Probably the most annoying thing about environmental campaigning is the conflict. It seems that one wing of environmental concern is constantly pitted against another. Take renewable energy for example. Every environmentalist wants to see more energy come from wind, tidal and solar sources but as soon as you suggest putting up a wind farm someone starts advocating for the biodiversity of birds in the area. Similarly, there is a real environmental principle supporting GM: it can make crops more resistant to drought and needs less land for farming by producing stronger yields… but it isn’t natural and there are risks involved. And of course, don’t forget the land conflicts of growing biofuels instead of food, even though drilling for oil (which we still need for freight and personal transport) killed countless marine organisms in the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s a sad state of affairs. There doesn’t appear to be an agreed hierarchy of importance. Personally, I think steps which prevent a more than 2oC rise should take priority over international development and biodiversity, simply because any greater a temperature rise and more people will go hungry and more species will be extinct. I’m also a pragmatist. I think the radical environmentalists who hold out for a social, economic and agricultural revolution which sees 100% of energy come from renewables and no use of oil, coal or gas (including transport) is too far off a future for us to consider: climate change is a real problem now and we need to stop it now. The amount of effort required to get people to accept much higher costs of living to make the greenest transition will create too long a moratorium and we’ll miss our chance to curb a rise at 2oC.

So that’s my view on priorities: biodiversity takes a back seat to energy issues. But that still leaves a few questions. How do we move to an energy market which is low-carbon enough to stop runaway climate change? What should that mix of sources look like? What are the obstacles?
The first questions is quite simple, the UK and EU governments need to take a lead on this. We need top down rules to steer market forces into a low carbon economy. The second question is trickier. The UK has the largest potential for offshore wind, but the current government line is calling for a mix of sources: renewables, coal and gas with Carbon Capture and Storage, and nuclear.

The nuclear aspect is a huge can of worms, particularly after the events in Japan earlier this year. Germany has decided to decommission all its nuclear power stations by 2025 as a result. Belgium and Denmark are already on their way to doing so and Italy and Switzerland have called a halt to all new builds for now. The UK and France, however, are flying the flag for new nuclear.

Everyone knows the risks associated with nuclear and many are opposed to it on grounds of biodiversity, land pollution, human safety and even geo-politically as nuclear waste can be used to make radiogenic weapons. But here are the risks for a non-nuclear pathway to a low carbon future: an intermittent energy supply based on wind that doesn’t always blow if we can’t broker international agreements to create a Europe-wide power grid; stupidly high carbon emissions from fossil fuel power stations if Carbon Capture and Storage doesn’t work; energy bills that are too high for the most vulnerable people living in the UK in order to pay for large amounts of renewables.

All of these risks, pro and anti nuclear, are huge, undesirable and very real. The thing is, the government has set up its plan and will fight tooth and nail to stick to it. Pulling back on nuclear would be internationally embarrassing and CCS is too good an opportunity to breathe life into the UK science and technology sector. What the government can’t do is change the way we use energy, the amount we use  and our personal vision for what the next fifty years will look like. Those sorts of culture changes need to be bottom-up and grass roots. Our task as environmentalists is to convince our peers of the scale of change that needs to occur. We need to be more energy efficient and consume less to bring the country (possibly kicking and screaming) into a low carbon future. Many of our colleges still don’t recycle properly, use their electricity efficiently and waste huge amounts of food. We, as students in our colleges, can effectively lobby to change these things, whereas a handful of ‘privileged Oxford students’ writing a letter or marching in the street will not change the government’s mind on nuclear.

I said earlier I’m a pragmatist, and my pragmatic thought is this. Nuclear is happening, it’s going to be in the UK for the next century. It’s time to get over it and move on. We need to take on campaigns we can win and make real change. Reducing energy demand in the long term will reduce the need for all these power stations, and then we can have the wildlife and forests in place of Didcot Power Station that once made England a green and pleasant land.

Blog written by Tobias Allen
6/24/2012 08:14:19 am

I love this blog layout, where can I download it?

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9/19/2012 11:08:06 am

Great blog, enjoyed browsing through the site

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9/24/2012 12:04:53 pm

will be restored before long

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