20 Mar 2014

Is sustainability stuck?

Short answer: yes. The whole topic has reached a crossroads and it's not clear which way to go from here.

Many of the existing green policies are proving to be questionable, to say the least, and many of the really big questions are not being addressed, let alone answered.

My own journey through the byways of sustainability has also reached something of a brick wall. Having quietly campaigned for better energy performance in homes, and for tougher and better building regulations, I began to fall out of love with all the red tape involved with projects like the Code for Sustainable Homes and the move the Zero Carbon everything.

Then I got involved with David Mackay's 2050 calculator project and it opened my eyes up to just how big the problem of global carbon emissions actually is and how little difference having tighter building regulations will make in the great scheme of things. I was already convinced that climate change is an existential problem, the like of which we have never faced before, but I have come to question my belief that the world of sustainable building practice is necessarily very relevant to it.

Take deep-retrofit by way of example. Acres of print has been expended on how it should or should not be done. The government has got itself tangled up in knots over the Green Deal which was meant to kickstart radical retrofit but has simply highlighted how difficult it all is. Underlying all this is the plain fact that our existing housing stock is pretty poorly constructed and that it might well be cheaper and simpler just to pull it all down and start again.

Which is also highly unlikely, seeing as how we have 25 million homes in this country. We are having trouble adding more than 0.5% to this total every year, so retrofitting or rebuilding the existing 25 million begins to look like a pie-in-the-sky project.

One of the pointers coming out of David Mackay's work is that there are many ways to skin a cat. Most people — Mackay included — tend to favour a bit of everything, so here a little bit of retrofit, there electric vehicles, plus a bunch of diverse renewables and maybe some nuclear power, not to mention a little behavioural change. But this pot pourri approach tends to ignore the No 1 critical factor which is that within a very short timescale we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels almost entirely. If we can't do that, everything else becomes irrelevant. However, it doesn't follow from this that low carbon/zero carbon energy will either be in short supply or be ruinously expensive. We could in fact face a low carbon energy glut, if we got our act together.

But this isn't something that conventional sustainability is at all comfortable with. It's as if some form of future deprivation or hardship is built into the model. Much of the sustainability agenda is based on the idea that we must conserve as much energy as possible because a) it uses less fossil fuel (which is a good thing) and b) because energy is going to get progressively more expensive. It may, or it may not, but we currently have little idea how much energy will cost in 2050, anymore than we know what house prices will be or what the FTSE 100 will stand at. But we are having to make policy as if we did.

But it's not quite true to say we know nothing about future energy prices. We are currently going through a process over commissioning the Hinkley C nuclear power station where a strike price has been negotiated. This is a guaranteed minimum price which EDF, the operator, will receive over the first 35 operational years of the plant. That takes us to 2058. Now, in general, press comment has been pretty negative about this strike price negotiation because, at £92.50 per MWh, it's roughly twice the price currently being paid to generate electricity from fossil fuel. The strike price may or may not be a rip off — we really won't know until well into the 2030s or 40s —but if this strike price sticks, and if it becomes a template for other low carbon energy sources such as wind farms and tidal lagoons, then it may well give us some sort of indication about just where we are headed.

Put it another way, it may appear to be expensive now, but it begins to give some certainty about future directions in energy prices. It's like an insurance policy stating that energy won't cost anymore than this in 2050 (give or take the effects of inflation).  The only reason it can do this is because the cost of developing nuclear power — in common with most forms of low carbon energy — is mostly to do with upfront capital cost. The running costs tend to be insignificant in comparison.

Here, I don't want to get into the pros and cons of which low carbon energy source we should be building. Just wish to point out that one of the key advantages of having a strike price like this for low carbon energy is that it builds an element of certainty into the process decarbonising everything. It also begins to address the vexed issue of how much retrofitting we should be carrying out because you can at last begin to quantify the potential savings.

The strike price is key to unlocking a sense of direction. Without it, sustainability is all hot air and easy for detractors to shoot down. When you get sound commentators like Robert Wilson praising something written by David Rose in the Daily Mail, we know we have a problem.


  1. Mark

    I cannot vouch for my own soundness, but that is another issue.

    One of the key problems here is a lack of honesty in debates. We are told frequently that nuclear energy is too expensive. Yet, ask these same people which renewable energy source is too expensive, and you will draw a blank. Likewise we are told that natural gas is expensive. These arguments have no legs to stand on, and reflect a complete unwillingness by the green movement to accept basic realities.

    And a general point you allude to is that many care more about how you decarbonise not whether you decarbonise. I recall a Friends of the Earth spokesman (I won't name him) once being asked if he would prefer a 50% decarbonisation target for the EU without a RE target, or a 40% decarbonisation target for the EU with a RE target. He refused to answer the question. The answer however should be obvious.

    And yes, David Rose. How sad it is that it is up to David Rose to write a lengthy piece on biomass in the UK. Do the Guardian environment writers not have the time for such things? This is a broad problem. We are not being told important stories. Consider how coal use has soared, while gas has collapse, in UK electricity generation in the last couple of years. This is ignored by journalists. Why?

    And similarly on bio-energy. Growth in EU bio-energy since 2000 is far greater than from wind and solar combined. This is a complete reversal. Throughout the 20th century bio-energy use was in decline. Yet, what journalists report this subject?

    If you did a survey of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth campaigners do you imagine many could tell you what percentage of the EU RE target will come from bio-energy? I would not be surprised if most got it wrong by an order of magnitude.

