An old coal power station is set to be transformed into a “sustainable village” of 2,000 homes powered by solar panels, in the biggest redevelopment yet of a former UK power plant.
French firm Engie said it had decided against selling off the Rugeley site in Staffordshire and would instead build super efficient houses on the 139-hectare site as part of its bid to “move beyond energy”.
Half of the energy required by the new homes will come from green sources, predominantly solar, which will be fitted on rooftops, in a field and even floating on a lake.
The company is planning for 10 megawatts of solar capacity in total, equivalent to one of the UK’s smaller solar farms.
Batteries will be used across the site, both in homes and at a communal power storage facility, to balance out electricity supply and demand.
The firm is also claiming the homes will be so efficient they will use nearly a third less energy than average new builds. Heating will come not from gas boilers but electric devices such as heat pumps.
Wilfrid Petrie, Engie UK’s chief executive, said: “We are positioning ourselves as going beyond energy into place-making. It’s an example of us closing down our coal power plant and, instead of selling off the land, we’ve decided to regenerate it ourselves.”
There are seven operational coal power stations left in the UK, but all are due to shut by a government deadline of 2025, raising questions over what happens to the sizeable parcels of land afterwards.
While some energy companies are hoping to build gas plants on or adjacent to the old coal sites, others will need to be decommissioned for other uses.
In Shropshire, regeneration firm Harworth is planning to turn the 97-hectare brownfield site of a former power station into a development of homes and commercial units.
Engie said it was eyeing other sites around the country. “There’s a list of similar sites, which we are looking at. It’s not in the hundreds, but there are several,” Petrie said.
Peter Atherton, an analyst at Cornwall Insight, said putting local electricity generation at the heart of new housing projects was almost becoming a prerequisite for developers to get through planning.
“It is the way of the future. There is no doubt large scale housing developments going forward are going to have some form of local generation because it is all the craze,” he said.
Around 30% of the Rugeley project will be classified affordable homes, though it is not clear how much the green energy measures and high building standards will add to the upfront cost of the properties.
Consultation on the scheme starts this month, with construction due to start next year and demolition of the former coal plant – including the cooling towers – due to finish in 2020, with plans for the first people to move in the year after.
Last year was one of the greenest for power in the UK. Nearly one-third of all electricity came from renewable sources, and wind and solar provided more power than coal on 315 days of the year. Rapid growth in both solar and wind (the UK now has more offshore wind power capacity than any other country in the world) has enabled the UK to achieve these impressive statistics, but will the rise in renewables also make UK power more vulnerable to the whims of British weather?
Researchers working on the European Climatic Energy Mixes project have been investigating future risk by assessing how the UK would fare with a repeat of the unusually cold winter of 2009-10. From mid-December 2009 a southward-displaced jet stream allowed cold air to pour in from eastern Europe, bringing widespread snow and plunging temperatures. The mean UK temperature for the entire winter was just 1.5C, the lowest since 1978-79 when it was 1.2C . As a result power demand surged, with electricity consumption between 10 and 20% above average on a number of occasions.
Back in 2010 renewables provided less than 10% of UK electricity. But similar weather now might create a strain. “The low wind conditions in a repeat of winter 2009-10 would lead to a substantial reduction in wind power production over the season, which could lead to increased risks to electricity supply availability when combined with an increased demand due to low temperatures,” writes meteorologist Emma Suckling from the University of Reading. Winters like this might be getting rarer, but we still need a contingency plan when the wind fails to blow.
‘Everybody gets paralysed by bad news because they feel helpless,” says Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who delivered the landmark Paris climate change agreement. “It is so in our personal lives, in our national lives and in our planetary life.”
But it is becoming increasingly clear that it does not need to be all bad news: a series of fast-moving global megatrends, spurred by trillion-dollar investments, indicates that humanity might be able to avert the worst impacts of global warming. From trends already at full steam, including renewable energy, to those just now hitting the big time, such as mass-market electric cars, to those just emerging, such as plant-based alternatives to meat, these trends show that greenhouse gas emissions can be halted.
“If we were seeing linear progress, I would say good, but we’re not going to make it in time,” says Figueres, now the convener of the Mission 2020 initiative, which warns that the world has only three years to get carbon emissions on a downward curve and on the way to beating global warming. “But the fact is we are seeing progress that is growing exponentially, and that is what gives me the most reason for hope.”
No one is saying the battle to avert catastrophic climate change – floods, droughts, famine, mass migrations – has been won. But these megatrends show the battle has not yet been lost, and that the tide is turning in the right direction. “The important thing is to reach a healthy balance where we recognise that we are seriously challenged, because we really have only three years left to reach the tipping point,” says Figueres. “But at the same time, the fact is we are already seeing many, many positive trends.”
Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, agrees. “The good news is we are way better than we thought we could be. We are not going to get through this without damage. But we can avoid the worst. I am optimistic, but there is a long way to go.”
Also cautiously hopeful is climate economist Nicholas Stern at the London School of Economics. “These trends are the start of something that might be enough – the two key words are ‘start’ and ‘might’.” He says the global climate negotiations, continuing this week in Germany and aiming to implement the Paris deal, are crucial: “The acceleration embodied in the Paris agreement is going to be critical.”
1. Methane: getting to the meat
Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the main greenhouse gas, but methane and nitrous oxide are more potent and, unlike CO2, still rising. The major source is livestock farming, in particular belching cattle and their manure.
The world’s appetite for meat and dairy foods is rising as people’s incomes rise, but the simple arithmetic is that unless this is radically curbed, there is no way to beat global warming. The task looks daunting – people hate being told what to eat. However, just in the last year, a potential solution has burst on to the market: plant-based meat, which has a tiny environmental footprint.
What sounds like an oxymoron – food that looks and tastes just as good as meat or dairy products but is made from plants – has attracted heavy investment. The buzz is particularly loud in the US, where Bill Gates has backed two plant-based burger companies and Eric Schmidt, formerly CEO of Google, believes plant-based foods can make a “meaningful dent” in tackling climate change.
New plant-based products, from chicken to fish to cheese, are coming out every month. “We are in the nascent stage,” says Alison Rabschnuk at the US nonprofit group the Good Food Institute. “But there’s a lot of money moving into this area.”
Plant-based meat and dairy produce is not only environmentally friendly, but also healthier and avoids animal welfare concerns, but these benefits will not make them mass-market, she says: “We don’t believe that is what is going to make people eat plant-based food. We believe the products themselves need to be competitive on taste, price and convenience – the three attributes people use when choosing what to eat.”
Plant-based milks – soya, almond, oat and more – have led the way and are now about 10% of the market and a billion-dollar business in the US. But in the past year, sales of other meat and dairy substitutes have climbed 8%, with some specific lines, such as yoghurt, shooting up 55%. “I think the writing’s on the wall,” says Rabschnuk. Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson agrees. “I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be [lab] or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.”
2. Renewable energy: time to shine
The most advanced of the megatrends is the renewable energy revolution. Production costs for solar panels and wind turbines have plunged, by 90% in the past decade for solar, for example, and are continuing to fall. As a result, in many parts of the world they are already the cheapest electricity available and installation is soaring: two-thirds of all new power in 2016 was renewable.
This extraordinary growth has confounded expectations: the respected International Energy Agency’s annual projections have anticipated linear growth for solar power every year for the past decade. In reality, growth has been exponential. China is leading the surge but the impact is being felt around the world: in Germany last week there was so much wind power that customers got free electricity.
In the US, enthusiasm for green energy has not been dented by President Donald Trump committing to repeal key climate legislation: bn has been invested since he signed an executive order in March. “I am no longer concerned about electric power,” says Figueres.
3. King coal: dead or dying
The flipside of the renewables boom is the death spiral of coal, the filthiest of fossil fuels. Production now appears to have peaked in 2013. The speed of its demise has stunned analysts. In 2013, the IEA expected coal-burning to grow by 40% by 2040 – today it anticipates just 1%.
“Last year, I said if Asia builds what it says it is going to build, we can kiss goodbye to 2C” – the internationally agreed limit for dangerous climate change – says Liebreich. “Now we are showing coal [plans] coming down.” But he warns there is more to do.
Solar and wind are cheaper than new coal, he says, but a second tipping point is needed. That will occur when renewables are cheaper to build than running existing coal plants, meaning that the latter shut down. If renewable costs continue to fall as expected, this would happen between 2030 and 2040. At that point, says Liebrich, “Why keep digging coal out of the ground when you could just put up solar?”
4. Electric cars: in the fast lane
Slashing oil use – a third of all global energy – is a huge challenge but a surging market for battery-powered cars is starting to bite, driven in significant part by fast-growing concerns about urban air pollution.
China, again, is leading the way. It is selling as many electric cars every month as Europe and the US combined, with many from home-grown companies such as BYD. US-based Tesla is rolling out its more affordable Model 3 and in recent months virtually all major carmakers have committed to an electric future, with Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover announcing that they will end production of pure fossil-fuelled cars within three years.
“We have a domino effect now,” says Figueres. These cars are “now being made for the mass market and that is really what is going to make the transformation”.
“I don’t think it is going to slow down,” says Viktor Irle, an analyst at EV-volumes.com. Drivers can see the direction of travel, he says, with a stream of choked cities and countries from Paris to India announcing future bans on fossil-fuelled cars.
It is true that global sales of electric cars have now achieved liftoff, quadrupling in the past three years, but they still make up only 1.25% of all new car sales. However, if current growth rates continue, as Irle expects, 80% of new cars will be electric by 2030.
