You can close your eyes, but climate change won’t go away Boris.

Yesterday, London Mayor Boris Johnson claimed in his article in the Daily Telegraph that climate change wasn’t happening because he could see snow out of his window.

Quite rightly, such a comment created an uproar amongst the rational minded people of his city. Climate scientists responded, pointing out that nowadays they had slightly more sophisticated techniques for predicting the weather than looking out of the window.  Other wits on twitter suggested that perhaps, following his logic, if you can’t see Boris Johnson out of your window, then he doesn’t exist either.

Wishful thinking perhaps.  But as annoying as his views are to those of us concerned about our environment, the (even more worrying) fact is that we aren’t really his audience here.  Boris’s attempt to bury climate change in a snowdrift is really part of his ongoing campaign to win support for his future political ambitions.  Because just like the deep-seated desire to roll back the state and an in-bred hatred of all things European, climate skepticism has become part of the membership package for the nasty party.

In the past few years, the Tories have been very effective in using the global economic crisis as cover to bring in the pernicious social policies they were always dreaming of, spreading their euroscepticism in the process.  And, given how climate skepticism is becoming such a part of their DNA, they will try to do the same with the environment – just look at George Osbourne’s proclamations on reducing our carbon emissions at the 2011 Tory Party Conference. But we cannot let them.  Because just as paying people to stay at home rather than go to work wastes money as well as wasting skills, denying the importance of our changing climate will not only missing the opportunity to build a more sustainable future, but also the chance to lead the world in this vital industries of tomorrow.  Boris Johnson might think that if he can’t see it, it isn’t there, but we can’t just close our eyes and hope that climate change will go away.

A New Political Paradigm

Previously published on Labour List

Back in the early 1990s, the big new idea about New Labour was that our party challenged the paradigm which said that politicians had to choose between social policy and economic policy.  Labour argued that this was a false choice and that one had a positive impact on the other – the more support people had, the more they were able to work and vice versa.

Today there’s another political paradigm, writ large in much of the debate within the current coalition government, that SERA (Labour’s environment campaign) is pushing Labour to challenge – the idea that you have to choose between the economy or the environment.

Because the world is changing in such a way that it is going to become increasingly clear that addressing environmental concerns is our best hope for a strong economy and a fairer society. Indeed, ignoring what we call environmental problems today, will soon mean that we will have very serious economic and social justice problems to deal with tomorrow.

Two issues in particular are driving that.  Firstly, our continued reliance upon oil.  Predictions of oil prices mean that as soon as the next election, some households may be facing the choice between heating their homes or getting to work.  In terms of the bigger economic picture, it’s even more serious – escalating prices will make some sectors of the economy (like road haulage or cement manufacturing) unprofitable.  More importantly though, escalating prices are predicted to come with fluctuating prices too, creating enormous instability in our economy at the very time when we need security and sustainability.  Of course, we could follow George Osborne’s root and continue to subsidise these industries, but we might as well be offering grants for companies to keep using typewriters – the bottom line is that they are suffering problems because they are reliant upon an outdated technology – oil.  And the only answer is to use energy more efficiently and find alternative, renewable sources for the energy we do need.

Secondly, there’s another issue that we are worried about in SERA, that has the potential to affect us as seriously as the credit crunch but which deals with something even more fundamental than housing – and that’s food.   While we’ve enjoyed a generation of ever falling food prices, that has started to change.  Food prices in the UK reached record highs in 2011 and most experts expect them to continue to rise for the foreseeable future.  There are a number of reasons for this, including the cost of energy and competing demands for land use and from other countries like India and China.  But underlying all of these is the significant and destabilising effect of commodity speculation.

The commodities futures market has existed for hundreds of years and has helped farmers around the world deal with uncertainties like weather conditions.  But in the late 1990s the ‘futures contracts’ market was opened up and the banks, hedge funds and pension funds moved in, creating complicated financial products that involved making money from betting on food prices – sound familiar?   In 1996, 12% of the market for basic foods were held by speculators who have no connection with food.  Today, that figure is 61%.  The majority of the world’s food market is held by the same banks, hedgefunds and pension funds that almost bet our homes away and who are now gambling on hunger.

So while the environment has been a fringe issue for many in Labour for so long – like the embarrassing Uncle who always spoils the party, for Labour to have a serious vision for the future of the UK that is progressive, economically credible and fair, the environmental issues that we at SERA have cared about for so long has to be at its heart.

The Big Fix

From this month’s Progress magazine: Why we need to break up the big six:

The energy industry has become too much of a cartel. It is time to break it up, argues Melanie Smallman.

