The not-so Good Life

The government's energy policy will take the UK down an exhausting route.

Austin Williams

Topics Politics

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The UK government’s Energy White Paper Our Energy Future: Creating a Low Carbon Economy intends to set out a new energy policy in order ‘to meet tomorrow’s challenges’ (1).

At face value, the White Paper seems reminiscent of the 1972 report to the Club of Rome, Limits To Growth. But whereas that 30-year-old best-seller was based on an overinflated concern at the depletion of global resources (which turned out to be misinformed), the Energy White Paper takes a national preoccupation with lower resources as its starting point to launch into a dissertation about Britain’s role in a future world of perceived instability and uncertainty.

Our Energy Future says that ‘as we shift…to being once again a net energy importer we may become potentially more vulnerable to price fluctuations and interruptions to supply caused by regulatory failures, political instability or conflict in other parts of the world’. But the UK is actually one of only two leading industrial nations to be net energy exporters at present (Canada being the other), and is still producing from significant domestic oil reserves. So why the dystopian scenario?

This report is couched in terms of precaution and risk-aversion. Ultimately, it is a national security document – or should I say, a national security blanket. ‘Renewables’, it says, ‘will help us avoid over-dependence on imports and can make us less vulnerable to a security threat.’

Recognising that renewables provide just three percent of current energy demand, the report admits that carbon fuel resources from abroad will be required to fill the gap for the foreseeable future. So the report boasts that the government ‘will work internationally to promote regional stability, economic reform, open and competitive markets and appropriate environmental policies in the regions that supply most of the world’s oil and gas’.

An inflated fear about the instability of the oil-producing regions has pushed the government to retrench. The report calls for improved ‘contingency planning and resilience in dealing with major incidents, including terrorism, which could affect critical energy infrastructure’. It would seem that a so-called sustainable energy strategy mandates an interventionist foreign policy. Not so much ‘War For Oil’ as ‘War So That We Don’t Have To Use Your Oil’.

  • The Good Life

The central plank of Our Energy Future is the cutting of UK carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent by ‘about’ 2050, ‘with real progress by 2020’. In addition, the government wants energy to be produced locally via micro-generation projects – pushing the inclusion of solar panels on houses, for example, to ensure that dwellings become zero emission in 20 years time.

The previous incarnation of the environment ministry (the Department of the Environment, Transport and Rural Affairs) stated that buildings produce around half of all UK manmade carbon emissions (the majority of which are generated in use rather than in manufacture); and new building regulations outlined the reductions needed to comply with Britain’s Kyoto obligations.

But apart from a few gas stoves and oil-fired ovens, carbon dioxide (CO2)emissions do not originate in the home, but at the power station. If you receive power from a coal-fired power station, it doesn’t matter how efficient your lightbulbs are, for example. Similarly an old-fashioned, inefficient lighting system will cause no CO2 emissions if powered by a nuclear power station.

However, although not specifying targets, the Energy White Paper is clear that nuclear power, which it admits is ‘currently an important source of carbon-free electricity’ is not on the cards because ‘its current economics make it an unattractive option for new, carbon-free generating capacity’. Instead, the report lauds Elean power station in Sutton near Ely, which is the UK’s first straw-fired power plant with an output of 36 megawatts from 200,000 tonnes of straw – with contracted supplies from local farmers, revealing, possibly, the hidden benefit of set-aside.

With nuclear power stations providing for a quarter of the UK’s current energy needs, but most stations scheduled for decommissioning by 2010, unless something dramatic is done we should prepare to see CO2 emissions rise dramatically – by default – in seven years’ time.

Even though this national energy-creating deficit has been caused by a) poor government support and, b) an inability to confront the anti-nuclear consensus, the report tries to ensure that we all think of ourselves as part of the problem. ‘Today’s homes’, it says, ‘contain more household appliances than our grandparents ever dreamed of…[but] not only are these new gadgets energy-hungry, but as users most of us are energy-lazy’. Prepare yourselves for awareness-raising quangos encouraging us to mend our ways.

  • Less is not more

The report points out that over the past 30 years ‘our economy has doubled in size, while energy use has hardly increased’. This may reflect efficiencies within the system that stem naturally from a developing economy, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that an energy-efficient economy is a progressive or developing one.

While significant amounts of money will be spent on defending the current decrepit energy infrastructure, the underlying message is clear: ‘the cheapest and safest ways of addressing all our goals is to use less energy…[and] we will use market instruments to achieve it.’ An energy-efficient, sustainable, carbon-free future will be one of parochial, small-scale survivalist self-sufficiency.

Little could we have imagined that the 1970s sitcom The Good Life, featuring the suburban couple Tom and Barbara struggling to achieve their aim of self-sufficiency, would become a model for us all.

Austin Williams is director of the Transport Research Group, technical editor of the Architects’ Journal, and motoring correspondent at the Daily Telegraph. He is a contributor to Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Carchitecture: When the Car and the City Collide, August/Birkhauser, 2001 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Back to the future, by Josie Appleton

spiked-debate: The future of energy

(1) See the Our Energy Future: Creating a Low Carbon Economy, February 2003

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Topics Politics


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