Thursday, November 26, 2015

For once, the Tories are doing the right thing (but far too little of it)

There is no doubt that, after winning the election, the new Conservative government has done a lot of harm to British society, in particular by cutting benefits for the disabled and those most in need. Yet, in terms of climate policy, the pictures is somewhat more ambiguous. Given the inherent scalability limitations of renewables, I find the slashing of subsidies for small-scale renewables to be a step in the right direction. Similarly, cancelling the £1bn Carbon Capture Storage (CCS) competition is probably also the right thing to do (although doing it six months before it would be awarded is not precisely fair play). More importantly, shifting resources to energy R&D, in particular nuclear, is very much the right thing to do in a world with burgeoning energy demand.

At the same time, committing a meagre £250 million to nuclear R&D over five years is not going to jumpstart any global energy revolution whatsoever. Considering that developing a successor to the UK Trident system is estimated to cost at least £25 billion (yes, 100 times more!), a figure that the Conservatives seem perfectly happy to pay, puts those £250 million into some perspective.

While correctly assessing the limitations of renewables and CCS, continuing business as usual is simply not an option. The first eight months of 2015 were the hottest such stretch yet recorded for the globe’s surface land and oceans, based on temperature records going back to 1880. Decisive climate action is needed now. As an emergency measure, rich countries like the UK should build dozens of new nuclear reactors to quickly displace fossil fuels at home WHILE doubling down on research of more scalable technologies capable of facilitating a global carbon lock-out. There is simply no time to fiddle around with a wind turbine here or a PV panel there (which in any case both would require fossil back-up power). Looking at the historic decarbonisation rates of both Sweden and France, we know that it is perfectly possible to quickly cut emissions using existing nuclear technologies. Yet, with no support from the environmental movement or other social movements, the current policy gridlock is not in any way surprising.

Update: In the issue going into print 28 November, The Economist will give their support to many of the things I have argued over the last years in terms of the need for basic energy R&D.


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