Renewable energy technologies will create new jobs and aid economic recovery

October 31st, 2011 by Tony Juniper

“I used to come to these meeting twenty years ago and it didn’t look like this, with mainstream companies doing serious work investing in new technologies and making a real difference in the world.”

Tony Juniper, Chairman of Action for Renewables, gave the Keynote speech on the first day of the RenewableUK conference in Manchester (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

“Twenty years ago it was very much a fringe industry, but it is not only in clean energy technologies that the world has changed over the last 30 years or so since I have been involved in various aspects of environmental campaigning.

“The world really has changed dramatically. A combination of factors have contributed to this.  The science has improved. We know a great deal more now about the impacts of our different activities on the natural environment. We’ve had strong communications coming from NGOs and the media.  We’ve had engagement from politics and if you look at the combination of those things – how they have galvanised public opinion and motivated people to get involved, you can see on some of the big global challenges, and on some of the issues that affect people locally we have made progress.

“One of the issues that was very prominent when I started my environmental career about thirty years ago was the problem of acid rain caused by sulphur and nitrogen emissions from large combustion plants.  There was a big argument about the science of that.  There was the politics, and then the technology was introduced, and the problem was pretty much solved quite quickly once the technology was deployed with the incentives and the laws that made it happen.

“The same thing occurred shortly afterwards on ozone depletion.  Many people will remember in the late 1980s the discovery of a massive hole in the Earth’s atmospheric ozone layer.  This is the layer of gas in the high atmosphere that shields us from some of the most damaging ultraviolet radiation coming from the sun.  It was being depleted by chemicals used in aerosols and in refrigeration. The science came forward.  There was a political argument about the technologies and the right way to incentivise them and those chemicals were phased out pretty quickly.

“Cancer causing substances that used to be emitted routinely from different kinds of industrial plants in this country were reduced in a matter of a few years in the mid-1990s in part through freedom of information rules. If you look at the quality of our air and our water compared to the 1970s and the 1980s it is far better and far healthier. And if you look at the protection of the natural environment more broadly in terms of Nature, the protected areas of the world have gone from about one percent of the land surface in 1960 to about 13% now with targets to get up to about 17% by 2020.

“So the situation has been utterly transformed but of course we are nowhere near where we need to be because in some ways if you look at what we have managed to do, we have managed to deal with some of the symptoms, but the underlying cause of these problems remains as deep as ever.  The cause of that of course is rising human demand. The consequences of rising human demand are seen in three big picture trends that are going to shape the near-term environmental future of life on earth.

“Those three trends are climate change, and the build-up of different greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; progressive loss of biodiversity, the extinction of animals and plants and the loss of ecosystem services, which is more serious than climate change in my opinion; and the third piece, related to the first two, which is the degradation of the natural resource base – freshwater, soils, and of course, non-renewable resources like oil and gas.

“If you look at the new agenda, which is different to the old environmental agenda, I would argue, you can see that renewable energy technologies actually have a central, vital, and unavoidable role in solving all three of those challenges, especially the first and the last in terms of how we are going to deal with resource depletion, and how we are going to be able to cut down greenhouse gas emissions.

“That is the context for where we are now, having achieved a great deal but with more to do.  The set of technologies that renewable energ companies bring forward are a big part of the solution.  Of course, that conclusion is not new.

“When I started out on this kind of work nearly three decades ago this was very much the discussion that was going on.  The difference now, of course, is that it is accepted.

“The climate science is now a fact and we have a broad constituency of opinion saying we need to go down this clean energy route as a matter of urgent priority if we are to be safeguarding future generations of humans, never mind the rest of life on Earth.

Tony Juniper of Action for Renewables gives his keynote speech to delegates attending the RenewableUK conference in Manchester (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

“So why then if this is so clear, and I think it is pretty clear, are we still finding it so hard to turn the broad consensus into actual deployment on the ground. Of course, the simply answer to that is various levels of opposition and skepticism.  Some of this is ideological, and some people who don’t like the implications of the climate change science in terms of what it means for economics and government regulation, campaign not only against the scientific consensus but also against some of the policies, which are interpreting that consensus.  Therefore renewable energy comes into the firing line there.  There are some groups who take a view, which is based on good evidence, so it is not ideological, and I would put into this category some of the conservation groups who argue about the siting and design of different renewable energy deployments in order to safeguard endangered species for example, and then there are groups who are concerned about local impacts and traffic and visual interference.

“Having worked as a campaigner for many years I know how opposition is much easier to make an impact with than proposing something. If you are against something, you tend to generate headlines more easily.  Controversial headlines come from opposition much more easily than they do in terms of creating jobs or bringing forward something that is going to solve a problem.  Opposition tends to be a tradition that is picked-up by the British media.  When a consensus breaks out in the UK you can be pretty sure that after a couple of years at least a counter-argument will come fueled by media headlines, which questions the collective wisdom.  It was inevitable that it was going to happen on climate change and to clean energy.  It has happened and we are still in it and we need to do something about that. I wouldn’t say the problem is all with the ideologically motivated critics or with local groups or with the media.  A big part of the responsibility for solving this problem comes down to the industry.  And I know that a great deal of work has been done over many years in better engagement with people, and better communications but we have a lot more to do not only because of where we are now, but because of where we are going next.

