The future of energy
The opening seminar in spiked's 'Facing the future' series sent sparks flying.
The UK government’s White Paper ‘Our Energy Future: Creating a Low-Carbon Economy’, released in February 2003, proposes to cut greenhouse gas emissions more radically than is proposed by the Kyoto Protocol. Something needs to give: our energy requirement levels, the fossil fuel industry or our perception of the problem. A spiked-seminar organised with Hill & Knowlton on 19 February aimed to ask where the balance should lie.
John Lawton, chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, Chris Anastasi, senior environmental adviser at British Energy, and Joe Kaplinsky, patent and technology analyst, were on the panel, with Helene Guldberg from spiked chairing.
John Lawton started the discussion with a general point: people aren’t prepared to cut their demand for energy, so a solution is needed on the supply side. He argued that a solution needs to be considered urgently, since the current rates of CO2 emissions have major implications. He also questioned the worth of renewable energy sources, citing problems with technology and efficiency and the reluctance of the UK government to rely on imports, and argued that nuclear energy should not be ruled out.
Chris Anastasi framed much of the debate to come by questioning our perception of global warming. He asked whether we need to be concerned at all: the future of the climate is an unknown, he argued, so the issue can only be approached in terms of probabilities. But given the finite nature of current resources, and the evidence of climatic change and the persistence of CO2 emissions, he concluded that there is a big enough probability of problems in the future to justify us acting now. Furthermore, he argued that the government should involve a variety of interest groups in deciding policy: not just businesses, but also lobbyists, environmentalists, and domestic consumers.
Joe Kaplinsky tackled the issue from a broader perspective, arguing that risk aversion in society was hampering the development of energy solutions. He argued that on one hand, a crisis mentality overplays the actual problem of global warming; and on the other hand, this sensitivity to risk limits our ability to explore energy alternatives. As an example, he cited the accident at Chernobyl nuclear power station: this led to an increase in public sensitivity rather than an actual increase in risk, yet it hindered the nuclear option dramatically. Rather than grabbing at short-term solutions, he argued, we should trust in our ability to use technologies to adapt, to use nuclear options, or to encourage dam engineering in Bangladesh, so that in the long term we are able to meet our consumption requirements.
In response to Helene Guldberg’s suggestion that a difference between the speakers lay in Kaplinsky’s trust in adaptation and the other two’s scepticism towards it, Lawton countered that he thinks we need to act now and adapt later. Anastasi worried that complacency in our ability to adapt stems from understating the problem – a consensus develops that certain levels of CO2 are acceptable, he said, but levels are twice as high as pre-industrial times, and this is unacceptable. Kaplinsky said he saw a need for an economy that would produce more energy-efficient technologies – while the public discussion was dominated by risk aversion, he argued, government options were being shelved.
The debate was then opened up to the audience. There were some disputes over the value of progress: Terence Bendixson from the Independent Transport Commission questioned whether it actually brings about an increase in happiness, but Ilya Eigenbrot from Imperial College noted that the audience consensus was that there was a need to keep on progressing and for the developing world to have this same opportunity, rather than curbing consumption or development.
There were various comments about the character of this progress, and concerns that the alternatives currently being considered weren’t effective enough. One person suggested that society could be organised to use current resources more effectively, giving the example of high-speed trains replacing car use. Another mooted the possibility of moving the Earth further from the sun to combat global warming, or placing solar panels on the moon as an alternative energy source.
Lawton argued that the rational scientific evidence actually pointed to a catastrophe waiting to happen: this was a genuine crisis, rather than risk aversion. Anastasi was concerned about Kaplinsky’s position, and worried that too much freedom would lead to environmental irresponsibility. Given that complexities mask a proper understanding of the future, argued Anastasi, any concern about risk in the ‘future of energy’ debate needs to be contextualised with the likelihood of it actually happening.
Kaplinsky concluded by suggesting that the public discussion was too intertwined with moral positions, and that this needed to be decoupled from science and policy to increase rational debate and our ability to develop.
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