Fossil fuel divestment: The Achilles Heel of DECC’s renewable energy ambitions

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change recently gave a bullish speech about tackling climate change to an audience of business leaders, investors and NGOs. But I was among those who challenged him on the UK walking the talk...

At an event hosted by Aviva Investors and the Department Energy and Climate Change (DECC) earlier this month, Ed Davey’s rousing pitch was good in rhetoric, with ambition that the UK will lead by example going into next year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Davey was a rugby player and I know he likes rugby metaphors – ‘being a prop forward in the front row of the scrum’ and ‘shoving over the line to get that try’. When it comes to that ‘try line’ of Paris 2015, Davey seeks to motivate businesses to get behind political leaders so the UK can lead a big climate deal next year.

Davey talked passionately about ‘building trust’ in his speech. One of the reasons I set up SecondNature five years ago was to help build trust between the private and public sectors – it had largely broken down during the Gordon Brown years. And our efforts continue.

Walk the walk

Talk of building trust is all well and good but if you’re going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk and back it up with action. Wanting the UK to lead the Paris Summit to fix the climate while subsidising the exploitation of shale gas at the same time? That makes the UK more dependent on burning fossil fuels rather than less dependent. That’s the fundamental ‘Achilles heel of the rugby prop-forward here; the oxymoron at the heart of Government – more fossil fuels not less.

Meanwhile, the Government does not want to increase its ambition on renewables. It is trying to pull back on both solar and wind – the target for solar went from 18GW in the draft agreement for the solar strategy to 12GW by 2020. This is a very noticeable pull-back.

So, at the same time that DECC is pulling back on renewable energy – which IS the answer – it is putting the accelerator down harder on the combustion engine that is the fossil fuel economy. Introducing new subsidies for shale gas and increasing North Sea oil tax breaks with fossil fuel subsidies now more than four times renewables, despite a G20 committment to phase them out.

Davey cannot fix the climate and exploit shale gas reserves. Under no definition of the word sustainable is fracking ‘sustainable’. It’s a fossil fuel and it’s a transition fuel. The argument that ‘it is a bridge to a clean future’ is nonsense. No investor invests in a bridge that is going to be torn down in a few years’ time – and this bridge leads away from renewable energy. The Government admits that at best shale gas exploitation will achieve economic scale only in 2022. Imagine what our countryside will look like by then if this is to happen.

Community energy

What we should actually be doing is very obvious: get out of the quagmire where we are fixated on centralised generation of high carbon energy and drive a revolution in the way energy is generated and consumed, that is decentralised and embedded into communities. That means the energy has to be clean, safe and sustainable, leveraging the power of many – no one wants nuclear power stations or fracking wells anywhere near their local community. 

The solutions for community energy schemes are going to be a mixture of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. Yes, with storage such as hydro or water-based battery technology.

In summary, yes do we want to bring business and the public sector together to drive a solution over the line, but we’re not going to be able to do that if we have the Achilles Heel hypocrisy of making the UK more dependent on fossil fuels when we’re trying to convince the rest of the world to get off their dependence.

Charles Perry is founder of SecondNature and director of global sustainability specialists, Anthesis Group, following recent acquisition. His senior management experience also includes being Managing Director of Good Energy, Special Advisor to GreenOrder and Director of BP Green Energy.

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