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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.