"There is an obvious temptation to link the need for renewable investment only to climate change, but voters are driven as much by passion as by logic."
At the turn of the millennium Labour appeared unstoppable. The 1997 election had delivered an historic victory, one which everyone – from the public to political class – thought unlikely to be overturned in the next election. For one week in late 2000, however, it appeared that Blair may have lost the initiative to William Hague. By blockading a few strategic bottlenecks in the fuel supply chain, a few thousand protestors angry about the rising price of petrol were able to bring the country to an effective standstill. The oil supply was throttled and after a week 90% of petrol stations had ran dry, the NHS was on red alert, and panic buying had spread from petrol stations to supermarkets.
Although this apparently minor footnote in the history of New Labour is seldom at the forefront of people’s minds today, it highlights the fragility of our energy supply network. As Alfred Henry Lewis observed, there are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy - strengthening our energy security therefore remains integral to mitigating against a future slide towards a situation potentially more dramatic and precarious.
This situation is nothing new. Writing in 1937, George Orwell remarked on Britain’s relationship with coal:
“Our civilisation […] is founded on coal, more completely than one realises until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make the machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western World the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil.”
The energy source that we are fully dependent upon may have transitioned from the direct use of hydrocarbons to electricity, but Orwell’s point remains true: few things touch every member of a modern state with the same weight or immediacy as their access to power.
The fragility of the energy supply on which our society depends is far from its only shortcoming. Our constant demand for hydrocarbons compels us to forge close relationships with states that we otherwise share little in common. Yes, the United States remains the top world producer of petroleum, but the other major leaders in fuel production range from the unstable to the actively hostile. Iraq is embroiled in sectarian warfare and only months ago had lost control over vast swathes of its territory, including lucrative oil production regions, to a fanatical terrorist organisation. Tensions between Iran and the West are again increasing. With an Iranian backed Assad edging towards victory in Syria, Iranian influence will soon be on Israel’s doorstep – a scenario that does not inspire confidence for better relations in the Middle East any time soon. The recent behaviour of Saudi Arabia, another leading hydrocarbon producer, has been scathingly summarised by Amnesty International as follows:
“The authorities severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Many human rights defenders and critics were detained and some were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after unfair trials. Several Shi’a activists were executed, and many more were sentenced to death following grossly unfair trials before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC). Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained common. Despite limited reforms, women faced systemic discrimination in law and practice and were inadequately protected against sexual and other violence. The authorities used the death penalty extensively, carrying out scores of executions. The Saudi-led coalition continued to commit serious violations of international law in Yemen.”
Lengthy elaboration on why such nations are not the preferred trading partners for any liberal democracy is unnecessary; if they were not sitting on a subterranean ocean of energy, what would our policy be towards these states? Following the death of the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in 2015, the UK government requested all flags on government buildings be flown at half-mast and we have honoured his successor with a state visit – in the absence of incentive, would we do the same for any other nation with such an extensive catalogue of human rights abuse?  But the national show must go on – as must our lights - and so our hands are tied.
Crude oil is a notoriously volatile market. From a low of $17.37 per barrel in November 1998, price rose to a peak of $160.25 in 2008 immediately before the credit crash – a price increase of 822.57% in a single decade. By January 2009, the price had fallen to below $50 a barrel. Such fluctuations are by no means simply a response to wider economic circumstances (such as recessions) and can have punishing effects on overly dependent economies. Consider the Scottish economy during the independence referendum campaign. By June 2014, prices had recovered to $111.48 a barrel and the Scottish National Party used these high oil prices as a basis on which to construct their economic policy for an independent Scotland. Over the succeeding 19 months (including when the referendum itself was held), prices fell to a paltry $30.12. Over the course of a single year North Sea oil tax revenues collapsed from £1.8bn to £60m, leaving Scottish tax receipts at £400 less than the UK average. Again these recent events are with historical precedent. In the 1970s an Iranian revolution interrupted the flow of oil to the world market, exacerbating economic conditions that led to a deep recession in the UK. The first lesson of any economics course will discuss how price is affected by demand and supply. Demand for oil fluctuates far less erratically than supply, as OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) largely control the supply and, understandably, are motivated by the needs of their own nations rather than those of Britain.
The glaring inadequacy of a hydrocarbon-based economy is its contribution to climate change. It would be easy to regurgitate ever more alarming statistical data describing retreating permafrost or global temperature rise. I could present anecdotal evidence, comparing the current extent of the Mer de Glace glacier in Chamonix to the slides that my father took of it in the 1970s. But instead, I ask to you to consider the following. Climate change is either happening or it isn’t. If it is, humans are either contributing to it or they aren’t. If we prioritise a swift transition to carbon neutral energy alternatives, the worst-case scenario is that the climate continues to change whilst we still reduce toxic pollution. If we don’t act, the worst-case scenario is that global warming will cause London to be transformed into a primeval swamp reminiscent of JG Ballard’s The Drowned World.
Our over dependence on dirty hydrocarbons is a good problem to have. It is a good problem as we have a clear idea of what the solutions look like, we know that the technology works, and we know that investing in it would create jobs and knowledge in a growing industry that Britain could export to the rest of the world. Solar power is now incredibly cheap, requires little maintenance, and once installed produces energy with no human interference. From my experience, the main objection people have with solar installations are on aesthetic grounds, having worked on more than one site with the yellow signs warning “Risk of death” being relabelled “Risk of saw eyes” by helpful members of the public. But solar is usually built on low grade land and farmers are typically welcoming of the technology as sheep can safely graze around the modules. The land bordering Britain’s motorways, factories, and Slough are already ugly – we have plenty of suitable spaces for solar farms if blighting the landscape is one’s main grievance.
It has been disappointing to learn that plans for the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon have been shelved by the current government who are likely instead to invest in the new Wylfa nuclear power station. As exciting as new nuclear technology is, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster highlights that unforeseen problems can always occur; only fools believe that anything can be fool-proof. In addition, it is difficult to look at projects like Hinkley Point C and be confident of success – the only other nuclear reactors of the same design that have been built have all suffered from spiralling costs and huge delays. Finland’s Olkiluoto 3 reactor has cost three times more than anticipated and has only turned operational this year. Construction began in 2005. France’s Flamanville 3 reactor project ran six years late and €7.2 billion over budget. In Britain, we are blessed with some of the world’s highest tides, huge estuaries, and a large coastline. A monumental amount of energy is stored in the tides. So long as we have the moon and the Atlantic, we can harness this energy twice a day. It is clear where the investment should go.
There is an obvious temptation to link the need for renewable investment only to climate change, but voters are driven as much by passion as by logic. The language that we use to frame issues is important. In an age where “British independence” and “take back control” are the key, resonant phrases, we must not be afraid to address such vital issues in ways that appeal to voter’s hearts as much as their heads.
Investment into these sectors would not just produce clean, reliable power. It would also unchain our policy decisions from the whimsical nature of oil markets. It would allow us to deal with foreign states without having the demand of oil trade clouding every decision. It would ensure our energy security for generations to come. It should be at the very heart of every future Labour manifesto. Renewable infrastructure is not just a green policy - it is, to borrow a phrase, a red, white, and blue policy. We should demand British energy independence. We should take back control of our power. And the Left should market a rapid transition towards a renewable future as a pragmatic, patriotic answer to the needs of Britain.
Because it is just that.
Alistair Greatorex is a Young Fabian member.