Ideas, thoughts, reports…

A Sustainable Future for the UK – Pressures, Steps and Priorities

It’s mid-2011.  The UK has just experienced an unsettling few months: an extremely cold period shortly before Christmas was followed by an early, mild spring and then drought; hopes that the economy was improving have become more muted; and there are worries that already high energy prices will rise by a further 20% this coming winter.

The reaction? Well, more extreme weather is becoming the norm and meteorologists are concerned rather than perplexed by our changing weather patterns.  However, the economic impacts of global energy supplies tightening are less well understood either by governments or the wider population, and there has been little comment…

Energy – the driver of the world economy

Predictions from outspoken geologists, suggestions from (often) former oil company executives and more guarded words from groups like the International Energy Agency (IEA) are creating a clear picture that global oil supplies are peaking.  Oil has driven the booming economic development of the last 70 years, as it took over from coal as the fuel of convenience.   However it was back in the late 1950s that US geologist M. King Hubbert described the depletion characteristics of oil fields, and anticipated the end of the oil boom.

As economies become dependent on fossil fuels to power them, they also became vulnerable to shortages.  Coal extractions in the UK reached a peak in the early 20th century.  Our reducing ability to maintain exports to fuel other economies led to unrest and then the 1930s depression.  OPEC action in the 1970s coincided with the peaking of US oil extractions, and economic recovery began as North Sea oil began to flow.  Although our current economic malaise has been blamed on the banking industry, the collapse coincided with oil prices rising fast, as demand exceeded supply.  Now, with prices near $120 a barrel,  well above the long-term ‘norm’, economies will struggle to revive unless they cut their dependency on oil.

As there is flexibility between energy sources, the prices for other fuels – like gas, coal and electricity – are also rising.  Many of these also have poor security of supply, with much of our coal and gas now imported and our electricity largely generated from fossil fuels.  Meanwhile a need to reduce their use is clearly identified also by climate scientists, and the implications of not doing so highlighted by economists like Sir Nicholas Stern.

The priorities to achieve this are three fold: cut energy use, use energy more efficiently and change the sources of that energy.

Future vision – steps towards sustainability

Globally there will be no choice.  Fossil fuels are finite and a point will come when the amount able to be extracted each year will be clearly on a downward trend.  If we fight that trend and extract more, now, the result will be a steeper downward trend later on.  Which countries benefit from remaining supplies will depend on their ability to obtain them, financially or otherwise.  Preparing now for this change will bring benefits both in terms of citizens’ ability to adapt to shortages, and for our economy.

Spreading understanding of the situation and the actions that need to be taken will make preparations easier to achieve.  Many actions are the same as those required to combat climate change – improving building insulation, investing in renewable energies, encouraging sustainable travel, and so on.  But some are different.  For example:

–         Carbon capture and storage allows coal to be used as a fuel without causing high CO2 emissions.  However the net energy availability is cut significantly due to the energy taken to transport and compress the CO2.  Thus more coal is required to produce the same amount of electricity, hastening the time of peak coal.

–         Nuclear power is seen as a low carbon fuel, but, like fossil fuels, uranium is a finite resource and extractions will peak and decline.  As a dense, portable energy supply, uranium may be needed as an alternative to heavy fuel oils for uses like international marine freight.  Burning uranium for land-based electricity generation would be short-sighted as renewables should meet this need.

–         Many individuals see action to reduce climate change as of little personal benefit as it is just a drop in the ocean.  Making one’s own lifestyle resilient to high energy prices and possible erratic energy availability is a much stronger driver for individual action.

Pressure points for action

Nationally there needs to be greater awareness of the patterns of energy use, alternatives and vulnerability by all sectors – business, public bodies, voluntary sector and individuals.

Transport costs will increase and, as in 2002 when refineries were picketed, fuel supplies may become erratic.  People need to start planning now to develop more local economies, resilient to fuel shortages.  Individually they need to consider active travel (eg walking, cycling) and more sustainable travel (eg buses, trains) alternatives to cars – and whether journeys can be avoided altogether.  

Housing consumes a lot of energy, for space heating, cooking and many other activities.  Continuing to support and encourage improvements in insulation standards, electrical efficiency and installation of effective micro-generation is important.  Other actions can also make a difference, such as smart grids and variable electricity pricing to skew electricity demand to closer match availability.  Increasing house occupancy levels can reduce per capita energy use.

The close linkage between food and fuel prices has been seen recently with the cost of basic foodstuffs increasing on the global markets. This is not only due to competition for land between use for food and biofuel production, but also direct links to energy costs.  Two fifths of UK food is currently imported, and the vast majority of all food is highly dependent on fossil fuels for its production.  As well as transport, farm equipment, food processing and packaging, pesticides and fertilisers used by most farmers are made from oil and gas.  Localising food and reducing food wastage are important.  It will also be important to look again at waste streams to close as many resource cycles as possible, including returning sewage waste (appropriately processed) to the land.

Rural areas will become the main source of sustainable resources.  New industries using natural materials need to be encouraged.  These will be especially valuable where they require less energy to manufacture than current alternatives, or where carbon can be embedded (sequestered) within the product, for example, wood waste used to make house insulation.  Local manufacturing facilities can reinvigorate rural areas, as well as move some of the population closer to food supplies.

People at the centre of change

The move towards real sustainability will not happen overnight, but progress in this direction needs to be as fast and direct as possible.  Low energy, high well-being patterns of living need to be developed over the next 20 or 30 years.  Guiding principles will need to include:

–         investing our remaining cheap, easy energy in infrastructure that will serve us well in the long term

–         anticipating the skills that individuals and communities will need to thrive – and making opportunities to learn these available

–         working internationally to these ends to minimise the threat of international unrest over energy resources.

There is growing body of people who recognise that GDP is less and less a good proxy for well-being, Indeed at times of rapidly increasing energy prices, GDP can rise with no change in economic activity.    The time has come to move to other measures.

A radical liberal future?

Expressing thoughts like this is certainly radical, though more and more people express concern about sustainability to their friends and neighbours, even though they may be thinking of the shortage of housing for their children, or cost of next winter’s fuel.   

Acknowledging the need to act will be radical for a mainstream party, which the Lib Dems now clearly are.

Taking action soon enough to avoid panic, unrest and the rise of extremist groups, is the best way to try to ensure a liberal future.

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