Back to basics

New technologies are all very well, writes Caspar Henderson, but we have to start by using energy mo

If you are in a canoe heading towards the top of a large waterfall, the first thing to do is stop paddling towards it. Britain is paddling towards the top of a waterfall. Most scientists and governments agree that climate change presents the most serious environmental challenge we face. The UK, with less than 1 per cent of the world's population, produces about 2 per cent of global emissions. It is vital we cut our share. To meet our obligation under the Kyoto Protocol (a 12.5 per cent cut on 1990 levels by 2008-12), emissions need to be falling here by at least 1 per cent a year - and faster than that to meet the government's own target of 20 per cent by 2010. Instead, UK emissions rose by 2.5 per cent in the first six months of 2005, and have risen by around 5.5 per cent since Labour came to power in 1997.

Every form of energy generation - including renewables such as wind, solar and biomass - has environmental impacts. But some are much worse than others. Top of the list for greenhouse gas generation are the fossil fuels coal, oil and gas, in that order. Nuclear power, which emits no greenhouse gas at the point of energy generation, raises environmental and other concerns, including an unsolved waste storage problem, much higher capital costs than fossil-fuel generation, vulnerability to terror attacks and proliferation risks.

But it's not all bad news. There are unprecedented opportunities for the UK to grab the paddles and start moving in the right direction. But it won't happen without action by citizens, intervention by government and market-creating innovation by commercial interests. The challenges are many and complex, but getting to grips with the basics is a start.

Nuclear power stations provide a bit less than a quarter of the country's electricity. Within five years or so, a third of them will have reached the end of their operational lives. The nuclear share of power generation will be about 16 per cent - unless new plants are built or more nuclear-generated electricity is imported from France or elsewhere.

Natural gas is likely to provide 60 per cent of the country's electricity by 2010, up from about 40 per cent today. Gas is a lot cleaner than coal, but its use to replace nuclear generation will still increase our total emissions - unless other measures are taken. What's more, by 2010 the UK will be importing around half of its gas requirements.

Coal is not going to go away. It is too cheap for people to resist. It remains an important part of the country's energy mix, and is even more important in countries with which it trades. Renewable energy, meanwhile, provides about 3 per cent of power today. Government targets raise this share to 10 per cent by 2010 and 20 per cent by 2020, but the way things are going, those targets are going to be very hard to reach.

Transport is by far the fastest-growing form of energy consumption, and aviation, the fastest-growing form of transport, is a particular challenge.

New technologies that generate power more cleanly are essential. But they are not the right place to start framing an agenda for action. The right frame is more intelligent use of energy. Consider an analogy with heart disease. Treatment for the symptoms should not be neglected, but it is more beneficial and cost-effective to work on prevention in the first place by reducing the consumption of harmful substances and improving lifestyles. High and growing energy consumption is like heart disease. Using energy more intelligently deals with root causes and creates more opportunities and wealth. For example, manufacturing efficient lamps and thermally efficient windows requires up to one thousand times less capital than building power plants and grids to provide equivalent utility, and the investment is recovered ten times faster.

According to Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute in the US, a basic misunderstanding skews the debate. It is wrong to see action as costly: "If properly done, climate protection would actually reduce costs, not raise them. Using energy more efficiently offers an economic bonanza - not because of the benefits of stopping global warming, but because saving fossil fuel is a lot cheaper than buying it."

How does this translate on the ground in Britain - or, for that matter, in the air above it? Here are a few pointers.

Central government The rhetoric of the G8 summit in July has yet to deliver. Government has an important role to play in promoting new technologies. It has recognised this with recent initiatives such as partnerships for "clean" coal and carbon capture and storage in China and India. But this is not enough. An energy-intelligent economy is inextricable from the much-trumpeted "knowledge economy" needed to survive in the 21st century, and government needs to make it a basic national priority. The tax system must favour more efficient use of energy, and particular attention should be paid to how the benefits of more intelligent energy use can be realised for people on low incomes.

Business and the investment community In May, the leaders of 13 major UK and international companies wrote to the Prime Minister arguing the need for a step-change in the development of low-carbon goods and services. "To achieve this," they wrote, "we need a strong policy framework that creates a long-term value for carbon emissions reductions and consistently supports and incentivises the development of new technologies." Fine and dandy. But business needs to be held to its pledges, too, and not get away with breaking them. For example, a "sustainable aviation initiative", which pledges to halve emissions per seat kilometre by 2020 must come under sustained independent scrutiny.

Parliament Select committees can do a lot more to examine the options and weed out false positives and government backsliding. Notable among them are the environmental audit and science and technology committees, which have just begun investigating "nuclear versus renewables" and carbon capture and storage respectively. The way the question is put in the first case is not especially helpful, but the committees can provide important learning opportunities for politicians and those who elect them. They and other MPs would do well to look at the July recommendations of the Lords science and technology committee on energy efficiency, which suggest some good markers for progress.

Local government A lot of creative and valuable work is being undertaken at the regional and local level. The London Climate Agency, which promotes energy efficiency and devolved power generation, is a good next step after congestion charging (which has reduced emissions, generated substantial additional funds for public transport and is proving influential worldwide). Climate Neutral Newcastle is another good example of local initiative.

Statutory bodies and agencies and others Increased support for the likes of the Carbon Trust (which works mainly with business) and Energy Saving Trust (which works mainly with consumers) is much needed. Initiatives such as Community Action for Energy from the Centre for Sustainable Energy need to be more widely studied and copied. Some other non-commercial actors, including universities and foundations, are making excellent contributions, including prizes for energy and sustainability technologies such as the Ashden Awards and the St Andrews Prize.

NGOs Stop climate chaos - a campaign launched at the beginning of September by a coalition of big voluntary and pressure groups - marks an important step forward. Like Make Poverty History, it has the resources, breadth and, apparently, determination to maintain pressure over a sustained period and affect public consciousness and behaviour. NGOs are the tiny mice running around under the feet of the raging gorilla that is a high-consumption society. But gorillas can be more sensitive than they appear, and sometimes the smallest creatures make a difference.

Caspar Henderson is a former commissioning editor at openDemocracy.net. His blog is at http://jebin08.blogspot.com