Environmental Orthodoxy Remains a Barrier to Carbon Cuts

The European Commission 2030 White Paper on climate change may be seen as two steps forward, one step back for realistic, effective climate policy.

Two steps forward in that we now have a target that is focused firstly on the ends (carbon reduction), not the means (specific technologies). Secondly, it is rooted in the principle of cost effectiveness. Until now, in Europe, the tendency has been for technology tribalism to over-ride the goal of decarbonisation, in favour of promoting renewables.

Welcoming the proposed 40% target for reduction in GHG emissions, UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary Edward Davey said “It’s good news that the Commission has listened to the UK argument that countries must be allowed to decarbonise in the cheapest way possible. However, the UK remains concerned about any renewables target especially as the debate within Parliament and the British green movement has moved on to technology neutral options like a decarbonisation target as the most cost effective and practical way of fighting climate change.”

The second point on cost-effectiveness is critical for maintaining public support, and for ensuring a long-term sustainable trajectory of emissions reduction across all domestic economies in the EU. If decarbonisation is cost effective it’s less likely to become a political football. As Keith Kloor has argued in his blog “Europe Submits to the Iron Law of Climate Policy” economic worries will always trump environmental policies.

Two steps forward. One step back. The level of institutional bias, manifesting in technology tribalism, is a major barrier to a realistic strategy for decarbonisation. Once again, the European Commission failed to acknowledge that nuclear energy provides two thirds of low carbon power in the EU. The contribution nuclear energy already makes and has the potential to make in the transition from fossil fuels is repeatedly ignored. Too frequently, climate solutions are framed entirely in terms of growth in renewables, which is convenient for the manufacturers of wind and solar, but not for the public goals of decarbonisation.

Whilst we do absolutely need solar, wind and other renewable technologies to grow their market share, (as well as efficiency, demand reduction, storage and combined heat and power) focusing only on renewables risks confusing the means with the end. Not only will this not represent the most cost effective route (and therefore ultimately risks losing public support), but it may also undermine the case for action on climate change altogether. Given right wing skepticism about the performance of renewables, locking the debate into this technology specific frame polarizes the debate on climate. It unhelpfully perpetrates the idea that climate change is no more than a left wing conspiracy, seeking to socially reengineer society by creating an energy austere world where everyone is required to sacrifice their energy rich lifestyles.

The depth of institutional bias against nuclear is staggering. From green investment (for example CERES calling for $1trillion investment in every low carbon tech but nuclear), to think tanks (see for example an otherwise excellent new report by the RSA, ironically on stealth denial) or international institutions (World Bank, United Nations) tunnel vision on climate and energy solutions appear to severely underestimate the scale of the challenge. Of course nuclear is not a panacea any more than renewables are, but it seems foolhardy to take it out of the equation.

Four of the world’s best known and highly regarded climate scientists, including Dr James Hansen, recently wrote an open letter to environmental leaders calling on them to reconsider their opposition to nuclear energy. “To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power: As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.”

The response from the old greens has been total silence. A conspiracy of silence that, in light of the climate emergency humanity is facing, we can no longer afford.

The question is not nuclear versus renewables. It’s nuclear versus coal. (Obviously, coal and gas are more harmful, by an order of magnitude, than nuclear to health and the environment.)

The truth is that, to transition from fossil fuels, we need all the tools in the box. Whether left or right, climate skeptic or green, our shared vision should be for a world in which energy is clean, affordable and abundant. By confusing the means with the end, and by sticking to an unrealistic dogma that renewables alone are the panacea, we risk losing sight of our real goals until it is too late. For the environment movement, the stakes are too high to go on with business as usual.

First published on Business Green