01 Sep 2015, 16:06
President Barack Obama is, by any impartial measure, an extremely intelligent man. The White House is also staffed by extremely intelligent people and as one of the most financially successful companies on the planet Shell has a similarly enviable brains trust. All of which makes the staggeringly dumb decisions to seek and allow permission to drill for oil in the Arctic so difficult to understand.
Shell's rationale is at least consistent with its long-standing and long-flawed arguments about the continuing need for high cost fossil fuel exploration even as the world commits to decarbonisation. The company reckons we need oil long into the future, it reckons the price will rebound to a level that makes high cost Arctic oil commercially viable, it reckons it can extract the oil without serious accidents, despite a far from spotless safety record, it reckons it has a duty to its shareholders to try and open up new oil reserves in the far north, and it is clearly sceptical about the ability of policymakers and clean tech rivals to deny it a long term market. It goes without saying that, regardless of protestations to the contrary, it is also intensely relaxed about the implications for the climate of its actions.
That explains Shell's logic-defying group think, but what of the enabling short-sightedness at the White House? How did an administration that has sought to make action on climate change the defining achievement of the second half of its second term end up approving the world's most controversial fossil fuel project at the same time as defying Congress to force through sweeping emission reduction rules?
Obama and his team attempted to explain their thinking ahead of this week's Presidential visit to Alaska, defending the strength of the regulations Shell has to comply with and declaring "our economy still has to rely on oil and gas - as long as that's the case, I believe we should rely more on domestic production than on foreign imports". The problem is the argument in favour of continued domestic oil and gas production while the US and other countries decarbonise just about works for shale gas and oil, or perhaps even drilling off the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. But it simply does not fly when attached to some of the most expensive drilling the world has ever seen in one of the most hostile pristine habitats on Earth, just as it doesn't work for massively carbon intensive tar sands and their enabling pipeline infrastructure.
Moreover, Obama is politically savvy enough to know that this argument invites completely justified charges of hypocrisy when delivered days before a high profile speech warning there is such a thing as being too late when acting on climate change. If he wasn't, Hillary Clinton last month gave him a useful reminder, tapping into both public opinion and environmental logic by declaring drilling in the Arctic was not worth the risk.
The reality is there are debates to be had over the pace and scale of the transformation the fossil fuel industry needs to undertake to ensure dangerous levels of climate change are avoided. For example, will carbon capture technology allow some continued gas and coal development in the second half of the century? Does a coal to gas switch justify gas exploration for several more decades? And does the necessarily gradual nature of the transition away from fossil fuels make continued exploration for oil reserves in low cost production areas justifiable?
But, as Carbon Tracker's excellent and still largely unchallenged analysis shows, there are no such questions around Arctic exploration and tar sands. As long as you accept the world needs to decarbonise in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change, these projects make little sense as either investment proposition or climate-compatible means of securing energy supplies. You simply can't burn it all, and the most carbon intensive and high risk reserves should be the first to be declared off limits. President Obama not only surely understands this, he has made meaningful action on climate change the defining task of his second term. All of which makes his approval of Shell's Arctic exploration even harder to understand.
So what is happening here? The only explanation can be provided by our old friends entrenched thinking, vested interests, and political trade-offs/triangulation/cowardice (delete as appropriate).
The Obama administration intellectually understands certain types of domestic fossil fuel production are not compatible with the need to keep temperature increases below 2C, but it has allowed concerns about jobs, dubious arguments about energy security, and an institutional willingness to keep the traditional energy industry onside to temporarily override this knowledge. Charges of hypocrisy are completely justified, particularly when Obama appears so committed to tackling climate change the rest of the time.
However, Obama is not alone in adopting such an inconsistent stance. Countless governments, businesses, and, indeed, all of the rest of us, do the same thing all the time. In an economy that is still largely powered by fossil fuels, it is hard not to be a hypocrite.
