It was some years ago now that concerned colleagues and I spoke to our then bosses, expressing our reservations about this new fracking thing that was just beginning to be discussed. We had spent hours looking at the science and the risks involved. We’d also reached the conclusion that even if it were safe, fracking would only generate finite supplies of natural gas for, what, a few decades? Moreover, burning yet more fossil fuels would only add to the already dangerous C emissions warming our planet.
That was years ago. We were refused permission to work on the climate change, geo conservation and biodiversity implications of fracking. Too politically sensitive, we were told.
I still have the same concerns, only reinforced by yet more science.
I’ve reached the view, like many others, that an energy solution that’s fit for the challenges we now face must adopt two important principles:
we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground; and
we must grow our clean energy supplies to replace it.
Sounds logical, I think. But, despite it being obvious, achieving the former is fraught with difficulty. Referred to as the hard cap, constraining the supply of energy from fossil fuels won’t come about because we simply lose interest in coal and stop digging it up. And, as we are seeing right now, it’s no good thinking that just because some countries start leaving it in the ground that others will follow (the “Yeah, but what about China?” argument, which is somewhat weakened by the recent announcement that Cumbria County Council has grated permission for a new coal mining venture off the Cumbrian coast).
We need an enforceable global deal to leave the fuel in the ground. Yes, it’ll be hard to reach, but reach it we must. Back in 2015, the Paris Agreement made some progress, but a lot more is needed, urgently. To reach a deal, a number of conditions need to be met. Any deal needs to work for everyone, and so a limited amount of fossil fuel remaining in a total carbon budget somehow needs to be shared out. Countries will be affected in very different ways, too; we’d need to take that into account. Clearly, a global deal would be hard to broker. It requires an understanding of the different implications for each country, and a sense of international fair play; that would be a new concept!
If a deal was done, the ‘winners’ would have to compensate the ‘losers’. Unfortunately, we remain locked into mindsets that see this as an impossibility. Few politicians take a truly global view, thinking only of the States they lead and, even then, only over short electoral timeframes.
The top five countries in terms of fossil fuel reserves - USA, China, Russia, Australia and India - all have plenty of Sun as well, so a tradition towards renewables might constitute an opportunity as much as a threat. But, there are losers. Venezuela would have to give up a globally important position in terms of oil reserves, exchanging this for a pretty limited position in the rankings for solar power generation; the same could be argued for other States, too - will Iraq and Qatar be prepared to make the switch?
In terms of technical challenges, the experts state that there are no show-stoppers to a clean energy revolution taking place. Although it is currently limited in terms of its contribution to the energy mix, solar power is the world’s best opportunity. The trouble is that it’s simply not being rolled out anything like fast enough (it could be the answer to Africa’s rapid urbanisation). Proper investment now will enable wind and hydro to play a part.; while nuclear power simply can’t be put in place quickly enough (quite apart from concerns about safety and its permanently polluting nature).
We appear ponderous in our approach to the energy revolution that’s needed. This has been true for decades and now, faced with the enormity of the challenge, we seem startled and unsure how to proceed. If we are to achieve carbon neutrality anytime soon, if at all, then we may well have to get on with taking carbon out of the air. Unfortunately, the technologies are still under development (but exciting nonetheless, if capable of being scaled up).
Which brings me to the conclusion that we really do need to address our energy addiction. The more we can limit our seemingly insatiable demand for energy, the easier we make the transition to cleaner supplies. The radical bit is that, like it or not, we will have to end energy growth at some point. What can we each do to help meet this challenge?
with a general election coming up, we can think carefully about how we vote in relation to energy policy. Vote for politicians who understand the issues and are prepared to prioritise them. In my view, none of them are perfect, so vote for those who get closest, and certainly ensure that you let any candidates know just how importantly you view this issue;
wherever possible, using your buying power to support energy efficient supply chains, low carbon technologies and infrastructure. I was lucky enough to get solar panels under a funded scheme, but other ideas include buying an electric vehicle (yes, I know, they still need to come down in price), push for your pension fund to divest from fossil fuels;
do things that don’t require much energy, with probably the biggest being taking holidays that don’t require air travel. Decrease your energy consumption, by making your home more energy efficient (hassle your supplier for a Smart Meter); and also think about the energy involved in producing stuff you buy - avoid junk and make things last;
challenge friends and family to change their habits, engaging them in friendly discussions that might just change their views. I’ve found that trying to persuade a stubborn 84-year old of the compelling case for turning down their central heating is just counter-productive. Buying them a warm jumper or ensuring that doors are kept closed to keep the heat in, has proved far more successful (I can then sneak out to the thermostat!) down; and
avoid beating yourself up about your progress, or lack of. There has to be a fun element in cutting your energy footprint. We’re all going to fall short at some point, so pick some quick wins and keep going…