This winter more than four million households in the UK will face fuel poverty, as average annual fuel bills rise to £1,345. Coming on top of salary freezes and soaring transport costs, most of us will pay an extra £175 to keep our homes warm and lit. Yet Ofgem is predicting that the companies selling us this energy will see profits leap from £15 to £125 per customer this year. Alongside these price hikes, however, the UK’s energy infrastructure is in desperate need of hundreds of billions of pounds of investment and we are falling far behind in our renewables targets as the energy companies threaten consumers with the cost of going green.

All of this is no secret in the energy industry – the energy regulator, the government and even the companies themselves are aware of the problems ahead. But only Labour is promising the action necessary to address the situation – to break up the monopoly of the ‘big six’ energy companies.

The reason we need such a dramatic intervention is because the ‘market’ that was set up when gas and electricity were privatised in the 1980s has come to function more like a cartel than a proper open market. Energy generators and retailers quickly consolidated and ‘vertically integrated’, so the ‘big six’ now are both the biggest producers and retailers of energy. This means that most trades in the energy wholesale market are within the same company. As a result there is no way of knowing whether or not energy companies are artificially inflating the price of the energy that they eventually sell to households, or to other new retailers who want to enter the market. It also makes it harder for new energy-generating companies – for example, those producing green energy – to find a buyer and an honest price. Over time, all of the energy companies have also taken up the same hedging techniques to price uncertainty, such that a price rise for one almost always becomes a price rise for them all.

The consequence is an opaque market, effectively closed to competition and new entrants. To make this wholesale market more transparent and open we need to stop producers selling energy exclusively to their retail arm without going through the open market. This means creating a ‘pool’ of generated energy that can be bought and sold on to customers by any company, allowing new generators and retailers entry into the market at a fair and open price, but also making the relationship between wholesale and retail prices much clearer. Experts believe that this could reduce utility bills for 80 per cent of customers.

With oil prices predicted to rise for the foreseeable future, high energy bills are, unfortunately, not going to go away. If we are to make a serious difference to people’s energy costs we will still need to move much faster to make homes more energy efficient, ensure we re-examine the current pricing structure that makes electricity cheaper the more you use, and support more community- and cooperative-owned energy companies. But at least with a more transparent market we could be more confident that the energy companies’ huge profits are not coming directly from customers’ pockets this winter.

Greens bury their heads in the sands of technology

My opinion piece from last week’s Research Fortnight:

Greens Bury their Heads in the Sands of Technology

Last month, the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory signed a memo- randum of understanding with the National Ignition Facility of the US in a bid to develop clean energy from nuclear fusion. Although the nuclear fusion idea has been around for decades, there appears to be a new sense of optimism and credibility around its potential as a real energy source. Announcing the agreement at the Institute of Physics, science minister David Willetts argued that nuclear fusion can no longer be dismissed as something on the far horizon.

Affordable, low-carbon energy has to be the dream environmental ticket. It would end the need to implore people to make difficult lifestyle changes or choose between the economy or the environment. It would end fuel poverty. And today’s conversations about carbon taxes and personal carbon allowances would become as arcane as slide-rules and pounds, shillings and pence.

Surprising, then, that environmental groups have said so little about the announcement—you might rea- sonably have expected to hear their loud calls for more investment and faster development.

But lack of enthusiasm from green groups for nucle- ar fusion is entirely consistent with their ambivalence towards almost every other emerging technology in the past few decades. From alternative aviation fuels to geoengineering—even as a last resort—their cry is always: “We have all the technologies we need”.

For most of us that statement doesn’t make sense— their position reveals how green groups’ attitudes to science and technology are being driven as much by a particular view about how people should live their lives as by a desire to safeguard the environment. Specifically, at the heart of their world view is the idea that that environmental problems are caused by human interference. Logically, the solutions that follow involve humans withdrawing and having a lighter touch on the environment.

The history of science and technology tells a different story, of humans intervening to solve difficult problems, often in a short space of time. Science has changed human immunodeficiency virus from a death sentence to a chronic illness, more people are surviving longer after cancer, and we’ve been to the moon—all the result of focusing human ingenuity and resources on a problem. Even the internal combustion engine, the source of our current environmental worries, has helped create lifestyles and opportunities that previous generations never dreamed of. Yes, there are sometimes unintend- ed side effects, but it is usually more, not less, science that eventually addresses these. Far from having all of the technologies we need, if problems such as climate change are seen as the consequence of a society lum- bered with outdated, inappropriate technologies, then we are in desperate need of new, transformative ones. Tackling climate change and finding a low-carbon energy source that really is too cheap—and clean—to-meter could be our generation’s moon-shot.