Batteries are key to electric cars and, by storing energy for when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing, they are also vital when it comes to enabling renewable energy to reach its full potential. Here too, a megatrend is crushing prices for lithium-ion batteries, which are down 75% over the past six years. The International Renewable Energy Agency expects further falls of 50-66% by 2030 and a massive increase in battery storage, linked to increasingly smart and efficient digital power grids. In the UK alone, government advisers say a smart grid could save bill-payers £8bn a year by 2030, as well as slashing carbon emissions.
Fears that lithium-ion, the technology that dominates today, cannot be scaled up sufficiently are overblown, argues Liebreich, as the metal is not rare. “I think lithium-ion is a banker in that you can be sure it will get cheaper and you can be sure there is enough.” He is also frustrated by frequent claims that a grid based on renewables and storage cannot be cheap and reliable: “That stupidity and absolute certainty is in inverse proportion to any knowledge of how you run an electrical system.”
It is true, however, that batteries will not be the solution for energy storage over weeks or months. For that, long-distance electricity interconnectors are being built and the storage of the energy as gas is also being explored.
6. Efficiency: negawatts over megawatts
Just as important as the greening of energy is reducing demand by boosting energy efficiency. It’s a no-brainer in climate policy, but it can be very tricky to make happen, as it requires action from millions of people.
Nonetheless, good progress is being made in places such as the EU, where efficiency in homes, transport and industry has improved by about 20% since 2000. Improving the efficiency of gadgets and appliances through better standards is surprisingly important: a new UN Environment Programme report shows it makes the biggest impact of any single action bar rolling out wind and solar power.
But again, continued progress is vital. “We need to drive energy efficiency very, very hard, even for European countries,” says Prof Kevin Anderson at the University of Manchester. “We could power down European energy use by about 40% in something like 10-15 years, just by making the most efficient appliances available the new minimum.”
In countries with cool winters, better insulation is also needed, particularly as a fossil fuel – natural gas – currently provides a lot of heating. “What is a crime is every time a building is renovated but not renovated to really high standards,” says Liebreich, who thinks labelling such homes as “zero-energy-bill” homes, not “zero-carbon” homes, would help overcome opposition.
The destruction of forests around the world for ranching and farming, as well as for timber, causes about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. This is the biggest megatrend not yet pointing in the right direction: annual tree losses have roughly doubled since 2000.
This is particularly worrying as stopping deforestation and planting new trees is, in theory at least, among the cheapest and fastest ways of cutting carbon emissions. But it is not getting the support it needs, says Michael Wolosin at Forest Climate Analytics. “Climate policy is massively underfunding forests – they receive only about 2% of global climate finance.” Furthermore, the .3bn committed to forests by rich nations and multilateral institutions since 2010 is tiny compared with the funding for the sectors that drive deforestation. “Brazil and Indonesia’s governments alone invested 6bn in the same timeframe, in just the four key driver commodities: palm oil, soy, beef and timber,” says Franziska Haupt at Climate Focus.
In the past two decades, tree-planting in China, India and South Korea has removed more than 12bn tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere – three times the entire European Union’s annual emissions, Wolosin says. This action was driven by fears about flooding and food supply, meaning that global warming needs to be seen as equally urgent in this sector. Regrowing forests can also play a crucial role in sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is likely to be necessary after 2050, unless very sharp cuts are made now.
The race against time
Will these megatrends move fast enough to avoid the worst of climate change? Opinions vary and Anderson is among the most hawkish. He says it remains possible for now, but is pessimistic that the action will be taken. “We’re pointing in the right direction but not moving [there]. We have to not just pursue renewables and electric vehicles and so forth, we have to actively close down the incumbent fossil fuel industry.”
Stern is cautiously optimistic, saying that what has changed in recent years is the realisation that green economic growth is the only long-term option: “There is no long-run high-carbon growth story because it creates an environment so hostile that it turns development backwards.
“There are some tremendous developments so I am very confident now we can do this, but the change, attractive as it is, has to be radical,” he says. “Will we have the political and economic understanding and commitment to get there? I hope so.”
Australia will be one of the first countries in the world to get Tesla’s vaunted Powerwall battery storage system, as several other companies scramble to sign up Australia’s growing number of households with solar rooftops.
US firm Tesla said that its 7kWH home energy storage units would be available by the end of the year in Australia, ahead of previous predictions it would arrive in 2016.
The Powerwall is a unit that sits on an interior wall. It has a lithium-ion battery, used to store energy created by solar panels on the household roof.
Tesla, which also makes electric cars, is the most high-profile company in the emerging battery storage industry – an area that is seen as crucial in making intermittent renewable energy such as solar and wind into a reliable accompaniment, or even alternative, to fossil fuel-fired power grids.
