We were naive to think a low-carbon revolution was coming

A long way from the shift.

In recent months, we have seen environmentalists in the UK jittery about policy direction in the government, US Republicans overtly hostile to renewables, the Japanese government abandoning nuclear energy (imports of oil and gas having surged since Fukushima, a trend now likely to continue) and the largest recorded melting of the Arctic ice caps.

All of this seems a long way from the vision of the "third industrial revolution", a concept based on a social enterprise-driven low carbon economy developed by American economist Jeremy Rifkin and enthusiastically endorsed by the European Parliament in May 2007.

"Paradigm shift", an over-used term famously coined by American scientist Thomas Kuhn 60 years ago to explain the progression of scientific thought, is now liberally scattered across all areas of human activity, not least in energy and the environment. But, despite its over-use, Rifkin felt it suited the transformation to a low carbon economy that he saw coming.

In his book, Rifkin argued that all industrial revolutions flow from simultaneous change in communications and energy technologies. We are, he said, on the brink of a third industrial revolution brought about by sophisticated IT, low carbon micro-technologies and breakthroughs in energy storage, which will turn buildings into power stations. He also thought this new paradigm would see a change in control of energy away from centralised, fossil-fuel based structures, which in turn would lead to a move towards new distributed and collaborative models. Europe, not the US, would be the social laboratory for this new revolution, where new energy technology would allow social enterprise to replace pure market principles and to become, in Rifkin’s words, "the dominant sector of the second half of the century".

Colleagues based in a country that depends on Europe for 80 per cent of its oil and gas exports asked me recently about the third industrial revolution. Having seen it apparently driving policy-making at the highest level, they naturally wondered how this was shaping the energy agenda in their biggest export area and what the implications were for their products which were supposedly about to be displaced.

But this is not the same world as 2007 and the third industrial revolution feels much more utopian – even naïve – now than it did back then. Whilst there is a lot that pushes us down the road to decarbonisation, there are some pretty big bumps in the road. It must be a very wide highway as well, because there is a lot of lane-changing going on at the moment.

If the green economy is strengthening, it is not for a single, dominant reason – for example, because policy is uniquely focused on the replacement of the old energy system with an entirely new one or because the sense of urgency on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is any greater than it was five years ago. Instead, there is a complex interaction between global concerns and some much more parochial worries about autonomy (interestingly, a key theme for the US Republicans), resilience and security of supply, as well as cost. It’s a messy landscape and in Europe these are operating at several levels.

Meanwhile, the power base of the energy industry shows little sign of radical change. While there are a lot of initiatives to try and make European cities more sustainable, a reality of buildings as power stations is a long way off. Solar PV, the most reliable current option to make this happen, is having a tough time. New district heating systems (as opposed to the ones that have built up over decades in some European cities) are more paper-based than real, whilst smart grid is just creating plenty of talking shops. The move away from the internal combustion engine is tentative, to say the least, and the transport sector is likely to be dependent on oil-derived products for decades to come, although if the twin problems of vehicle range and recharging can be resolved effectively, electric vehicles could become popular very quickly. Two sectors to watch are aviation, where a lot of research is going into biofuel replacements, and shipping, which uses a particularly dirty form of oil product and needs to clean up its act. However, none of this feels like the third industrial revolution is just around the corner, although to be fair, Rifkin was aiming for somewhere around 2050.

Is this what the time before a paradigm shift feels like? Before every tipping point there is an age of uncertainty where few, if any, can predict with certainty the timing of change or the new world order that will emerge. Decarbonisation is inevitable – fossil fuels are finite – but the chances of it happening quickly enough to prevent major climate change are looking increasingly slim; so the world is going to have to adapt to the consequences.

In the meantime, European economies will still demand a lot of carbon-based fuel for decades to come. Oil and gas exporting countries with viable reserves probably don’t need to worry just yet. It’s more a question of how countries with hugely valuable but finite reserves should put something aside for their fossil-fuel retirement, as Norway and Qatar appear to be doing so successfully.

Nathan Goode is the Head of Energy, Environment and Sustainability at Grant Thornton UK LLP.

Photograph: Getty Images

Nathan Goode is the Head of Energy, Environment and Sustainability at Grant Thornton UK LLP

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

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