ESSAYS TWO COUNTRIES, ONE PLANET
accelerating private investment in low-cost renewables, and more importantly it ushered in the rapid decline of coal. Rigorous enforcement of pollution standards deterred any new investment in it. The giant Drax power station in North Yorkshire was converted to burning Canadian wood pellets, and the decision to underpin the fluctuating European carbon price with a national floor has remorselessly driven the black stuff out of business.
Carbon pricing may not work well in switching tens of millions of road users from their deeply-ingrained driving habit onto public transport. But when it comes to nudging the behaviour of giant, border-straddling, profit-hungry commercial power companies, every penny truly counts.
“High fuel prices made
“High fuel prices made fodder for tabloid journalism whether in the Bild Zeitung or the
Daily Mail ”
Thanks to the combined efforts of the Blairite Labour Party and longstanding supporters on the Tory side, the UK is also one of the few countries seriously committed to a new generation of nuclear. If it ever comes online, Hinkley Point C will cost the UK taxpayer tens of billions of pounds. This will be all the more painful given the remarkably low prices yielded by the contracts for offshore wind, which has emerged as the silver bullet for the decarbonisation of UK power supply. The latest round of bids are promising to be cheaper not only than new gas-fired power stations, but than existing generators. Unlike Germany, which faces the huge challenge of moving wind power generated in the North Sea and the Baltic south to the industrial centres of Munich and Stuttgart, the UK can position wind farms strategically along its coastline.
Green and greedy
What has emerged in the UK is a fast-moving, high-tech, corporate energy transition in which giant German generators like RWE, stymied at home, are playing a leading role. It may be low carbon. But it is far from the dreams of earlier generations, which envisioned a decentralised and democratic energy system—a citizens’ energy transition.
Nor, as the independent Climate Change Committee reminds us, will it deliver net zero. Decarbonising the electricity sector is the easy bit, and removing coal from the system the easiest part. The challenge is to move not just beyond coal and the industrial revolution, but beyond the oil and gas addiction of the second half of the 20th century, beyond hydrocarbons, to go without gas and remove carbon not just from electricity generation but from domestic heating and cooking, from industry and transport. In this respect both Germany and Britain face huge challenges.
For Germany, the next big problem will be the motor vehicle industry. No major economy is more committed to the engineering of sophisticated internal combustion engines. As for the UK, it may no longer have coal mines and its car plants are now foreign owned, but it is the base for one of the world’s major oil and gas fields in the North Sea. It is home to BP and Shell, two of the world’s largest oil companies. If development of the North Sea goes forward as planned, it will negate many times over all the reductions in carbon emissions to be achieved by cutting coal out of the UK’s electricity system. The pressing requirement with such mineral wealth is to “leave it in the ground.” Forgoing wealth is never easy.
Once again it is crucial to focus on corporate actors. The most aggressive developer in the North Sea is the Norwegian state-owned giant Equinor, which is also among the consortia recently awarded an ultra-lowcost offshore wind contract on Dogger Bank. The drive for profit will continue to spur companies—often the same companies—to affect the environment for both good and ill, until public policy sets clear priorities.
The glib conclusion to draw from the Britain/Germany comparison is that Britain’s flexible market economy is proving more dynamic in the green transition than consensual continental politics. That, however, is far too crude an account of the last decade. Britain’s corporate energy sector was built on the ruins of the labour movement. Meanwhile, Germany’s decentralised green boom of the early 2000s changed the world. And Britain only moved from green laggard to green leader because of proactive political decisions made in Westminster from 2008 onwards.
What we can learn from the German slowdown is that how the costs of the transition are spread is crucial, and that perception counts as much as reality. Whenever it suits their interests, corporations and lobbyists will play the “unaffordable renewables” card, while seizing plum opportunities that the green transition has to offer. As the British and American left have argued, to counter this sniping, a broad-based narrative of the Green New Deal is essential.
Looking further ahead, policy is going to have to be much more hands-on. If the hegemony of fossil fuels is to be undone, regulation and carbon pricing will not be enough. We must deflect the strategies of energy corporations like Equinor or RWE. This may involve confrontation. That is the reality that lurks behind talk of industrial policy. As significant as the changes in power generation have been, the push for comprehensive decarbonisation is only just beginning. Adam Tooze is the author of “Crashed” (Allen Lane)