The government’s own environmental advisors launched a scathing attack yesterday on the Labour’s decision to give the go-ahead to a next generation of nuclear power stations. Their objection is essentially three-pronged:
- The costs in terms of construction, decommissioning, waste, public funding, and missed opportunity for investment in other renewables, far outweigh the benefits in terms of clean energy
- In making this decision, the government has shown a dispiriting lack of environmental leadership – “a blatant failure in moral vision”, in the SDC chief economist’s words. Given the opportunity to take a strong position in favour of a progressive, low-carbon economy, it has instead stepped backwards, succumbing to pressure form big energy companies and political expediency
- It is using the technological “metafix” of nuclear as a fig-leaf to cover its embarrassing lack of progress on the root cause of the environmental crisis, the attitude of Western societies towards consumption
This critique makes a powerful case against the project. But behind these arguments lie deeper tendencies and failings of government which are at the core of much the current environmental inertia.
Firstly, in taking a light touch with regulation and supporting a ‘portfolio’ of approaches, the British government is perpetuating the ‘bottom up’ approach to environmental problem solving. That is, the faith that from the interplay of market forces and CSR initiatives will emerge a decentralised tapestry of private environmental governance without anyone in power having to take the lead or pick winners.
Portrayed as caution, this is cowardice. Few would deny that CSR and the market are critical to effective solutions. Yet the example of Germany, which has been unashamedly ‘top-down’ in its environmental strategy, shows the importance of politically defining the direction in which these forces work. Regulatory incentives and pressures create commercial interests which markets exploit; the threat of a level environmental playing field gives CSR strategic impetus. Certainly, left to its own devices the market may eventually arrive at the same, or even better, solutions. But we don’t have ‘eventually’ to tackle this problem. Germany is doing it now; it is only a lack of political will that prevents us from doing the same.
Secondly, the continued focus by governments on climate change as a supply-side problem promotes the naïve belief that climate change can be mitigated through technology alone. But whichever way you cut it, avoiding the worst effects of climate change must involve concomitant demand-side change. Supply and demand are partners. Environmental treaties like the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Layer Depletion which focused only on the supply of CFCs have been undermined by a burgeoning black market trade responding to continued demand. And in this case managing legal supply only involved persuading five major companies to cease production.
In energy production, supply is much more decentralised, and demand much greater. This leads the following conclusion. Any attempts at supply-side management will suffer from worse rule-breaking and black market problems than Montreal, given the greater difficulty of controlling energy supply and greater demand for energy products. As a result, what can be achieved on the supply-side is inherently limited, and effective climate change abatement will have to prioritise demand-side issues. As demand comes down, so can supply, allowing a smooth switch to renewable energy Attempting to switch away from fossil fuels at a time of increasing energy use, on the other hand, is close to impossible. As long as governments keep feeding us their voodoo ideas about sustainable development, where technology meets growth in a perfect environmental union, we’re merely putting our heads in the sand and delaying the day until we engage with this essential debate.
The capitulation to the nuclear lobby, in short, does not just reflect failure on a single issue. It represents an endemic cowardice within government to tackle the environmental problem head on, and a victory for political short-termism over responsible leadership.