    So, as far as I can see the situation is hopeless. On the green side there are too many delusional people promoting snake oil solutions. On the climate "skeptic" side there are too many arguing for doing nothing. The intellectual baggage of the 70s needs to be abandoned. Who would consider E.F. Schumacher to be a sound guide for the modern world?

    The scale problem however is what is most problematic. Few people realise how challenging decarbonisation is. This is understandable given how rarely numbers are used in this debate. David MacKay has done a good job demonstrating the scale problem, and has had some success changing minds. This numbers based thinking still has a long way to go from being mainstream among greens however.

    As MacKay pointed out in his book, numbers are used to impress, not inform. This is still mostly what we get.

    1. Robert,

      Right on cue there is a piece in today's Guardian by Ashley Seager that repeats this mantra.

      "Before you decry "subsidies" to renewables, remember that much bigger subsidies have gone to North Sea oil and gas, coal and every other dirty fuel for decades, to say nothing of the ruinously expensive decision to build the new £16bn Hinkley Point nuclear reactor which, if built, will burden future generations with expensive electricity until nearly 2060."

      And who is Ashley Seager? • Ashley Seager is a former Guardian economics correspondent and now director of solar energy firm Sun4net Ltd

      Talk about talking your book! At least the Guardian tells you what the affinity is. Unlike Messrs Lomborg and Ridley who regularly write in the Times as " independent experts."

    2. Indeed. And it manages to rehash to absurd idea that fossil fuels get more subsidies. This is demonstrably wrong. The arguments she is using are all self-defeating, and really reflect a lack of critical analysis among environmental activists.

      Yes, of course you could add the Renewable Energy Foundation to that list. Does the Telegraph ever point out that it is an anti-renewables lobby group?

      The same goes for "independent" nuclear experts in the Guardian. This is almost always code for "long time opponent of nuclear" energy, if it is an academic it is 9 times out of 10 someone from the Nuclear Consulting Group.

      This is a huge problem. The public is often mislead by these reports about what "independent" experts say. They aren't independent, but have been fed to the journalists by lobby groups.

      I read the Guardian, so I am far more familiar with the endless parade of energy policy academics that are aligned with a particular green agenda.

      The difficulty is that unless you are familiar with the issues it is hard to realise just how misleading these reports are.

      How difficult would it be for journalists to put the words "anti-renewable lobby group" in front of REF, or to put "head of anti-nuclear lobby group" in front of the names of certain academics?

  2. A client asked about most sustainable energy source for her refurbished home and I said it is complicated. She asked if I could give a short answer to which I replied, "yes, we are fucked".

    After a short pause she said "is there a slightly longer answer?"

  3. The funny thing is that I reckon the world could crack low/zero carbon energy in 30 to 40 years if it really put the effort in. Yes, it might prove to be expensive but then so is health care and education and no one says we can't afford to do these. Lots of things we do are expensive.

    A drainage system on a house is expensive but no one suggest we do without because given a year or two the house would be unliveable without one. The world needs a solution to its atmospheric waste - it's exactly parallel. But what is happening is that the debate has been taken over by one group who thinks we should have reed beds or nothing, and another who really don't think there is a problem at all and that if we wait long enough we'll think of something.

    1. Another analogy is with a man who rightly tells a room there is a fire. A vocal section of the room insists there isn't a fire. Meanwhile that man is noisily breaking apart the nearest available fire extinguisher.

  4. "it might prove to be expensive but then so is health care and education and no one says we can't afford to do these"
    Yes they do!

  5. We live in one of the 25 million poorly insulated, leaky homes and have been grappling with retrofitting insulation to floors, walls, windows and roof for ten years. It's expensive, disruptive and time consuming. Most people cannot do this because they move house every 5-10 years. We consulted the Energy Savings Trust twice (useless - they recommended low energy light bulbs, but did not mention secondary glazing, or spot missing insulation). We researched ground-source heat pumps - too disruptive to install, uncertain performance and lengthy payback time.
    Our most useful purchase was a thermal imaging survey after which we installed secondary triple glazing, dealt with ingress of freezing air and missing insulation (omitted in 2000 and not picked up by Building Regs "inspector").
    We are more comfortable, but our fuel consumption has not gone down, and of course our fuel bills have tripled in ten years.
    It is galling, given the expense of retrofitting, that the Government slaps on a 20% overhead in the form of VAT for labour and materials. Meanwhile the Green Deal is a typical politicians' overcomplicated waste of time.
    I wrote twice to local MP, and Treasury Minister David Gauke, re VAT on retrofitting. Got completely anodyne waffle back re VAT is set by Europe.
    When I recall David Cameron's "windmill", and what some MPs spend their expenses on, words fail me. Why do we have to pay a 20% surcharge on every retrofitting project to the Government?
    Rob (Aberdeenshire)

  6. AnonymousMay 08, 2014

    VAT rates aren't set by the EU although the EEC as it then was did invent VAT which replaced the sales tax we had (and US states still have).

    The main restriction imposed by the EU that once a member state starts to charge VAT on a good or a service it cannot go back to charging 0%. It can only reduce it back to 5% - hence the 5% VAT on domestic fuel.

    Given the shortage of taxation revenue to run facilities like the NHS (it clearly needs more money not endless reorganisation), I'd suggest we follow the rest of the EU and pay VAT on new houses - harmonise it all upwards to 20%, rather than downwards.

    The nuclear cost quoted isn't a precise 9.25 p per kWh (?plus inflation), it's totally open ended. The taxpayer pays as extras to dispose of the waste, insure the plant and waste treatment facilities (or rather suffer the consequences if one melts down since there isn't any real insurance cover), decommission the plants after 150 years or so (very expensive if sea level rises accelerate as it would have to be done sooner) and so on.