Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Game of two halves?

The green energy debate is really heating up (please excuse the pun), with both politicians and corporations backing away from earlier commitments to renewable energy schemes. On 26 November, the German energy giant, RWE, announced its plans to stall its 240-turbine Atlantic Array wind farm in the Bristol Channel in the UK. The scheme could have provided hundreds of jobs in the tourism-dependent area, but objectors were concerned about the appearance of the 750 foot high turbines, as well as their possible effects on the delicate marine ecosystems that surround Lundy Island.

This was announced as a commercial decision, and is likely a result of the growing difficulty in getting long-term financing for such large-scale green projects. RWE reportedly said that it was ‘no longer viable’ to continue with the scheme, which would have provided power to around 1 million homes. There is also a change in background political ideology and support, both in the UK and more widely. This follows reports that the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, is now less keen on his previously much-vaunted green image, especially if it means increases to the cost of living.

Meanwhile, I have just come back from a series of meetings in Geneva. At the meetings, many countries were co-operating on schemes to help sustainable communities, with considerable enthusiasm among participants. For example, the Chinese delegation was talking about building eco-cities from scratch, and to the highest standards.

The meetings were held at the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). Here I found a treasure trove of resources about green energy schemes ...and much more. I discovered, among other things, excellent resources from FIDIC (International Federation of Consulting Engineers), Project Sustainability, the TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) Global Community, Green Cross International, a Geneva ‘Sustainable Living’ pack for families, and ‘Our Planet’, the UNEP magazine. All were useful for different parties in the sustainable future.

Whether you need to make an argument, build a business case, find case studies, or devise a tool kit, the materials are all here. There is no shortage of good information. Perhaps the inability to decide on how to proceed with the green energy debate is because there are two groups in the ‘room’, talking amongst themselves and not to each other. Surely, if we are to take such large decisions, we should do so on the basis of the best information available. In this, G24 can make a contribution.

David Jackman

What climate change actually means

Most of us have heard politicians, environmentalists and lobby groups drum on about how bad climate change is, sharing their doomsday prophecies with whoever will listen. But what does climate change mean to the person on the street and how will it affect our lives?

At the beginning of October this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 5th Assessment report was published, in which it stated that in all likelihood, the rate at which the atmosphere is warming up is due to human influence. So we are doing things that increase the rate of atmospheric warming – a global greenhouse effect.

Many of us will shrug our shoulders and say “so what, I could do with a bit of warmer weather anyway”. Experts have speculated that on average, the world’s temperature will increase by about 2ºC. Now this may not seem like much, but the impact this seemingly insignificant increase will have on global weather patterns and ecosystems will be potentially catastrophic.

With global weather patterns changing, we can expect a lot more severe weather. From hurricanes and cyclones through to forest and bush fires; this means a lot more damage to your homes and offices. Most of us will have insurance to pay for the cleaning and fixing up but the insurance companies won’t want to foot this bill for too long, so it will no doubt increase premiums quite substantially. They may even put levies up on storm damage, or add clauses which exclude severe weather from your policy. This is already happening in some parts of the world!

With bad weather comes terrible traffic. From short-term delays through to entire bridges and roads being washed away due to flooding or mudslides, our daily commute may take a lot longer than it does now. There are cases from around the world where people were stuck in days-long traffic jams due to extreme weather.

Our agriculture will also be affected beyond our current comprehension. Although there are some places benefitting from climate change, the majority of the planet is bracing itself for increased droughts and flooding, longer winters and drier summers. This means that we, as a species, are going to have to reconsider the way we farm and manage our land. In the not-too-distant future you may struggle to get the simplest of fruit and vegetables at your local greengrocer or supermarket due to poor growth in these varietals around the world. Can you imagine your salad without a couple of key ingredients?

The point here is not to make you have sleepless nights but merely to inform you that climate change will affect each and every one of us, even if we see a seemingly insignificant global increase of just 2ºC. It may result in an increased commute to work once or twice a year which some of us can handle, but for others, especially those living in poorer nations, the effects of climate change on their land, food and income streams will be devastating.

So play your part in reducing your impact on the planet. This may be a small change, such as taking public transport or cycling to and from the shops or work, or a larger one, such as limiting the number of flights you take annually. We all need to take responsibility for our actions and start paying more attention to how these actions negatively affect the planet.


Energy is back in the spotlight; it's right at the centre of political debate in the UK. Firstly, the Labour party announced that if it was elected in 2015, it would apply a price freeze to energy companies until a more effective regulatory and price- fixing system could be established. Unsurprisingly, energy companies pointed out that such a move would leave them vulnerable to raw material hikes with no prospect of recovering their margins; such risk would blight potential investment.

Now, following concern expressed about recent energy bill increases, former Prime Minister John Major has ‘bounced’ the Government to announce energy price reductions. Interestingly this has included cutting the so-called ‘green tariffs’ built into energy bills. This is an indication that green concerns are slipping down the order and is perhaps a clearer reflection of the political mood, namely one of scepticism over climate change and carbon taxes in a time of economic downturn. Obviously, it is neither comfortable nor desirable to find pensioners having to choose between heating and eating over the winter season; nonetheless, there is apparently a latent reluctance to invest in green energy or a low-carbon economy until it seems absolutely necessary. Nuclear power is back on the agenda as a way forward, even if some new power stations seem to be financed by China and France.

Part of the political reluctance must come from conflicting engineering ‘stories’. Most prominent is that early technologies such as on-shore wind farms are inefficient, even counter-productive, as they contain high amounts of embedded carbon. It is often the case that early –adopters are disadvantaged as technology advances, but that is the way.

There have been a lot of press stories recently; the Financial Times ran a full pull-out section with contributions arguing both ways. But public opinion still seems interested in sustainable options. As always, the devil is in the detail; some quick-fix solutions are dubious in the longer view. But the fundamental course we are on does need to be fairly settled. At the moment we are hesitating, with neither the alternative energy sector nor more traditional energy companies having a clear plan on what to do. This does cause difficulties for investment and planning. We have seen how the Australian government who was ‘brave’ and ‘out there’ in carbon reduction terms has now backtracked. The US is feeling energy secure, buoyed by new reserves and using fracking, OPEC has tightened its grip on prices and production and Russia is similarly increasing output and exploring (openly controversially) the deep arctic.

It seems apparent that energy needs and security are driving ever greater carbon production. What no government can afford is for the ‘lights to go out’. To see a shift in this route will require some real determination, international resolve and perhaps some new science.

David Jackman