Beware the New Parochialism

The Blair-Schwarzenegger and Clinton-Livingstone love-ins on tackling climate change summed up the Lilliputian localism of today’s Green lobby.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

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Last week’s two Los Angeles love-ins on climate change – Blair and Schwarzenegger, Livingstone and Clinton – might look like a triumph for ecologically-minded internationalism. In fact, they celebrated the small, the local and the decentralised.

For the new Green priesthood, it was a good week for scrubbed faces and cool suits. On Monday, UK prime minister Tony Blair met California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as BP chief Lord John Browne and Virgin supremo Sir Richard Branson. He and the ex-Terminator gave a press conference and signed a mission statement. It announced that ‘California and the UK recognise the linkages between climate change, energy security, human health and robust economic growth’. The West Coast state and Britain would try to work on a joint cap and trade scheme for limiting carbon emissions and allowing swaps of permits-to-emit: the two would ‘explore the potential for linkages between our market-based mechanisms’ (1).

It looked like Green hands across the Atlantic, and then some. But on Thursday there came more. London Mayor Ken Livingstone helped launch, with Bill Clinton, the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI), an initiative (you guessed) of the Clinton Foundation. Moreover, the CCI announced its first project – a partnership with the Large Cities Climate Leadership Group (LCCLG), chairman: Ken Livingstone (2).

The Large Cities Climate Leadership Group had already signed up Berlin, Buenos Aires, Cairo, Caracas, Chicago, Delhi, Dhaka, Istanbul, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Melbourne, Mexico City, New York, Paris, Philadelphia, Rome, Sao Paulo, Seoul, Toronto and Warsaw. More cities are now likely to join. Altogether, the CCI/LCCLG partnership looked like further evidence of the Green establishment’s global approach to solving problems. Indeed, Livingstone proclaimed: ‘Our aim is simple – to change the world.’ (3)

Perhaps Blair and Schwarzenegger, fading actors, along with Browne, who is retiring, Branson, an ex-hippie, ex-President Clinton and his honour Mayor Livingstone, scourge of the SUV, really will change the world. But if they succeed, it will be through installing not internationalism, but what we might term the New Parochialism.

We can see this in Livingstone’s pompous and demeaning statement in Los Angeles that ‘there is no bigger task for humanity than to avert catastrophic climate change’. Livingstone believes the genuine problem of climate change is so big, because he has given up thinking any bigger. Once the politics of survival pre-empt the politics of progress, the goals for international cooperation, like those for innovation, can only be circumscribed.

The small print

It’s worth looking at the small print behind last week’s two declarations.

The Blair/Schwarzenegger mission statement is a fine example of what spiked has already drawn attention to: domain expansion (4). Not content with linking climate change to energy security, it seeks to suggest that dealing with it is also the key to human health and economic development. There seems to be nothing that can’t be cured by unanimity around climate change.

The pair did not see fit to go into how fighting climate change means fighting ill-health. Instead, under the heading ‘Evaluate and implement market-based mechanisms that spur innovation’, the UK promised California that it would ‘share best practices’ on emissions trading and the ‘lessons learned in Europe’ about such trading. Meanwhile, under the heading ‘Collaborate on technology research’, both sides pledged to:

‘Co-ordinate our energy sector efforts to switch to clean energy technologies, promote green buildings, and increase the use of efficiency and renewable energy technologies. We will share information regarding our efforts to reduce emissions from the transportation sector, including California’s emission standards and hydrogen highway and the United Kingdom’s experience with a renewable fuels standard and clean coal technologies.’ (5)

It’s a veritable laundry list of nitty-gritty items, and we will have to write about Schwarzenegger’s ‘hydrogen highway’ on another occasion. Nevertheless, it’s clear that our Green dignitaries don’t just want to turn carbon, a waste product, into something like gold – a universal equivalent to be bought, sold, measured and managed. They are also desperate to claim the mantle of technological innovation and corresponding economic growth. Indeed, Schwarzenegger insisted:

‘You can protect the environment and you can make sure the economy grows without any problems – we have shown that here in California.’ (6)

This was also Livingstone’s theme. While the Clinton Climate Initiative was adamant that urban areas are ‘responsible’ for over 75 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the world, Livingstone also flattered the world’s largest cities. For him, they were ‘at the centre of developing the technologies and innovative new practices that provide hope that we can radically reduce carbon emissions’ (7).

