On Sunday evening, I heard Radio 4’s Analysis programme (Doomed by democracy?) which looked at the shortcomings of democracy in tackling climate change. For the record, I do believe that human activity (deforestation and other land use changes as well as burning fossil fuels) is exacerbating climate change but I also believe that we need to understand energy at a more fundamental level (i.e. energy is the ability to do work) if we are to come up with realistic solutions to the energy crisis, which is about more than just climate change.
But back to Radio 4. The programme asked whether the democratic process gets in the way of the radical changes needed to reduce carbon emissions. Of course it does – we’ve exercised our democratic rights to influence planning, for example, to such an extent that the planning application system had to be made faster and more responsive for nationally significant infrastructure projects such as energy, waste and transport. You might remember environmental groups at the time saying, “You won’t be able to object to a new a nuclear power plant in your community, but you may be consulted on what colour gate it has.”. England and Wales now have the Planning Act 2008 and Scotland is on its second National Planning Framework (NPF2). In Scotland, we already have a planning controversy over the proposal for a new coal-fired power plant at Hunterston in Ayrshire, which wasn’t in the consultative draft of NPF2 but magically appeared in the final version. A legal challenge is ongoing. But in spite of attempts to limit the effect of troublesome campaigners on large infrastructure projects, last week we saw the end of plans for a third runway at Heathrow. So there’s more involved in planning than planning regulations – economics, perhaps?
Then there’s the Climate Change Act, which Michael Jacobs, until recently Gordon Brown’s special adviser on climate change, said on the programme is much more comprehensive and radical than most people realise. The Act puts into law targets for UK greenhouse gas emissions – many targets are set by Governments (some are even achieved) but they rarely become law. Laws may be repealed, but as all the major political parties are signed up to the Climate Change Act, repeal seems unlikely. This is a significant economic intervention and we must wonder how the public will react when it actually impacts on them. It has surprised me that with recent rising petrol prices we have not seen a repeat of the 2000 fuel protests, which were led by farmers and hauliers. Consumers don’t usually protest about such things and in 2000 they expressed their solidarity with the workers by panic-buying petrol. When the financial impacts of the energy crisis really hit us, I’d guess there will be a range of responses from stoic belt-tightening to outrage on the streets.
One comment which did interest me was that some environmentalists think privately (not publically, like James Lovelock and Mayer Hillman, who also featured) that democracy hampers progress. Why isn’t this said publically? Democracy means that we can all have our say, not that we will all be listened to – don’t we already know this? With respect to climate change (about which there is a lot more information than peak oil or net energy) we cannot even agree on the problem let alone the solution, so how can ‘democracy’ in its current form possibly help? I started this blog because unless we all start discussing big unmentionable issues, like the inherent unsustainability of our way of life and the fact that economies simply can’t keep growing, we will be floundering around building electric cars and pretending that coal can be clean and all the while the clock will be ticking. The energy of fossil fuels has driven the exponential growth in our consumption of everything but we just aren’t ready to contemplate (certainly not publically) that this brief fossil-fuelled phase of our life on Earth might be coming to an end. But we must contemplate it and here is as good a place as any.