Can we save the planet, keep the lights on, and avoid freezing to death?

December 5, 2013 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

References to ‘green crap’ miss the point. The key political fault line on climate change is not green versus non green, but how you order the priorities of the energy ‘trilemma’. The case for climate change action needs to be made at this level to gain political traction.

Michael Fallon is the minister whose thinking most closely mirrors Number 10′s stance on energy policy so if you want to know what number 10 thinks beyond disputed references to ‘green crap’, his words should be carefully observed.

The Energy Minister recently told The Spectator Conference on energy that the most important issues were ‘security of supply, affordability, and playing our part in combating climate change. And that for me is the order.’

This seemingly innocuous statement is hugely significant because it publicly acknowledges the key trade-offs at the heart of energy policy, and candidly takes a clear position on it. Fallon, like Cameron and Osborne are not denying the need for a rapid reduction in carbon emissions, they are saying you can’t get those reductions without compromising two other important priorities.

the three horns of the trilemma in question are climate change, energy security and fuel poverty

In this case, the three horns of the trilemma in question are climate change, energy security and fuel poverty. Such ‘trilemmas’ are every bit as real and pervasive as dilemmas, but they are not as widely discussed because they are significantly more complicated, and debates surrounding them are more difficult to follow.

There is wide political agreement that we have to try to reduce the impact of anthropogenic Climate change, which means significantly reducing and gradually eliminating fossil fuels from our energy supply, and improving energy efficiency at scale.

However, we also have to retain a secure and stable energy supply, which is harder with renewable forms of energy that are generally less reliable than the baseload power offered by fossil fuels (‘the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow’) and complex if you are simultaneously interfering with the energy market to lower prices. This was the argument (strongly contested) recently used by British parliamentarians to justify extending the life of the country’s dirtiest power stations. - that it was necessary to ‘keep the lights on’.

And we also need to keep fuel prices affordable, especially for those facing acute fuel poverty who sometimes literally freeze to death because they can’t pay for their heating. Keeping costs low is not easy with a transition to renewables, which is costly in itself, and because renewable energy is currently more expensive. On current form, energy companies will inevitably pass on such costs to consumers.

It is hard to argue with the general validity of each of the three imperatives – energy security, fuel poverty and climate change – but we can question whether they deserve to be treated with equal strength and importance, and challenge some of the assumptions underpinning them. Indeed, how you do so represents the new political fault line on the energy debate.

As I argue in a forthcoming RSA report on climate change, I believe the moral priority of climate change takes precedence, and would challenge the validity of the second two imperatives. If pressed, I would probably say the order has to be climate change, energy security and fuel poverty, but making this case well requires keeping competing perspectives on ‘morality’ firmly in mind.

If your responsibility is to keep the energy supply stable across the country, you have to think about that moment every day when people return from work, when there is a huge spike in demand caused by heating and lights going on, people having hot showers, watching TV and preparing meals. Can you stomach the idea of power failure for millions in that context?

And if, like millions, you struggle to pay your energy bills, or are a politician aware of the growing political importance of energy as an electoral issue, would you not be more inclined to question the importance of our climate commitments, regardless of scientific opinion?

The main issue at stake here is whether the appropriate position on climate change is international leadership, with some potential national risks and costs, or the underwhelming pragmatism we currently see. 

The main issue at stake here is whether the appropriate position on climate change is international leadership, with some potential national risks and costs, or the underwhelming pragmatism we currently see. Those like Fallon apparently accept that we should ‘do our bit’, but argue that we cannot unilaterally decide what ‘our bit’ should be – for that we look at the actions of comparable countries. This position is hardly heroic or inspiring, and makes my heart sink, but let’s accept that it is at least understandable.

Which doesn’t prevent us from saying it is wrong on a number of levels.

Those attacking the priority of energy security could ask why we can’t significantly reduce our energy demand through lifestyle changes. Or they might ask whether it’s ok if the power goes off every so often. Couldn’t we live with back-up generators maybe, as many in affluent parts of India do? If that sounds like political suicide, more powerful is to challenge the contention that renewables alone can’t provide that stability, as Marc Jacobsen and others are doing with increasing conviction, or(more controversially) that we need more nuclear power.

Those attacking the priority of fuel poverty might begin with the old suggestion to wear jumpers rather than turn the heating on, as David Cameron recently did, which chimes with social practice theory arguments about ‘energy need’ being socially constructed, but feels much too facile. The key challenge, surely, is to the billions of pounds offered in fossil fuel subsidies, without which renewable energy would not struggle to be seen as affordable. An even more fundamental question is whether profiting out of energy provision – now an essential human need – makes sense at all? Could there even a case for renationalising control of our energy, as 69% of the population seem to want?

You will notice, in each case, that few of the arguments or suggestions sound straightforward or completely convincing, and even where they feel necessary, they sound politically difficult if not implausible. That’s why we have a genuine energy trilemma. Something has to give.

 Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and the author of a forthcoming report on Climate Change ‘stealth denial’ in the British population. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathan_rowson

Comments