Thursday, February 12, 2009

Severn Barrage: some thoughts

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to go a discussion about the Severn Barrage, but I didn't go because it sounded boring. However, the plans have recently created a bit of a stir in some circles because the "green" community is resolutely against the idea even though it would essentially make a massive contribution to the amount of renewable energy being produced.

As I understand it the barrage is basically to be stretched right the way across the Severn estuary harnessing the power of the tides for our energy consumption. The Ecologist points out that not only would the barrage cause "devastation" to the local environment, there were grave doubts about its ability to produce energy in a consistent and cost effective way.

Creating 18,000 construction jobs for seven years in building a huge renewable energy project is surely exactly the kind of thing that these Green New Deal types should be into - but they aren't. The government proposes creating loads of green collar jobs and they get all snooty - I'm not surprised some of the public are confused.

The Financial Times claims this means that environmentalists "want to eat their brown rice cakes and still have them" because they promote renewable energy, but only when it suits them. Fair enough in some senses. Addressing climate change is not the same thing as being nice to local birds and sometimes those tasks contradict each other even though they both fall under the general heading "green".

Paul Kingsnorth wrote a really excellent piece in the Guardian yesterday 'A line in the green sand' which really draws out these contradictions. He says that;

"A tidal barrage that turns a great river into a glorified mill stream is a desecration... while renewable energy is a good thing in principle, if schemes end up, like their conventional forbears, as centralised mega-projects that override local feeling and destroy wild landscapes, then they become precisely the kind of projects that people like me cut their teeth trying to stop..."

"Environmentalism is surely inspired by a sense of wonder at the richness of the natural world. Without that inspiration, it becomes the kind of bleached, technocratic, office-bound variety so common today, which pushes for the taming of rivers, mountains and wildlands in the name of making the ever-expanding human economy more "sustainable". Desperate to seem grown up, serious and economically literate, many greens seem to have become terrified of talking about the things that motivated them in the first place. Beauty. Wildness. A connection to the non-human, the remote, the untamed."
Obviously the grown up greens he refers to here are not reflected in the Green Party who claim "this barrage is an irresponsible and wasteful gamble" and endorse the stop the barrage now campaign, along with a number of other environmentalist organisations.

Where Paul is wrong, I should say, is that green types are not all products of the same kinds of inspiration as he is. I've never been up a mountain and don't want to either. I accept that nature is alright, but I'm not going further than that. When people start talking about wildness, and untamed nature I start eyeing them nervously wondering if they're about to start chanting. That's just not where I'm coming from.

The effect of pollution on human beings drew me into the green movement and got me enthusiastic. As I became more aware of how urgent the issue of climate change was this kept me there. Trees are ok, I guess, and I don't want to see a planet run like a factory - everything with a use and a use for everything is a frightening idea. I like diversity, in people, in politics and in the environment. I like towns and cities, they fascinate me in a way that a hedge doesn't.

However, where I think he's right is that combating climate change is more than simply producing greater amounts of energy in a more carbon neutral way. We have to challenge how we live and why, and attempt to draw visions of better societies, that are happier, more sustainable and free up our imaginations. In short we need to learn to live more lightly. If we simply turn the planet into our factory we wont survive.


Strategist said...

Thanks for posting on this. I tried to get a discussion going on this on Red Pepper, to no avail. When nobody posted, I put up this inflammatory rant - and still no reaction. More luck here, hopefully. I think my basic point is, that even with all the energy conservation we could possibly do, we are still going to need the amount of safe, clean, reliable electricity the Barrage can give us.

"Energy security is far too important for Greens and the Left to be "agnostic" about. The British are scandalously blase about this and so many other aspects of our present wealth & riches, and of course about the need for urgent action on climate change.

The thinking green movement needs to hammer the RSPB on this issue - who ultimately are a simply sectional interest, representing birdspotters - because 5% of Britain's electricity requirement is too big a prize to sacrifice to appease the RSPB's disgraceful irresponsibility.

We desperately need to reduce our carbon emissions, but we also desperately need to reduce our future dependency on others for our energy needs. Our absurd casino economy has tanked at precisely the same time Britain moves from being broadly oil & gas self-sufficient, to being in need of vast & costly energy imports at all times. It's going to take a long time and a lot of hard work - something the British have not had to knuckle down to for some time - to develop the replacement export products & services we will need to pay for imported energy.