The prize would be huge. Apart from the financial benefits, clean, cheap energy might sustain the quality of people’s lives and economic growth as well as safe-guard the environment.

Whatever that source is, it will need investment on an unprecedented scale; US President Barack Obama has called for $150 billion to be spent on clean technol- ogy research as a ‘down payment’ on what will really be needed. More recently google.org’s clean-energy project calculated that while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s target to reduce emissions by 80 per by 2050 was difficult, meeting it would require a much more ‘aggressive’ innovation policy than we have.

Furthermore, they argued that a mere five-year delay in starting this ‘aggressive’ investment in clean ener- gy research could cost the US economy an aggregate $2.3 trillion to $3.2tn in unrealised GDP gains, 1.2 mil- lion to 1.4m net jobs, and result in an increase of between 8 and 28 gigatons in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

In other words, it might seem costly now, but the economic and environ- mental price we will pay in the future will be much higher.

If tackling climate change at any cost is the aim of environmental campaigners, then far from claiming we have all the technologies we need, they should be taking a hard look at these figures and mobilising their sup- porters to demand that this investment is found urgently.

George Osborne’s Speech – the least green, ever!

Yesterday, Tory Chancellor George Osbourne gave one of the least-green speeches ever. In less than half an hour, he demolished his government’s aspiration to be the greenest government ever and announced that the UK no longer wished to lead the world in moving to a low-carbon future.

Promising that the UK won’t go further or faster than our European neighbours on tackling climate change might have quietened critical colleagues, many of whom are climate sceptics. Blaming renewables for increases in energy prices perhaps let his big-business friends in energy companies off the hook while they continue to rake in huge profits at the expense of consumers. But neither position will help the ordinary citizens of the UK who are paying the price of escalating oil prices. Nor will they encourage innovators and investors to the industries of the future to set up and create vital jobs in the UK, nor build a more sustainable economy for the UK in the future.

As I’ve argued before, the big problem with Osbourne’s position is that it is based on a false dichotomy – that you have to choose between tackling climate change and economic growth. Time and time again the evidence points to the opposite – that moving to a low carbon future is actually a race with long-term economic security as the prize. The winners will be the economies that develop clean renewable energy systems first and sell them to the rest of the world. A recent report by google.org describes it as an innovation arms race, with breakthrough innovations in clean energy potentially adding $155 billion per year in GDP, creating 1.1 million net jobs, while reducing household energy costs by $942 per year, oil consumption by 1.1 billion barrels per year, and carbon emissions 13% by 2030 vs. Business as Usual.  Far from being a burden that makes us less competitive with the rest of Europe, ambitious plans to decarbonise our economy earlier will give us a competitive advantage when it comes to winning these jobs and growth.

Building a future economy for the UK is not about gently balancing the advantages of the old oil-dependent economy with the opportunities of a low carbon future.  We cannot compete in the 21st Century with an economy built for the 18th Century.  We need a low-carbon industrial revolution if we’re not to see jobs lost, growth forgone and large aspects of life our of reach for many. George Osbourne’s speech might have quietened down some loud screams from the industries that aren’t ready for this revolution, but yesterday he might as well have backed the slide-rule industry He might think that reducing carbon emissions are all about caring for the environment. In truth it’s all about the economy.

A Revved-up Energy Policy

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I’d been asked to write an article about what Labour’s energy policy should look like in 2015.  You can read the article on Progress’s website.

I’ve had a great response since it has been published (with people even telling me that I’ve made energy policy sound exciting!), so I thought I’d also publish the longer version of the article here.  It’s an earlier draft, so not quite as well edited, but gives a tiny bit more detail for anyone who’s interested.

Labour needs a Revved-up Energy Policy

By 2015, the government is hoping that the UK will be a much rosier place.  They dream that the worse of the cuts will have been made and global economies will have improved. But couple that with their current heel-dragging over energy policy, and their rosy dream will be rapidly heading towards a new nightmare.

Because experts are predicting that oil prices will spike around 2014/2015, as the oil reserves built up by OPEC during the recession get used up.  While many households are stretched by the current $100 a barrel price of oil, by 2015, prices could be heading towards $185. Without new and drastic action to reduce our reliance upon oil before then, such a huge hike would make heating and lighting homes difficult and put transport out of reach for many, as well as driving food prices skywards and putting whole sectors of the UK economy under unbearable pressure.  Suddenly energy policy will no longer be a boring issue for the anoraks but a matter of social justice at the heart of our concerns.

