This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and consultancy SustainAbility
On Monday 5th October, I was introduced to a new and slightly disorientating experience: I attended the UK Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. It was disorientating for three reasons. First, there were generous swathes of BLUE – a colour I usually associate with unpleasant football stadia – all over the place. Second, the majority of delegates were speaking a dialect of my mother tongue that might be described as Hugh-Grantglish. Third, as I scanned the agenda – the Conservative Party Conference agenda! – I picked out several plenary sessions and fringe events that suggested “sustainable development”. A whole day dedicated to Green Growth. In the UK, on the surface at least, it seems blue is the new green.
One such sustainability-related seminar that I managed to attend was titled “Keeping The Lights On: Energy in the 2010s”. As a series of panellists fixated on our various energy supply options, I found myself wondering why we were sitting in this conference room – drenched in sunlight via a huge pyramidal glass ceiling – with all of the lights on. Ah, but they were all energy efficient light bulbs! During the Q&A session, I suggested that one of the better ways to safeguard the UK’s ability to keep the lights on might be knowing when to switch them off. Or alternatively, to put the “conserve” back into Conservative, rather than Labour-ing under the fallacy that we can close the energy gap by increasing supply.
Switching the lights off
Minister of State for Energy & Climate Change Charles Hendry presented a view of what the next decade holds in store as the UK faces the prospect of retiring several GW of nuclear and coal-fired electricity generating capacity. His answer? A mix of new nukes (with no government subsidy), coal/CCS and offshore wind (the UK holds 40% of Europe’s offshore wind resource, yet currently sits an embarrassing 25th out of 27 Member States in terms of percentage of energy derived from renewable sources, ahead of mighty Malta and Luxembourg). And given the long lead times involved – particularly for nukes and coal/CCS, neither of which will make significant contributions before 2018 – we will also need to further increase our dependency on imported natural gas. It’s not the most inspiring picture, but it’s certainly pragmatic.
If you believe, they put a man on the Moon…
But who needs pragmatism from our political leaders? Whatever happened to vision and ambition? During the closing plenary at the Carbon Show in London the next day, I argued that it wasn’t always like this – certainly not on 26th May 1961:
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.
When John F Kennedy spoke those words, he didn’t present a pragmatic proposal for how his vision might be accomplished by leveraging the power of competitive deregulated markets. In fact, at the time you’d have been very hard-pressed to argue it was a realistic ambition. But it was certainly inspirational, it captured the imagination of a country, and it led to arguably the greatest human achievement ever. Why have we grown content to settle for realism, when all evidence indicates that something absolutely extraordinary needs to happen?
Imagine a contemporary politician taking JFK’s place for that 1961 speech: “I believe that, in the long-term, this nation should probably put a man on another celestial body. But as politicians we need to be careful not to pick winners – perhaps it’s the Moon, or maybe Mars is the right destination – the truth is we don’t know. In any case, there’s plenty to be done in the short-term: we need to gain altitude cost-effectively, and that means we’ve got to harvest the low-hanging fruit by climbing Mount Everest. We’re confident we can do it because some Kiwi and a Nepalese bloke managed it a few years back.” Doesn’t it just make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck?!
A Giant Leap For Mankind?
JFK chose a different way to shape history. He followed up his 1961 call to action with these words at Rice University in September the following year:
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…
According to the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report, to stand an evens chance of staying below the critical 2°C theshold, we’ll need to engineer a zero carbon energy system by 2050, with all the interim steps this implies. It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but it’s what the science tells us is necessary if we’re to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Are we ready to accept this challenge clear in the knowledge that it will be hard, or will we continue to postpone? Make no mistake: decarbonising the global economy in 40 years is our Moon Shot. Conservation >> Efficiency >> Decarbonisation, all on a scale for which history has no precedent.
Before Apollo 11 and Niel Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind came Apollos 1 thru 10 – as mankind’s baby steps grew into confident strides – all of them laser focused on achieving the ultimate ambition. So it is with our Moon Shot: we won’t manage this in one “giant leap”, no doubt we’ll trip along the way, but we will learn with every step we dare to take towards our zero carbon economy by 2050.
The Blue Planet
In considering whether this daunting challenge is one we should be willing to embrace, we might pause to recall the words of astronaut Thomas Stafford – from the Apollo 10 mission that preceded Armstrong’s lunar landing by two months – as he recalled looking down on his home:
The white twisted clouds and the endless shades of blue in the ocean make the hum of the spacecraft systems, the radio chatter, even your own breathing disappear. There is no cold or wind or smell to tell you that you are connected to Earth. You have an almost dispassionate platform – remote, Olympian and yet so moving that you can hardly believe how emotionally attached you are to those rough patterns shifting steadily below.
Put like that, our dear old planet sounds worth looking after, doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s fitting that blue is the new green – we all live on a Pale Blue Dot, after all.