So: global in scope and ambitious in their commitment to technology – or thus it appeared. But take a look at the Livingstone/Clinton laundry list:

  • More energy-efficient lighting for traffic and street lights
  • Building codes and practices that make use of more effective insulation, more energy-efficient windows, more energy-efficient heating and ventilation systems and more energy-efficient lighting.
  • More energy-efficient municipal water and sanitation systems
  • Localised, cleaner electric generation (sic) systems
  • Use of bio-fuels or hybrid technologies for city buses, garbage trucks and other vehicles
  • Schemes to reduce traffic congestion
  • Reduction of emissions from city garbage dumps and the use of biomass to generate electricity
  • More intelligent design of electric grids both across the city and within office and municipal buildings.

Apart from a nod to London’s congestion charge and two plugs for bio-fuels, much of the emphasis is on innovation in the energy efficiency of consumer products. This is fair enough, as far as it goes – which is not very far. Where the Greens’ commitment to technological innovation can better be tested is in their commitment to localised clean electricity generation systems, or what is known as the microgeneration of energy we can also be sure that, especially in California, IT is part of the Green conception of more intelligent energy grids.

Let’s have a look at how the UK has begun to ‘change the world’ around these two issues, starting with energy IT. In this article, we focus not on homes, but on what the CCI referred to as office and municipal buildings.

‘Smart’ meters are small-minded meters

Read UK chancellor Gordon Brown’s March Budget and you’ll find no fewer than four mentions of ‘smart meters’ with which to monitor energy use. Read the Department of Trade and Industry’s July energy review, The Energy Challenge, and mentions multiply to 16 (8). The government-funded Carbon Trust gets a mention for its efforts ‘to promote awareness and build support’ for meters – by trialling them among small and medium enterprises (9). ‘Early results’ from the Trust, the DTI’s energy review says, suggest ‘significant’ energy savings from those trials.

It turns out that, after making fewer than 571 installations of meters, the early results that have so far been made public consist of…Tiverton High School, a Devon comprehensive of 1,000 pupils (10). And Tiverton itself shows that metering, like turning workplace sources of energy down or off, has benefits that are pretty limited. Its meters, costing about £5,000 and covering water as well as gas, saved nearly 8,000m3 of the former a year, paying for themselves in three months by detecting a leak. They also saved 216,000 kWh in gas, or 41,000 kg of carbon dioxide. That sounds impressive; but without the water leak, the saving in gas was worth less than £3,500 (11).

At today’s price of €17 for a metric tonne of carbon dioxide, Tiverton’s annual carbon saving on gas usage through metering was worth just €700, or a colossal 70 Euro cents per pupil per year. Yet the system is ‘all part of our approach to our environmental principles and part of our belief that we should practice what we teach’, says the school’s acting head teacher (12).

Of course, it’s good to detect leaks right away, and IT can play a part in that. But to portray metering as anything more than a propaganda exercise is to take a really small-minded attitude to technological innovation. If we want to do something about carbon dioxide emissions, this kind of intelligent grid denotes a puny intelligence at work.

School, workplace and buildings-based metering for carbon emissions is a petty attempt to guilt-trip people into loathing their own emissions. But contrary to what the Clinton Climate Initiative says, cities full of buildings are not ‘responsible’ for more than 75 per cent of global greenhouse emissions. The overwhelming proportion of anthropogenic carbon emissions related to buildings comes from fossil fuel extraction and refinement, and from electric power generation and transmission. Most of these activities take place outside cities. Livingstone lauds cities’ talents in Green technologies, and no doubt would include workplace metering among those. But his focus on cities as the place to combat climate change, rather than the energy industry, reveals his contempt for the e-styles of urban populations.

