Tuesday, 24 March 2015

China Syndrome: Britain Gets Left Behind in the Renewables Revolution

China has been leading the way in global investment in clean, renewable energy for several years now.
Any Green will have encountered it, either on the doorsteps, or in debate or in the rightwing press.
Renewable energy - it's a waste of time because even if we cover our landscape with solar panels and wind turbines, it won't make any difference because of the Chinese (and sometimes, for good measure, the Indians as well). As these countries industrialise and prosper, we are repeatedly told that it is on the back of coal, oil and gas energy sources - so many new coal power stations a week, easily blowing our puny efforts to clean the planet out of the water.

So, we might as well not bother and just keep burning away as much carbon, methane and other warming gasses as we like. Those who say otherwise are attacked as selling out to some global scientific conspiracy, or making elderly people freeze in winter because of allegedly higher "green" energy taxes and so on. It's just not British.

On cue, this week, the "greenest ever Government that never was", the Lib Dem-Tory Coalition, is phasing out subsidies to help get larger scale solar power schemes off the ground in the UK, just at the time solar panels are becoming exponentially more efficient and effective, and 70% cheaper. So although he could get much more power for our money, Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey is pushing forward with leaving solar to the whims of the free market in spite of pleas from the sector that it will quickly become unviable, at best stalling the gains of recent years. At the same time, massive tax breaks worth £1,300,000,000 in the next year are to be given to oil companies that extract oil from the ground at a cost of significantly less than $2 per barrel but sell on at apparently rock bottom prices of $55 per barrel, which is just not enough profit for the poor billionaires to get by on.

But the fact is that the arguments about China and India are no longer true, if they ever really were anything other than (no pun intended) a smokescreen for the oil lobby to entrench itself ever deeper over here.

China is now the world's biggest investor in green energy and renewables now account for over 30% of its electricity generation.(compared to around 12% in the UK). Its current investment will drive this ever upwards over the coming years, putting it way ahead of the fracking-seduced USA. Its primary goal is energy security - China has recognised what so many corporately-owned western governments cannot dare to whisper within earshot of their big business sponsors: sticking to carbonised energy isn't just polluting the planet, it is undermining the independence of nation states.

China's endemic pollution is driving a major shift to clean energy
 China does have other considerations too - as its economy continues to expand, it does continue to consume the largest amount of coal of any country, but this is falling quickly as a proportion of its energy use and is intended to be cut ever deeper. Chinese citizens have been alarmed by repeatedly persistent and thick smogs enveloping their cities in the summer and while as monolithic as ever, the Government is responding. And it is a question of scale - per head of population, China emits about half the carbon that Britain does and barely a quarter of the USA's per capita emissions.
Renewables contribution to carbon reductions in the EU, 2013

As for India, per head of population, it produces barely 3 tonnes of carbon emissions per person per year - compared to 5 tonnes in China, 8.5 tonnes in Britain and more than double that in the USA. But its government too is investing heavily in renewables with the Modi government quadrupling an already ambitious solar energy target for 2022.

Just think how different and truly independent our foreign policy could be if we no longer relied on oil from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, or gas from Russia, for our energy requirements. No more oil equals no more oil wars as well as potentially no more global warming.

But no, our rightwing so-called patriots, who denounce Greens and other environmentalists in increasingly shrill terms, are quite happy for us to continue to depend on President Putin and King Salman for our lighting and heating and the civilised life electricity provides. And so, consequently, we remain beholden to, entwined with and dragged down into endless threats and conflicts by some of the most unsavoury, dangerous people on our planet.

Britain no longer has the domestic ability to make wind turbines - we have conceded that to Germany and are dependent now on Siemens to come to Hull to manufacture turbines for the North Sea. And solar panels have increasingly been coming from China, although new EU anti-dumping tariffs may stem this flow. Meantime, back in Germany, which is like China powering ahead in its renewables revolution, the hallmark of change is widespread individual and community ownership making it a highly democratic form of energy. Interestingly, small scale ownership is being encouraged in China alongside its larger schemes.

With this week's news, Britain may now conceivably lose much of our not large solar manufacturing base. Even our carbon emission reduction target of 15% by 2020 has been specially negotiated to be lower than other major EU economies like Germany (18%), France (23%) and Italy (17%). Only Malta, the Czech Republic and Luxemburg's targets are lower than ours - quite the opposite of the impression you'd get from the likes of UKIP or the Daily Mail. Only the SNP Government in Scotland, where renewable investments and capacity is not far behind that of Germany, offers any real hope for Britain not being left behind in the renewables revolution.

It could be so different - every house could be its own power station, every community could meet its own needs, and the Big Six energy companies would vanish. We would be free to follow a truly ethical foreign policy and Britain could be in contention with the skills, jobs and manufacturing capacity needed to lead the way in clean energy. And we could make a big contribution in reality and example in stopping the world from continuing to release carbon at four times the level needed to stop runaway global warming.

A world leader, for all the right reasons.

Below: share of national energy consumption from renewables in EU states in 2012. UK was (is) in the very bottom category.
 "European-union-renewables-new" by User:Murraybuckley, User:Jklamo, User:Elekhh - based on File:European-union-renewables-fr.svgData source for EU-member states and NorwayEurostat – Share of renewable energy in gross final energy consumptionData source for other countries:Iceland (2010, source needed)Turkey (2010, source needed)Switzerland (2013, 21.1%), SFOE, renewable energy statistics 2013, page 5See: current statistics (eurostat). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:European-union-renewables-new.svg#/media/File:European-union-renewables-new.svg

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