Tomorrow's Kent: keeping the lights on
I am most impressed by all that has been achieved at St Margaret's Bay since I was last here in 2006: an enormous effort and a model for others. Warmest thanks to all concerned at Protect Kent / CPRE, and especially to Richard Knox-Johnston and Alistair Gould.
Let me take a step back and look at the whole complex of interconnected issues which confront us: from climate change and changing population pressures to loss of biodiversity and resource depletion. In coping with them we have to think very differently, in particular about economics:
- away from consumerism and a blind belief in market forces to a more balanced society;
- looking critically about such concepts as GNP/GDP, "growth", and other measuring devices beloved of politicians and Treasury economists.
But the most immediate practical issue is energy and, in the words of this conference, keeping the lights on in Kent. We sometimes forget how far we have come:
- past history: from muscle, water and wind to coal, oil and gas;
- now the effect of the industrial revolution, itself generated by and dependent on fossil fuels;
- We rely on diminishing sources of those fuels, whose lifetimes are roughly:
- oil 40 years
- gas 60 years
- coal 220 years
- although there may well be more of all three as time goes on (for example Residual Oil Recovery may produce substantial quantities of oil), there is a changing balance between them. Thus gas is now taking over from coal. European Union electricity supplies come 25% from gas and down to 20% from coal.
- the environmental consequences of this dependence on fossil fuels are in many ways more serious than the prospects of their depletion. In political terms we have become dangerously dependent on certain suppliers, whether they be in the Middle East or in Russia. Energy security is an increasingly important issue, the more so as demand for energy is constantly rising, and competition for it will become more intense. In China energy use doubled between 1990 and 2006, and is likely to double again by 2025.
What should we do about it?
- most agree that the first priority is to make better use of fossil fuel reserves while improving efficiency and developing technologies to reduce their effect on the chemistry of the atmosphere. Hence such schemes as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), sequestration,and auctions of permits to emit greenhouse gases: the dangers in exploiting the Athabasca tar sands;
- most also agree on the need for going for other sources of energy. Each has its advantages and disadvantages:
- nuclear: pebble bed, fission to fusion etc; but in view of the time taken to build nuclear power stations, and problems over disposal of waste, this is essentially a long-term process;
- biofuels: already a subject of much research world wide;
- solar power: the Sahara project;
- wind power: much current investment;
- hydro power, although here the possibilities are limited and distribution of water supplies in the future can be a major hazard;
- tidal and ocean power, as in the Orkneys, Florida and elsewhere;
- geothermal energy;
- new electrification technologies, including new methods of storage.
- In looking at these possibilities we must not forget that the energy issue is only one environmental issue, and that other human activities are generating gases which affect the chemistry of the atmosphere: thus agriculture, with its dependence on fertilizers and pesticides, transport systems of all kinds, the character of cities and insulation of buildings, and others.
- What are the implications for policy whether of governments, corporations and communities managing resources? As the Chinese well put it, market forces should only operate within a framework of the public interest. Thus governments have to regulate, and establish incentives and disincentives, whether by fiscal or other means. This includes judging the advantages of macro against micro energy generation. Corporations, unlike banks, generally recognize this, and are adapting their research and development programmes accordingly. Governments together and globally have to set the rules for possible geo-engineering to help cope with climate issues.
Finally you are already aware of the vulnerability of South East England to climate change affecting the economy, population density, water supplies and agriculture. According to some predictions, southern England will be subject to substantially warmer and drier summers, and substantially warmer and wetter winters, with more storms and droughts across the region. Then there is the prospect of sea level rise, and pressure from migrants from less favoured areas. So keeping the lights on may be more difficult than appears. Good luck!