The example of Combined Heat and Power

We can see the New Parochialism at work if we now turn to workplace-based power generation in the UK. Here, The Energy Challenge waxes lyrical about Kirklees Council, West Yorkshire, and its support for a 15kW wind turbine at a local sports college – a turbine, in other words, that can support a grand total of 150 100-watt light bulbs. But Challenge is positively ecstatic about Woking Council, which has more than 60 local generators, including Combined Heat and Power (CHP) ones, to look after not just social housing, but its own buildings and town centre businesses, too (13).

That sounds impressive. Certainly CHP devices are clever, since they put to use the waste heat that builds up whenever electricity is generated. They can raise the efficiency of fuel utilisation to more than 75 per cent of Gross Calorific Value, against just 50 per cent from modern Combined Cycle Gas Turbines (CCGTs) (14).

But if Challenge believes that many of the ‘most exciting’ CHP growth opportunities lie with community and building-level schemes, it also recognises that the great majority of UK CHP capacity will come, ‘for the near future’, from large-scale, centralised plant (15).

In fact, that makes sense for the far future, too. A 2005 study for the International Energy Agency found that if all of the buildings in a city were fitted with small-scale CHP systems, ‘the overall carbon dioxide reduction would be only five per cent compared to a 27 per cent reduction for a city-wide scheme. Large, district-wide or city-wide CCGT electricity generators, when fitted out to capture heat losses, had “a clear advantage” over buildings-based CHP systems. That’s because such centralised generators are much more efficient in producing electricity than the smaller units, even though electricity and heat distribution losses are higher.’ (16)

So no matter how much the DTI would like workplaces, just as much as households, to move to decentralised sources of power, the numbers just don’t add up. If we are going to move to put waste heat to use, we should do it in a centralised way. Nevertheless, along with the dynamic quango Ofgem, the government insists on reporting, in the first half of 2007, on the myriad barriers to the take-up of distributed electricity generation such as buildings-based CHP (17).

What, then, should workplaces do about power generation? Well: in a significant argument, the Open University has hinted that a terrorist attack on the national electricity grid could, on US estimates, cost a company in the elite field of financial brokerage operations an average of as much as $6,480,000 an hour in downtime. The OU goes on:

‘It is thus not surprising that many organisations have installed emergency back-up diesel generators at a cost of around £200-£300 per kW. There is an estimated 20 GW of such plant in Great Britain. Most of this is only for the “in-house” use of the owners when the grid fails. Somewhat perversely, in order to be reliably available in a power cut, such plant needs to be run regularly on full load to prevent mechanical deterioration. Indeed, once purchased, it might as well be used as part of a CHP system. A system of distributed CHP plants may well be more resistant to a grid failure than relying on supply from a few remote nuclear power stations.’ (18)

There we have it. Compared with the manifest benefits of building more centralised power generation to meet their energy needs, workplaces will only benefit from themselves going DIY in power, and installing their own diesel and CHP generators, if there is ‘grid failure’. Moreover the OU links such failure neither to New Labour’s refusal to build any new power stations since 2000, nor to its lack of investment in the National Grid. Rather, the OU links grid failure to the risk of a terrorist attack. In this framework, even the argument for large-scale CHP systems is predicated on them being more decentralised and thus less vulnerable to attack than nuclear power stations.


In Britain, the state more and more requires the individual workplaces, as much as the home, both to save energy and to generate it. Yet the micrometering and leading microgeneration technologies relevant to these two tasks are backward, not ambitious in scope.

