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A generation ago, I’d have been writing this on a typewriter and you’d have been reading it on paper. Go back further still, to 1900, and you’d have been reading your paper by the light of a lantern or candle, after it had been delivered nationwide by men with horses. But times change and technology evolves – which makes it all the more bizarre that the Government is not just doubling-down on the technologies and energy sources of yesteryear, but touting it as good for the country and the economy.
In announcing hundreds of new licenses for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea last month, the Government’s justification has been couched in economic and patriotic language.
On Twitter, the announcement came draped in Union flags, while the Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero, Grant Shapps, writing in the Telegraph, referred to the need for “British oil and gas” to support “British jobs”, power “British homes” and meet the needs of “British people”.
Not exploiting these reserves, he suggested, would be to “shoot our economy and security in the foot.” But a moment’s reflection on the course of history suggests the opposite is likely to be true, and there’s no economic advantage to be gained from clinging on to increasingly outdated and expensive energy sources as the rest of the world transitions to better, cheaper and more advanced technologies.
There’s no denying that fossil fuels have powered an almost unbelievable transformation of our societies and world since the Industrial Revolution. But their time has come.
For decades the alternatives – renewable energy sources like wind and solar – were uncompetitive on price, but their costs have been falling precipitously as the technology has evolved, and that’s no longer the case.
In the UK, it is now cheaper to produce electricity from offshore wind than from fossil gas, and most of the renewables capacity installed globally in 2021 was cheaper than the cheapest coal-fired alternative.
As renewable technologies are scaled up their costs will be driven even lower, meaning that investments in renewables today will result in huge future savings. Last year, a team of Oxford researchers estimated that a rapid transition away from fossil fuels would save, globally, up to $12 trillion by 2050, and that the faster we move away from fossil fuels, the greater the savings will be.
“There is a pervasive misconception”, said a co-author of the research, “that switching to clean, green energy will be painful, costly and mean sacrifices for us all – but that’s just wrong.” No wonder the global consultancy firm McKinsey is advising the EU to ramp up the pace of its decarbonisation.
Across the world, and among the UK’s economic competitors, investment in renewables and the broader transition to net zero is surging.
In June, the day after a “withering report” from the Climate Change Committee on our own Government’s failure to progress towards the UK’s decarbonisation targets, China released figures suggesting it may reach its 2030 targets for wind and solar installation five years ahead of schedule.
Though different countries may be proceeding at different speeds, it’s clear that the trend is only going in one direction, and that the tide has turned on fossil fuels. The transition to newer technologies is now inevitable, because they are better and cheaper, yet the government seems intent on swimming against the tide by prolonging the fossil fuel age for as long as possible.
But looking to the past, rather than the future, seems a bizarre economic strategy in a rapidly changing world.
Nor is it a popular one. Many have suggested that the recent anti-green rhetoric is an electoral ploy, yet this makes little sense given that, as poll after poll shows, most people (including those who voted Conservative in the 2019 General Election) overwhelmingly favour stronger action on net zero.
Rather, it is no coincidence that the Government’s backtracking reflects the anti-green rhetoric of a “sprawling alliance of public figures, think tanks, pressure groups, and media outlets that are hostile to green policies”, often involving a similar cast to those who pushed for Brexit.
In particular, anti-net zero think tanks, such as the Global Warming Policy Foundation and Institute for Economic Affairs, both housed at the infamous 55 Tufton Street, are known to be highly influential in shaping government policy – yet their funding sources remain largely opaque.
Until last year that is, when an investigation by openDemocracy revealed the GWPF to have accepted money from US-based groups with interests in fossil fuels. As Bob Ward of the Grantham Institute told the Guardian following the revelations, “it is disturbing that the Global Warming Policy Foundation is acting as a channel through which American ideological groups are trying to interfere in British democracy”.
It is particularly disturbing when that influence leads to us being left behind in the transition to the post-fossil age.
As the world moves on to cheaper and better technologies, we must not allow fossil fuel-backed interests to dictate our energy and economic decisions – to do so would be to act like a newspaper board that decided not to invest in desktop computers because it was in thrall to the typewriter lobby.
I haven’t even mentioned climate change, because I haven’t needed to. In a world of rapidly evolving technology, it makes sound economic sense to move beyond the fossil fuel era and onto better, cleaner ways of powering our activity. We must not listen to the anti-green extremists trying to hold us back.
Charlie Gardner is Associate Senior Lecturer at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent