Having our cake and eating it – a low carbon economy according to Friends of the Earth

Yesterday saw the publication of a report commissioned by the environmental lobby group Friends of the Earth (FoE) and the Co-operative Bank, based on a study carried out by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. The aim of the research is to show the means by which we can create a successful low-carbon economy, and the claim is that we can do this without sacrificing our comfortable first-world lifestyles and economic growth.

The release of the report – or rather a 20-page summary of it – was accompanied by a fair amount of FoE media spin, but my impression is that FoE have in this case taken a more restrained approach than is typical of the organisaion. The Independent newspaper chose yesterday to run together a number of climate change-related stories, with a big front-page splash, while the Guardian published a 1500-word news report by John Vidal. BBC TV’s Newsnight on Thursday night devoted a major part of the programme to the story, featuring the outstanding science journalist Susan Watts, and a panel discussion including FoE’s Tony Juniper, a former Labour government minister whose name for the moment escapes me, and former Tory Environment Secretary, John Selwyn Gummer. It was a very good presentation and discussion.

Before I go further, I should state that I am not, in general, a supporter of FoE’s approach to environmental issues, as the organisation tends to be among the guilty parties when it comes to the use of uneccesary and damaging hyperbole in the environment debate. In this case, however, I think that the Tyndall research, and FoE’s use of it, is constructive and worthwhile.

The Tyndall Centre researchers have done a very good job with this report, but it’s worth pointing out that they are not climate scientists, on the whole, but rather social and economic policy wonks, and aggregators of scientific research concerning climate matters. The Tyndall report is concerned less with science, and more with concrete political and economic policies that would help us achieve the necessary reductions in atmospheric carbon emissions. I urge you to read the report; the précis is only 20 pages of text and figures, and there is also a 4-page summary for those with a particularly short attention span. The full report is some 175 pages long, and is officially not yet published, though it is available for those who are interested. The 20-page précis should be your first port of call. It is well-written, and certainly a lot more substantial than an FoE press release.

One thing to bear in mind when reading these documents is that the detailed carbon reduction figures put forward by the Tyndall Centre and other groups are not as important as the general need to do a lot more than we are at present, or government have planned for. The Tyndall researchers advocate a 70 percent cut in atmospheric carbon emissions by 2030; the IPPR say 90 percent by 2050, and the government 60 percent by 2050. Expert debate continues on the precise figures, and the numbers published in the Tyndall report are certainly not the last word on the matter. For one thing, the models used for the calculations are highly sensitive to inputs such as population growth.

Following a Comment is Free piece yesterday by John Vidal, Tim Worstall, a minerals trader and keen commenter on economic affairs, criticised the FoE/Tyndall report for omitting discussion of the nuclear power option. Tim has a point, of sorts, but I think he makes too much of it, and being a supporter of the neo-liberal Adam Smith Institute (ASI), Tim has a political bias that is hostile to the left-environmentalism represented by FoE.

Both the full Tyndall report and the précis refer – in a number of places – to nuclear power, and the stress seems to be on showing that it is possible to satisfy energy needs and live within a severely restricted carbon budget without recourse to the nuclear option. The forward to the full report states:

“…we asked The Tyndall Centre at The University of Manchester to explore if it is possible for the UK to move to a low carbon economy. And, in line with our solutions-based approach to tackling climate change, we also asked if so, how?”

…which is a clear, if subtle, indicator of the terms of reference as defined by FoE and the Co-operative Bank. I conjecture that the Tyndall researchers were asked explicitly by FoE to investigate the possibilities assuming that there would be no new nuclear build.

This new research is one contribution to the debate, and I don’t think FoE can be criticised for omitting from the research they commissioned a (new) nuclear scenario. FoE’s cards are on the table, and the assumptions and terms of reference laid out clearly. If the ASI were to carry out a research study such as this, I would expect the presentation to be heavily skewed in favour of private corporations and the institute’s particular spin on liberal economics. Like FoE, the ASI is a highly partisan organisation.

If FoE are to be criticised, it is for having not advertised the full report on their website at the same time as releasing the summaries, and instead stating (on their website) that “The full report will be online in mid-October.”.

Another commenter (“marksa”) on John Vidal’s CiF article wrote that:

“…price signals will work a lot faster in curtailing or reducing energy use then hot air suggestions generated by various policy wonks.”

I don’t agree. There is so much inertia in economies of all types when it comes to the adoption of big technologies, that I cannot see “price signals” working. New technologies are generally state-driven (Internet included), and I dare say it will be the same with the large-scale and necessarily rapid adoption of alternative and renewable energy generation.

From an ideological perspective this troubles me as I favour a minimal state, and on many issues side with economic libertarians, but when it comes to something as threatening as climate change, ideology goes out the window. Marksa cedes the point about the need for state subsidy, but points out that the market is already delivering solutions to reduce energy demand. The problem here, however, is that scaling them up for practical use could take years … that we don’t have.

In summary, the policy suggestions put forward by Friends of the Earth, the Co-operative Bank and the Tyndall Centre are, it is claimed, workable, and they need not impact on our bourgeois standard of life or economic growth. So, maybe we can have our cake and eat it too, much to the chagrin of dogmatic economic libertarians who cannot cope with the idea of legislative, regulatory solutions to the environmental crisis. It wil be interesting to see how this debate develops, and the studied reaction to the FoE/Tyndall report.

When I’ve finished reading the full report, I may, if I’m so inspired, follow this article up with a discussion of the Tyndall/FoE policy recommendations. However, my priority as regards writing on climate change is a summary of the latest scientific thinking. There have been recent developments on that front, and the discussion has so far been restricted largely to the geophysics community.