In almost all discussions of climate change there is a very human tendency that focuses on the good side of the necessary low carbon economic transition - the exciting clean technologies, the energy bill savings, the jobs created - and downplays the bad side - the industries retired, the investments required, the jobs lost. This is understandable, particularly when you consider the benefits of a green economy will almost always outweigh the costs. But a failure to engage openly and honestly with those costs that do exist leaves too many political and business leaders in a position where they feel unable to deliver some of the more challenging parts of the transition. Too many politicians and CEOs are happy to lap up the positive headlines about clean technologies and green policies, while ignoring the logical implications of the low carbon transition for incumbent polluting industries. They are guilty of focusing on the fun and (relatively) easy stuff and hoping the really tough part of the transition solves itself. From whaling to Welsh coal mining, it is as if we have learnt nothing from how best to manage the structural decline of previous industrial success stories.
Obama could and should have declared that drilling in the Arctic was simply not compatible with his wider commitment to curbing carbon emissions. He could and should have said he understood there was a price attached to this decision and the US would now have to work even harder to accelerate its clean energy transition and bolster its energy security by maximising output from the fossil fuel reserves it already has. He could and should have said he would seek to create new jobs in Alaska through alternative and sustainable investments. And he could and should have deployed the same arguments to reject the Keystone XL pipeline once and for all.
Instead, he attempted to triangulate his way out of a difficult decision, only to see his legacy on climate change tarnished and his soaring rhetoric on the need to build a cleaner economy grounded by a grubby commitment to outdated and reckless fossil fuel exploration.
Obama's ledger on climate action is still just about in credit, thanks to his willingness to take on coal in a manner that he has shied away from when it comes to Arctic oil. But the need for a consistent approach to climate change and an honest appraisal of the true cost of decarbonisation for incumbent industries has never been more aptly illustrated. It might be a difficult political and commercial balancing act to pull off, but failure to acknowledge the full policy and investment implications of decarbonisation for incumbent polluting industries simply results in intelligent people being forced into making dumb decisions.
27 Aug 2015, 17:02
What will you do with the £6 the government is proposing to save you in 2020 by eviscerating the UK's most popular renewable energy scheme? What about the £1 the proposed reforms will shave off the average household electricity bill next year? What will you do with your 0.2 per cent saving? Don't spend it all at once.
These are, of course, slightly facetious questions. The government does need to take steps to cut spending on renewable energy subsidies given its Levy Control Framework (LCF) spending cap looks set to be breached by a cool £1.5bn by 2020, a scenario that would lead to significantly more upward pressure on bills than the nominal £6 the latest reforms are designed to save. Fuel poverty remains a serious problem and even if bills are falling currently, there is a compelling case for getting spending on green levies on a much tighter rein.
However, the point implied by my opening questions stands; we are talking about a vanishingly small amount of money in the grand scheme of things. And it is a sum that the US, China, Germany and many others are more than willing to invest in the pursuit of a modern, sustainable, healthy, and clean energy system. Thousands of jobs are likely to be lost, emissions savings will go begging, an innovative and modern industry that is close to being able to operate without subsidy will be badly damaged, and all for what amounts to a rounding error in both national and household accounts.
It is also worth noting the putative £6 per household saving is based on the government's old trick of comparing the impact of its proposals with a 'do nothing' scenario, when no one in the renewables industry was expecting or advocating for the status quo to continue. Most within the renewables industry accept cuts are needed and justified. The solar sector has set out plans for withdrawing subsidies gradually in a way that allows it to become virtually subsidy free this decade. Set the latest projected savings against a scenario where the government cuts tariffs in a more gradual way and the expected £6 saving delivered by its scorched earth approach would be more modest still.
There are two big over-arching flaws in the government's latest attack on the clean energy sector, one practical, the other structural.
The first is the same problem that has befallen any attempt to reform the feed-in tariff in recent years. The announcement of prospective cuts triggers an inevitable boom and bust cycle where people rush to take advantage of the higher tariffs before they are cut. The fatal flaw in the scheme's design remains as pronounced as ever. Maf Smith of RenewableUK today warned the government risks turning "the British energy market into a wild-west market". No one would be that surprised if the government ends up making good on its thinly veiled threat to effectively close the feed-in tariff next year if a surge in new installations burns through the budget.