But even if we do manage to find the money to pay for energy imports, it remains an environmental and security issue. Choosing to oppose a big Severn Barrage on environmental grounds means that you are making a positive choice to:

* kiss Putin’s arse as & when he feels like it so that he will kindly grant us winter gas supplies
* consign the Middle East to perpetual wars as we send our boys in to secure the remaining oil supplies
* chop down the remaining rainforests, trash billions of acres of land and dispossess millions of Third World peasants to grow industrial-scale biofuel crops
* blanket the country with risky nuclear reactors with no plan on what to do with the radioactive waste
* consign generations of Colombian children to slavery grafting away in environmentally disastrous opencast coal mines to dig the coal for our wonderful new generation of “clean coal” power stations.

Oh by the way, the last option will utterly destroy the entire planet’s habitability below about 50 deg latitude as we experience a runaway greenhouse effect. So we’ll have to move over in this country to accommodate about 5 billion refugees.

So let’s be done with this “on the one hand, on the other hand” stuff, eh?"

CharlieMcMenamin said...

To be fair Strategist, I think at least some of us Red Ppepper regulars failed to comment on your opening posting not because of lack of interest but due to sheer lack of knowledge on the subject. That's certainly my position.

The case you make for supporting the project is a strong one. & I certainly don't feel any mystical bond with wilderness per se as Paul Kingsnorth does, though that might just be my personal aesthetic blindness. I'm closer to Jim with his love of cities and wish to tread lightly on the earth.

But I'm also conscious of a long history of major 'ecology-shifting' construction projects going horribly wrong.

So I'm glad both you and Jim are opening up the debate. But you'll have to give the rest of us time to catch up.

Matt Sellwood said...

"I've never been up a mountain and dont want to either"

We shall have to fix that!

Ummm, that sounded more sinister than I intended... :)


Jim Jay said...

First Paul K has blogged on the reaction to his Guardian piece here which is probably worth reading.

In reverse order: Matt - if I wake up alone and shivering on top of a mountain after a quiet drink with with you I shall have evidence to take the police - should I survive.

Charlie - I think you're right about the history of these major projects, they are a concern although I shall have to take the word of those who know better than I that there are better alternatives to this plan.

Strategist: I don't think people have, until recently, realised how big this project is so haven't paid much attention to it.

I understand what you're saying about organisations like the RSPB and I don't think anything they come up with should be simply accepted. They created a problem over wind turbines a while ago because they "kill birds" which was actually only an issue where you had only one or two very rare birds, but created a problem for us everywhere.

Whilst I agree with a lot of your rant I do think we need to consider whether specific projects will actually work - and if there is doubt about that we do have to approach the issue with an open mind.

My instincts are generally along the lines of "why do I want to protect mud flats again?" rather than promote a seriously large renewable energy plant.

However where Paul has a good point, I think, is that essentially climate change is the largest example of our inability to look after our surroundings. If we simply view the Earth as an energy production factory we still wont be creating a sustainable society.

I also worry that where the focus is on production of energy we're not looking at consumption of energy. I'm convinced we could massively cut our consumption without any loss of the standard of living by simply doing things more sensibly.

Paul said...

"I accept that nature is alright, but I'm not going further than that."

Oh Lord, Jim! I hope that was satire.

Thanks for quoting me. Not everyone likes mountains, or has to. Like I said in my piece, if you don't get it, you don't get it. Though I have to say, you don't know what you're missing.

Personally, I get more nervous when I hear people suggesting that environmentalism is all, at root, about human beings. This is the old light/dark green split. Many millions of species, and many billions of other creatures, inhabit this planet too, and they have as much right to do so as humans. If we take the attitude that it's all about us, then our interests will always prevail. That's a moral, rather than a practical, concern, and for me it's what divides greens from everyone else,mountains or no.

Robert said...

The RSPB objected to the sighting of windfarms in sensitive places like Dungeness which is on the flightpath of migrating birds,otherwise they're in favour.I saw an article in their magazine pointing out that domestic cats kill millions more birds than wind turbines.
I have seen the Cardiff Bay barrage flood the important eco-system that was the Cardiff Bay mudflats turning it into a marina for yuppies.I'd hate to see that happen on a bigger scale in the Severn estuary as a whole.
Alternative schemes that are less damaging have been proposed but it looks if the government is going to plump for the barrage.
I think Strategist is being unfair to label the RSPB as representing the sectional interests of "bird spotters".They're are pressure group concerned with the welfare of birds and the environment they live in.
For instance birds like lapwings and skylarks are in decline due to intensive modern farming methods.I would think that is something that would concern greens as well as "bird spotters".

Jim Jay said...

Hi Paul, one of the "best" things I ever heard anyone say was "what's the environment ever done for us?" I have been attempting to reach those heights of comedy ever since... but I don't like getting muddy.

Robert: yes the RSPB led to much confusion because they were concerned about rare birds in particular places but got used by anti-turbine people everywhere to bolster the case against turbines in general. Grrrr.

