Trickle Down Sustainability – the challenges of substantial energy reform

imageIn this piece Magnus Jamieson takes a comprehensive look at fundamental challenges of revolutionising energy policy at a time of gesture, stalemate and lack of imagination.

 

“I have wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but somehow I am still in love with life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our more stupid melancholy propensities, for is there anything more stupid than to be eager to go on carrying a burden which one would gladly throw away, to loathe one’s very being and yet to hold it fast, to fondle the snake that devours us until it has eaten our hearts away?” ― Voltaire, Candide: or, Optimism

It’s easy to be nihilistic if one follows politics; even moreso if one happens to follow environmental science, energy, and politics as I do. Everything keeps going wrong; the bad guys keep winning; the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer. The Conservatives shut down the department for energy and climate change as the planet warms faster than, well, basically ever, and our energy system is creaking.

Resignation absolves us of the responsibility to act without compromising our conscience. The world’s problems are a tsunami and we are but palm trees on the beach, waiting to be swept away. We can lie back and ride the torrent or hold fast and be destroyed. The truth is naturally somewhere in the middle – we bend but do not break, if you will.

I have always been sceptical of the line “think global act local” in the same way I am sceptical about the idea frequently pushed by well-meaning environmentalists that “many a mickle mak’s a muckle”; that a lot of small actions can add up to a significant total. The late Professor David Mackay said it best as “if everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little” (if you want an idea of the scale of the challenges facing the UK’s energy sector, Without Hot Air is absolutely essential reading).

“The fact they’re outsourced almost 3% of the UK’s future energy supply to the Chinese government via Hinkley Point C (despite the enormous risks involved and the exorbitant subsidies being awarded) emphasises that point.”

Climate change is scary but it is a problem with political and economic causes and political and economic solutions- but they will be neither universally popular nor conventionally “affordable” in current market structures. That is, whether or not these solutions are actually viable or not is less significant than whether or not markets are actually willing to pursue them- even in a system designed on a bedrock of loss aversion.

Actually addressing climate change in any meaningful way will require fundamental changes and social reorganisation unseen since World War 2- and even then a great deal of effort will have to be expended in mitigation and just accepting that a great deal of damage we have wrought is irreparable. Simply switching phone chargers off means nothing compared to shutting down our coal plants; we can afford not to do the former but the latter is an absolute imperative.

The problem, of course, is in large part due to the failure of individuals like myself in research to disseminate our findings in an effective manner. Everyone knows the planet is warming and everyone likes “renewable energy” but these preferences are of secondary concern to electricity bills and, increasingly, immigration- but immigration, electricity bills, climate change, and renewable energy are inextricably linked.

“Internal factions within the SNP such as the fantastically named anti-fracking group SMAUG also have a more tangible role to play in actually making these choices manifest via national council and conferences.”

Furthermore, it is all very well identifying problems and solutions, but it is quite another issue to actually get these issues into laws or even before parliament. This is where it becomes a political problem. Politicians aren’t scientists, and, despite what some will tell you, they’re ultimately people like the rest of us. Their opinions are the sum total of their lived experiences, lobbyists, and their peers. The onus is on trade unions, third sector organisations, and political party activists to affect change in public discourse to make the case for decarbonisation of energy and for politicians to address climate change. But what does this mean in practice?

In Scotland, this effectively now means lobbying the SNP to make planning legislation more amenable to renewables and less so to, for instance, fracking and nuclear. Internal factions within the SNP such as the fantastically named anti-fracking group SMAUG also have a more tangible role to play in actually making these choices manifest via national council and conferences.

This is symptomatic of the fact that, in many ways, Scottish politics now centres on trying to direct the SNP’s broad church productively, and in turn trying to influence Westminster via the SNP diaspora in London. That may be via “Civic Scotland” or by persuading the membership who in turn can put things to conference and change party policy that way. This has had some success – particularly in regards to land reform and pushing the party to harden its stance against fracking – but can only do so much regarding energy policy. Energy is, after all, reserved to the UK Parliament, controlled by the Conservative Party. So what can we do?

“The onus is on trade unions, third sector organisations, and political party activists to affect change in public discourse to make the case for decarbonisation of energy and for politicians to address climate change.”

