29 Oct 2007
‘Climate Change + Peak Oil = Cutting Carbon + Resilience Building’ or ‘Why Malcolm Wicks Really Hasn’t Got This Peak Oil Thing…’
I had just about got over the sense of outrage and indignation caused by reading John Vidal’s piece, Labour’s plan to abandon renewable energy targets, which revealed Gordon Brown’s administration as truly nailing their colours to the economic growth mast rather than the responding to the climate change one by withdrawing his support for the European target of 20% of energy from renewable sources by 2020. Just about. Then, the next day in a follow-up article, was a quote attributed to energy minister Malcolm Wicks, which read*”at the end of the day, renewables is a means to an end. The end is bringing down carbon emissions”*.
Malcolm Wicks was the UK’s energy minister, then he wasn’t, and now he is again. He was the subject of a coruscating chapter in David Strahan’s Last Oil Shock, which tore into Wicks’s obfuscation on the peak oil issue. This one sentence offers a clear indication that Wicks still really hasn’t got it. It also shows the dangers of designing responses to climate change that do not address the peak oil question. Installing renewable energy capacity is about so much more than just cutting carbon emissions, or at least it should be.
Renewables are also about building resilience, about putting in place the ability of our communities and of the country as a whole, to withstand the shocks that peak oil will inevitably cause. If done properly, renewables can also strengthen local economies, support local currencies, provide a focus for community investment, and lead to the decentralisation of energy generation, which gives power (both literally and figuratively) to the local scale rather than centralising it in distant nuclear or coal-fired power stations.
It struck me that this statement, more than any I have yet read emerging from the present Government, encapsulates the extent to which those in charge of making such decisions (and of unmaking previously made ones) have missed the point. It is especially sobering that such a statement comes from the energy minister himself. From a climate change perspective the primary focus is of course cutting emissions, which is entirely right, but at the same time, doing so without also building resilience is foolish. By resilience, I mean the ability of that settlement to withstand shocks from the outside. It refers to the rebuilding of localised infrastructure so that our ability to meet our basic needs does not crumble to dust at the first sight of an energy crisis or some other such challenge.
In his wonderful Upside of Down, Thomas Homer-Dixon describes resilience thus;
>“In a resilient system, individual nodes – like people, companies, communities and even whole countries – are able to draw on support and resources from elsewhere, but they’re also self-sufficient enough to provide for their essential needs in an emergency. Yet in our drive to hyper-connect and globalise all the world’s economic and technological networks, we’ve forgotten the last half of this injunction”.
It was, I suppose, rather naive to imagine the energy minister of one of the major industrialised nations thinking any other way, but it illustrates for me why the peak oil issue is one that can be best addressed from the ground up. It is entirely wrong to think, as Wicks appears to, that we can reduce carbon emissions elsewhere so therefore we no longer need to install renewables because at the end of the day its all about carbon. This is wrong from two angles. Firstly, as we saw last week in the ‘Big Melt’ report, climate change is happening so fast that we need to be reducing emissions to zero with an almost unimaginable degree of urgency in whatever way we can. Secondly, from a peak oil perspective, energy efficiency and installing renewables are completely different. The first is about reducing consumption, but the second is about putting in place key infrastructure for a more resilient society which is able to function beyond the availability of cheap oil.
Malcolm Wicks has shown clearly that, at least while the present Government is in charge, there is little awareness in politics about peak oil and how responding to it will change solutions put forward to climate change. It cannot be said often enough, you cannot respond to peak oil and climate change just by cutting emissions, you must also, with an equal sense of urgency, build local resilience, in terms of food, energy, medicine and so on. Were Wicks to have said “the end is bringing down carbon emissions and building local resilience”, how different might Government policy look (the answer: profoundly).