While our Presidential candidates largely ignored climate change and Sandy ravaged the shores of New York and New Jersey, in the UK an intrepid group of climate protesters were scaling the cooling towers of a power station. They stayed there for an entire week, creating the longest power station occupation in history. (Almost as impressive as the renegade environmentalist who singlehandedly shut down a 500MW coal plant.)
The group of 16 activists from No Dash For Gas occupied the West Burton gas-fired power station just as owner EDF was planning to test fire the facility. From their vantage point on two of the plants cooling towers, they tweeted photos of the sunrise; they set up platforms inside the towers; they rigged up a toilet in the sky and did other impressive, activisty things.
But above all, they put climate change firmly back in the spotlight where it belongs.
Some observers have inevitably attacked the group for not focusing on coal—with critics arguing that gas represents an important lower carbon transitional fuel source. But the activists themselves argued forcefully that gas emits much more CO2 than was originally thought, and that investing in transitional fuels locks us in to dangerous CO2 emissions for decades to come:
Decarbonising the electricity system, which produces 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions, is widely recognised as the most cost-effective and viable way to kick-start this transition. With a fifth of the UK’s electricity generating capacity expiring in the next decade, we have a golden opportunity to replace it with something better.
Gas isn’t the answer. Once extraction, which is becoming increasingly energy intensive, and transportation are taken into account, gas isn’t that much cleaner than coal. The Government's independent climate advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), have stated that the low carbon grid of 2030 should produce no more than 50g of CO2 for every kilowatt hour of electricity generated. Gas produces 350g CO2 for every kilowatt hour at the point of generation.
Instead, the group argued, it's time to invest like never before in an aggressive strategy to decarbonize our energy system with renewables. (That, and perhaps stop using so much energy in the first place.)
With the likelihood of more Sandy-like storms in our future, it becomes increasingly hard to argue with the economics. The question is no longer whether we can afford to pursue truly clean energy solutions. It's the absolute realization that we can't afford not to. Yes, there are significant challenges in relying on wind, solar, and the sea for our power. Yes, we may even have to learn to think about energy a little differently in order to get there.
But the folks stuck in NYC without power this week are already thinking about energy differently. Groups like No Dash For Gas ensure the thought process is productive.