The microgeneration market is being made to pay for the previous government's over-generous dishing out of contracts to large clean energy infrastructure projects and previous mismanagement of the feed-in tariff scheme (and the industry has pointed out once again that it as calling on Ministers to tackle the initial solar deployment surge back in 2012 a full six months before they acted in a rushed manner that fell foul of the courts).
As long as the government continues to refuse to make use of the headroom in the LCF spending cap, there is no simple way to resolve this problem. It is an inherent flaw, baked into the feed-in tariff, which means solar firms that have been told repeatedly by Ministers that they are crucial to the UK's decarbonisation efforts and a vital part of a new decentralised energy vision have been condemned to years of boom and bust cycles and policy instability. That being said, it remains as clear as ever that a more measured reduction in tariffs would ease the risk of another sharp contraction in the market while minimising the impact on bills.
The second, and many ways more important, flaw in the government's proposal is the way it fits into a clean energy strategy that looks like it is about to collapse under the weight of its logical inconsistencies.
The feed-in tariff is not universally popular. There are compelling arguments in its favour to be found in the way it has helped trigger a drastic reduction in solar energy costs the pace of which is yet to be emulated by any other clean energy technology, the manner in which it has helped make clean technologies a visible and popular part of everyday life, and its potential for challenging the incumbent power of centralised utilities. You can justify feed-in tariff mechanisms as a means of seeding a market that can relatively quickly start to stand on its own two feet, as appears to be happening in other countries and as the UK industry insists is on the verge of happening here. This justification becomes stronger still if you buy the vision that energy storage and smart grid technologies are poised to make cost effective distributed power a workable reality.
But none of that can take away from the fact feed-in tariffs are expensive - manufacturers' association EEF claimed today it delivered carbon cuts at a rate of £380/tonne last year - and the system of paying for them through a levy on bills is regressive. Moreover, some experts fear that the absence of competitive auctions can result in some companies becoming inefficiently reliant on subsidies.
So, leaving aside the democratically questionable manner in which the Conservatives have once again launched proposals that promise to deal a serious blow to hundreds of green businesses just weeks after they failed to make even a passing appearance in their election manifesto, there is a case for scaling back or even axing the feed-in tariff - a case ministers could have made themselves if they had deigned to accompany this consultation with a statement.
But here is the problem for a government that is supposedly fully committed to the decarbonisation of the British economy, if you kill off the feed-in tariff and risk taking the microgeneration and distributed energy market down with it what do you replace it with?
The government's own impact assessment says its proposed changes will lead to over 6GW of anticipated renewables capacity and 1.59MT of carbon dioxide savings not being realised by 2020/21. Where are these carbon savings and the promised clean power capacity boost now going to come from? The nuclear project that is still waiting for an investment decision and will deliver power at a strike price considerably higher than either onshore wind and solar power? The CCS demonstration project that has been waiting six years for a promised funding award? The national energy efficiency programmes that have just been killed? Will they come from the big clean energy infrastructure projects that the government has just delayed by postponing the next wave of price support contracts? Or perhaps the answer lies in the fracking projects and gas plants that will supposedly push coal off the grid, but which the government can't get through the planning system and which it still needs to subsidise through a capacity mechanism?
The government urgently needs to provide a credible answer to these questions, because without them the prospect of a £6 windfall in return for a neutered renewables industry will look like an even worse deal than it does at the moment.
24 Aug 2015, 12:30
Back in 2012, I reported on a conference in the US where various entrepreneurs and investors from the US clean tech community were instructed by a MacArthur Genius Award winning scientist to celebrate their "awesomeness". Dr Saul Griffith's call to arms was both timely and justified. In urging clean tech firms to "make the future awesome again" he identified the sector's continuing reticence in promoting some of the most exciting technologies ever invented and highlighted the crucial importance of a little cheerleading in any technological transition.