The Conservatives are not beholden to the Unions as the Labour party are, and are more concerned with winning elections than ideological purity (they save the real hardcore Tory stuff for when they are actually in power). What is obvious, however, is their amenability to large corporate interests, be that EDF Energy, Cuadrilla, or the Chinese government. The fact they’re outsourced almost 3% of the UK’s future energy supply to the Chinese government via Hinkley Point C (despite the enormous risks involved and the exorbitant subsidies being awarded) emphasises that point.

Appealing to the Conservatives’ better nature will not work; writing petitions will not work; waiting patiently for them to come around will not work. Slowly slowly catchy monkey will not work with the Conservatives in the timescales we have to prevent catastrophic environmental harm- but in many ways that is the technique scientists have been reliant on for years in order to protect the environment. “Maybe this report will change their minds; maybe this conference will save the planet; maybe if we keep telling them they’ll listen”. Stupid, melancholic optimism.

Academics have almost no economic power and can be poor activists. Our working conditions are insecure, we’re disorganised, we’re overly verbose, we can be unapproachable, we’re not photogenic, and perhaps we’re guilty of our hyper-specialism clouding our perceptions of the “big picture”. We have all the evidence we need that fundamental change is necessary not only to the power system but to society as a whole, but without any real way of forcing the issue we are powerless to actually do anything about it.

“Renewable energy subsidies for solar panels or micro-turbines mean nothing to someone facing a £250 electricity bill in February and yet another rent rise on a zero-hour, minimum wage contract.”

Much like the World Wars, it is working-class people who will disproportionately suffer from the effects of climate change and resource shortage. Failed crops due to drought or heatwaves will increase the cost of food while energy insecurity will increase electricity bills as distributors try to hold an aging network together. Rich people, as seas rise and consume land, can simply afford to move upwards and can take the hit from increased food prices.

The solutions we have in place do little to help working-class communities in urban centres in substandard housing facing rising electricity bills. The way subsidy schemes are currently devised rewards middle-class, rural or suburban individuals who can afford panels or who can afford to move into new builds built to better standards. Meanwhile, many of our poorest people overpay on pre-paid meters in poorly-built, draughty houses with inefficient devices.

People who can afford solar panels or micro-wind turbines on their houses can power their AAA-rated boilers and eat organic, sustainable food from local farmers. Folk who can barely afford to eat cheap ready meals waste money throwing heat out into the atmosphere through their roofs and windows or heating the wall behind their refrigerator. Social justice, energy, and housing are inextricably linked issues.

“We operate, essentially, in a “trickle-down-sustainability” society. Big companies and rich nations are expected to cut back (and rightfully so), but poor people and developing nations simply cannot afford to develop in the same manner.”

Renewable energy subsidies for solar panels or micro-turbines mean nothing to someone facing a £250 electricity bill in February and yet another rent rise on a zero-hour, minimum wage contract. The cancellation of the Renewables Obligation for onshore wind or slashing Feed-in-Tariffs will do nothing to address leaky roofs or keep auld yins and cauld weans warm- but these are nonetheless essential policies in a national context and reducing renewables’ funding is an inherently regressive move.

We operate, essentially, in a “trickle-down-sustainability” society. Big companies and rich nations are expected to cut back (and rightfully so), but poor people and developing nations simply cannot afford to develop in the same manner. Coal is cheap. Microgeneration is expensive. Nuclear requires sophisticated and secure infrastructure exclusive to the most developed nations. Capex for new, efficient tech outweighs long-term benefits as poor people are punished for being poor and priced out of environmental sustainability.

An environmental revolution has to come from a community-by-community level and work upwards. Villages opposing fracking rigs; community-owned renewable energy installations and combined-heat-and-power for new social housing; replacing prepaid meters, for instance, with smart meters from a public energy supplier for old and vulnerable people. In Scotland, the SNP have already proposed a public energy supplier, moves towards supporting community-ownership of energy, and reforms of feed-in-tariffs in their manifesto. These are far more significant acts than just turning off your telly rather than using standby.

The late Professor David Mackay said it best as “if everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little”

These are real, tangible, practical solutions- and they’re just a start- but that is still more than doing nothing and submitting to resignation and fear. I do not know how we’ll solve the energy crisis, or the housing crisis, or the food crisis, or the water crisis. I try to break the crisis down into problems for which I look for solutions, for that is all we can do. I do not know if we even can solve these problems- all we can do is try.

