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Energy and the Environment: What’s the challenge?



The first event in the British Academy’s new debate series, in association with Prospect and the Royal Society, was held in London last week. It was a thought-provoking evening with a distinguished panel who offered a range of answers to the question: “Energy and the Environment: What’s the Challenge?”


Ahead of the highly anticipated UN Climate Change Summit which is due to take place in Paris this summer, the aim of these debates is to open up the debate on the momentous changes in the way we generate and use energy today. This first event was extremely well attended, a reflection on the high calibre of the speakers who were; Dr Camilla Toulmin of the International Institute for Environment and Development and Professor David Newbery FBA of the Energy Policy Research Group, University of Cambridge. The Discussant was Juliet Davenport, CEO of Good Energy and the chair was former BBC World News presenter Nic Gowing.


The defining themes of the debate included a consensus on the urgent need to change consumer behaviour and reduce emissions. Professor Newberry’s projection was that if continue as we are we risk doing “unimaginable damage” to our environment. He pointed to the example of France, which decarbonised its electricity sector in 10 years through a mass drive to nuclear power and lead a call for more public sector investment to push for a low carbon future.

Dr Toulmin expanded the debate beyond the UK, making the point that a low carbon transformation is equally required in low-income countries. Emissions might be lower in nations such as Ethiopia and Haiti but the poor access to energy has a negative impact on economic growth. Toulmin said that she hoped the energy market had reached the end of “30 years of market fundamentalism” and that a stronger partnership could be forged between the state and the private sector “to challenge threats to prosperity and security on our shared planet.”

Investing in renewables can have wide-ranging social and political impacts, said Juliet Davenport, making the salient point that you can’t go war with a solar panel. She added that renewables are a successful emerging market for investment.

While sharing a collective frustration that the case for investing to prevent further climate change still needs to be made, all three panellists offered innovative and optimistic solutions for the future.