Looking towards Labour’s policies for 2015 then, an energy policy that tweaks our current set up, substituting one form of energy for another, hoping we’ll use a little less just won’t cut it when people will be choosing between getting to work or heating their homes.  Nor will being modest about the scale of the challenge ahead help us convince people that Labour has a plan for a brighter new future. Going into the next election, Labour’s energy policy has to be huge and ambitious.  It has to underpin everything we say and plan to do.  And it has to inspire a generation.

So what would such a revved-up energy policy look like?  Firstly, we will have to face up to the immediate problem of prices, offering help to the poorest families, breaking the big-six’s stranglehold on the domestic market to open up competition and drive down bills for everyone else. Coupled to that, we should also have a very clear idea about how we will help households cope in the longer term – the idea of the no-bill or low-bill home (a house that is insulated and generates its own energy, such that it has little or no reliance on external energy supplies) is compelling, simple and ambitious.

Secondly, we need plans to renew our energy infrastructure. And that doesn’t mean replacing a couple of coal-fired power stations with a nuclear one, but a serious, wholesale re-think and upgrade of the way we generate and distribute energy.  We cannot afford to base the new economy upon wasteful and outdated energy infrastructure, built for an industrial era.  When energy was ‘too cheap to meter’ it made sense to build a network around a handful of big, remote power stations, but it’s incredibly wasteful – a shocking 65% of energy going into the system is lost as heat in generation and transmission.  Today we need a new, more efficient network, where energy is produced nearer to where it is needed, where heat isn’t wasted by used to heat homes and offices, where smaller, community scale renewable generation is accommodated and where gaps in renewable supplies can be smoothed out by being part of a European Supergrid.

Thirdly, our policy needs to change the relationship that citizens have with energy.  I’ve argued elsewhere that this is like the changes in home ownership in the 1970s and 1980s that helped modernize our housing stock. Introducing a ‘community dividend’ so that communities can ‘own’ a stake in energy production and ensuring feed-in-tariffs continue to work for community and cooperative scale energy projects could enable communities to share in the profits and help tackle fuel poverty. But, more importantly, just as home owners make decisions about their homes for reasons not just financial, a community stake could also help change the role and perspective of energy companies – taking their long-term responsibilities for the energy infrastructure, their charging structures and their impact on the environment more seriously.

Finally we need large-scale investment in research, development, demonstration and roll-out of low carbon technologies, to help drive down the price of renewables. While the current Tory-led coalition government is cutting the UK’s R&D budget, the United States has promised $17 billion, with China, France and Germany outlining similarly ambitious plans.  At the same time, it is becoming increasingly clear that with the twin pressures of energy security and climate change, the country to move to a low-carbon energy system first will not only secure their energy future, but their global competitiveness too.

It might all sound expensive, but in the run up to the next election we have to argue that missing the jobs this investment will create and loosing our in the global marketplace will be condemning the UK to an insecure and economically vulnerable future – an even bigger price to pay.

Is saving the planet a question of shame?

‘Save the Planet’ seems to be the rallying cry for many green groups.  I’ve been arguing for some time however that while this message appeals to those motivated by the desire to ‘do the right thing’, it’s failing to move sufficient numbers of people into action.

My argument has drawn upon a number of pieces of research that have looked at the motivations and the responses to different environmental messages of different sectors of the population.  For instance, the ‘Warm Words’ study from the IPPR which found that the alarmist and small actions narratives around climate change disempowered people and lacked credibility; or work looking at cultural dynamics, which suggests that most people are motivated by satisfying status driven needs and reject messages that criticise their lifestyle choices.

This week however, a blog piece ‘What saves Energy – Shame’ has added even more colour to my argument.  The article outlines new research from MIT that looked at what motivates people to act in environmentally friendly ways.  I’m not sure that ‘shame’ is quite the right term (shame falls into my trap of telling people they’re doing something wrong – it’s more about “this is how we do things around here”), but the researchers found that social norms were  key to getting people to act.  The blog gives an interesting and vivid example:

“In 2008, a ritzy hotel in Phoenix, Arizona (a city with a limited energy future) induced conservation with three different signs. One witless card said “Save the Environment.” Another encouraged bathers to “Preserve Resources for the Future.” But the card that got guests reusing their towels in big numbers said “Join Your Fellow Citizens In Helping to Save the Environment.” It also included information that 70 per cent of guests generally did so.”

I might not be buying the ‘nudge’ solutions being prescribed (it makes it sound as if changing behaviour is really easy, when it’s not), but it does point to the need for a different way of talking about the environment.

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