Canberra-based firm Reposit Power, which enables people to directly buy and sell their stored electricity, has partnered with Tesla for Powerwall’s launch.
There are a handful of existing Australian alternatives to the Powerwall, such as Redflow, headed by Simon Hackett, who founded Internode. Hackett also sits on the board of the NBN.
“Tesla’s arrival is important because they have such a high profile,” said Prof Anthony Vassallo, a sustainable energy expert at the University of Sydney. “The Tesla product isn’t unique by any stretch, but it’s the Apple brand of the battery storage industry, they have the sex appeal that others don’t.
“Solar PV and batteries are such a wonderful combination. Australians have demonstrated they are quite happy to purchase PV systems, Australia has a great solar resource and to have a battery to store that makes a lot of sense.
“There are packages of PV and batteries being offered by retailers and, as prices come down, we’ll see a lot more of this. Tesla’s price point in the US – of about US,000 (,173) – would be competitive here, it will sharpen up the players to make more efficient and higher-performing systems.”
Vassallo pointed out that the technology still has some way to improve – a 7kWH system will store little more than an hour’s electricity generated by a typical 5kWH solar system, meaning that some people may have to have several Powerwall, or equivalent, systems on their walls.
“I’d be wary of claims that people can go entirely off the grid, but it’s a first step,” he said. “Australia has high electrity prices, and once the price is acceptable I think the take-up will be strong.”
There are more than 1.3m households in Australia with rooftop solar, with the number increasing rapidly as the price of PV systems tumble. State-based tariffs have been gradually withdrawn across the country, while the federal government announced in July that it would instruct the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to favour large-scale solar over rooftop solar in its funding decisions.
Labor has set a target of Australia generating 50% of its electrity from renewable energy by 2030, although has provided little detail on how this would be achieved. The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said the goal was “reckless” as the cost of it has not been quantified.
Vassallo said, “Australia could reach that 50% target, it just requires well-designed policies and markets that allow a transition from centralised, large-scale fossil fuels to efficient but variable renewables.
“Storage is a key part to make that happen. The beauty of renewables is that once you’ve managed the capital cost, there is no fuel cost. There’s an energy security there you don’t get with fossil fuels.”
Will the world become battery-powered? That’s certainly the ambition of Elon Musk, the PayPal billionaire turned would-be space explorer and electric car baron.
On Thursday night, Musk unveiled what he called “the missing piece” in sustainable energy: a range of batteries that can be used in homes and businesses to store power from wind or solar or take advantage of cheap electricity to charge up overnight and then be used in peak hours.
Two billion Powerpacks – as the batteries are called – could store enough electricity to meet the entire world’s needs.
“That may seem like an insane number,” Musk said. “We’re talking about trying to change the fundamental energy infrastructure of the world.”
The first place to feel the battery charge will be Nevada. Next year, Musk’s Tesla Motors is set to start operating a power-storage-device “gigafactory” across nearly a thousand acres of Nevada real estate. It’s required to contribute .5bn to the local economy, in return for a .25bn tax break.
Battery expert Davide Andrea, an engineer at Colorado-based battery manufacturer Elithion, worries about costs. The most basic home unit will cost ,500. No details have yet emerged about the cost of the large units Tesla is reportedly supplying to companies including Apple and Google to help manage their power supplies.
“Electricity is way too cheap to store in an expensive battery,” Andrea said. “It’s like saying I’m going to be storing my potatoes in a safe. Potatoes are too cheap to store in a safe.”
But Andrea is sold on the idea that batteries are part of a more efficient energy future. He is currently involved in a new project in Boulder to install batteries in homes, in order to ease the strain on power plants and avoid costly rewiring as the sizes of neighborhoods change.
Felix Kramer, a clean energy entrepreneur in California, said he hopes Musk’s presentation on Thursday evening changes minds.
“Tesla demolished the idea that EVs [electric vehicles] were golf carts,” Kramer said. “And maybe they’re about to do it again now. Maybe they’re about to demolish the idea that we can’t switch from coal and gas to wind and solar because of reliability issues. If they convince consumers, that changes the conversation.”
But Andrea and Kramer are enthusiastic about the possibility of greater infrastructure improvements with greater adoption of electric cars. Power provision could get a lot more efficient if cities can be persuaded to draw power from those car batteries, as well as supplying it. That would provide electricity and diminish local reliance on expensive, fossil fuel-powered generators during times of peak demand – when everyone in New York turns on the air conditioner, for example. Nissan is already trying to do this with the Leaf in Japan.
“In a home, the cost of the storage becomes much more important,” Andrea said. “It solves so many problems – the power company no longer has to turn on a dirty power plant during high-demand times. You can use the present wire infrastructure.”
