17 Jul 2015
The United Kingdom is the fourth richest country in the world. It is a cornerstone of the global economy, with billions of pounds of investment pouring in each year. We have a highly educated workforce, access to the most advanced technologies available, and have enjoyed tremendous (though diminishing) international influence ever since Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine 300 years ago.
So why is the UK not a leading light in the quest towards a green and sustainable future?
Why, in 2012, of all 28 member states was the UK the third lowest producer of renewable energy in the European Union, ahead of only Luxembourg and Malta?
It certainly isn’t due to an absence of means. According to figures from the National Audit Office, the Exchequer was able to find an astonishing £1,162 billion to support the banks during the financial crisis of 2008.
The British government’s response to a crisis it seems, is based less on the resources available than upon their idea of what is labelled a ‘crisis’. If the vested interests of the City of London are threatened for example, then evidently no expense will be spared to ensure its survival. If a crisis involves the survival of planet Earth however, and all the millions of species that depend on it, including us, then we see quite a different picture entirely.
As part of the Renewable Energy Directive agreed by the European states in 2009, the UK is committed to achieving 15% of its energy needs from sustainable sources by 2020. As a barometer of progress, we were supposed to have achieved 10% by 2010, but this target was missed. True, the UK has made much progress over recent years with the introduction of the Feed-in-Tariff and the Renewable Heat Incentive, but it is far from certain that we will reach our goal of 15% in five years from now.
One thing that is certain, is that the UK has not embraced the transition to a sustainable economy in the same way as our European neighbours. Iceland is able to supply 85% of the country’s housing with heat from geothermal energy.
Sweden leads the EU with 52% of its energy coming from renewable sources, followed by Latvia, Finland, and Austria which are able to generate a third of their energy needs sustainably.
So why does the UK have such an unambitious target only 15%, which many say will not be met by 2020? A major reason is surely our love-affair with nuclear power. The UK currently has 16 reactors with a total generating capacity of 10 gigawatts of electricity, and plans to increase this to 16GW with the first new reactors expected to be operational in the early 2020s. This new generation of nuclear power stations will require a total investment of at
least £60 billion, and that does not take into account the ‘nuclear clean-up market’ which is estimated at £70 billion at Sellafield alone. It is abundantly clear that our policy makers are determined to steer us towards a future that benefits the big corporations that inform them.
Unfortunately for us however, nuclear is definitely not the answer. Often, the public is subject to a vociferous campaign of disinformation surrounding nuclear energy. The reality is that nuclear power poses major security and environmental risks, is heavily dependent on taxpayer subsidies, and generates deadly radioactive waste that remains dangerous for thousands of years. Furthermore, the processes involved in mining and enriching uranium, the construction and dismantling of a nuclear plant, and the transport and disposal of hazardous waste are anything but ‘low-carbon’.
So what does this mean for renewable energy in Britain, where our government are happy to spend £100 billion to renew a Trident Nuclear Defence system, while cutting subsidies to renewable energy? In the same way that the Civil Rights Movement was born of a frustration with government inertia, we too cannot stand idly by and wait for our leaders to show us the way to a sustainable future.
If the UK is to meet its green energy targets, then the momentum must come from the grassroots. In the absence of leadership from above, we must invest in renewables at a community level, and take control of our energy fut
ure. BHESCo is committed to establishing the first community owned micro-grid in Brighton and Hove, helping to set down a blueprint for others to follow, and moving the UK towards our targets for 2020 and onwards.
300 years after Newcomen’s steam engine, its time for a new revolution in England…