Image credit: Centre for Alternative Technology
Environmentalists may spend a lot of time battling against the fossil fuel lobby, but the awkward truth is that there is plenty of fighting between "green" groups too—perhaps most notably when it comes to what constitutes 'sustainability', and how do we manage the sometimes competing demands of clean energy and conservation. From Earth First! protesting against wind turbines to concerns over luxury LEED condos and gentrification, one person's green panacea can easily be another person's worst nightmare. Now a leading proponent of renewable energy and clean tech is going head-to-head with prominent conservationists over how we manage the land use changes that will inevitably result from increased renewables. The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) is one of Europe's leading research, demonstration and education charities for energy efficiency, renewables, organic farming and clean technology, and its work will be familiar to may TreeHuggers. From building a groundbreaking (and budget busting!) ecocenter to promoting a zero carbon Britain by the year 2030, these guys clearly have ambitious, longterm goals for tackling climate change.
The Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) however, is not so sure. As a charity that campaigns for the "beauty, tranquillity and diversity of the countryside", the CPRE has often been an opponent of large-scale green schemes like wind turbines or high-speed rail. The two went head to head iover at The Guardian, with Dustin Benton of the CPRE arguing that emissions cuts could be achieved while preserving the character of the British countryside:
"Unfortunately, Zero Carbon Britain 2030, the more ambitious report, proposes changes to England's landscapes that are greater than any change since the 1930s. In order to produce all our power at home, the report proposes to devote 85% of England's grazing land to large-scale biomass plantations. This suggests that nearly a quarter of England would no longer be covered by the familiar pattern of meadows and pastures which defines many valued English landscapes."
Meanwhile Alex Randall of CAT argues that unless society is to give up flying completely, then major landuse changes will be needed to supply the aviation industry alone:
"Unfortunately Dustin's suggestion of importing solar electricity from north Africa doesn't help here. It could help meet electricity demand but does not help with aviation fuel. And it's aviation fuel that is the main demand for energy crops in our scenario.
This touches the core of our dilemma. I can't see a way to maintain an idealised chocolate box landscape that also provides us with enough aviation fuel to maintain even a small amount of flying. All human societies have faced challenges. The scale of those facing us today are perhaps greater than any in recorded history. A changing climate, diminishing fossil fuel reserves and rising energy demands are inter-connected problems that need a common solution."
It is, of course, a tricky and important debate. Landscapes, and the people who inhabit them, matter. And yet no landscape is static—the fields and meadows that make up rural England were once vast forests. Of course whether or not converting them into biofuel plantations is a wise move is yet another debate that touches on much more than aesthetics—but it's clear that we need to do something if we are going to wean ourselves off oil. How we end up managing the competing demands of conservation, culture, recreation, food and energy is a balancing act that I don't have the answer to—but I am mighty glad the debate is being had.