A nuclear waste

January 16, 2008

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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.

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High oil prices are no environmental benefit

January 4, 2008

Gerard Baker comments in the Times today that we should “cheer” oil reaching $100 a barrel as it will help “wean us off the petroleum fix”. He argues that expensive oil will break our dependence on some of the world’s worst regimes, encourage energy efficiency, and lead us to seek more environmentally friendly ways to feed our energy habit. This is the classic market-liberal environmental panacea: let the markets run free and – hey presto! – we end up with better technology, higher output, and nice green planet to top it all off.

Sadly, reality is a little less perfect. Dear oil isn’t making investment in green technology the automatic choice of the rational economic actor. No, the winner from oil price inflation is the worst possible option from a green perspective: the renewed economic viability of coal.

Over the next eight years it is expected that China will add 562 new coal-fired power stations, India 213, and the US 72. The US considers itself the “Saudi Arabia of coal”, with a guaranteed 250-year supply. Even Britain, with the environment now a key political battleground, is on the point of commissioning its first new coal-fired station in 24 years. As the price of oil becomes prohibitive, the smart money does not go into untried and expensive green technologies, it goes into the pit.

So the hard fact is, we can’t rely on markets to solve this problem. Markets will push money in the direction of the best deal, and with current regulation, that deal is coal.

We must not believe that the environmental problem is an economic issue which will solve itself. It is at its core political, and can only be tackled through a demonstration of political will. Instead of a blind faith in markets as they are, it requires leaders with the courage to make markets serve our environmental priorities, to make the best deal economically also the best deal morally. So let’s not do this contortionist’s trick and pretend that expensive oil is really a great thing; let’s not, Mr. Brown, talk green to our faces but commission coal-fired power stations behind our backs; the only real solution to this problem is for brave leaders to make tough choices, and until they do, we’re nowhere.

The business of climate change

December 2, 2007

Friday saw the announcement by a coalition of 150 of the world’s largest corporations, including sectoral giants like Nokia, Nike and BP, that they would not just accept but encourage a legally binding agreement on global carbon emissions.

Given the sustained opposition of large sections of the business community to previous efforts at carbon-reduction – first questioning the validity of the science, then the compatibility of action with economic growth – this renewed championing of the climate change agenda appears to represent quite a sea change. So what are we to make of it?

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