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Are we closing off technology options for a low carbon future?

Mike Stephenson, British Geological Survey


In a now famous article in the journal Science, Pacala and Socolow introduced the scientific world to the concept of ‘stabilization wedges’. These are units by which we could measure the amount of effort we’ll need to tackle global warming - while still keeping the lights on. Several of these wedges are needed to get from the ruinous ‘business as usual’ high-CO2 emissions scenario to one where we might reduce global warming to a manageable level.

One of Pacala and Socolow’s wedges consisted of converting coal power plants to gas - in other words to make gas the provider of electricity baseload, rather than coal. They said that to achieve a ‘wedge of carbon abatement’ you could switch 1400 GW worth of 50%-efficient coal plants to gas power stations. This suggestion was rather far-sighted in that it predicted today’s discussions about the potential for natural gas - and particularly shale gas - to provide a lower carbon fossil fuel alternative. Switching from coal to natural gas saves carbon because burning gas in power stations is about half as CO2-polluting as burning coal.


But another wedge they suggested was to introduce widespread carbon capture and storage (CCS) on gas and coal power stations. This is where the CO2 from the power stations is buried out of harm’s way deep in geological formations. CCS has been taken up as Government policy in several countries (for example in Britain), though no large-scale CCS yet operates here. A third suggested wedge was to double the amount of global nuclear power.


But is gas - whether conventional gas or shale gas - really a low carbon fuel? At the moment this question is difficult to answer. There have been relatively few studies and the ones that have been published have been challenged. A recent report for the European Commission (AEA Technology, Climate Impact of Potential Shale Gas Production in the EU) concludes that shale gas compares rather favourably in terms of its overall carbon footprint with conventional gas, particularly if the shale gas is ‘home grown’ and is competing with conventional gas that is imported. This is because of the emissions related to transporting and liquefying imported gas. The effects of substituting gas for coal in countries whose electricity supply is dominated by coal power stations can be radical. For example if Poland switched from coal to gas a 41-49% reduction in CO2 emissions would result. If carbon capture and storage was employed on such gas power stations the emissions would drop even further.


However the chance to develop shale gas and other low carbon wedges is being jeopardised not by their technical feasibility but by their image amongst the public and investors.


The public dialogue on shale gas is becoming increasingly hysterical and irrational. Recent views of shale gas suggest that Blackpool might disappear beneath the Irish Sea because of fracking, or that the Mendips Hills will become volcanoes. Neither of these have any scientific basis.  There are also widespread though less extreme views about the safety of CCS and geological disposal of nuclear waste. Views like these diffuse into the general discourse and become the currency of discussion, lowering the quality of the debate and risking bad decisions and faulty policy. This is not to say that there aren’t scientific concerns about for example methane contamination of water supplies or small earthquakes caused by fracking. But the proper business of science in deciding whether gas (methane or CO2) might leak out of the ground is distracted by ridiculous questions that don’t need answering.


But if these geo-engineering wedge technologies aren’t seen as feasible it will be harder and more expensive to achieve the emissions targets we’ve set - and other ‘wedges’ will have to take the strain. In short we may lose technologies that could act as bridges to a lower carbon future.


Most geologists and technologists are confident that shale gas, CCS and nuclear waste disposal can be done safely, and the weight of scientific evidence in these new areas backs these views up. But the science still needs to be seen to be independent and peer-reviewed and it needs to be communicated! Scientists are not naive enough to believe that the results of scientific experiments enter the public consciousness, but their conclusions can, by slow diffusion, improve the quality of public and policy debate so that the right decisions can be made. The public and policy makers, in turn, need to know that science can be rather a slow process, and that single studies may yield ambiguous results. Also they should know that the spectacle of seeing scientists disagree and argue is a sign of progress, not a basis to distrust them.


Having the public (and investor community) on the side of low carbon geo-engineering technologies will help to keep our technology options open. Improving the quality of public debate is helped by doing the right science at the right time, keeping it independent, and communicating it well. This will help to keep the lights on while also meeting emissions targets and keeping global warming at bay.

Head of Science and Energy at the British Geological Survey

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.