Global Successes & British failures?

Whilst the news has been focused on the financial aspects of the G20 summit of late, there’s also been a good scattering of news on international environmental issues. There seems now to be a general acceptance that we’re rapidly approaching, if not sailing past a ‘tipping point’ that sends us towards catastrophic climate change.

Even for those who don’t believe in the cause, there are undeniably good reasons to strive for energy efficiencies, and to remove the Western dependence on Middle-East oil. On a local scale, for individual homes and businesses, there’s a clear economic gain with a very short payback period by installing insulation and low-energy lighting, or simply by planning more efficiently.

At an international level, it’s surprising to see even fairly entrenched ‘traditional fuel’ organisations announcing that they are aiming for carbon-neutrality by 2050. Given this agreement includes companies like E.On and EDF, who are heavily into coal and nuclear respectively, it’s going to be quite a stretch. If they can collectively move forward on smart grid technologies and power distribution, though, the cost savings of stable, European power prices will be much more attractive than the volatile fossil fuels markets – especially if one factors in the cost of wars for oil. I was surprised by quotation from the president of the European Wind Energy Association on the relative prices of fuel –

At current fuel prices, electricity production costs from a new wind farm, coal plant and gas station are more or less the same.

I was under the impression renewables were still a fair bit more expensive. Of course, the statement needs to be taken with a pinch of salt given the source.

Elsewhere in the world, Barack Obama has promised to sign a climate bill into US law, a significant departure from the previous administration. The bill is likely to include a US cap-and-trade system for CO2 emissions, compatible with the system already in operation in Europe. It also seems that a significant amount of Obama’s economic stimulus money is being given to green power, which is great news. Interestingly even companies such as IBM are bidding for funds, in order to invest in smart metering & distribution. We’ll just have to hope that the bill doesn’t get too watered down, and that US carbon trading is more effective than the European scheme has been so far.

Closer to home, things are a little less optimistic. It seems there’s now a chance that the third runway at Heathrow won’t get built, but this relies on the fact that BAA won’t lodge a planning application until 2012, after the next general election, and that the Conservatives are significantly ahead in the polls. They have said they will prevent the project going ahead, as compared to the encouragement from Labour. Whilst I support many of the environmental moves the Tories are making – high speed rail instead of the runway being one – there are enough skeletons in their (not so hidden) closet that I couldn’t bring myself to vote for them.

Talking of Conservative idiocy, in a supposed cost cutting measure, Boris Johnson has cut the environmental staff of the GLA from 40 to 20, reducing the climate change & energy team from 10 to 3. This seems to fly in the face of his stated goal to make London the greenest city in the world. In isolation this would be frustrating – but perhaps necessary to save money – but alongside his abandoning of the Western congestion charge and paying mere lip service to other environmental schemes, it seems we’ll have to look elsewhere for leadership on the environment.