Private Sector Powering the Winds of Change
Energy usage isn’t an easy thing to comprehend. We’re constantly told that unless we immediately reduce our dependence on “dirty” fuels, the coming generations will pay dire consequences. The impending precipice spurs people into action when the wastage is tangible – recycling, for example, has become the norm in British households.
But wastage that can’t be seen is much harder to grasp. Hearing that every man, woman and child in the U.K. has a yearly carbon footprint of 10 tonnes (in the U.S. it’s 20!) is as incomprehensible as it is scary. This would be different if we each had to carry our 380kg of carbon to the curb every fortnight along with our paper, plastics and garden trimmings. But we don’t.
Realistically, big changes in energy usage must come from the top. This is a matter where the U.S. and U.K. governments are increasingly out of sync with the multinational private sector – and it’s the companies that are taking the lead.
The thrust of Trump’s presidential campaign was based on retrospective rhetoric. His decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement a few weeks ago astonished the world but can’t have really surprised many.
“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris”
Thankfully, the POTUS’s backwards stance on climate change is being vociferously challenged. Mayors from 340 U.S. cities, including New York, L.A., Chicago, and notably Pittsburgh, the coal-capital of America, have gone against the White House and pledged that they will uphold the terms of the Agreement.
The U.K. remains in the deal, but its decision to leave the E.U. has been a cause for concern for many environmentalists. Renewable energy has been given little attention in Brexit talks. A taskforce of lawyers has gathered to ensure that the 1,100 E.U. laws regarding energy and the environment are transferred effectively into new domestic law, but warn that complexity, scale and political resistance could mean that key protections are lost.
On the face of it, the Conservative government claims to be committed to renewable energy. Their alliance with the climate-change-denying D.U.P. hints otherwise, as does a recent report from the Green Alliance that found that over £1bn of proposed government investment in renewable energy simply disappeared last year. In total, public spending on solar, wind and biomass power will be cut by 95% in the next three years.
Everyone knows that American politics is dominated by private interests. These cutbacks reveal their sway in the U.K. too.
Politicians looking after their rich friends may be nothing new. But what’s remarkable is how far these two ardently neoliberal governments are burying their heads in the sand – presumably looking for oil – by ignoring the evolution of the energy market. Renewables are undeniably on the up, and the days of traditional fuels are numbered. Clean energy is a global business, and the U.K. and U.S. aren’t keeping up.
Green business is good business
Companies across the world are investing more and more in being green. One would like to think that this is out of a collective sense of corporate responsibility. In reality, it may just be for PR – green credentials aren’t just a bonus, they’re now essential to building a positive and progressive image. Regardless of motive, the result is the same: businesses are investing huge capital into resources and talent that can improve their environmentally-friendly reputation.
Even the oil and gas companies are getting on board. Some are mere token gestures, but for these firms a token gesture can often be north of $1bn (Total spent $4.7bn on renewables last year, and Shell has allocated $3bn until 2020).
But this is also futureproofing. The rise of renewable energy has seriously destabilised the energy market. On Friday 21st April this year, Britain achieved its first coal-free day since the 19th century. Last month there was another first: high wind output resulted in negative power prices, meaning that some traditional power plants had to pay suppliers like British Gas to take their electricity.
Last Tuesday, Norwegian firm Stratoil launched the world’s first floating windfarm. Until now, turbines have only been installed at depths less than 40 meters, but the £200m Hywind project paves the way for new frontiers of ocean to be farmed.
Now is an exciting time for the renewable energy and environment sector. Global demand for “dirty” fuels is dropping. To stay ahead, companies are pouring billions into the research and development of renewables. And unlike the finite oil and gas supplies, this industry is only going to get bigger and bigger.