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Serious money needed


There is stark and disappointingly vast contrast between the government's stated desire to create a low carbon economy for the UK and its nancial commitment nding the solutions.

For all the concern and apocalyptic talk setting out the need 'to make real progress now' by Alastair Darling in last week's Meeting the Energy Challenge White Paper, it seems government remains very keen to let the private sector lead the nation's charge against climate change.

Given that - in government's own words - 'climate change threatens the stability of the world's climate, economy and population', and that energy supply insecurity is heightened by the need to import fuel from 'less stable parts of the world' it is bafling that Darling still seems keen to allow the markets to solve his problems.

It is bafling because the energy market is hugely volatile and to pretend that it is possible for energy fims to commit to investment agreements lasting several decades or more seems a bit far fetched. The risks must surely be too great to plan businesses that far ahead.

Take research into low carbon energy technology. It has long been this column's view that, given the will and right support from the centre, the UK's science and engineering talent could use the next decade or so to find the real alternatives to our current fossil fuel red lifestyles. We really could create the same kind of pioneering environment that delivered commercial nuclear power for the world 50 years ago.

To this end it is great to see con mation of the government's plans for the new Energy Technologies Institute. This supports the recent Stern Review's demand for action to support innovation and develop low carbon technologies.

But to quote from the White Paper, the new institute will be a 'joint venture between the public and private sectors with a minimum budget of £600M over 10 years devoted to the research and development of low carbon technologies'.

Yes, that's correct, just £60M a year. We're tackling the greatest threat to life that man has ever witnessed by investing (in partnership with the private sector) £60M a year.

OK, public money is a precious resource but in the context of the whole of government spending £60M is a drop in the ocean. Even when combined with the new Environmental Transformation Fund promised in 2008 - with no real indication of available cash as yet - can we really expect to make any serious impact or breakthroughs in this important area?

The simple answer is no. If the UK is serious about leading the field in low carbon technology then it must get sensible about the amount of public money it spends on nding the solution.

Meanwhile government remains keen on nuclear power as part of this solution but states that 'it would be for the private sector to fund, develop, and build new nuclear power stations in the UK, including meeting the full costs of decommissioning and their full share of waste management costs'.

But as we don't really know what decommissioning will cost and we haven't decided how to cope with nuclear waste, quite how the private sector will pay without serious public sector sweeteners is a mystery.

Tackling the nation's growing energy supply and carbon reduction challenges is important.

Our government must come clean about investing serious public cash in finding the right solutions.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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