Evasion and newspeak: government action vs ecological reality

Posted by bex — 11 March 2008 at 6:37pm - Comments

Alex Steffen of Worldchanging recently wrote an excellent piece called Who Will Tell the People? And How? about the yawning chasm between the reality of climate change and the failure of government to bring in the massive changes needed. Talking about US emissions cuts, he writes:

We're running into a situation here where the acceptable political action is to move from A to C, but where realism demands that - if we want to dodge a catastrophic collision with ecological reality - we move from A to say Q. And that gap, between C and Q, is large enough to lose a future in.

As you're reading this blog, you probably don't need reminding about the catastrophic collision with ecological reality Steffen mentions. With stakes this high, the changes needed (Steffen's A to Q) are profound, fundamental and cross all facets of human existence - from our energy and transport systems to, dare I say it, our social and economic systems.

Over the past couple of years - since climate change became daily headline news - the UK government has evidently recognised that it needs to pay lip service to this ecological reality. But, when it comes to acting, it seems completely unable to break out of business-as-usual: new coal, new runways - day in, day out, government policy keeps giving the lie to its rhetoric.

John Hutton's bizarre speech yesterday underlined this dilemma; the only way to reconcile the climate-friendly rhetoric with the climate-destroying reality is to claim that black is white. Says Hutton:

For critics, there's a belief that coal fired power stations undermine the UK's leadership position on climate change. In fact the opposite is true. Developing economies need to be able to see by the actions that we are taking that it is possible to use indigenous energy reserves and decarbonise your economy.

Orwell would have been impressed.

The government's abject failure to act may be down to vested interests dictating government policy. Or it may be that the government just hopes, in a vague kind of way, that the massive transformation we need will be delivered by free markets - even though the national grid, the strategic motorway network, the rail network and practically all major infrastructure has needed either government money or concerted policy and political support.

In terms of energy, Steffen's ‘Q' would be the delivery of a low (preferably zero) carbon energy system by 2050 at the very latest. Free markets will not get us there; we need a total renewal of infrastructure into a decentralised system that can deliver heat as well as electricity (visit EfficienCity to see what this would look like) - a challenge and transformation far bigger than, say, the privatisation of the electricity system 20 years ago. Yet this level of government intervention isn't even on the table.

The consultation on ‘distributed energy' which finished today admits that decentralised energy is excellent at:

making use of the waste heat produced through electricity generation to heat and cool buildings; reducing electricity losses through moving generation much closer to where electricity is used; reducing the need for large transmission and distribution lines with their associated environmental impact; facilitating the use of local renewable energy sources; and encouraging behavioural change through increased awareness of energy consumption.

Having admitted that, the consultation document completely avoids talking about how to actually transform our present system - designed for big power stations to generate energy in a profoundly inefficient way - into a clean, efficient, decentralised system. Nor does it suggest policies that might reward decentralised energy for these benefits.

Instead, it acknowledges the unfriendliness of the existing system to small generators and the inequities of the trading scheme, and proposes remedies to fix this. The basic - deeply mistaken - assumption is that our existing system works, and we just need to tinker around the edges and make it a bit better.

As Doug Parr, our Chief Scientist, put it at a Whitehall seminar:

It's like inviting round a vegetarian and cooking beef stroganoff, but when that doesn't work for them offering peanuts - it's better than nothing but doesn't get to the core of the problem...

Can the current suite of reviews deliver the low carbon Britain that we need, given the threat to billions of people and society as we know it that climate change represents? Greenpeace believes that large-scale market intervention is an essential prerequisite. Yet the level necessary does not seem to be an option on the table in the plethora of reviews being undertaken. We have to change and make our national response commensurate with UK's role in the world, and the level of the threat posed by climate change.

I don't know what it will take to induce central government to take real leadership on climate change. But I do know that, by resorting to newspeak and evasion to cover up the chasm between action needed and action taken, the government is confusing the issue, bungling our chances and wasting the small window of time we have left to make a difference.

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