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.