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

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.