A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Putting energy into the election.....

As I wrote in my 'Comment' published in The Times on Tuesday (April 12), one of the biggest elephants in UK Election Room 2005 is unquestionably the unwillingness of all the parties to be honest with the public about Britain's looming energy crisis.

We shall ignore the Greens, who inhabit a happy-clappy utopian space all of their own (into which few, thank goodness, bother to follow), and, of course, the motley crew of right-wing extremist and xenophobic parties, ugly blots on our political landscape.

Of the main parties, the most limp-wristed is unquestionably the Liberal Democrats. They are so wet you can shoot snipe off their manifesto. Just note this: while vaguely supporting energy efficiency and 'renewables', such as wind power, they will not build any more nuclear power stations, yet, in reality, they often don't want wind power in their own constituencies (too much local opposition - and they are the local party). Wind is not right for everywhere, you know. This says it all about the Lib-Dems. They are not a serious party. They want to be universally liked, while the idea that they might have to make tough decisions remains beyond their naif view of the world. Until the Lib-Dems return to true liberal principles, and put a bit of grit into their souls, they will forever remain a pleasant party of protest and never represent a realistic contender for the rough-and-tumble of hard government. One leading Lib-Dem illustrates this well. He was gently chided this week on Radio 2's excellent Jeremy Vine Show after he exhibited a bout of authoritarianism, ordering everybody off planes and onto trains - "But I thought you were liberals and for personal choice?" [or words to that effect]. It is not often noted that the Lib-Dems are split, between radical liberals and the wetter end of democratic socialism. Watch out for internal strains if they are squeezed and do poorly in the election.

By contrast, if the Lib Dems are the most limp-wristed, the Conservatives are plain pathetic, having virtually no public policy on energy. I think there is one teeny paragraph in their flimsy, opportunistic, small-minded manifesto. Underneath, of course, they would like to support nuclear, but dare not, and they have been tempted by some of their more well-heeled supporters to try to wear a floppy blue-green hat. Yet, they are in deep trouble over 'renewables', because the last things the green-welly brigade want are heather moors and blue-rinsed hills covered in whirring monsters - doesn't go too well with the grice (pl. of grouse). Conservatives have abandoned any claim to be trusted about the future of energy and the economy, once their strong cards. They thus merit limited attention and are likely to stick near to their dog-whistle vote of 33%.

For Labour, nuclear is the power that dare not speak its name. Yet, if you read between lots of lines, I think you can expect nuclear power to be back on Labour's agenda within a year of re-election. I believe Blair and Brown are both quite aware that 'renewables' present an absurd alternative to gas, coal, and nuclear power. The contribution of 'renewables' will always be peripheral. 'Renewables' cannot power a modern economy, and most Labour policies to date are but a sop to the Green left (much needed following the Iraq war). But don't expect to hear a lot about nuclear power before May 5. Paradoxically, I think you will also find Mr. Blair surprisingly mute on climate change - he has better votes to butter, and he is a master of the art of using high-flown rhetoric to cover inaction.

But the fundamental difference is that, in the end, Labour, unlike both the Lib-Dems and the Conservatives, is an adult party of government and, when the crunch comes, they are far more likely to face up to realities. As the energy black hole deepens, Labour will thus act.

This is why, I suspect, the only logical vote at this election is for Labour.

After May 5, Britain will have, urgently, to make one of three practical choices over energy.

First, for anyone terrified of 'global warming', the sooner Britain develops its next generation of nuclear power stations, the better. In an outstanding article in The Liberal (p. 24, Issue IV, April/May), Daniel Matlin states baldly that Green opposition to nuclear power is dangerous (Lib-Dems please note) - "it is no exaggeration to say... that the Green lobby poses as significant a threat to our planet's future as the nefarious oil companies..." Interesting, especially in The Liberal.

Secondly, for those not worried about 'global warming', we need to adopt new clean coal and to press our EU partners for a more competitive and open market with regard to natural gas. Nuclear power should also be fully embraced, thus creating an effective and flexible energy mix to support future economic growth.

Thirdly, if you are worried about ocean acidification (rather than 'global warming'), then the second policy can be adopted, along with immediate research into the geological sequestration of carbon dioxide.

In all three options, the following additional elements should be present: long-term research into nuclear fusion; the encouragement of realistic energy efficiency measures, but not over-enthusiastic ones that destroy heritage architecture or create sick-building syndromes, including radon and fleas; and practical research into additional forms of energy and fuel, such as biofuels (including all organic waste), hydrogen fuel cells, sodium borohydride, and compressed air. Wind, wave and solar should be developed where acceptable, but with the open acknowledgment that they will always contribute only a small percentage of both average and peak demand.

Thus, when you meet a Lib-Dem candidate, ask her/him where 85% of our energy will come from in 2020; when you meet a Conservative, ask him/her where is their energy policy, full stop; when you meet Labour, how soon will nuclear be back on the agenda.

So come on, lads and lassies - let's put some energy into this election. For good or ill, I think Labour alone can ultimately deliver on energy.

Philip, planting red roses on a thorny issue? Most certainly prune and dead-head the rest (especially those funny-coloured blue and orange roses). Now for dinner and a good claret - and 'The Magic Flute' from the New York Met - Mr. Blair as Sarastro, Mr. Howard as the Queen of the Night, and Mr. Kennedy as Papageno!

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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