Since then, things have got a little better. The world's most exciting entrepreneur teamed up with one of the world's most innovative inventers and one of the world's best salespeople - which was easy for them as they are all called Elon Musk and are and the same person - and the result was an electric car that was as desirable as it is environmentally friendly. Solar cells and smart meters have become sleekly-designed, desirable products and most green product advertising campaigners no longer look as if companies are trying to sell mung beans to hippies. Real world clean tech innovation now takes in everything from race cars to toilets, and as a result positive headlines have followed.
And yet, for too many clean technologies the cultural cringe remains. Exciting and inspiring clean tech products still fail to command the media attention and column inches reserved for every single pharmaceutical breakthrough and automotive innovation, no matter how marginal. Staggeringly dull marginal improvements in consumer gadgets are treated like the Second Coming just occurred, only with 4G connectivity and a slightly bigger screen. Meanwhile, potentially planet-shaping clean tech innovations are launched with barely a murmur.
At the risk of national stereotyping, the problem is particularly acute in the UK, where entrepreneurs and engineers brought up far from the self-promotional zeal of US capitalism are all too often guilty of under-selling and under-valuing remarkable technologies. The UK's innovation community is almost unrecognisable from what it once was, with hubs as diverse as those in Silicon Roundabout, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Bristol, and the 'Northern Powerhouse' creating ever more vibrant communities of entrepreneurs and technologists. But there is still a considerable way to go if the clean tech sector is to get both the props and the success it deserves.
That is why today we are launching the BusinessGreen Technology Awards. We are lucky to have both a platform and an audience of hundreds of thousands of readers a month, and we want to use it to help promote the best and the brightest of the clean technology community operating in the UK.
Because it is not as if there is a paucity of great technologies out there.
At the BusinessGreen Leaders Awards each year the Innovation of the Year category is far and away the most over-subscribed - this year around 40 genuinely impressive technological breakthroughs failed to make the shortlist. The Small Business of the Year category is the second most oversubscribed with many more early stage green technology firms clamouring for recognition.
Beyond that the technology community is awash with remarkably exciting green innovations, few of which get the public profile they deserve. We have everything from electric superbikes and hydrogen fuelled smart phones to super powerful magnets and transparent solar glass, not to mention George Osborne's beloved graphene. These technologies and hundreds more like them deserve to be celebrated and rewarded for both their innovation and the commitment to tackling some of the world's most intractable environmental challenges.
Politicians and business leaders of all stripes are united in recognising that the success or failure of our efforts to tackle climate change hinge on our ability to develop and harness a new generation of clean technology. Yet all too often those developing these technologies are denied the kudos and public profile of those working on far less pressing technological challenges.
In its own small way the BusinessGreen Technology Awards aims to help right that wrong, in properly celebrating and promoting some of the most exciting, the most vibrant, and the most important technologies on the planet. We hope you will join us.
20 Aug 2015, 14:06
Environmental policies have a strange habit of providing an insight into the true nature of a political party. Perhaps it is the requirement to think long term and demonstrate some understanding of the limits of conventional economic thinking. Or perhaps it is simply the way they reveal how politicians behave when faced with issues voters inherently care about but tend not to make a massive fuss over at the ballot box. Either way, you can tell a lot about the health and character of a political movement by looking at how it deals with environmental challenges.
This has been particularly true in recent months, when the detail-light energy and climate change part of the Conservative manifesto boiled down to a patrician plea to "trust us, we know best", which was immediately followed by the unleashing of a surprise series of controversial green policy moves and, worst still, a blatant breach of the promise to pursue rail electrification across the North of England. Ministers maintain they are fully committed to building a modern sustainable economy and they may yet deliver on their promise. But the brutal manner in which they cleared the decks for their promised cost-effective decarbonisation strategy tells you as much about the Conservative approach to government as George Osborne's willingness to announce the detail of deep welfare cuts just weeks after refusing to tell the electorate that very same detail. Politically savvy, arguably well-intentioned and pragmatic, but laced with a certain arrogance that is all too easily interpreted as a disregard for democratic niceties and those who suffer in the accompanying fall out.
