Published on Wednesday, May 25, 2005 by the Guardian (UK)
Capitulation to the Nuclear Lobby is a Politics of Despair
Fear of the people, their cars and flights is blocking creative energy policy
by Polly Toynbee
Despair is the great peril in climate change policy. Nothing can be done, we're all doomed! Democratic politics reaches its nemesis here: who dares to stand for election on a consumption-cutting agenda? No one. What opposition will hold its tongue as a government takes tough measures? None. So who dare put unpalatable truths to voters?
Certainly not Tony Blair, who barely mentioned global warming in the election, but is now whistle-stopping around the world to shore up his G8 agenda on climate change and Africa, facing truculence even from the public-spirited but hard-pressed Germans. When some in the EU suggested a levy on currently untaxed aviation fuel with the money given to Africa, Blair refused, fearful of Britain's frequent flying population. Meanwhile Labour constructs yet more gigantic runways to perdition.
What would it take to cut carbon emissions enough to save the planet? This is where despair gets a real grip. The rich world, already anxious about the rise of India and China, will not hold back its own growth, so why should the developing world? Extreme inequality within countries such as the US and UK also makes the obvious solutions difficult: how do you tax energy heavily when the burden falls so unfairly?
In this convenient climate of political despair, one easy solution steps in smartly. Let's all go nuclear, it's the only way. By pre-arranged plan as soon as the election was over, the nuclear lobby accelerated its campaign. Already nuclear is becoming the grown-up, bien pensant solution. With a sigh, the world-weary declare that renewables are trivial beside the nuclear option. So far it has been the cabinet's most powerful women - Margaret Beckett and Patricia Hewitt - who have held out against it, with support from three out of four in opinion polls. But climate change is the nuclear lobby's best weapon: only global warming is more dangerous than massive proliferation of nuclear power across the world.
Today, in his first speech, the new energy minister announces money for tidal power. Malcolm Wicks, long-time social policy thinker, a little perplexed at his sudden transformation from pensions to energy, is, he says, still "open-minded" on the nuclear question. The nuclear lobby has, of course, already been on to him but it is hard to imagine him becoming a great nuclear enthusiast.
He is reassuringly scathing about the nimbys fighting against wind farms. Wind, he says, is the only way that the Kyoto target of 10% renewable energy by 2010 can ever be reached. (Even if the new US AP100 nuclear stations promoted by George Bush were commissioned, they could never be built in time.) Instead, he rebuts the myths and factoids now so successfully spread by the anti-wind-power lobby and their pro-nuclear supporters.
No, turbines are not taking over the country: only some 800 hectares are needed to reach the 10% target. No, they are not unpopular: 80% support them and 66% would like some in their area. No, the intermittent wind dropping is no problem, since the farms are spread far across the county and existing back-up is quite sufficient. (Eyesores? Britain had 90,000 windmills in the 17th century.)
But these myths are gaining ground, alongside the bigger myth that nothing but nuclear will do. However, the nuclear lobby has to contend with overwhelming public opposition. New stations would take a decade to build at £2bn each. Shortly, Nirex, the nuclear waste disposal company, will publish its 12 proposed sites for a huge new depot: just watch 12 protest groups spring up overnight and they will be a lot louder than the wind nimbys. So it's hard to see this parliament commissioning more nuclear power.
But don't underestimate the immense power of the pro-nuclearists. They will begin with the reasonable claim that nuclear is just "part of the mix", but the monumental cost of a new nuclear programme would devour all the cash - and far more - needed to develop better alternatives. Meanwhile, wind power prices are already falling to almost the same price as other energy. A British company is building a huge tidal generator plant off the coast of Portugal: today's cash announcement brings a British programme nearer, potentially cheapest of all.
While international carbon trading between companies has only just begun, domestic carbon trading is one of the most enterprising ideas being examined by Stephen Byers and others. Imagine if each adult were given a carbon quota. Those who want to fly a lot or overheat a big house would have to buy extra quotas from low energy users. It would have the interesting side effect of redistributing funds towards those too poor to use their energy ration.
This is blue skies thinking - but it needs something of the kind to make individuals change their habits. Everywhere there are green shoots of what might be done, if serious money and political attention were devoted to it now. Take micro-generation. You can buy a small windmill to stick in the garden or on the side of your house for just £900: it plugs into an ordinary 13 amp domestic plug, cuts electricity bills by a third and can feed into the grid. The former energy minister has one.
Friends of the Earth today launches a high profile campaign - The Big Ask - to persuade the government to pass a climate change law committing to a 3% annual carbon reduction, necessary to reach the 60% reduction target by 2050. That is a very big ask indeed, since UK emissions have risen not fallen since 1997. Consider how hard it would be to overcome the hideous might of the motoring and aviation lobbies when just a handful of fuel protesters can hold the country to ransom. It needs, says Friends of the Earth, the people to be mobilised to demand change from the politicians. Yet it is the people that the politicians fear.
What will it take? Only a wipe-out of London and New York? Sadly millions dead from drought in the Sahel or flood in Bangladesh probably will do little. Blair's dash to try to rescue something for the G8 may yield at least the first sign that the US will talk, so long as India, China and Brazil join in. Meanwhile, insurance claims for storm and flood doubling in the UK between 1998 and 2003 are dwarfed by the four exceptional hurricanes in 2004 that cost £20bn in Florida alone. China is now alarmed at how climate change is damaging its rice harvest.
It is curious that Tony Blair whirls around the world stirring up alarm about climate change yet throughout the election never had a word to say about it at home. While the Energy Savings Trust despairs of getting people to fill their cavity walls or turn off their lights, Blair prefers to talk about the vandalism done by boys in hoodies than about the lethal damage done by irresponsible home owners, big car drivers and frequent fliers. Meanwhile, it is the nuclear lobby that hopes to benefit from a very conservative despairing sense that nothing can ever change.
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.