From the German Buddhist economist Fritz Schumacher at the UK’s old National Coal Board in 1973 (19), on to the US futurologist John Naisbitt in 1982 (20), the ‘small is beautiful’ approach has dominated environmentalist thinking. Naisbitt himself named a shift from centralisation to decentralisation the fifth of his 10 ‘megatrends’, highlighting energy as a ‘catalyst for local action’.

It has taken the Greens a third of a century to begin to implement the New Parochialism. They now clothe the same old ideas in the rhetoric of global initiatives; but the ideas are still the same, old, and parochial, too. In the 1980s, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was certain that there was no bigger task for humanity than to avert catastrophic cruise missiles. Today that one-dimensional philosophy has a Green and yet more lurid twist.

Climate change, is, as we have already said, a genuine problem. But the way to tackle it is not through the micro-politics of survival but the big politics of progress. The real challenge is a massive expansion of energy supply in the West and the developing world. It is to build large, centralised, internationally-linked, highly efficient sources of energy generation, based on nuclear fission, hydroelectric power, and on fossil fuels whose heat – and whose carbon – is captured at source. Livingstone may want to believe that the future lies with the solar panels that Currys will soon start selling, priced at £9,000 for a three-bedroom house, amortised over 7 to 18 years (21), and regularly cleaned, maintained and repaired by responsible roof-climbing citizens. For ourselves, we prefer Adam Smith’s idea of a division of labour leading to higher productivity in energy production.

The logic of the Lilliputian perspective on climate change was well illustrated at the weekend. In a leaked letter, UK transport minister Douglas Alexander revealed his plans for a bill for nationwide tolls on Britain’s roads, together with pay-as-you-drive black boxes in cars. Every time you drive from city to city, the damage for which you are ‘responsible’ will be metered.

Not much hint of Schwarzenegger’s high-tech hydrogen highway here!

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University in Leicester and a columnist at IT Week. He is speaking in the session Putting design and technology to good use at the Battle of Ideas in London in October 2006.

(1) 10 Downing Street, United Kingdom and California announcement on climate change and clean energy collaboration, 31 July 2006

(2) President Clinton Launches Clinton Climate Initiative, Clinton Foundation, 1 August 2006

(3) Quoted in ibid.

(4) Frank Furedi, Meet the Malthusians manipulating the fear of terror, spiked, 27 June 2006

(5) 10 Downing Street, United Kingdom and California announcement on climate change and clean energy collaboration, 31 July 2006

(6) California and UK in climate pact, BBC News, 1 August 2006

(7) President Clinton Launches Clinton Climate Initiative, Clinton Foundation, 1 August 2006

(8) DTI, The Energy Challenge, July 2006

(9) Ibid, pp48-49.

(10) The Carbon Trust’s Advanced Metering field trial update, Carbon Trust 24 April 2006, p4

(11) Ibid, p4.

(12) Ibid, p3.

(13) DTI, The Energy Challenge, July 2006, p63.

(14) See DTI, Microgeneration: Cogeneration Technologies. Most new CHP schemes use natural gas, but a significant proportion burn alternative, including renewable, fuels. The UK has a target to install 10GW CHP by 2010. Current installed capacity is estimated at around 5GW.

(15) DTI, The Energy Challenge, July 2006, p66.

(16) See PB Power, 2005, A Comparison of Distributed CHP/DH with Large-scale CHP/DH, International Energy Agency. Cited in Open University Energy & Environment Research Unit, Submission to the DTI Energy Review Consultation, 13 April 2006

(17) DTI, The Energy Challenge, op cit, p69.

(18) OU, op cit, p16.

(19) Ernst Schumacher, Small is beautiful: economics as if people mattered (1973), HarperPerennial, 1989, pp183-4.

(20) John Naisbitt, Megatrends: ten new directions transforming our lives (1982), Warner Books, 1984.

(21) See Eoin Callan, ‘Currys to take trailblazing step of selling solar panels’, Financial Times, 31 July 2006, p1.

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Topics Science & Tech


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