Humanity overcame the black plague; we defeated smallpox and polio; we’ve overthrown ancient dynasties and tyrants. We’re capable of committing great horrors – but also of setting them right. What is, in my mind certain, is that in order to save the environment we need radical social change: better housing for poor people, more equitable wealth distribution, and stronger communities – these all tie into the environmentalist movement.

For my part, I am part of a trade union. I am in a political party. I am a researcher involved with climate change and power systems. I am just one person, though, and there is only so much we as individuals can do. This is more than just recycling your bottles rather than binning them or using the brown food bins.

“Optimism,” said Cacambo, “What is that?” “Alas!” replied Candide, “It is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.”
― Voltaire, Candide: or, Optimism

We have to use organisations to tackle oil companies, exploitative landlords, and laissez-faire political parties happy to facilitate the rich accumulating wealth while crops fail and the poor starve or drown in the Mediterranean trying to escape civil war or climatological disaster. We all have our parts to play in fighting climate change and poverty, and even if it looks like a losing battle, it is worth the fight.

So in short, I don’t know what to tell you to do to help “save the planet”, but it’s inexorably linked to almost every other socioeconomic crisis the world faces. Join a Union, get involved with political causes, go on marches if that’s your thing – but don’t sit on your hands and assume the world will either sort itself out or that it isn’t worth trying. Both ideas are false.

Comments (7)

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  1. Iain Black says:

    As luck would have it I just presented a paper at the International Sustainable Research Society Annual Conference titled:

    “Revolution from the inside. How Grassroots Political Party Activism Changed Scottish Government Energy Policy”

    It follows the work of the “fantastically named anti-fracking group Smaug” and how they helped set the Scottish UCG moratorium. The general thesis supports your ideas here regarding how a key battle ground in sustainability research is understanding how to get politicians to back up their fine words with appropriate action.

    1. Crubag says:

      Has the Scottish Government’s position shifted from a moratorium? That’s been the position for about 18 months now, and doesn’t preclude ministers meeting from both sides and hearing their arguments.

  2. john young says:

    What about Keshe/Tesla apparently there is “energy” all around us it is clean and obviously sustainable,if this is the case then it would from what I understand it would negate all of the others,problem is “vested interests”.Do you know anything of this?.

  3. Crubag says:

    “Politicians aren’t scientists, and, despite what some will tell you, they’re ultimately people like the rest of us. Their opinions are the sum total of their lived experiences, lobbyists, and their peers.”

    As is true of scientists themselves. And science, like politics, has its ebb and flow of fashions.

    “This has had some success – particularly in regards to land reform and pushing the party to harden its stance against fracking”

    If land reform is your example, it’s an example of the status quo winning. The peace deal was signed a couple of months ago. I think from a recognition that the taxpayers couldn’t afford the wholesale redistribution of land.

    But I don’t see any Scottish Parliament making radical moves on energy. Every major political party wants to see the hydrocarbon party last as long as possible. Too many jobs, too much tax take tied up with the North Sea.

  4. Mathew says:

    It’s like driving a car very fast towards a brick wall. 50 years ago we could’ve gently applied the brakes, come to a halt and set a new course. 10 years ago we could’ve jammed on the brakes hard and avoided impact. Now we need to brake very hard and attempt a handbrake turn – but we’ll still hit the wall. The Paris COP was our last chance and we blew it.
    A friend said to me a while back, ‘if we’re not careful we’re going to put ourselves back to the Stone Age’. In fact it’s much worse than that. The Stone Age had a steady climate and vast, unspoiled habitat. The people had the tools and skills to survive in that environment. We will have none of these things.
    Never mind, there are plenty of distractions. Another week of the Olympics and then back to obsessing over Brexit.

    1. Crubag says:

      The majority of the stone age played out during an ice age – which we are still in.

      It was a period of global cooling, with repeated glacial advances. But with the warming period beginning some 12,000 years we move into the last phase of the stone age and the development of agriculture.

      1. Mathew says:

        The Stone Age lasted a very long time so clearly there were temperature fluctuations but the point is that these were slow and gradual changes compared to the accelerated warming that we are causing at present.

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