The same is true of the Labour leadership candidates whose belated pronouncements on the environment have offered an equally invaluable insight into their strengths and continuing weaknesses.
First, the good news: after a slow start during which they largely ignored the biggest long term challenge facing the UK, each of the candidates have sketched out their position on the environment, climate change, and the green economy, confirming they are committed to decarbonisation and low carbon investment. If the Conservatives deliver on their promise to produce a credible decarbonisation plan the broad political consensus on climate action will remain; if they don't the opposition will at least attempt to hold them to account whoever emerges as leader.
However, encouraging green comments from each of the candidates are tempered by the flaws that have all too visibly hampered their campaigns and threaten to leave the political stage free for a Conservative government with a wafer thin majority to do pretty much exactly what it likes.
Liz Kendall has offered clear evidence she understands decarbonisation is about economic revitalisation, technology, and competitiveness, as much as it is about environmental risk. She identified climate change as one of the biggest threats facing the UK and has been clear about how it would be a top priority for them if she made it to Number 10. However, while facing (largely unjustified) criticism from Labour members for not being radical enough, she somehow failed to demonstrate how a bold national decarbonisation strategy could deliver an electable form of radicalism. This same failure has been evident thoughout her campaign, which has been faltered as a result.
Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have made the same mistake. Burnham promised a moratorium on fracking and vowed to deliver "the most ambitious renewables strategy in the world". Cooper wants a massive increase in cleantech R&D, a new wave of localised decarbonisation, and has launched one of the only effective attacks on the government during the entire leadership campaign. And yet both are struggling to convince Labour members their wider vision is radical or inspirational enough.
Much of the criticism aimed at the centre left candidates by the emboldened Corbynistas has been intemperate and unfair, but the inability of the Labour establishment to counter the charge they are offering a Tory-lite prospectus is a crushing failure of communication and rhetoric if nothing else. The differences between Kendall, Cooper, and Burnham, and Osborne, Boris and May on the environment and much else besides are profound and important. But if Labour's centrists don't get much better at elucidating these differences the UK will be condemned to a damaging period of political polarisation that could last decades (incidentally, the same warning applies to what remains of the Conservative left).
And then there is Jeremy Corbyn.
The radical's radical has included action on climate change in a 10 point plan designed to warm the cockles of left wingers everywhere. He wants to see every new building 'covered' in solar panels, he wants a ban on fracking, and he wants much greater focus on energy efficiency. He has voiced support for the concept of green quantitative easing and his anti-austerity schtick holds out the promise of borrowing to fund urgently needed low carbon infrastructure.
Corbyn's appeal (beyond the warm duvet of nostalgia offered to some on the left) centres on his ability to at least try and make the economically conventional case against the most self-defeating excesses of the government's austerity programme. The failure of Labour to point out that in the same way you take out a mortgage so you can end up with an asset to pass on to your grandchildren, it makes sense to take out a loan, at a much lower rate of interest than a mortgage, to fund the low carbon infrastructure our grandchildren will desperately need remains one of the mysteries of the age. It is a strategic mistake Corbyn is exploiting to the full - fair play to him.
Consequently, there is much in the Corbyn prospectus for environmentalists to approve of. And yet... Corbyn's brand of environmentalism feels weaker than the sum of its parts. It is compromised by a host of issues his supporters appear all too willing to gloss over.
Green QE made a lot of sense five years ago, but now, with the economy growing again it would be much bigger gamble. Nationalising the energy companies may make for a useful socialist rallying cry, but it would cost billions, obliterate investor confidence, and create years of uncertainty at a time when we need energy companies to be focused 100 per cent on decarbonisation - far better to promise much stronger regulation and a genuine challenge to the Big Six in the form of community energy. Corbyn's vacillating on the EU and anti-business rhetoric threatens to make it harder still to mobilise much needed clean tech investment.