Not the RSPB's fault as such and they did clarify their position - but you still hear the same old line wheeeled out every now and then.

CharlieMcMenamin said...

This may not be the place to come out of the closet as an urbanite who respects twitchers, but I do take the RSPB seriously. They do, after all, have a membership which is several orders of magnitude larger than all the members of all the political parties in this country put together. They do a significant amount of ornithological research, both here and internationally, of the highest academic standard. (& what's more my brother-in-law works for them, so I have to take them seriously....).

Their view of the Severn Barrage is here

On it's own its not enough to convince me. Emotionally, I lean toward Strategist's view. I am not a 'deep green' in Paul's sense. But the RSPB's line is enough to make me want to investigate further. I don't think those of us who are coming late to this question should rush to judgment.

Adrian Windisch said...

I went to that meeting about the barage a couple of years ago, it was very interesting. The conclusion was that it would be very destructive, and take a very long time to produce energy. Tidal lagoons on the other hand would be fast, not destructive, and provide additional places for wildlife.


Jim Jay said...

lol - I'm sure it was really Adrian :) I was probably schmoozing or something...

A couple of new pieces on this

1. Matt Selwood.
2. Tim Worstall.

Strategist said...

Quick one before my long post to follow, Matt Selwood looks very interesting and will re-read further, but is obviously much wider than the barrage alone. The Worstall piece is all a bit too "look at me I've done Economics 101", he seems like a bit of a twat, I don't dispute the theory of cost-benefit analysis but I am a believer in sensitivity testing the values input into it - one commenter noted that the Treasury would currently value energy security at zero which is clearly nonsense.

Strategist said...

I'm absolutely delighted that a debate on this is getting going here. Firstly I’ll just clarify straight off in case anyone isn’t aware that the political context to this is that the Government launched an official consultation on the options for the Barrage on 26 Jan (see, so at the moment we are being given an opportunity to comment on how the options will be judged, for what that is worth.

Secondly, please don't anyone take my rant at the RSPB over-seriously, I was just trying to generate some reaction. I know they are a fine & upstanding people and I understand the importance of habitat to migratory birds. For what it's worth I personally do think we humans are a part of nature and am quite happy with the "mystical bond with the wilderness" stuff. I like going up the occasional mountain, or wandering out onto a tidal flat, and would encourage Jim to give both another try.

But I'm not a deep green, and accept that if we humans are to live the life of plenty that we enjoy in our industrial society we are unfortunately going to have to appropriate bits of the planet’s surface and former natural habitat for our industrial purposes. However, I also think our current approach is fucking crazy, totally unsustainable, and is going to take down a truly shocking amount of the planet’s natural ecology as well as our own prosperity when industrial boom turns to ecological bust with global warming.

So, I think it is my concern for the total ecology of the planet that allows me to say that some of the Severn mudflats may have to be sacrificed for such a great prize – clean, reliable, locally-sourced energy replenished free twice a day for as long as the Moon continues to orbit us. From what I have seen the Sustainable Development Commission appears to share this point of view.

Of course I support energy conservation as the first priority, then local micro-generation as a second priority, but my view is that whatever we achieve in those fields, we are still going to need a solid base of some big industrial electricity-generating capacity, and the options appear to be coal, gas, nuclear and “big tidal”. And of those, tidal does seem to be the least worst. I went to the Kingsnorth climate camp and I am convinced that 99% of people – including the RSPB - have no idea just what a catastrophe and crime against the planet new coal is going to be.

Thanks very much indeed for the link to the FoE briefing on tidal lagoons, Adrian, they sound really great and I would be as delighted as anybody if this technology could deliver the goods without the disbenefit of loss of inter-tidal habitat.

However my reading of the recent government announcement on the Severn options is that the two lagoons options being considered would give 1.36 Gigawatts each, whereas the full big monster Cardiff-Weston barrage would give 8.6 GW. So it appears that two lagoons would still leave a gap of 5.88GW compared to the big barrage, which would have to be sourced elsewhere - from coal, gas or nuclear.

So I would be most interested in yours & others’ reaction, whether you accept the government figures, whether you think the options have been rigged or not etc, and in particular, if you accept that tidal lagoons do generate less than the full barrage, how you would justify missing out on the 5.88GW available and where you would get it from.

Strategist said...

...and where you would get it from, instead.

Sue said...

don't know much about this, but doesn't the proposed Severn Barrage include a great big road bridge on the top of it? I think I'd prefer tidal lagoons and a big push on energy efficiency, rather than always trying to meet an ever-growing energy demand and destroying habitats in the process. I also went to the panel discussion Adrian mentions, and was pretty convinced by the arguments made against the barrage.