Editorial: At the flick of a switch...

IssueFebruary 2006
Comment by Ippy D

As the government opened the public phase of its energy review at the end of January, ministers were busy warning that “doing nothing is not an option”. They are right (for once!), although there are fears that the doom-mongering may also be an attempt to soften us up for a new generation of nuclear power stations, posed as a solution for meeting Britain's future energy needs.

However, in a comprehensive research study published earlier in the month, the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research revealed an encouraging public response: word is that actually we'd prefer renewables to nuclear - and by a pretty long stretch too. Their study discovered that nuclear remained bottom of the list of options presented to respondents, saying “People tend to favour renewable energy sources over fossil fuels, whilst nuclear power is the least favoured of the three.”

Supply and demand

It seems we are also reawakening our understanding of the relationship between supply and demand. The current crisis over Russian supply of gas to its neighbours in Ukraine has been a sharp reminder that, every time we unthinkingly flick the switch to turn on our lights and computers, buy food that's been flown halfway around the world, or pick up cheap consumer electronics, a rather complex set of global economic and political factors come into play.

While Britain has a national source of fossil fuels, we still import vast amounts. In the drive to come up with solutions, one area being investigated is the development of less-polluting coal-burning generators. However, neither buying in from abroad, nor developing new technologies to burn away a finite resource, tackles the issue of demand.

Let's go nuclear!

Meanwhile, the nuclear power debate continues apace, with the government apparently looking enthusiastically towards a new generation of power stations. Whether anyone will actually risk the kind of capital required to start such a long-term project is another matter. It may be that, for once, the market remains impervious to whatever inducements the government can come up with and determines that the long term risks - profitability, terrorism, waste / clean up - are too much to bear.

The industry is also obviously concerned at public attitudes to the development of new nuclear power stations, with the Guardian revealing on 21 January that British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) is putting pressure on the government to do away with the costly and time-consuming public inquiries which are currently required for nuclear new-build.

Recognising the problem

All energy production and consumption has a detrimental effect on our environment. Our real choice is to determine which is the least harmful, and to massively decrease our individual and collective consumption.

This is a message which seems to have been received loud and clear, as reflected in the Tyndall study, which suggests that three-quarters of respondents thought cutting consumption was a good strategy for mitigating climate change. Whether this transforms into an actual change in consumer habits is another story, but recognising the problem is an important step in the right direction.

Nonviolent energy?

The energy debate impacts us all, and it should have a particular resonance for the peace movement. In the twenty-first century we may be confronted with wars fought to control resources, regional instability and conflict over supply, a new generation of nuclear power stations, and the negative environmental and social effects of climate change.

The challenges presented are substantial and do not bode well for the journey towards a more peaceful and just world. The peace movement needs to be involved in shaping the debate and pushing for energy options which offer the best hope for a nonviolent future.

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