Like pretty much every other English person I know, I’m currently on holiday in France. The Vendee region makes for a pleasant alternative to Britain at this time of year, and just down the road is La Rochelle, which was part of England until, oh, about 500 years ago. The two nations are deep in a classic love-hate relationship: They look enviously at our pop music and entrepreneurial flair while understandably scorning our food, ugly cities, and unsophisticated habits. We meanwhile grudgingly admire their ability to take themselves seriously, build proper infrastructure, and keep the country looking impeccable — all in a 35-hour work week.
Recently, their electricity giant Électricité de France (EDF) has been testing the patience of the British bulldog by flirting with our aged nuclear sector. At the beginning of August, on the brink of closing a deal in which EDF would buy British Energy (owner of our decrepit nuclear fleet), EDF walked away, leaving the government’s new nuclear energy policy in tatters. Unfortunately, the Department for Business, Enterprise, and Regulatory Reform had effectively placed their faith in the French government, which owns EDF, as the solution to some challenging future supply questions. The government — still a 35 percent stakeholder in British Energy — seems to find no irony in saying that rescuing the deal is a matter for the private sector.
Meanwhile, the debate about climate change and energy policy rages, with the most peculiar skirmishes peppering the newspapers. Bob Watson, chief scientific adviser to the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, began a new bout in The Guardian this month by suggesting that the country should prepare for a 4-degree C temperature rise, not the 2 degrees C that has so far been regarded as the safe target. Such an increase was modeled in the U.K.’s Stern report in 2006 with chilling results: millions more people affected by coastal flooding each year, a 30 to 50 percent reduction in water availability in southern Africa and the Mediterranean, agricultural yields declining 35 percent in Africa, and extinction for 20 to 50 percent of species. Preparation for such a future in the U.K. would include abandoning significant parts of the country to the sea, and since Watson’s advice informs the Environment Agency, responsible in the U.K. for coastal defense, his remarks have some unpalatable political implications.
Accused of defeatism, Watson is urging an “Apollo-style” project to fast-track carbon capture and storage technology. His words have stirred up an already turbulent U.K. debate about coal-fired power stations. Protesters have been camped out at the proposed site of a new coal-fired station, the existence of which would destroy any hope of the U.K. achieving its CO2 reduction (unless not-yet-invented CCS technology comes to its rescue).
And back from the wilderness is Arthur Scargill, union champion of the coal miners in the great strike of the Thatcher years and now an advocate of new coal power. He claims that coal is the best environmental solution to questions of energy security and climate change and, warrior to the last, has thrown down a meaningless challenge to environmentalist George Monbiot: “I am prepared to go into a room full of CO2 for two minutes if he is prepared to go into a room full of radiation for two minutes.” Accusing Scargill of nostalgia for a technology that would harm the people he claims to care about, Monbiot has accepted the challenge, but only if he can choose the form of radiation.
But perhaps we should give the last word to Joss Garman, the young activist who set up “Plane Stupid” and now campaigns for Greenpeace — perhaps the only real firebrand in the latest generation of environmentalists. He joined the fray this month with a withering attack on the media’s role in framing climate change and energy: “With climate change, in order to be ‘serious,’ you need to acknowledge that the end of the world is an interesting detail in the broader pattern of economic ‘progress’ but never succumb to the incredible naivety of the protesters, who fail to realize that the survival of life on earth is a bourgeois luxury which we can ill afford in these times of economic constraint.”
Uncomfortable holiday reading, but it’s good to see some seriousness in the debate. When EDF eventually does buy British Energy, it might at least free up some brains in Britain for the more innovative solutions we so urgently need.