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Greenwash
Image: Devon Buchanan

UK government energy greenwash

The British public is being deceived by greenwash stories designed to gloss over the government’s failure to deliver a coherent energy policy.  For example, Adam Vaughan in the Guardian uncritically repeats the story that:

“More power came from solar panels than from Britain’s ageing coal stations from April to September this year.”

This and similar stories have gone viral on social media, giving the impression that the UK is leading the way on the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.  It will come as a surprise then that the latest EY (Ernst & Young) Renewable energy country attractiveness index has demoted the UK for the first time in the index’ history:

“The United Kingdom, however, is bucking the trend in European improvement, falling to an all-time index low in 14th position. The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, the dismantling of the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) and approval of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station all contributed to a loss of appeal in the eyes of investors.”

Surely one of these stories must be false?

Well, no.  It is true that since April the UK has generated more energy from renewables than from coal.  It is just that journalists covering the story failed to understand the shifts in energy generation that have occurred in recent years.  Renewable energy generation is actually down slightly because of a decline in offshore wind generation.  Solar has risen because more panels have been deployed and because the summer is the time when the sun is highest in the sky.  The latest government data shows that renewables generated 16.7 percent of our energy – down from 17.9 percent last month (most likely due to less sunlight).  Coal generation has fallen even more spectacularly to just 4.6 percent of our energy – the unforeseen consequence of the forced closer of all UK coal power stations by 2025 (causing many operators to cut their losses and close early).

The two winners from UK energy policy are gas – which now accounts for 50.1 percent of our energy; and makes fracking far more attractive to energy companies already locked into a gas infrastructure – and nuclear, whose share has risen to 28.5 percent of UK energy as a result of the decision to extend the lifespan of the UK’s ageing nuclear power stations.  There is a belief in some quarters that gas is a cleaner energy than coal.  However, while this is true when it is burned, it overlooks the methane that leaks out of the system between the gas field and the power station.  Nor does it properly account for the carbon emissions involved in compressing and transporting gas from the Middle East.  Add these climate costs into the equation, and it is hard to claim that Britain’s increasing reliance on gas is anything other than a climate catastrophe.  Nuclear is at least low-carbon.  There is, however, the thorny question of what to do with the waste – not least the need to use electricity to cool the spent fuel rods for a decade before they can be stored.  And by extending the life of our oldest nukes, we greatly increase the risk of a nuclear accident.

When considering how green Britain is, we should also remember that the data is only looking at the electricity that accounts for around a quarter of our energy use.  Our cars, vans, lorries, ships and planes use almost double the amount of energy – almost all of it from oil.  And whereas leading European countries like Norway and Germany are aiming to ban oil-powered cars by 2030, the best the British government has come up with is the proposal to allow electric vehicles to drive the wrong way up one-way streets.

The last time Britain had a Tory government back in the early 1990s, the Norwegian prime minister was moved to call Britain’s environment minister John Gummer a “drittsekk” (shitbag) while Britain was widely regarded as the “dirty man of Europe”.  It would seem that our current energy ministers have a nostalgic urge to recover that reputation – and no amount of greenwash should be allowed to hide this from us.

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