If those sound like lofty goals, they had frankly better be: Musk will have to impress a great many people in order to justify the gobs of money the state of Nevada is giving him – the gigafactory will be allowed to operate essentially tax-free for 10 years and won’t pay property taxes for another 10 afterward. Beyond even that, the state is giving Tesla m in transferable tax credits, which the company can sell to other businesses in the region.
Nor is it the first time Musk has asked the government to chip in: SpaceX receives 5m in help from Nasa.
Still, if Musk’s batteries can merge wind, solar and electric car power into existing grids, that would constitute tremendous economic savings for cash-strapped municipalities everywhere.
“This is within the power of humanity to do,” Musk told the large crowd gathered at Tesla’s design center in a Los Angeles suburb on Thursday. “We have done things like this before. It is not impossible.”
Imagine living in a house that contributed to society: a house that produced energy, while consuming none itself. Well, imagine no more. After perfecting the “passivhaus”, which consumes minimal energy, engineers and architects have developed the energy positive house.
Generating energy is one thing, building a house is another. But with its plant-decorated walls and enormous double-glazed windows, the ArchiBlox Positive House, introduced in Melbourne’s City Square last month, looks elegant and modernist. “The trick is to make the sustainable and performance products visually pleasing while also practical,” reports David Martin, construction director of the ArchiBlox Positive House – the world’s first pre-fab energy positive house.
Rooftop solar panels and cooling tubes generate energy and regulate the temperature, while double-glazed windows and thick walls conserve energy. The end result: surplus power.
The ArchiBlox team is not alone in successfully completing the energy positive challenge. The German city of Königsbrunn, working in collaboration with the Augsburg University of Applied Sciences and a local gas and electricity company, is finalising the cube-like Visioneum in the central square, where city officials hope its presence will inspire residents to think about their household energy consumption.
At the University of California, Berkeley, students working in collaboration with Honda have developed yet another concept, the Honda Smart Home, which looks more like a typical terraced house, but which generates surplus energy the same way as the ArchiBlox and the Visioneum: by radically conserving it while generating more than it needs though solar panels.
Students at the Delft University of Technology, meanwhile, have invented a highly innovative “skin” that can be attached to existing houses with similar results. And in Norway, architecture firm Future Built has managed to turn two ordinary office buildings into energy-generating ones, cutting their energy use by 90% through additional insulation and the use of sensors to control light and heating. Here, too, solar panels on the roof provide energy that can be sold back to the grid.
With cars and homes accounting for 44% of greenhouse gasses in United States (and similar percentages in Europe), it’s no surprise that researchers and architects are trying to find ways of making homes more energy-efficient.
“The development of smart technologies, like the Google Nest, is making energy savings more convenient for users by allowing for control over temperatures in the house while you are away from the house, and allowing temperatures to follow your daily routines”, notes Esben Alslund-Lanthén, an analyst at the Danish sustainability thinktank Sustainia.
Kristian Edwards says building a plus-house is technically straightforward. “We calculated how many square meters of solar panels we needed and optimised the angle of the roof to get maximum solar yield,” he reports. “But plus-houses are also about minimising energy consumption, so we used as much recycled material as possible, such as whole bricks from a barn nearby.” With its box-like wooden top floor slanted over the lower floor for maximum sun exposure, Snøhetta’s experiment – the ZEB Multi-Comfort House, located in the Norwegian city of Larvik – boasts a visually striking appearance.
There’s just one thing: the cost. “Cost is always a factor when building houses that are taking advantage of the newest technology”, notes Alslund-Lanthén. “Plus-houses will likely remain more expensive than conventional houses, but on the other hand the owners will benefit from lower utility bills throughout the lifetime of the house, and in many cases from added benefits such as a better indoor climate due to improved ventilation, more daylight and better insulation.”
But Edwards, an architect at the Snøhetta architechture firm in Oslo, argues that plus-houses don’t have to be expensive, noting that a ZEB-style house may only cost 25% more to build than a similar, newly-designed home. The dropping cost of photovoltaic cells will also aid the advance of plus-houses.
Either way, utility companies are currently developing new payment models that will allow home owners to pay back the cost of the new technologies through energy savings. Other plus-house owners may opt to sell their surplus energy to the grid. At the ZEB house, in turn, surplus energy will power the electric car that future residents may own.
What’s life in a plus-house like? Norwegian families have volunteered to test the ZEB house for three months each and will report their findings to Edwards and his Snøhetta colleagues. And David Martin is about to find out for himself, having signed up to live in his ArchiBlox construction with his young family for the next 24 months.
The world has much more coal, oil and gas in the ground than it can safely burn. That much is physics.
Anyone studying the question with an open mind will almost certainly come to a similar conclusion: if we and our children are to have a reasonable chance of living stable and secure lives 30 or so years from now, according to one recent study 80% of the known coal reserves will have to stay underground, along with half the gas and a third of the oil reserves.
