CURE Directors Joe Ravetz and Stefan Bouzarovski connect the recent CURE launch event (featuring a lecture by Durham University geography professor Harriet Bulkeley) with topical developments in the UK energy sector.
The next generation CURE launched on 18th November, and more than 100 people turned out to debate ‘Just Energy Transitions’ with Harriet Bulkeley from Durham. Harriet’s talk was a great introduction for a centre that works at the science-policy interface. Not only did she outline the nexus of sustainability transitions and social justice, but also some of the responses by communities and decision makers across the world. The audience included academics from a wide range of fields, as well as the policy community, NGOs, business organisations and charities from across the country. Videos from the launch are available on this link.
Only 10 days later, Ed Milliband came to Manchester Town Hall, with Caroline Flint MP, to launch the Labour Party Energy Green Paper – a supply side focus with a price freeze, simpler tariffs, transparency and better regulation.
In that 10 days, the UK government was caught wrong-footed: the big six utility suppliers have become even more public enemy number one: and it was reported that we had 31,000 ‘excess winter deaths’ last year (that’s about 300 deaths per day). And this week the government has made much of cutting the ‘green crap’ (Cameron’s phrase) from energy bills: the reality so far is that efficiency programs will be reduced and paid from general taxation. As these programs are the only realistic chance of cutting real energy bills, and targeting the benefits where most needed, this seems like a massive step backwards. But that’s politics.
Meanwhile somewhere over there, as a tiny footnote in most public media, the Conference of Parties for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change concluded in Warsaw. The talks made ‘progress’ in the sense they were not an outright failure. But a third of all environment ministers didn’t turn up: and it’s noticeable that some of the biggest polluters, such as Canada and Australia, are on the edge of walking away.
The energy transition at this rate is not going to be easy or quick: and as for social justice – that’s a big ask in a very unjust world. At the CURE debate some asked where was the engineering and technology: or the economics and politics? Education and work with young people seems crucial, where there are massive gaps of trust and expectation, so where does that fit in? Is it naive to look at brave ideas like Transition Towns or Incredible Edible towns, as forerunners for a national scale transition? How to manage what seems to be a stark choice between protecting the climate and protecting the global economy (as we know it)? Are cities kidding themselves with their green image-making, when all the harder energy/climate issues (such as food chains, product supply chains, air travel and shipping) are someone else’s problem?
Many academics now talk about ‘socio-technical’ transitions: but it might be more useful to say ‘socio-technical-economic-environmental-political-value-urban’ transitions (STEEPVU for short). This puts ‘politics’ clearly into the frame, and ‘values’, and also the ‘urban’ as the places where ideas meet the realities of living and working. It seems we need to (re)learn the art of joined up thinking and ‘dilemma management’.
A similar tangle also came up at the Labour Energy policy launch. Questions ranged from how to switch supplier, to new models of social capitalism, and (one of) the ghosts at the banquet – why not re-nationalize the utilities??? Of course all such questions larger and smaller, are a subset of the number one question for Labour – how to win the next election? Actually my question to Ed and Caroline wasn’t about the political cut and thrust – more about how to actually make this combined energy-climate transition work.
We know it’s technically feasible to reduce the energy demand / carbon footprint of an average dwelling by 60-80%. But to ask the utilities to do this is really aiming at the wrong target – even if they radically changed their business model, from selling energy to selling warmth and light, they don’t have the skills or resources. Such intensive low carbon retrofit has to be a collaborative venture which is localized and customized, between designers and builders, financiers and landlords, utilities and and technology suppliers, and of course residents and the community. At the moment each of these works in their silo, and the typical result is like the current Green Deal where no one trusts anyone, finance charges are sky-high, and nothing happens. So what can the next government do to really enable and encourage synergy and collaboration? To be continued…