The Independent View: Will Osborne gas the Lib Dems’ green credentials?

Ed Davey’s announced this week that he’d secured an important concession from the Chancellor over wind farm subsidies – but at what cost?

Although there was understandable relief over the certainty this move gave to investors in clean British energy it seems the victory may have come with a hefty price tag: an agreement to burden our electricity system with dirty and increasingly expensive gas for decades to come – despite the enormous damage this could cause to both the economy and planet.

Ed Davey’s success in securing a 10 per cent cut in wind farm subsidies – to reflect the fall in wind costs – instead of the 25 per cent cut favoured by George Osborne was urgently needed.

Business needs confidence to enable to invest and hopefully his announcement will encourage more firms to invest in the UK’s green economy.

But George Osborne doesn’t share the Lib Dems enthusiasm for clean energy and he’s pushing hard for more dirty gas-fired stations to be built – as revealed this week in an aggressively worded letter from George Osborne to Edward Davey.

If the Chancellor is successful it would be disastrous for both the environment and the economy.

Investing in a fossil fuel-dependent energy system would undermine Government promises to tackle global warming. The Committee on Climate Change – which advises ministers on meeting its legally-binding climate change goals – has recommended that the UK electricity system be almost entirely decarbonised by 2030 in order to meet UK emission reduction targets.

The CBI has also criticised the Chancellor’s lack of support for green energy as bad for business. The green economy is growing at over four per cent each year – while the economy as a whole fell 0.7 per cent in the three months up to June this year – and with whole-hearted Treasury support could deliver yet more.

CBI Director General John Cridland said earlier this month:

Get our energy and climate change policies right, and we can add £20bn extra to our economy and knock £0.8bn off the trade gap, all within the lifetime of this Parliament.

A committee of MPs also attacked the Chancellor earlier this week over energy. Energy and Climate Committee chair Tim Yeo warned:

The Government is in danger of botching its plans to boost clean energy.

The potential from developing clean British energy is enormous and could generate tens of thousands of new jobs.

And coupled with energy efficiency, renewable power could also provide a future energy system we can all afford.

The central reason behind sky-high fuel bills households and businesses have been struggling with has been the soaring price of gas.

According to Ofgem, higher gas prices have been the main driver of increasing energy -– and experts such as the International Energy Agency expect it to rise further still.

Relying on gas – much of which comes from unstable parts of the world – would be a reckless gamble that could leave future generations with a hefty bill.

George Osborne is trying to hold the coalition’s green credentials to ransom – and attempting to boost his standing with the Tory right at the expense of the nation’s finances and the planet.

It’s a profound responsibility to be Energy and Climate Change Secretary at this moment in history.

The urgent need to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of future generations by rapidly decarbonising the way we live is overwhelming.

Standing up for the environment when you’re in opposition is important – but it’s absolutely crucial when you are in power,

Ed Davey and Nick Clegg must stand firm on tackling climate change and fight the Chancellor’s fossil fuel bullying.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Craig Bennett is Policy and Campaigns Director of Friends of the Earth

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21 Comments

  • If we don’t want base load electricity from gas possibly us in the Lib Dems and Friends of the Earth might want to be a bit more open minded to the possibility of new nuclear generating capacity.

  • Keith Browning 27th Jul '12 - 10:54am

    I have never understood why right wing British Conservatives, US Republicans and the like ,want to destroy the planet and make it unusable for their children and grandchildren. Surely ‘conservatives’ would want to maintain the previously ‘green and pleasant land’ – but no – its just dig dig – burn, burn – pollute pollute.

    Are they just in politics for the money and what resources they can grab before it all runs out? I haven’t really seen Osborne and his cronies challenged about this in the media too often. Surely an open goal for any decent interviewer.

  • Geoffrey Payne 27th Jul '12 - 1:14pm

    “it seems…” what do you mean in this second paragraph. Was there a agreement? What did it actually say?

  • Paul McKeown 27th Jul '12 - 1:19pm

    When you are criticised on a particular issue not only by the Committee on Climate Change for harming the environment, but also by the Confederation of British Industry for undermining future economic investment, perhaps you really are getting it badly wrong, George?

  • Richard Dean 27th Jul '12 - 2:42pm

    Carbon is relevant because it causes warming. Electricity also causes warming – in fact any energy use causes warming, it’s a physical law (of thermodynamics). The environmental benefit in using wind energy accrues from reducing the warming done by generation, but taking enery out of the wind affects nature too, and a reducted carbon footprint from generation accounts for only a fraction of total warming from the overall process of generation and consumption.

    Gas is something that was produced by natural processes, which happen to have conveniently stored it underground through natural geological processes. I seem to remember recently reading that gas is quite a clean fuel. Was this just spin put out by gas companies? Also, gas is already piped to many homes many of whome would need to make new capital purchases if gas was replaced by electricity. Those purchases will themselves damage the environment – by dumping of gas cookers and boilers, and by creation of new electric cookers and boilers.