And what of Corbyn's bizarre comments on coal? Re-opening pits in the hope carbon capture and storage (CCS) proves a functioning reality is an even more irresponsible idea than Cameron's reckless strategy of orchestrating a fracking boom before a single working CCS plant is operational in the UK.
On the environment, Corbyn is offering a Green Party tribute act with a strange soft spot for coal. As a result he has imported both the strengths and the weaknesses evident in the Greens' approach, the most glaring of which remains the small matter of electability.
It would be great to have a government that was really committed to covering buildings with solar panels and acting 'for the long-term interest of the planet'. But for Corbyn to deliver one he has to either win an election or provide an opposition so effective it genuinely forces the government to honour its obligations to the environment. The chances of Corbyn delivering either of those things appear negligible, as some of his own supporters have privately attested.
It looks as if Corbyn is on track to claim the leadership, but the two candidates with an outside chance of challenging him, Cooper and Burnham, actually offer the more viable green prospectus. They may not get the blood pumping, but they offer a vision that looks more credible and coherent (worrying silence on airport expansion and North Sea oil and gas aside). If I were a Labour member faced with a field that has largely failed to inspire, I'd vote for Cooper (with Burnham a close second) on the grounds she would push the government to up its green ambition and has the political nous to at the very least challenge the government in 2020. I'd then hope she had the vision to embed her commitment to decarbonisation in every aspect of her economic strategy and make a compelling, perhaps even Corbyn-inspired, pitch to step up low carbon investment.
However, the tragedy for Labour remains the staggering inability of its establishment figures to highlight the radicalism and social justice inherent in the project to develop a modern sustainable economy. A failure that has cleared the stage for some 20th century left wing radicalism to fill the void where a positive, inspiring, radical 21st century centrist environmentalism could and should have set up camp.
13 Aug 2015, 15:00
The double standards inherent in the government's plans to fast-track planning decisions for the fracking industry are as obvious and shocking as a gas flare towering above a rural meadow. It is as if someone took the brass neck required to condemn 'benefits cheats' while rinsing parliamentary expenses and decided to turn it into a workable energy policy. Amber Rudd and Greg Clark deserve immense credit for managing to announce the apparently 'one nation' plan without turning to the affected communities and renewable energy developers, shrugging their shoulders, adopting their best impression of New York accent, and declaring 'whad ya gonna do'?
For what little it is worth, I think ministers should have more powers to intervene in planning decisions that are clearly in the national interest and councils should be given the resources (and potentially face the penalties) needed to ensure decisions are made much faster than at present. But the government's move to grant itself sweeping powers to intervene in planning decisions relating to fracking just weeks after handing local communities more power over wind farm planning decisions is a genuinely shameful double standard, which, as with so much of the government's green agenda, is being pursued without full justification or reasonable scrutiny.
Add in the fact wind and solar farms have routinely been forced to wait years for planning decisions without so much as a breath of complaint from Conservative ministers and the injustice becomes even more obvious. As Rudd effectively threatens to deliver planning decisions on fracking projects that have not yet reached their desks within 12 months, the average time it took to get wind farm planning decisions over the past year stood at 15 months. It is the energy industry equivalent of 'one rule for them, another rule for us' and is pretty much as edifying as every other instance where this resigned mantra is applied.
The shale gas industry is no doubt celebrating today, as the chances of some projects finally, one day, getting developed have received a rare boost. But as so often with this nascent sector the celebrations could prove short-lived. The problem is the government's fracking strategy has now become so one-eyed and dismissive of reasonable reservations that it risks becoming counterproductive. Like Tony Blair intervening in the Labour leadership race, each government move to strengthen the frackers' hand risks doing more harm than good, by emphasising the extent to which decisions appear to have already been made and objections will be steamrollered.
