Thoughts on the energy transition

EiD tries to provide readers with a wide range of articles that discuss the low-carbon energy transition. It is a bumpy road but there is plenty of evidence that important gains are being made. This is a very thoughtful article in The Guardian by Bryony Worthington, a Labour peer and an architect of the UK’s Climate Change Act. She argues that the unsung heroes of the fight against climate change are the entrepreneurs and politicians applying themselves to the task of changing our energy consumption. What do you think? Are you part of the quiet revolution?


The quiet revolution that’s changing the way we use energy

There is a quiet revolution underway in the way we produce and consume energy.

This revolution has been kickstarted by laws, regulations and the arrival of new technologies. It’s been influenced by people – no less passionate than those protesting on the streets – who’ve chosen to engage in the existing economic system to divert it toward more sustainable ends.

It’s not glamorous, and can be slow and technical, but more people are applying themselves to the task internationally – and it is producing results.

This quiet revolution began in the UK in 1990 with the first regulations supporting renewable electricity. The rules obliging energy companies to support non-fossil-fuel-based electricity were originally conceived to support nuclear power after privatisation, with renewable sources such as wind power added subsequently. Twenty-five years and a couple of policy re-designs later, including significantly the Climate Change Act passed by Ed Miliband, the UK has a renewables sector which, though still dependent on subsidies, is starting to make serious in-roads into conventional energy systems.

The renewables sector contains many big players using the capitalist system to increase their market share and push out incumbents. It is attracting criticism from those with vested interests and is thwarted on occasion by members of what author Naomi Klein refers to as “blockadia” – people stopping things – but on the whole its continued growth looks certain. Costs have tumbled and the need for subsidies is receding.

In the UK, the Conservative party may bark about closing the door on renewables but even David Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne, can see that any private entities prepared to pour hard cash into concrete and steel, whatever its purpose, are incredibly valuable. If Labour wins the election in May we will set a target to almost fully decarbonise electricity generation by 2030.

Policies in support of renewables and energy efficiency, together with policies that make fossil fuels more expensive – such as applying air quality standards – are bringing emissions down fast in Europe. Of course two other factors – the financial crisis and warmer weather – have also contributed, but the signs are that as economic growth recovers, emissions are not returning.

Many of the regulations driving emissions down here are EU-wide, though in the UK our Climate Change Act and carbon taxation policy keep us slightly ahead.

The new European parliament and commission are embarking on a programme to create an “energy union” that has decarbonisation at its heart. The penny has finally dropped that low carbon can also mean low import dependency and increased security.

Different approaches are being tried in different countries with the UK looking to also invest in carbon capture and storage (CCS), and nuclear energy. Europe has always gained strength from countries diversely applying themselves to shared endeavours and this next industrial revolution will be no exception.

Outside Europe too, progress is being made in quiet, steady ways.

In China, pro-environment policymaking is on the increase and, for the first time last year, demand for coal appeared to have peaked as a result. A massive planned rollout of renewables, gas and nuclear energy looks very likely to continue the trend.

Realising renewable energy is the fastest technology to deploy, bar none, Narendra Modi is determined to electrify his nation using a policy to double India’s coal tax and support renewables.

In Chile a new carbon tax is imminent but high energy prices and enormous amounts of sun are already making solar power profitable. South Korea has a cap and trade scheme that is a match for the EU’s.

Even in the Middle East huge sums are being invested in all forms of zero carbon technology, nuclear and CCS included. A recent tender for new capacity in Dubai saw solar power undercutting conventional sources by a wide margin.

In North America, where the hijacking and paralysis of federal governments has led many to all but give up on national policy, state-level innovative policies continue to be introduced. The US Environmental Protection Agency is also overseeing a nationwide process to control emissions that stands a reasonable chance of being enacted if it can dodge the lawsuits. And for once the president is seriously engaged in trying to find a global solution.

It is these improved national conditions that give hope that a deal can be reached in Paris this year. It is easy to criticise the UN climate negotiations process and it is certainly far from perfect, but if there were a magic bullet it would have been discovered.

Climate change is a unique challenge and international politics is messy. The negotiations will only codify what countries believe to be possible today but, over time, ambitions will increase as confidence grows. What really needs to be achieved is an inclusive deal that boosts confidence in the revolution already underway.

A huge proportion of fossil fuels will remain unburned because many of the tools we need to make this happen have been created and are being improved.

They need to be applied more widely and with more ambition but it is already clear that we can, and do, drive capitalism in the directions we choose. Public pressure helps make this happen but so too do individuals working within the current system to divert its course.

It’s been said that human beings are somehow wired to ignore climate change, but the human brain is the ultimate problem-solving device. Like a brain, as more people are added to the network, with quicker connections between them, the solution-seeking parts of society will become more effective. A few will ignore the signs of harm and pursue profits unencumbered by a conscience, but they will be outnumbered.

Those wanting to help increase the pace of change can take to the streets demanding action but, in between the protests, they can dedicate their time, skills and money to improving the tools of change: laws and technology.

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