At present, we do not have a proven tool that quantifies the environmental impact of various electricity generation systems. And without it, we cannot take well-founded decisions concerning our energy future. That is one of the conclusions in the paper Environmental Effects of Electricity Generation by The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) . Current discussions about the Severn barrage and the construction of a wind park on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland illustrate in practice how urgently such a tool is needed.
These cases also show that such a decision tool alone will not be enough to guarantee that we are taking the best available measures to mitigate climate change. There is also a need for a European structure in which such a decision tool can be applied.
As the IET paper makes clear, the environmental impact of renewable energy is not zero. If we want to apply renewable energy generation on a scale comparable to fossil fuels, what ever form it takes will have a significant impact in terms of aesthetics, land use, and the eco-system. Consequently, renewable energy projects will continue to face increasing ‘Not-In-My-Backyard’ resistance at the same time they are gaining in their contribution to global energy needs. An undeniable, tangible effect in someone's backyard today will always have greater personal impact than a global, complex phenomenon that occurs over the course of a century or more.
Countering such resistance can be accomplished in two ways. The first is elevating the emotional rhetoric ever higher to dramatise climate change as leading directly to the end of world. The second one is more durable but also more difficult: use rational arguments that stand like a rock. Make sure that the complex global phenomenon is very clear to people, and propose a mix of solutions that is undeniably the best we can do. The former is what Al Gore did in the movie An Inconvenient Truth – at least in its best moments, since the movie was not completely free of over-dramatisation either. Unfortunately, the movie keeps surprisingly silent about solutions.
Regarding the Severn barrage, an answer to the following questions might go a long way towards convincing local populations, bird watchers, and other environmentalists: Have all other measures for reducing CO2 emissions been considered? Are there no effective measures available at a lower price? Will building the barrage actually lead to a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions or will it only be used to increase energy consumption? Presently, there is no clear answer to these questions. The UK government needs to be able to state unequivocally that ‘We are making maximum efforts to stimulate energy efficiency, since this fourth fuel has the least environmental impact. We have thoroughly investigated which of the possible measures will have the least financial, environmental, and social cost in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including the Severn barrage. With this barrage, we will be able to close down 2,000 MW of coal-fired power plants, leading to a CO2 reduction of x tons a year.’ In short, building this barrage should be part of a master plan — preferably pan-European — that can be explained and proven to the general public that it is the best available solution for mitigating climate change.
The idea of a master plan with executive power, however, contradicts the philosophy of a liberalised market.
If the UK government acted strictly along the lines of the liberalised energy market, it:
In short, it would ask the impossible of the various market players and stakeholders, since the dilemma of local versus global impact would not be solved.
The third way is to design a master plan that indicates the measures with the least financial, environmental, social cost, but to leave its execution to the market. That is to set up market mechanisms that work in such a way that the least cost for the market players coincides with the least cost for society. Those mechanisms however are virtually guaranteed to be highly complex, so complex in fact that it will be difficult to gain the support of a broad public. Have you ever tried to explain the Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) or the green certificates system to laymen? Moreover, there is no guarantee that those mechanisms will function as desired, as proved by the failure of the ETS (see blog post EU emissions trading scrutinized). As the Severn case illustrates, it is very difficult to incorporate all required considerations (up to and including eco-diversity and local tourism) into such market mechanisms.
Thanks to missionaries like Al Gore, the broad public is today convinced that climate change is real. But before people will be willing to undertake the efforts necessary to mitigate the effects, they will need the assurance that those efforts are part of a clear, generally acknowledged master plan, for which all available measures have been investigated and the options with the least cost to society clearly identified. As long as there is no such plan implemented, some people will keep on reasoning that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and decisions like the one on the Severn barrage will be impossible to take in a satisfying manner for all parties concerned.Log in to post comments