If only science were enough.
If not science, then politics? MPs, presidents, prime ministers and members of congress are always telling us (often suggesting a surrender of civil liberties in return) that their first duty is the protection of the public.
But politics sometimes struggles with physics. Science is, at its best, long term and gives the best possible projection of future risk. Which is not always how politics works, even when it comes to our security. Politicians prefer certainty and find it difficult to make serious prudent planning on high probabilities.
On climate change, the public clamour is in inverse proportion to the enormity of the long-term threat. If only it were the other way round. And so, year after year, the people who represent us around the UN negotiating tables have moved inches, not miles.
When, as Guardian colleagues, we first started discussing this climate change series, there were advocates for focusing the main attention on governments. States own much of the fossil fuels that can never be allowed to be dug up. Only states, it was argued, can forge the treaties that count. In the end the politicians will have to save us through regulation – either by limiting the amount of stuff that is extracted, or else by taxing, pricing and limiting the carbon that’s burned.
There are two arguments in favour of moving money out of the biggest and most aggressive fossil fuel companies – one moral, the other financial.
The moral crusaders – among them Archbishop Desmond Tutu – see divestment from fossil fuels in much the same light as earlier campaigners saw the push to pull money out of tobacco, arms, apartheid South Africa – or even slavery. Most fossil fuel companies, they argue, have little concern for future generations. Of course, the companies are run by sentient men and women with children and grandchildren of their own. But the market pressures and fiduciary duties involved in running public companies compel behaviour that is overwhelmingly driven by short-term returns.
So – the argument goes – the directors will meanwhile carry on business as usual, no matter how incredible it may seem that they will be allowed to dig up all the climate-warming assets they own. And, by and large – and discounting recent drops in the price of oil – they continue to be reasonably good short-term businesses, benefiting from enormous subsidies as they search for even more reserves that can never be used.
The pragmatists argue the case on different grounds. It is simply this: that finance will eventually have to surrender to physics.
If – eventually – the companies cannot, for the sake of the human race, be allowed to extract a great many of the assets they own, then many of those assets will in time become valueless. So people with other kinds of fiduciary duty – people, say, managing endowments, pension funds and investment portfolios – will want to get their money out of these companies before the bubble bursts.
So there’s a risk calculation to be done by anyone invested in fossil fuels – which, one way or another, is probably most of us. Get out too early and you might forgo the reasonable returns based on current performance and the book value of the assets that are notionally exploitable.
But what of the risk of being a late exiter? Do you wait and judge when the politicians could finally summon the will to start making regulatory and market interventions … and then get out? And at the same time as everyone else is trying to do the same?
When the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, urges: “Be the first mover. Use smart due diligence. Rethink what fiduciary responsibility means in this changing world. It’s simple self-interest. Every company, investor and bank that screens new and existing investments for climate risk is simply being pragmatic”?
When the Bank of England’s deputy head of supervision for banks and insurance companies, Paul Fisher, warns, as he did this month: “As the world increasingly limits carbon emissions, and moves to alternative energy sources, investments in fossil fuels – a growing financial market in recent decades – may take a huge hit”?
Or listen to Hank Paulson, no bleeding liberal, but secretary of the Treasury under Bush and former CEO of Goldman Sachs: “Each of us must recognise that the risks are personal. We’ve seen and felt the costs of underestimating the financial bubble. Let’s not ignore the climate bubble.”
So the argument for a campaign to divest from the world’s most polluting companies is becoming an overwhelming one, on both moral and pragmatic grounds. But the divestment movement is sometimes misunderstood. The intention is not to bankrupt the companies, nor to promote overnight withdrawal from fossil fuels – that would not be possible or desirable.
Divestment serves to delegitimise the business models of companies that are using investors’ money to search for yet more coal, oil and gas that can’t safely be burned. It is a small but crucial step in the economic transition away from a global economy run on fossil fuels.
The usual rule of newspaper campaigns is that you don’t start one unless you know you’re going to win it. This one will almost certainly be won in time: the physics is unarguable. But we are launching our campaign today in the firm belief that it will force the issue now into the boardrooms and inboxes of people who have billions of dollars at their disposal.
It’s clear, from our researches over the past few weeks, that many company directors and fund managers have had a nagging feeling that this is something coming up the agenda that – one day – they will have to think about. As the Guardian’s campaign mounts, we hope they will appreciate that there is some urgency about the choices they make.
Who will take the lead? Some huge endowments and investment funds have already announced that they will be decarbonising their portfolios, exiting fossil fuels altogether and/or investing in cleaner alternatives.
Our own campaign will give readers the information they need to make their own investment decisions and to apply pressure on the workplaces, unions, schools, colleges, churches, NGOs, pension advisers and charities in their lives. But we also want to try to change minds at one or two institutions that have demonstrated inspiring thought leadership in other spheres of life.
