‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction’, that’s basic physics. Apply it to the global energy situation and it’s easy to see that something’s got to give: consumption is not so much creeping up as it is hurtling skyward, and natural sources of energy are dwindling with remarkable speed. Any sort of equilibrium between output and intake looks like a dim and distant memory, and some brave moves need to be made to stop the equation from spinning off into frightening territory.
Therein lies our first problem.
Nobody, particularly when in any position of power, wants to be ‘brave’ on this topic. No-one wants to be the one to say, ‘sorry everyone, but sacrifices have to be made’ in the faces of constituents angry about proposals for a wind farm or biomass plant, because that’s not how you win elections. Of course, a cynic would say that in the case of energy supply this attitude demonstrates cowardice of the worst kind, one that could eventually affect quality of life for millions of people.
Problem number two is that sustainable power often gets swept into the debate surrounding climate change, but in reality they are two separate, albeit interrelated concerns. For the majority of people, the most compelling thread in the low carbon transition is one that addresses the economic consequences of committing to one path or another, low carbon or otherwise. It may be very easy to bundle everything related to sustainability up and throw it to aside shouting ‘tree-huggers!’ and ‘hippies!’, but the fact is that life is going to get mighty expensive without alternative sources of energy.
Problem number three is chronic legislative indecision, which has seen policy move in all directions without seeming to do anything besides denting consumer and investor confidence. Just this week at their party conference, Ed Davey announced that Liberal Democrats would no longer fight against the expansion of nuclear energy, ushering in yet more calls of indecisive leadership from the opposition. There are countless examples of U-turns on the subject of energy supply, but at least there is some hope to be gleaned from this one; this is because, in acknowledging the need for nuclear, Davey has identified the final and most serious problem:
We don’t have the luxury of saying ‘no, thanks’ anymore, or cherrypicking the technologies with no undesirable baggage. The scale of the energy problem is such that it becomes irrelevant whether wind turbines are ugly, or even whether fossil fuels really are causing irrevocable damage to the environment; if we carry on as we are we’ll burn out in decades. It would be naïve to think that consumers will stop consuming, or even that they might slow down; their increasing desires for energy-guzzling gadgets are very unlikely to change, and this is on a global scale.
We all learnt Newton’s third law of motion in school; it’s so far removed from where we’ve ended up, perhaps it’s time to go back to the blackboard.
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