Show Hide image

The Future of Energy

For the past 200 years human beings have depended on fossil fuels, and this doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon. Despite sustained pressure from environmentalist groups, it looks like gas and oil are here to stay. A few light bulbs may be turned off earlier, a couple of cars might run off electricity, but it is hard to imagine a huge shift in behaviour.

As the economy grows, so do our energy needs. Millions have been taken out of poverty by the economic development that relies directly on greater energy consumption. The energy industry is booming – consumption is expected to double by 2050.

Along with this, it is getting harder to source oil and gas, governments are clamping down on carbon emissions, and the economy is moving towards a different vision of how we feed our systems. The challenge for the world’s leading energy companies is to meet the needs of the economy while dealing with concerns from consumers, communities, environmentalists and politicians.

But there is also a challenge for consumers. Patterns of consumption vary across the planet: the average US citizen uses roughly three times as much energy for personal transport as the average European. Without taking a hairshirt approach, it seems possible to change our habits in order to modify energy use. Yet the way we use energy is tied not only to social factors, but to geography: the size of countries, and the way towns are laid out.

A change is coming but it could be a gradual one. Technologies move fast, but vast and established infrastructure is harder to shift. Solar PV, solar thermal technologies, wind technologies can all grow, but it will be some while before they are truly material at the global scale. Innovation is needed not only in design but in deployment, and will come from collaboration between sectors: between industry, government, academia and NGOs. Local changes take a while to filter through globally, so persistence is as big a challenge as the changes themselves.

Without putting a limit on increasing standards of living in the population, demand will only increase.

Shell Head of Scenarios

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.