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The Severn Barrage: calling greens' bluff

De Montfort University professor James Woudhuysen on why green objections to the Severn Barrage reveal little more than a phobia of major projects.

One of the laws of politics today is that any Green scheme for energy supply will, if it is ambitious enough, prompt furious objections… from Greens.

Myself, I didn’t notice Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace rush to condemn David Cameron’s tiddly windmill above his home. But now that Parsons Brinckerhoff has sent the umpteenth feasibility study on how to generate perhaps 8GW of tidal energy from the Severn, the Guardian gleefully reports that a ‘row’ has ‘erupted’ about it.

It was always quite hard to balance up the pros and cons of a long barrage across the Severn, which apparently ministers believe is the best idea, against those of tidal lagoons, which Greens have long favoured.

It was also always hard, too, to cavil at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds pontificating about how lagoons were a better economic bet than barrages. After all, the fact that ornithologists are not known for their grasp of economics shouldn’t bar them from going on about it. That’s what free speech is all about.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to see how stopthebarrage.comcan argue both that 20bn is too much to spend on a barrage in the South West, and that such a programme ‘will kill economic growth in the region’. Of course, government often sprays money away – but this kind of exaggeration is just silly.

I favour the harnessing of the Severn not on the grounds of job creation, but because Britain needs a whole lot more energy. In that cause, we must recognise that any large-scale development in energy will always lead to the migration of birds and fish away from the site of the development. Moreover, a second law of politics today is that environmentalist zealots can always find a reason to designate anywhere as special.

Stop the Barrage insists that no fewer than 85,000 migratory and wintering water birds, as well as spawning salmon, will be affected. Fair enough; after all, keeping the lights on for 60M Brits is not part of the campaign’s brief. But I know which priority I support.

The controversy about the Severn also reveals a third law of politics today: any ambitious scheme for renewables will find detractors who, among their other criticisms, emphasise that the scheme in question will in fact worsen global warming. Thus Stop the Barrage argues that thriving regional ports help to cut CO2 emissions from road and rail freight haulage, so that ‘if a Barrage were to make the Severn ports uncompetitive, or lessen their ability to handle a full range of imports, it would have a negative carbon impact’.

Well, maybe. But shipping things through ports, too, is now meant to be likely to add to ‘dangerous’ climate change.

Oh well. Greens can always take another tack – that while the operation of a barrage, though intermittent, will generate no CO2, its construction will.

What that reinforces for me is a fourth and final law. Attempts to measure the carbon footprint of different schemes for energy supply are doomed to failure. That’s because, as Joe Kaplinsky and I contend in our new book Energise! A future for Innovation, the carbon footprint concept is a moral, not a scientific one. It’s used to make people feel guilty about their behaviour or their engineering.

Tidal lagoons may have a lot going for them, but right now their advocates had better refine their arguments if they are going to convince me that their stance isn’t a cover for doing nothing.

James Woudhuysen is Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. Energise! is published on Thursday 22 January by Beautiful Books.

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