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Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is a researcher on the climate and energy team at nef.

UK Low Carbon Transition PlanThe Secretary of State for Climate Change and Energy’s plans for the transition to a low carbon future for the UK are welcome, and not before time. But is the scale of the vision set out in The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan up to the task at hand?

Beginning with the first element of Ed Miliband’s ‘Energy Trinity’, investment in wind and tidal energy is long overdue good news. However, at £180 million or 23 per cent of the estimated £775m annual bonus package for staff at the failed Royal Bank of Scotland, we have to question how far the rhetoric is matched by real commitment.

Nuclear power, now given the green light, poses serious unsolved problems to do with long-term waste, cost, inflexibility and international security. In any event, it couldn’t deliver in time to meet the real world target set, not by government, but by the atmosphere – of reducing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350ppm.Neither can the climate system wait for unproven carbon capture and storage technology to come on line.

The answer for coal must be elegantly simple. Leave it in the ground.

The first part of the Energy Trinity is vastly under-resourced; the other two are of a different nature entirely. They are a dangerous diversion which, if we follow, would undermine efforts to preserve the climatic conditions under which civilisation emerged.  Remove them and focus resources on the transformation of our aging energy infrastructure, massive scale-out of proven renewable technologies, the transformation of our building stock and the creation of a low vehicle transport system and the plan might begin to look like the Green New Deal our environment and our economy so urgently needs.

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

They’re still out there, the deniers, but they become increasingly exotic. And excuses for inaction on global warming become stranger. One I found would have us believe that spending on wind farms was responsible globally for “killing millions” through the misallocation of resources. That came from a panellist at a public debate at one of the UK’s leading scientific establishments. Oddly, he cited no learned journals to back the claim. The same voice went further. There are no limits on the human use of natural resources, we were told, because when things run out on earth, we can always mine … asteroids.

OK, so the audience did laugh spontaneously at that point. But what makes people cling so tenaciously to denial that they would entertain ludicrous feats just to preserve the status quo, rather than embrace relatively simple changes – like switching the energy system away from fossil fuels – and in the process create jobs and greater energy security and (even if they don’t accept its reality) tackle climate change?

NASA climate scientist James Hansen arrested after protesting a mountain-top coal mine in West Virginia, USA.

NASA climate scientist James Hansen (left) arrested after protesting a mountain-top coal mine in West Virginia, USA.

To push that simple change, this month one man took a big leap away from the security of the science laboratory that was once his home and got himself arrested for challenging the coal industry in the US. To be fair, James Hansen of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies has a track record in standing up to authority, especially Republican administrations, but getting detained by men in uniform in the cause of climate change was a first. Soon after, a new climate bill was passed in the US.

It’s encouraging that people like Hansen are upping the ante, and it’s not difficult to see why they do it. On one hand, the month brings confirmation of how warming will drive a huge human upheaval through forced migration, and how the UK will see more flooding in winter and droughts in summer. On the other, there is news that the Met Office, responsible for much of the UK’s core work on modelling global warming, is to lose one quarter of its climate research budget, about £4.3m, after the Ministry of Defence withdrew funding, and that emissions from international shipping – not covered by international agreements for reduction – are rising.

Meanwhile, the policing of climate protests appears to grow increasingly political and repressive, in direct contradiction to exhortations to mobilise and campaign from figures like the secretary of state for energy and climate change, Ed Miliband. As the evidence on warming further hardens, any kind of coherent political response seems to flounder more elaborately.

And yet, in spite of everything and in a quite unplanned and unintentional way, the beginnings of a potentially positive and self-reinforcing spiral are dimly visible.

First, the environment comes riding in to save the economy, through various initiatives like support for wind power and home energy efficiency, that one day, added up, might look like a Green New Deal. Then the economy accidentally returns the gesture.

In 2008, a combination of high oil prices and the financial crisis saw the global economy slow down and the rate of growth of greenhouse gas emissions fall by half. They still went up, but slowed significantly.

Rich and poor countries experience such trends very differently. But the effect in some rich countries, where emissions cuts are needed first and deepest, has been interesting. Far from there being universal wailing and mortification, many have embraced the chance to work shorter weeks and take unpaid holiday. They’ve accepted cuts in disposable income because the gift of extra time has opened up new opportunities elsewhere.

In reclaiming part of their lives to do anything from spend more time with family, learn a new skill, volunteer, start a campaign or enterprise, take a walk in the woods or, indeed, study stars and asteroids, people are discovering that there is a big payback in added wellbeing. For some people at least, the recession has taught them that less really is more. As the clock ticks down to the point when, in 89 months’ time, it will no longer be “likely” that we’ll keep below the critical two-degree temperature rise, lets hope we are all quick learners.

Some of the Drax 29 at work, complete with canary. Their trial started on Monday.

Some of the Drax 29 at work, complete with canary. Their trial started on Monday.

Finally, its not just world-famous scientists who are putting themselves on the line legally or, indeed, literally. Last summer 29 people stopped a train containing 1,000 tonnes of coal on its way to Drax power station in Yorkshire. They stopped the train with a red flag, following standard railway safety rules, boarded it and began shovelling the coal on to the line. One was dressed as a canary – the traditional warning of dangerous pollution down a coal mine. They dropped a banner saying “Leave It in the ground”.

Like Hansen, they saw coal as the biggest danger when it came to climate change, and Drax is the biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK. All 29 were arrested and are now standing trial. They’re charged with “obstructing the railway” and they face up to two years in prison. Their trial started on Monday, but what is really on trial is whether we have the wit as a society to save ourselves from death by carbon-addled inertia.


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.