Saturday, 23 March 2013

Frozen Britain's Future - Fracking or Feldheim?

Outside it is snowing steadily; the birds huddle miserably on the bare branches as the falling flakes cover too quickly the food put out a short time before. Yet again, the TV news revels in making much of cars stuck in drifts and kids sledging in what just a short while ago would have been completely unseasonal weather.

But, after over a decade and a half of virtually no snow at all, Britain has now had three years of bitingly cold temperatures and winters with a vengeance. After some years of children growing up having seen no snow at all, or a light dusting at best, now we are told to expect days and days of frozen weather in spite of yesterday being the first official day of Spring.

The cause of this is something foretold for many years by environmental campaigners and Greens - and rather cryptically acknowledged by the Coalition Government a couple of years ago without any official admission - see this post from December 2010.

Perhaps not as dramatically as in some scenarios, including the ludicrous one posited by Hollywood in The Day After Tomorrow, the Gulf and Jet Streams have shifted increasingly southwards for more and more prolonged periods, ending the centuries old near-guarantee of mild air from the Mexican Gulf warming Britain throughout the year providing us a 5 degree centigrade temperature increase that our latitude (on a par with much of Scandinavia and Russia) would not otherwise permit. The trigger for this is, ironically, global warming - as the overall temperature of the planet increases, the Arctic ice sheet has begun to recede further and further at speeds much faster than even the most pessimistic predictive scenarios suggested just a few years ago. This has meant that an increasing flow of colder water has poured into the Atlantic and, as cold trumps hot, the Gulf and Jet Streams have shifted increasingly southwards. The result will be, as we have seen these last few years, increasingly extreme weather - much warmer summers and much colder winters, heavier rainfall when it happens, prolonged drought when it doesn't and much more powerful gales as cold water falling below warm churns up the air currents above.

Gone south - the Jet Stream (red/orange) at 0600 this morning
And so what was predicted for decades and even centuries from now is happening around us. But the Government remains as complacent as ever, even declaring action on global warming to be something for later on given the depth of current economic woes. It ignores the very real threat to our survival now manifesting itself ever faster around us and as the window for action closes down it simply turns away and closes the door.

And yet all around us is the potential for recovery: like few other countries, Britain has a huge potential for developing and using renewable energy. Particularly wave, hydro and wind power - all of these could be deployed around our country and in the sea off our shores. And developments in photovoltaic technology, such as groundbreaking nanomesh cells, mean that even in our climate, solar panels could produce a substantial part of our energy needs. It is possible - other countries are acting faster; Germany for example is working hard to develop its renewable sector which has more than trebled in supply in the last decade to 20% of energy needs and in a pioneering effort, in May 2012, over 50% of the energy needs of the largest economy in Europe came from solar energy farms alone. 

This is not only possible - anyone with an even vaguely impartial viewpoint would see that it is essential. Our carbon fuel supplies, as well as damaging the biosphere that allows us to exist, are becoming scarce - there is less oil and gas available from easily exploited sources at a time when demand is growing from emerging economic giants like India, China and Brazil. North Sea oil and gas fields are becoming depleted and the only future sources of carbon fuel nearby are to be had only by either deepwater drilling in the north-west Atlantic using the same dangerous technology as BP's Deepwater Horizon deployed so devastatingly in the Gulf of Mexico, or alternatively using the noxious process of fracking under populated areas of northern England - the recent Blackpool earthquakes standing as chilling reminders of the potential impact of this method of dirty drilling.

Continued dependence on carbon fuel leaves us tied to foreign suppliers as well - and vulnerable. A fact that would leave many people with sleepless nights is that Britain rarely has more than three or four days supply of fuel of any sort available (and a similar supply of food much of the time, at least in retail outlets). This week, our gas supplies are down to just 1.4 days - barely 34 hours stand between us and millions going cold in this late winter weather. And set against this are potential problems with the Norwegian pipeline that supplies much of our domestic gas and price hikes of over 100% in the last 6 weeks by Russian and Arab gas suppliers, eager to profit from the need of ordinary people - even to the extent of keeping fully loaded super-tankers at sea, ready to sail to wherever in the world has the highest current price for gas; three Qatari tankers, each with 12 hours national liquefied gas supply on board, are currently heading for British shores. Rationing has become a real possibility, creating cost, discomfort and even danger for people across the country.

Just imagine for a moment a Britain supplied 100% by renewables - as Germany is on track to being by 2050 at least in terms of electricity generation. The energy would be virtually limitless in supply, locally sourced, cheaper than now, involve no destructive drilling or mining, generate no pollution and free us from any dependence on overseas energy. Additionally, it would hopefully disentangle us from the wars that our politicians so eagerly send our troops into in order to secure carbon fuel.

So why, when it seems so easy, is it not happening? Why are we allowing Germany to leave us in the shade when we have so much potential? Why do we look to carbon-addicted USA as our example when it is so clearly faltering and failing so badly and turning so readily to the gun to secure its energy needs when eminently clean and peaceful sources are available in abundance?

The German township of Feldheim has achieved 100% renewable energy;
and full community energy ownership
, meaning consumers pay 30% less.
Well, there is another narrative - its not just about energy technology; even more it's about economics and ownership.

Germany is not only different in terms of its energy sources. It is also different in terms of who owns them. Over half of the rapidly emerging renewable sector there belongs to individual people rather than to big business (which holds less than a 10% share - with various community and public bodies holding the balance). By contrast in full-on capitalist Britain and the USA, with our so-called Anglo-Saxon neoliberal economic model prizing big business above all else, anything that undermines corporate control of something as valuable and potentially profitable as the energy supply is simply not to be contemplated - one reason the British Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition abolished the community renewable energy feedback tariff and other schemes that supported small scale ownership of renewable energy.

As we see with the current gas price hike, scarce energy is profitable energy - so don't expect the free market to deliver big scale investment in renewables any time this side of Doomsday. As Obama's America fracks itself and our world into oblivion, Britain joins in a show of bizarre macho-market pomposity that eschews anything European or mildly communitarian at an ultimately dreadful cost to all of us.

The biting winds of March may yet bring our carbon addiction into a painfully clearer perspective. When the thaw comes in due course, we can only hope that it melts frozen minds as well as freeing the green buds  to spring finally into the life that humanity is increasingly putting at risk.

(chart from the Institute of Local Self-Reliance)

No comments:

Post a Comment