Thursday, 15 April 2010

The Green Industrial Revolution at last?

Last month Jonathon Porritt was in Birmingham to deliver a free lecture to the Lunar society and other guests who applied to attend. As he'd been director of Friends of the Earth in the 1980s (as well as holding many other high-ranking posts within the environmental sector) I was obviously very interested to go along and hear what he had to say. The following post is adapted from notes taken by one of our volunteers.

He has a reputation for being quite a provocative speaker but on this occasion he was determined to deliver quite a positive message - maybe that's because he now heads an organisation called "Forum for the Future", so needs to promote a brighter picture of the future. Jonathan said that we are on the brink of a Green Industrial Revolution here in the West Midlands. He would not have said that even one year ago and that although it has been announced regularly over the last 25 years, he sees signs that it could now be arriving at last.

The reasons he sees for this are the following:
  • There is a consensus on climate change. Our knowledge of climate science has been unfolding over the last 100 years and recent wobbles are not significant.
  • Acceptance that oil is finite and a price crunch is coming that will make it unaffordable for most purposes. The end of the era of cheap hydrocarbons.
  • Investment in renewable energy has become an industrial sector in its own right. The sense of a tipping point on energy supply.
  • UK government has finally got its act together on renewables. The Technology strategy Board is to invest £1bn in the renewable supply chain.
The trouble is that we're not jumping up and down and saying how great this is, because the media paints such a negative picture of climate change and the consequences and NGOs aren't getting their messaging right either.

He asked a question that is crucial in this areaand one that we need to look at to ensure the chance isn't wasted - What is stopping us from seeing and seizing the crucial moment?

1. No price on carbon. This is a major distortion in market behaviour. It requires a corrective mechanism, wrongly called subsidies to clean energy generation when it is just reflecting the cost that should be inherent with high-carbon activity.

2. Slowness in diffusion of technologies. Lighting has gone from incandescent bulbs, to compact florescent, to LED and now new methods such as high efficiency plasma. But it is too slow in implementation in most cases.

3. Incumbency – is the biggest single barrier to the Green Industrial Revolution – the principal block. For example, the oil companies are planning £250 billion investment in Canadian tar sands, i.e. a high carbon source of energy. It has been pointed out what a lot this investment would do to bring forward something like concentrating solar power in deserts, that could supply 15% of Europe's electricity needs. If all the planned fossil fuel development takes place it has been calculated this would raise CO2 levels from current 387 ppm to 750ppm. Most new solar development at the moment is by Chinese companies.

4. Looking backwards. Julia King’s low carbon transport study showed that we must in effect ‘junk the internal combustion engine’ or we will not restrain CO2 within acceptable limits. A 90% reduction in carbon emissions from transport is required by 2050. But cars are predicted to increase from 1 billion to 2 billion. If cars spread in developing countries then they will have to be electrically powered. His conclusion was that the internal combustion engine will die. Jaguar Landrover are taking the emissions from the internal combustion engine right down, but it won’t be enough. Nissan are to build a major electric car plant in the UK. Tata is working on an electric version of its low price Nano. Jonathan is still worried for British manufacturing though. There has been a deliberate dismantling of our manufacturing base since 1980s. We will need manufacturing to make the new technologies for a low-carbon revolution. Offshore wind is one area where government seems determined that the UK will take the lead and is investing in the supply chain. Mitsubishi is to open a wind turbine plant and Clipperwood Power is designing a 10 mega watt machine! This will require all new materials and is far bigger than anything else in the market at the moment.

5. Techno-scepticism by the green movement also plays a role. Some of this scepticism is good e.g. re geo-engineering as solutions to climate change. But to take green technologies to the public, we have to move beyond just asking people to consume less.

Some business leaders are beginning to think strategically about new technologies and NGOs have done a good job there, but now we need peer groups to lead, including universities. In the West Midlands we need to build on our past industrial legacy. The question he left us with was; How to make this real and live?

After this there was a question and answer session where members of the audience asked a few searching questions about the need to reduce consumption and whether we as human beings will ever be prepared to do that. He had to clarify some of what he said through the talk by saying that in the time given you can't possibly cover everything, but yes consumption is key and all the technological changes in the world won't help if people continue to consume in the same way.

Is Birmingham doing enough with its Climate Change Action Plan? Well, Cllr Tillesley mentioned Porritt as his mentor when introducing it to cabinet and likes to see himself as quite a visionary, but how much Birmingham is maximising the opportunities in the transition to a sustainable low-carbon economy still has to be seen. Will the city of the industrial revolution make it to the forefront of the green revolution?
We'll have to see...

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