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Groundwork North East Greenhouse office

Reach for the moon to save the earth?

Posted on 17 October 2014

There are a number of questions raised by Owen Paterson’s speech to Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation last week – that’s over and above the obvious one of how many more ministers might flatly oppose the policies they were part of implementing once they leave office.

The speech neatly polarised the debate into pro-growth fracking and nukes in one corner and subsidy-hungry wind and waves in the other – handy for those who want to man barricades on either side of the line. However, it also promoted a deeper reflection. Paterson’s primary contention is that the 2050 carbon emission targets enshrined in law are simply impossible to achieve. Moreover in striving to achieve them we’re making bad decisions, effectively threatening our ability to settle for second best.

Clearly this point depends on whether you see second best as good enough. Those, like the former Secretary of State, who claim to be ‘open minded’ on climate science but don’t consider global warming to be a danger (yet) posit that decarbonising our lives is just not worth the effort and expense. Others – notably Paterson’s ‘regressive green blob’ of the environmental movement – will hold fast to the belief that stopping short of our targets will lead to catastrophic impacts, as ever hitting first and worst those who have least. Unfortunately clinching the argument means predicting the future which, as anyone who remembers watching Michael Rodd on Tomorrow’s World in the 70s will tell you is something of an imperfect art. Doubly unfortunately, by the time you’re proved right there’s nothing you can do about it.

Climate Change debate
Deniers can point to the fact that things aren’t as bad now as we predicted ten years ago as evidence that we’ve all been swept along in Armageddon hysteria. Devotees will argue that the signs are all around us and our relative comfort and wealth is blinding us to the inevitable. So we’re stuck with debating the merits of the precautionary principle – or for those of a more theological bent Pascal’s Wager (you may as well lead a pious life of devotion as the rewards of salvation will be infinite if you’re proved right).

A key thread in the debate is whether a decarbonised society is ‘good for business’. Is ‘green growth’ possible? Is ‘growth’ itself up for grabs as a concept? Someone much cleverer than me once told me that the problem with defining sustainable development is that we’re obsessing over the wrong word. Sustainable is easy as a concept. What we don’t know is what we mean by development.

Paterson tries to argue the point that the woolly-headed tree-huggers seeking an economic model that decouples prosperity from growth are anti-progress and anti-innovation. This is then thrown together with the argument that Britain forging ahead with aspirational carbon targets while others drag their feet will do damage to UK PLC. There is of course an equal and opposite argument. In any business sector reshaping the marketplace, stimulating a new kind of demand, stealing a march on competitors and setting big, bold targets is exactly the right approach. Of course there are risks – as those who bet the house on Betamax or laserdiscs will probably attest. Part of the problem here I suspect is that we talk about innovation purely in terms of big engineering investment – should we spend billions making known technologies safer and cleaner or the same amount in making clean technologies more productive and efficient?

Local opportunities

For me this overlooks a much more important innovation gap. Most people agree that, whatever the technology, a more distributed model of generation and supply is absolutely crucial. Meeting more of our power needs from more local sources provides greater energy security but also supports local economies. It stimulates greater community awareness of environmental issues and provides a focus for community development activity that can be harnessed in other ways. We know it can work – both in terms of the financial model and the level of community engagement and ownership. Browsing the achievements of Bath & West Community Energy provides all the evidence you need. And yet this kind of initiative remains the exception to the rule, achieved due to the hard slog of inspired, knowledgeable and capable local leaders. This is where we also need to focus innovation and investment. We need to get more communities to the point where they understand – and aspire to – the benefits of being more in control of the energy and other natural resources they consume. Evidence shows that when that happens people are also much more conscious of issues of supply and demand, making the task of widespread take-up of energy efficiency measures easier.

Rather than settle for second best on our targets, we need to set others that will drive the change we need. So why not also aim for 50% of our energy needs to be met from community-owned sources by 2050? Cutting emissions by 80% by the same date may well be a tall order.

If we fail to motivate and mobilise people along the way we don’t stand a chance.

Post by Graham Duxbury, Chief Executive
Groundwork UK