    Shale gas is there, in the ground, not far from the surface it seems, and so it may actually represent a danger to the future population. Taking it out and burining it may actually have the greater long-term benefits.

    Can renewable energy really provide everything we need?

  • @Keith Browning you are forgetting that Conservatives want to keep the green views from ‘their’ windows untroubled by wind turbines.

  • Carbon is relevant because it causes warming. Electricity also causes warming – in fact any energy use causes warming, it’s a physical law (of thermodynamics).

    The direct heating effect is too small to have any effect on global warming. The whole world’s power consumption is less than a thousandth of the solar power incident on the earth.

  • Richard, hope I am not “teaching grandmother to suck eggs”, if so I am sorry. The global climate change effect (previously and descriptively known as greenhouse effect) arises from certain gases in the atmosphere – most commonly Carbon dioxide, but other more powerful such as methane, and other hydrocarbons – acting as a blanket reducing temperature loss into the upper atmosphere and beyond. It is nothing to do with the warming produced through electricity generation or use, it is about retention of heat energy. I am not quite sure what you mean about wind generation affecting nature, but as far as I know, for all practical purposes, the wind remains the same, apart from immediately at the turbine site, where they may be some distortion, but I can’t see that having any macro effects on climate etc.

    Gas produces less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases when burnt compared to coal or oil (or horrible things like tar sands). It still, like any other carbon-based fuel produces carbon dioxide, so affects climate change in an adverse direction.

    I cannot disagree with you that electrification of any system, whether cooking, lighting, power, railways etc will require new equipment, production of which will affect the environment, but these can reduce the effect by being replaced when existing equipment wears out. Generally electrical equipment has less moving parts, so needs less energy than fossil fuel powered machines.

    Unless I am totally wrong, I don’t think shale gas would escape without some natural or man made force, eg an earthquake or explosion, releasing it. It is very securely bound between the natural layers of the shale. Someone else could comment here, but I don’t think there are any recorded cases of shale gas injuring or poisoning anyone, unless previously “fracked”.

    Your final question is a conundrum, partly because of the intermittent nature of many forms of renewable. But estimates generally would show that overall, the answer is “yes, easily”. Combined with energy saving makes it easier.

  • David Allen 27th Jul '12 - 5:46pm

    Shale gas is fossil fuel, and has been safely stored underground since it was fossilised. Extreme events such as earthquake or volcanic action can of course disrupt the underground storage, but nothing much else will, except human intervention. Generally, if it’s lasted down there for millions of years, it isn’t very likely to escape now!

  • Richard Dean 27th Jul '12 - 5:46pm

    This grandmother doesn’t actually suck eggs any more, and is still clinging to his male status, but is always interested in discussing all such matters!

    Wind generation takes energy out of the environment. That reduces the energy available for other energy users in the environment, of which there are many – one example being the spreading of pollen in the breeze. WInd energy extraction also disturbs the energy in the environment, by creating vorticies and eddies, and this fiurther reduces the ability of natural processes to use that energy. And natural processes do need energy to continue, just as we do.

    Sure it’s a relatively small amount, but you can say that about anything – people used to say just that about many things that are nowadays considered to be nasties. I have not seen any environmental assessment yet that actually takes account of this hidden effect of wind energy generation. Basically we probably don’t know how significant this effect is, and we might find in a few years time that it’s much more damaging than we expect. WInd pushes on water and so creates ocean currents, so slowing the wind slows the currents. Would a wind turbine be the butterfly’s wing that stops the Gulf Stream, thereby altering Europe’s climate far more than carbon will?

    On the question of warming, I think you are right. It is the warming that is not wanted, so the use of electricity to heat something is just as bad as anything else that creates the same amount of warming. Carbon dioxide is perhaps worse because it persists, intercepting and reflecting the sun’s rays in ways that trap more of those rays instead of allowing them to be reflected. In effect it creates much more warming. So an alternative colling strategy could be to build a lot of mirrors!

  • Sue Doughty 27th Jul '12 - 6:23pm

    A couple of points here: first, for half the the cost of nuclear you could install an interconnector with Iceland and take reliable sources of geothermal and hydro energy, second,,before relying too much on shale gas, we need to really assess what the total amount available and the total demand for it. It could turn out to be less in quantity and more in cost.

    At the recent SLF conference Ed stated that he now wants to engineer more encouragement in reduction of demand into the Energy Bill and this would be very welcome. It is also time for our own Treasury team to challenge George Osborne on why he is opening up yet another consultation on feed in tariffs , when with some certainty on pricing, we could really open up the renewables sector as the CBI want.