“The challenges that will come in new legislation that favours localism in this country is one such changing context for this.  The UK government is now pushing forward a new set of proposals in legislation that will bring forward a whole set of changed conditions that might well help the critics of renewable energy in terms of putting more decision making power down to local level, giving more power to community voices, and if there is at the same time a withdrawal of some of the planning guidance, which indeed is happening at the same time as regional spatial strategies are being removed, at the same time as infrastructure planning commission is going to be closed down, we might well find that renewable energy is actually an even more difficult position when it comes to some of the critical voices that have helped to slow down deployment in recent years.

“It is not only in relation to legislation that we need to be upping our game in terms of communication and engagement with communities and people on the ground, and building common cause with those people who should be agreeing with us but have not yet been crystallised into the right kind of coalitions. And that changing set of circumstances beyond the legislation is around the political narrative, and the extent to which we appear to be slipping back into a 1980s presentation of the green agenda from politics in this country championed by figures like George Osborne, and also Eric Pickles, putting across the kind of rhetoric you would have expected from politicians in the late 1970s and 1980s because the environment they say, is about so much about red tape, this will harm investment, this will close down economic growth, and this will lead to job losses. That is the type of narrative they are putting across. It is of course complete rubbish and there is plenty of evidence to show that.

“Environmental regulation across the world has historically been a driver and a source of innovation. It has been a source of competitive advantage. It has been a way of creating jobs and it has been a way of improving the lives of people in a way which makes economic sense beyond the GDP growth in terms of environmental quality adding to the welfare of human beings. So we have every good reason to push this back.

Tony Juniper at a RenewableUK press conference after his keynote speech (click image to expand - ©RLLord)

“How do we do that and what kind of means do we have at our disposal?

“Having worked on many environmental issues and having seen the process of change take place I can tell you with absolute certainty that being right is not sufficient. We know the world needs low carbon energy.  We know that the technology we champion works, but being right about that is not enough.

“We have to build the right kind of campaign that’s going to take those arguments, our offer to society, and get much broader buy-in, which is going to lead to the acceleration of these technologies being put onto the ground.  That is why I was very please to be asked by Maria McCaffery recently to consider being the Chair for the ‘Action for Renewables‘ campaign and start putting into place some of the strategic pieces that can begin to put us back into the position of advantage to be once more back in the information space in a way where our views are starting to be heard much more clearly.

“One of the ways we will do that is to be looking at how to engage more at local level. And think also more about communications, and crucially, in my view, to be thinking about our narrative.

“A narrative is the story we have, the offer we have to people, put across in a way which is logical and understandable, and at the moment we have been allowing other people to write the narrative for us rather too much.  We have heard some of the consequences of that already from Maria McCaffery in terms of how headlines are misreporting the impact of renewable energy on the economics of household bills.  We have also seen various headlines and misinformation coming across about the effectiveness of renewable energy. We have countered with our narrative, which has been about energy security and climate change. That has been helpful up-to-a-point but I think under the circumstances we now need to be reviewing our narrative and be looking at how we connect in the modern situation given where these different trends are going in terms of the opposition, the legislation, and where politics is now at, and I think both Matthew Chinn and Maria McCaffery have given us a good flavour of that in terms of how the new narrative needs to be about economic recovery, building a manufacturing base, creating new jobs, being a world leader in different kinds of technology, in addition to being able to cut our carbon emissions by the levels that we have pledged, and also to be able to improve our energy security at the same time.

“We need to be building that narrative and putting it across with confidence and power and really push back some of the problems we have faced over the last couple of years.

“I am looking forward to working with all of you in building this campaign. History tells us that these campaigns are winnable. There’s been many times when one looks at the opportunities for clean technology to come forward, and the reluctance of society or politicians to back it, and actually in the end we did get there, but we don’t get there because we sat back and we thought we were right. We got there because we ran an effective campaign. We were clear about where we were going with it, and we marshaled the resources and the backing to prevail.

“I am looking foward to helping with the ‘Action for Renewables’ campaign. I do hope all of you will consider joining in, in different ways to be backing the campaign and to be active participants in it because we have a collect interest here for not only this set of technologies but also literally the future of life on Earth because if we don’t win this, the consequences will be not only for the growth and the employment that comes with your companies, the consequences will be felt for many generations to come.

Thank you very much indeed.”

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Tony Juniper, Chair of Action for Renewables, gave the keynote speech to RenewableUK conference delegates on 25 October 2011.

Tony Juniper is a Senior Associate with the Cambridge University Program for Sustainability Leadership and a Special Advisor with the Prince’s Charities Foundation International Sustainability Unit.  He is Chair of the 10:10 climate campaign and author of numerous books.

 

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