Why I want balance on climate change coverage

Debate versus "debate".

I want balance in my reporting on climate change. I need to be exposed to views different to my own, to get the facts required to be able to defend my views when they’re right, or reassess them if they’re wrong.

I want balance between people who say aviation can be made clean, and those who say it is inherently unsustainably polluting.

I want balance between people who say nuclear capacity can be increased in time to aid the short-term cuts to emissions, and those who argue it is too slow and expensive to build.

I want balance between people who view carbon reduction as the only priority for green politics, and those who maintain that it is one problem in many. Between the people who would barrage the Severn for clean energy, and those who would burn dirty fuel to save endangered species.

I want balance between those who think CCS can capture enough carbon to matter, and those who don’t.

I want balance between the technological utopians and the people who argue every facet of our lives will need to change.

I want balance between the photovoltaic cell manufacturers, the wind turbine machinists, the nuclear physicists, and the myriad other sources of carbon-neutral energy.

I want balance between people who argue for 80 per cent reductions by 2050, and those who say that needs to happen 20 years sooner.

With some of these debates, I take sides. With a few, I think the other side is dangerously wrong. But, as much as a might wish otherwise, these are discussions we need to have. 

What I don’t want, or need, is balance between those who argue climate change is a problem, and those who argue it isn’t. Between those who want to do something to stop it, and those who want to save their money and spend it on mopping up the bodies later.

These are not questions on which there is confusion, on which there are strong arguments on both sides where concerted debate is necessary to sort out competing claims. These are questions which are settled, and which have been settled for years. Absent compelling new evidence, there is no point in repeating the historical debates. And that evidence the sort likely to be supplied by climatologists, not Telegraph bloggers -

I have no interest in arguing with these people. I don’t need to hear their viewpoints, or learn ways to rebut them, because I don’t plan on wasting my time talking to them about it in the first place, and doubt they plan on being convinced any time soon. They don’t want debate, they want uncertainty, doubt and, above all, delay. 

So when the BBC is revealed to have consulted a range of voices on guiding its climate coverage, from members of the IEA and CBI, through industry groups like NPower and BP, to organisations like Greenpeace and Tearfund and academics from Oxford, Imperial and Harvard universities, I am cheered. But the fact that they didn't feel the need to hew to false balance, to invite people to rekindle quenched fires for no reason other than their own desire to do so, is even better news.

Are wind farms the best way to cut carbon? Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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