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Beware simple answers?

These are times of profound challenges for the energy industry and for climate change policy both in the UK and globally – being able to keep prices low, dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid relying on unstable regions for our energy see

These are times of profound challenges for the energy industry and for climate change policy both in the UK and globally – being able to keep prices low, dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid relying on unstable regions for our energy seems an impossible combination. 

It did not always seem so difficult.  Throughout the 1990s, the UK had the luxury of being an oil and gas exporter.  The shift from coal to gas in electricity generation helped reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions and was perfectly timed to enable the UK to meet its Kyoto commitments, almost effortlessly.  Liberalised markets appeared to be able to deliver cheaper and cleaner electricity. 

Unfortunately, self-sufficiency in oil and gas ended between 2000 and 2010, as oil and gas production in the North Sea declined. Aggressive long-term targets of reducing emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, supported by all major parties, appear challenging or, more likely, implausible. The accepted dominance of market liberalism combined with independent regulation in the electricity sector, for which the UK has long been known a world leader, has been challenged and cross-party support for the existing arrangements has eroded, driven by rising concerns over fuel bills. 

At the international level, the failure of the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009 has left a vacuum and a survey of major emitters offer only a few glimmers of hope.  Emissions in the US have reduced slightly in the face of economic troubles and the boom in shale gas, but US climate policy remains highly dysfunctional driven by sharp partisan divisions and mired in politicized debates over the science. 

Global CO2 emissions rose by 1 billion tons in 2011 and 720 million tons of that increase was from China. Some measures to address climate change have been enacted, but most of these are being done for good domestic reasons, such as developing indigenous industry and reducing ever-growing reliance on foreign sources of not only oil and gas, but also uranium and now coal – China already extracts 3 billion tons of coal a year, but within the last few years it has moved from being self-sufficient to the largest importer of coal in the world. 

For the EU, the current economic downturn (plus generous allocations to industry and built-in ‘hot air’ in the form of excess permits from eastern Europe available because of the collapse of their economies and emissions following the end of the Soviet system) has led to a collapse in the price of permits for CO2 in the EU Emissions Trading System.  Aside from a vanishing carbon price, calls for the EU to take further steps on emissions reduction led by the UK and Denmark have been stymied by internal divisions, with opposition led by eastern European member states. 

Two magic bullets tend to reliably emerge in these debates over how to ‘solve’ these problems – energy efficiency and innovation.  Both are, of course, essential as part of any serious effort to develop new domestic sources or reduce emissions and fuel bills via improvements in energy efficiency.  The dramatic rise in shale gas production in the US as a result of the diffusion of horizontal drilling technologies has halved the price of natural gas and decreased US reliance on foreign sources, but much like North Sea oil and gas for the UK, this offers America a temporary respite for perhaps a decade or two, but does nothing to alter the fundamental challenges.

On energy efficiency there are many ‘good news stories’.  The International Energy Agency, for example, finds that certain countries, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, have been particularly successful at reducing energy intensity by over 1% a year since 1990 because of energy efficiency, but this has been accomplished via an enormous suite of measures ranging from windows in buildings to industrial motors.  And yet, the EU will likely fail to meet its overall energy efficiency target.

Both innovation and efficiency are a combination of many different improvements (some large but mostly small) across numerous sectors and technologies. Most popular claims over both innovation and energy efficiency take little cognizance of the fact that enormous reductions in energy intensity are already built into greenhouse gas emissions projections and simply maintaining existing trends require enormous investments. Technology can deliver solutions, but it will not resolve these problems.

Given the need for tradeoffs, the answers unfortunately lie in the messiness of politics.  It may sound obvious, but the solution to reducing emissions lies in making carbon dioxide, and hence fossil fuels, more expensive.  Energy independence may sound alluring but speaks to a populist and dated desire to control our own resources in a highly globalised world.  Public concerns over higher prices, driven at least in part by the cost of supporting low-carbon options (and energy security), will create pressures on politicians to set aside or at least ease back from their environmental commitments.  Somehow reconciling these three competing objectives of affordability, security and environment will be the single major challenge for energy policy going forward.


Judge Business School

University of Cambridge

The Science & Society Picture Library
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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.