The Wellcome Trust handles a portfolio of more than £18bn and invests around £700m a year in science, the humanities, social science education and medical research. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has an endowment of .5bn. Last year it gave away .9bn in grants towards health and sustainable development.
In 2014 the Wellcome Trust had £564m invested in Shell, BP, Schlumberger, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton alone. The Gates Foundation has a financial stake of over bn in fossil fuel companies.
By most standards, these are huge sums of money, helping to fund the extraction of unusable oil gas and coal on a massive scale. But, as a proportion of the foundations’ own endowments, they are relatively small – just a few percent for the fossil fuel investments we know about. So they could, we think, be divested without damaging overall returns. Indeed, we think they could achieve higher and, over time, safer returns by putting their money into other investments with real opportunities for growth in a world tackling climate change
Because both foundations are a) so progressive in their aims and actions and b) have human health and science at the heart of everything they do, we hope they, of all institutions, will see the force of the call for them to move their money out of a sector whose actions, if unchecked, could cause the most devastating harm to the health of billions. A landmark report by the Lancet and University College London concluded in 2009: “Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”
The ask of them is, we think, both modest and simple. We understand that fund managers do not like to make sudden changes to their portfolios. So we ask that the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust commit now to divesting from the top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years. And that they immediately freeze any new investment in the same companies.
We will, of course, suggest that the Guardian Media Group does the same, and keeps you informed about its own deliberations and decisions.
Please sign, retweet and generally spread news about the petition. In everything we say to these foundations, we will emphasise that we come in admiration for what they have done, and continue to do for human health and wellbeing. They aren’t the “bad guys”. But they could certainly show themselves to be the good guys in this matter of life and death.
One final thing. This campaign is going to be backed up by much reporting and analysis. We would be very pleased to hear from anyone working in the fossil fuel industries at a senior level, either currently or recently. We are interested, for instance, to learn about internal discussions and papers about the state of knowledge and debate about the environmental harm caused by the extractive industries. You can email me confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org; see my PGP key on @arusbridger on Twitter; or use the Guardian’s encrypted securedrop platform, which enables anyone to send us documents without being traced.
Plans for the world’s biggest offshore windfarm have been given the green light by the energy secretary, with planning permission for an array of up to 400 turbines 80 miles off the Yorkshire coast on the Dogger Bank.
The project, more than twice the size of the UK’s current biggest offshore windfarm, is expected to cost £6bn to £8bn and could fulfil 2.5% of the UK’s electricity needs.
Covering about 430 sq miles, the Dogger Bank Creyke Beck project will – if fully constructed – generate enough electricity to power nearly 2m homes, and could support an estimated 900 jobs in Yorkshire and Humberside, according to the government.
Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat energy and climate change secretary, said: “Making the most of Britain’s home-grown energy is creating jobs and businesses in the UK, getting the best deal for consumers and reducing our reliance on foreign imports. Wind power is vital to this plan, with £14.5bn invested since 2010 into an industry which supports 35,400 jobs.”
Although the UK does not manufacture large wind turbines, the Department of Energy and Climate Change says half of the costs associated with building and operating a windfarm are spent buying services and products from UK businesses.
Dogger has long been mooted as a possible location for offshore windfarms, because the shallow seabed, only about 30 metres deep, should make it easier to lay foundations and construct large turbines there, but no company has yet ventured into the area.
If built, the Creyke Beck turbines would be the furthest offshore that have ever been attempted. They would be the first stage of a project that could eventually be three times the size, if further tranches are also constructed.
Nick Medic, director of offshore renewables at RenewableUK, the wind industry association, said: “This is an awesome project and will surely be considered as one of the most significant infrastructure projects ever undertaken by the wind industry. Dogger Bank demonstrates the sheer potential of offshore technology to turn our vast ocean and wind resources into green energy.
“It is a project that pushes the offshore engineering envelope, demonstrating how far this technology has evolved in the 10 short years since the first major offshore windfarm was installed in North Hoyle just five miles from shore.”
Construction of the first turbines could still be years away, however. The Forewind consortium which is behind the 2400MW capacity project has yet to make a final investment decision. The consortium comprises Scottish and Southern Energy, Germany’s RWE, and Norway’s Statoil and Statkraft, the former the country’s majority state-owned oil business and the latter its state-owned electricity company.
Though the granting of planning permission may encourage a positive decision, the falling oil price and uncertainty over what may happen to wind energy subsidies after the general election make long-term investments in the sector more fraught.
About £60m has been spent by the companies so far on surveys alone.
“Achieving consent for what is currently the world’s largest offshore wind project in development is a major achievement and will help confirm the UK’s position as the world leader in the industry,” said Tarald Gjerde, general manager for Forewind.
