In the first of a new series of fortnightly columns, Robert Webb asks if the drive towards sustainability leaves the industry poised for a quiet revolution

We are living in interesting times. We know now that climate change and natural resource depletion may soon leave the biosphere and our civilisation crippled - and we know that we may already be past the point of no return.

But we also see green shoots of change, in the markets and corporate world, even in politics, apparently everywhere that we look. The penny seems to be this a long lasting change

We have defined human history partly as a series of revolutions. Are we now seeing the start of the green revolution? Its sometimes difficult to be optimistic, but I think we may indeed have reached the tipping point for a green, if quiet, revolution. I'm going to circle round the question through a series of frank musings on current events.

Nuclear Nein Danke?

I'm glad to see the Sustainable Development Commission has, after much deliberation, published a negative view of nuclear power, and for once this seems to have been well-reported in the media. The SDC's conclusion was that yes, nuclear would reduce CO2 in the short term but that it is expensive and would increase our exposure to terrorism. And, the SDC says, after all's said and done, the replacement of our existing stations and indeed the doubling of capacity would only reduce UK CO2 emissions by 8% by 2035. It's greatest concern was that investment in a new nuclear programme would be seen as a technological fix and would distract from investment in energy efficiency and renewables.

Of course as far as we can see the government still appears locked on course to reopen a new nuclear programme. One's fear is that the Sustainable Development Commission is one of those quangos set up by government to show that government is thinking the right thoughts - while what it really does is keep the good people with the right thoughts busy, and keep them away from the business of real government. Sir Jonathan Porrit does an excellent job in chairing the SDC and certainly does not shirk from criticising government, but there is very little sign of real political leadership on these issues anywhere near the top of the main parties at present (of which, more later).

We should pause to note that the failure goes much deeper than the politicians. Those dealing day to day with government departments like the ODPM, DEFRA and the DTI tell me that if it wasn't such a tragedy, it would be a farce. They see arrogance and complacency in the civil service, in many cases a continued failure to acknowledge that there is a problem. And even when a problem is admitted interdepartmental warring will scupper any effective action. Just look at the watering down of the new Part L, the failure to acknowledge that even 2002 Part L is not being enforced, the ridiculous waste of time represented by the Code for Sustainable Building (after much hot air and tooing and froing, the Code is now going to be for sustainable homes, not buildings, and by the way only those homes funded by government. And now, after the ODPM threatened for a while to replace the BRE's perfectly good EcoHomes which already does this job, we hear the Code is to be modelled on EcoHomes. What exactly was the point?)

Microgeneration away!

So where's the good news? Well, David Cameron is going to put a wind turbine on his own house! (at any rate he's applied for planning permission though it is apparently a conservation area, so don't hold your breath). Is this more of his ‘new Tory' PR posturing? Perhaps it is, but it's certainly hit a nerve, and what's interesting is how widely is has been picked up. Everyone seems to know about it, and wants to follow. (Cameron also wants people to sign up to a green electricity tariff and something tells me we are going to hear a lot more about that soon also). We see numerous columns and editorials about small-scale renewables in all the major papers, and in my office we see more and more clients and colleagues who want to do it.

This brings us back to the SDC. Nuclear? 'No thanks!' they say, because it perpetuates a centralised generation system and might stymie investment in alternatives. And it's too expensive. Here they hit the nail on the head. The great US energy commentator Amory Lovins recently calculated that every pound spent on energy efficiency, renewables and microgeneration instead of nuclear will buy up to ten times as much carbon reduction. As a number of recent studies have effectively shown*, £10bn investment in nuclear would maintain the status quo, £10bn in renewables would create a step-change in technology and cost, and behaviour (and might keep UK PLC on the world trade map).

Instead of this vision, we get the small sop of the surprise budget announcement of an additional £50m for the Low Carbon Buildings Programme over three years, on top of the existing £30m pledged. Good news, but £26m per year for six technologies is hardly going to build an industry. And by the way, the extra £10m announced in 2004 for the Community Energy Programme (for CHP etc) has now been withdrawn.

In 1963, with very little knowledge about whether it was indeed possible, John F Kennedy set the US on a path to put a man on the moon "before the decade is out", and in 1969, Neil Armstrong took "one giant leap for mankind". With similar leadership and intent, we could wean ourselves from fossil fuels. We just havent found out who is going to lead us there.

  • Robert Webb is the founder of low-carbon engineering consultancy XCO2, and the wind turbine business quiet revolution (see links below)


Greenpeace, Decentralising UK Energy, March 06
Energy Saving Trust, Microgeneration Study, November 05
New Economics Foundation, Mirage and Oasis: Energy choices in an age of global warming, July 05
Green Alliance, Small or atomic? Comparing the finances of nuclear and micro-generated energy, June 05
Sustainable Consumption Roundtable, Seeing the light: the impact of micro-generation on the way we use energy, November 05