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Ethics and energy—a British Academy debate

By Prospect Team  

The recent British Academy debate in Swansea, held in conjunction with Prospect, addressed the complex question of how the current generation can generate energy without damaging the environment for future generations.

It is a deeply troubling question, one that challenges policymakers to think about people who do net yet exist. It applies not only to the developed economies of the west, but also emerging markets, which face the challenge of providing large amounts of new energy capacity for rapidly-increasing populations. It is a cruel irony that efforts in the west to deploy new, less polluting energy sources have coincided with a cheapening of the dirtiest sources of energy, for example coal, whose use has expanded in developing economies.

The west cannot simply cut its own use of polluting fossil fuels is there is to be a corresponding increase in pollution by emerging economies such as India and China. The challenge of finding new, less polluting energy sources is therefore a global question and cannot be taken by one nation, or group of countries in isolation.

The drive towards new technology is fundamentally important to arresting the worst effects of climate change. Professor Nick Pigeon of Cardiff University gave as an example the development of Carbon Capture and Storage technology, which as its name suggests, filters out the harmful emissions from power stations and stores the extracted carbon underground. Though at first, this sort of storage system appears attractive, its long-term viability is open to question—land used for storage cannot be used for agricultural use. Is it in the interests of future generations to have large tracts of land rendered infertile, even in the cause of limiting carbon emissions? It is a tough point and one that got to the core of the evening’s debate: that even processes designed to limit carbon emissions have the potential to cause environmental problems for future generations.

Professor Kirit Parikh set out his plan for apportioning carbon quotas to the world’s largest emitters of polluting gasses, basing his assumptions on the controversial notion that nations should be assessed not on how much they emit now, but on how much carbon they have emitted throughout history. This would place the burden of carbon reduction much more onto developed nations, and much less on emerging economies, such as India, he said. Professor Mile Phillips, of the University of Wales, noted that there were other, smaller communities that were already suffering from the effect of global climate change, including the Innuit, whose lives and practices he has studied. They are already facing pronounced social upheaval, he said, and there is an obligation to understand that, in the absence of significant action, similar change will come to all societies.

Mark Shorrock, the CEO of Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay spoke about his own project which, he said, now required only the approval of two people—George Osborne and David Cameron. The way to ensure that future generations are left with an environmentally friendly energy system, Shorrock explained, is through innovation and a renewed government interest in backing the necessary projects. Expressing his frustration, Shorrock explained that money was available to back new energy infrastructure and financiers were eager to get involved. The problem, he explained was government.

In this point, he identified a substantial problem that applies to the British and other governments. Without state involvement, in Britain and worldwide, the consequences for the pollution of the atmosphere will be more of the same—and more of the same will not do.

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