The consortium said the Creyke Beck project could create up to 4,750 new direct and indirect full-time equivalent jobs and generate more than £1.5bn for the UK economy, especially in Yorkshire and Humberside owing to their “historic strengths, existing skills in large-scale production activities and a marine support legacy”.
The UK’s last biggest offshore wind site, the London Array, ran into difficulties soon after gaining the government’s green light in a long drawn-out process from 2005 to 2007. Costs spiralled, investors withdrew backing and the future of the project for long periods hung in the balance. However, the windfarm, with 175 turbines, was inaugurated in 2013.
The UK currently has about 1,200 offshore wind turbines, with a total generating capacity of about 4GW.
Creating biofuels from waste produced by industry, farms, and households could generate 36,000 jobs in the UK and save around 37m tonnes of oil use annually by 2030, according to a new report.
Across Europe, hundreds of thousands of new jobs could be created by using these ‘advanced biofuels’, which could replace 16% of the continent’s road transport fuel by the same year, the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) study said. But the gains will not come without ambitious policy to promote advanced biofuels, it warned.
“Alternative fuels from wastes and residues offer real and substantial carbon savings, even when taking account of possible indirect emissions,” said Chris Malins who led the analysis for ICCT . “The resource is available, and the technology exists – the challenge now is for Europe to put a policy framework in place that allows rapid investment.”
However, a key vote in the European Parliament’s environment committee next week could stop this potential being realised, as a centre-right grouping of MEPs has signalled that it will oppose a biofuels reform package considered crucial to the fledgling industry.
The committee will vote next Tuesday on a compromise biofuels reform bill that would mandate a goal of advanced biofuels providing 1.25% of Europe’s transport fuel by 2020.
This advanced fuel could come from woody crops, agricultural residues, algae or household and industrial waste. It is seen as less environmentally damaging than first generation biofuels produced by growing crops such as rapeseed, which have been criticised for displacing food crops and raising commodity prices.
Malins said that a mandatory advanced biofuels goal was “absolutely crucial” to realising the sector’s potential, as it would bring market certainty and long-term signals for investors.
But sources at the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) told the Guardian that they were unlikely to back such a package. “We think it is unrealistically ambitious,” a source said. “We are not going to support the compromise proposal.”
The bill would also introduce criteria for assessing biofuels’ sustainability and set a 6% cap for the amount that first generation biofuel could contribute to the EU’s 2020 target of providing 10% of road transport fuel from low carbon sources.
Marko Janhunen, the vice-president of UPM Biorefining in Finland, said that parliamentary manoeuvring could risk the advanced sector’s potential for hi-tech job creation in rural areas.
“This is a critical moment for the advanced biofuels sector and this discussion is very frustrating,” he told the Guardian. “We want to see incentives and reasons to invest. We want to get rid of the regulatory uncertainty that has been surrounding the discussion.”
UPM recently opened a €175m renewable waste biorefinery that transforms residues from pulp into renewable diesel that can be used by cars – or potentially, one day, by planes. British Airways is one of several members of a Leaders of Sustainable Biofuels group that Janhunen also chairs.
“The EU has spent hundreds of millions in projects supporting the uptake of these technologies,” Janhunen added. “Now they are here, it is very important to set policies in place that enable them to be brought into the market.”
The current proposal has faced a tortuous journey and campaigners fear that even a narrow victory now will embolden east European states to finally bury it in the European Council.
“If the EPP votes against the compromise, there is a massive risk that the whole package could fall into a conciliation process, or even no conclusion at all,” said Nusa Urbancic, a clean energy programme manager at the Transport and Environment group. “This will mean continued negative impacts on deforestation and food prices, as well as leading the EU away from our climate objectives.”
The European ethanol industry association (ePURE) has thrown its weight behind the biofuels bill. Its secretary-general, Robert Wright, told the Guardian that “only a binding target will send a clear signal to investors that there will be a future market for advanced biofuels.”
But other industry figures were sceptical about the likelihood of meaningful regulation at the EU level, and about the ICCT’s analysis more generally.
“Studies like this have rosy assumptions that feed into rosy conclusions,” said Eric Sievers, the CEO of Ethanol Europe Renewables. “You don’t make a large capital investment in a regulatory regime that expires in 2020, so the potential and reality are at odds. Nothing prevents this stuff from being imported from the US or Brazil so the whole jobs argument goes down the tubes.”
In the absence of EU renewable targets for 2030, however, Malins said that the cleaner fuel process in Europe could still be continued with carbon intensity fuel standards similar to those in California, an extension of the bloc’s Fuel Quality Directive, or fiscal measures by European states.
Urbancic said that the US already had advanced biofuels targets which would likely deter its small industry from importing to the EU, while Brazil was likely to focus its industry on aviation.