. Putting aside the catastrophic environmental and human consequences that climate change could trigger, the cost of adapting to a changing climate will absolutely dwarf any of the costs needed today to decarbonise our power sector.

Nick Molho is Head of Energy Policy at WWF-UK

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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