Every time the government attempts to reassure local communities or explain to the public why fracking is a good thing, polling suggests opposition to the technology climbs. Even the Department of Energy and Climate Change's amusingly cheery video detailing how fracking works (which was promoted on Twitter today by the Prime Minister) manages to create the impression that if fracking is approved in your village you will be inundated with an avalanche of drilling rigs and cartoon trucks that resemble nothing so much as a holiday-ruining motorway traffic jam. In primary coloured, animated 2D the whole thing somehow still manages to evoke a backdrop from There Will Be Blood.
As Maf Smith of RenewableUK, who admittedly has his own dog in this fight, opined this morning: "One of the best qualities of the British people is their innate sense of fair play. So many will be concerned that the government is setting different rules for different energy sources, by taking decisions on shale gas away from local councils and putting them in the hands of ministers." The planning reforms will, of course, anger green groups, which will not bother the government one bit, but they will also anger countless Telegraph readers and rural voters who will be furious at this latest instance of Whitehall imposition.
The fracking industry is about to discover what the wind industry spent a decade finding out: government support and appropriate siting is often not enough, without local public support every project becomes a costly and time-consuming arm wrestle. Businesses need a licence to operate that extends beyond the licences about to be dished out by the government. Ministers will approve some projects and drilling will begin, but protests and backbench rebellions will follow. Meanwhile, the Conservative's fracking monomania has led to an inevitable fracturing of political consensus. A coherent opposition will eventually emerge and it will have a fracking industry that has become too closely associated with one political party in its sights. Scaling up this industry will be even harder than scaling up the wind energy industry, which has hardly been a cake walk.
As I've argued repeatedly before, the tragedy for those who want to see fracking in the UK play a role in the transition to a low carbon economy is that it really did not have to be this way.
I do not agree with the 'green fracking' argument that suggests domestic shale gas development is essential if we are to cut carbon emissions. As a climate hawk, I'd maintain accelerating fossil fuel exploration at a time when widespread carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology remains at the blueprint stage and climate science makes clear we need to be winding down carbon-intensive development is reckless at best, appallingly irresponsible at worst.
But I'm also aware this is not a universal position among green experts. The Committee on Climate Change has suggested we can develop some shale gas capacity and stay within our carbon budgets, especially if CCS is delivered. The US experience shows renewables and shale gas can co-exist as part of an emissions reduction strategy, if both are treated fairly. There are energy security arguments for developing domestic gas supplies, especially when gas remains our primary fuel for heat and cooking. Carbon Tracker's analysis of the 'carbon bubble' implications for the gas industry shows it has a much bigger role to play as part of a low carbon transition compared to coal and oil - although it also makes clear it is an extremely complex sector and not all projects are free of stranded asset risks; in fact, relatively high cost fracking projects could be the first to struggle in a decarbonising world.
The government could have nurtured these arguments and developed an environmentally semi-credible fracking strategy. It could have minimised local opposition by starting with a government-backed and tightly controlled trial to ease concerns about localised impacts. It could have quietly positioned new wells as an extension of the existing onshore oil and gas industry. It could have addressed reasonable fears about regulation by promising additional funds for the Environment Agency and accepting the recommendations of an industry-backed(!) task force for independent well monitoring. It could have promised that planning processes would be standardised for all strategically important clean energy technologies. And most of all it could have made it clear fracking would only go ahead in conjunction with the roll out of gas CCS technology.
Instead, ministers have spent the best part of six years making ever more dubious claims about the potential for a world-beating, epoch-shaping new fossil fuel industry in the UK and then acting surprised when the public voices fears the impact will be considerable. They fired the starting pistol on a dash for gas well before the public and developers were ready, leading to laughable mis-steps that eroded public confidence further. They redacted a report that raised perfectly reasonable concerns about the impact of fracking projects on local communities and house prices, ensuring it became a cause celebre before it was eventually published in full. And now they are responding to low levels of public confidence by attempting to browbeat democratically elected local authorities. You'd be hard pressed to recall the introduction of an industry that has ever been so badly mishandled.
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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray
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