  • Richard, I could see that any large structure or big activity will have an effect on local habitats and ecosystems, but that is true of all human (and other) activity – certainly any building will have an effect. If humanity as a whole became concerned about local ecosystems (with the exception of SSSIs and other protected environments) every time a new building went up, the complaints about “the slow planning process and red tape” would increase a hundredfold! Why are you interested specifically in renewables / wind turbines for this effect? Why not mining, nuclear power stations, roads etc? In terms of the reduction in wind speeds caused by turbine blades, I am sure the effect is negligible, but you might check Wiki or whatever to see if any research has been done? I am sure the catastrophic melting of the Greenland ice sheet going on RIGHT NOW is having a much greater effect than any wind disruption allegedly caused by wind turbines!

    Hear, hear, Sue – I have been banging on about Icelandic geothermal energy for two or three decades (and that is without considering the geothermal potential in Cornwall and other parts of the UK).

  • Richard Dean 27th Jul '12 - 9:38pm

    I do like the idea of an Iceland interconnectors. They would benefit both countries – which is what trade is all about.

    Whenever energy is taken out of the environment, that energy is no longer available for use by organisms and processes in the environment. This is true for wind, wave, amd hydro for example, and probably for geothermal. These types of “renewable” energy hijack some of the energy that would otherwise be used by other living things and processes.

    Hydroelectricity from dams, for example, causes siltation behaind a dam, reduces the flow of beneficial silt to the downsteram side, and breaks up the migration paths of fish and probably other things including bacteria. The Cornish surfing industry could be damaged if too many wave generators are plaed offshore, because the wave generators reduce the wave heights and so affect sufability, as well as probably affecting the lives of all sorts of bottom dwellers and fish. WInd energy has to some kind of effects like these, but the effects are probably less visible and less easily attributable because wind travels far and the effect may be far distanct from the cause. Extracting geothermal energy will undoubtedly cause changes to the subterranean temperature gradients in Iceland, and this will likely have some effect on some organism!

    Gas, coal, and oil are a bit different, and nuclear seems very different. They already exist in the environment, and are not generally being used by the environment – they are just being stored in places formed by natural processes. So by using gas, coal, or oil, we are not hijacking energy that would otherwise be used by other living things and processes. Nuclear may be different because of the radioactive waste and military issues.

    Son it is not right to focus solely on the environmental damage done by burning – ie. the production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, We should also consider the effects of the hijacking. If we do, we might find that we are presently wrong about what is the best way forward.

  • Richard Dean 27th Jul '12 - 10:14pm

    I do know I’m being a bit extreme – some of the effects of the hijacking are indeed taken into account and included in detailed environmental impact assessments. But the effects are not normally considered in wider discussions, and my point is that they should be. It is environmentally irresponsible to assume that wind energy is automatically the way forward, or even automatically better than gas.

  • Richard Dean 28th Jul '12 - 1:04am

    Geoffey– I agree it is very simple. Some energy sources hijack more energy than others. Non-renewable energy such as coal or gas hijack virtually none. At the other extreme is renewables, and everything they produce is hijacked. ….

    Ok, I agree, but what a great Olympics! 🙂 Electric! … ah but fireworks bad bad bad! To what extent should we curtail our enjoyment on environmental grounds?

  • Richard, you have a point, of course, that all forms of generation are likely to have side effects. But it is not “a bit extreme”, it is actually rather bonkers, to be discussing these side effects in the context of the major, macro, world – scale problem known as climate change. And as I tried, gently, to point out before, mining of coal (or uranium for that matter), extraction and refining of oil, all have significant effects on their local environment, and the wildlife which may be found there. What you describe as the “hijacking of energy” hardly rates as a problem at all. Many of the natural, geophysical systems at surface level are driven by incoming solar energy – this is certainly the case with wind – and, as things currently stand, and for the foreseeable future, there is plenty of solar energy available. The effect of siltation you note with hydro is not due to “energy hijack”, but to damming a river.

  • Richard Dean 28th Jul '12 - 6:43pm

    @Tim13. You say the enegy hijack “hardly rates as a problem at all”. Well, I agree, and of coure the five tons of toxic waste that my company dumps in the river every week is also imagninable tiny at the scale of the world garbage production. Thank you for supporting my drive for ever greater profits , it is certainly a weekend for bonkers, I do hope you have a good Olympics, I aim to be selling Oxygen soon!. 🙂

  • Richard – I suppose I should feel bonkers after watching the Olympics on TV for a good part of the day – being led a merry dance on various BBC channels! I can assur you I haven’t thought (much) about global warming all day!

    Tim 13 Just as bonkers as he looks.

  • Steve Coltman 30th Jul '12 - 11:29am

    What is missing from this discussion thread is the cost to the exchequer of the subsidies to wind and solar energy. Given we have a budget deficit these subsidies are money we borrow from abroad at about 3% interest. One day someone may have to pay it back. Without this data no balanced view can be made. We (the UK) cannot save the planet through our own efforts, our contribution to climate change is not big enough. But we can bankrupt ourselves in a vain attempt to save the planet. We need to leave this country to the next generation in reasonable financial shape as well.

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