While the Government delays, cities are taking radical steps to cut carbon

Cities are where the biggest experiments can take place; look to them to see the future of the UK.

Our cities are the R&D facility for the country. From 4G rollout to community energy, they let us experiment with what’s possible. This is useful, because we’ve just agreed to change everything. The recent Energy Bill accepts how inevitable a low carbon future is for the UK. It also guarantees the money to deliver it on time – all we have to do now is actually do it.

Of course, some don’t seem to realise this. Some ministers hang desperately onto a gas over renewables strategy, like a hipster to a mini disc player, convinced its time will come again. No evidence will dissuade them back into reality. This wouldn’t be a problem, but the indecision and delay they introduce makes it harder to ensure that the UK will get the maximum benefit from a low carbon future – to own the patents, build the factories and get exporting to the others following behind. Luckily, we don’t need to wait for national government to get its story straight, because our cities are set to leap ahead.

A city has traditionally been something that demands a lot from a country and gives back money and jobs. London has around the same working population as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland put together, and so it soaks up more electricity than any of those nations. Without freight coming in from the rest of the world, it would run out of food in four days. Sure, cities pay for this stuff, but it’s the rest of the country that has put up with its infrastructure: the power stations, water reservoirs, and industrial waste facilities all put into the countryside to serve the cities. However, this is changing.

The density of the population and the buildings make for a unique testing ground for the new kind of infrastructure we’re developing - the low carbon, resource efficient approaches to heating and power generation, transport and waste management. They all work best if done where the demand is greatest, and that means at the city scale.

This is what Green Alliance’s new report argues – cities are morphing themselves and what they do ahead of the rest of the country and they are well placed to get the economic reward for doing so. The recent city deals process, initiated by the Cabinet Office transfers new powers, control over funding and approaches to financing to the cities. The first eight cities have thought about what this means to reverse employment trends and attract inward investment which is why most have used their deals to grow their low carbon economy.

Newcastle is going for £0.5bn of investment in offshore energy, bringing eight thousand jobs. Liverpool plans to accelerate £100m in wind and offshore energy, bringing three thousand jobs to the area. Manchester is using its ambitious emissions reduction targets to attract an additional £1.4bn into the UK’s economy and Birmingham has secured a £3m injection to its housing retrofit programme.

Many of these projects, which are central to how our country will work in the future, are already real in the cities. London will have 1,300 different electric vehicle charging points by next year and, in the capital, a Prius seems a more common sight that an Escort. Islington is rolling out council-owned Combined Heat and Power to 700 homes, a power station set up not miles away, but amongst the people that will benefit, protecting them from soaring bills. Meanwhile, Birmingham council is doing the same, trying to reduce the energy it imports every year at a cost of £1.5bn and replace it with energy they make themselves. In the centre of the city, on Broad Street, Birmingham’s CHP serves the ICC, the town hall, the new library and local hotels and theatres. Nottingham too, aims to double its district heating network in five years.

This is where the future is happening. It proves that green infrastructure is the model that keeps costs down for the public and profits up for businesses. All we need now is for Westminster government to realise this. As it plans a big push on renewing our national infrastructure, it should learn from and work with our cities, who are demonstrating that a modern, sustainable approach, employing ideas that reduce energy, reuse waste and simplify our public transport, will bring the biggest rewards.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.