Leading article: A tough choice between energy and the environment

Ministers must not prejudge this consultation on the Severn Estuary
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The Independent Online

It is little wonder that the renewable energy industry has long been intrigued by the potential of the Severn Estuary. The natural power generated as the sea surges down this narrowing channel between Somerset and South Wales is quite phenomenal. It is estimated to be enough to generate as much as 5 per cent of Britain's annual energy requirements. Only the Bay of Fundy on the east coast of Canada produces more natural power. Yesterday the Government unveiled a shortlist of schemes, all designed to harness this tremendous natural force to generate electricity.

But it is equally small wonder that wildlife conservation charities are deeply wary of any large-scale energy projects being built in the Severn Estuary. The saltmarshes and mudflats of the Severn host an array of natural life. If the estuary is dammed, as some of the schemes envisage, the wetland ecosystem on which white-fronted geese, Bewick's swans and numerous wading birds survive would be changed beyond recognition. The fish stocks of the Severn, Wye and Usk rivers would be put under threat too.

The concerns of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other wildlife groups over the future of this special conservation area should not be written off as reactionary "nimbyism". To sacrifice our natural environment in the pursuit of profit or convenience would be to embark on a short route to ruin.

Yet we cannot forget that the fate of more than one area of ecological diversity lies in the balance here. All the natural life on these islands will be adversely affected by the rising temperatures that runaway climate change will bring, including those species which presently thrive in the Severn Estuary. The rapid development and expansion of renewable energies represents one of mankind's best hopes for averting that disaster.

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband, struck the right tone yesterday by arguing that "tough choices" lie ahead. The various schemes will be put out to public consultation over the next three months. And a feasibility study will report back next year. We should not prejudge those exercises. But at the same time we need to be realistic. It would be no surprise if the benefits of harnessing the tidal power of the estuary is judged to outweigh its undoubted ecological cost. This Estuary accounts for 80 per cent of the UK's tidal resources. For the Government to reject all of these schemes would severely reduce the likelihood of Britain meeting its national renewable energy targets, perhaps fatally. If our Government is serious about curtailing climate change, it has to be serious about renewable power generation.

But precisely since a green light is in prospect, it is vital that the Government runs this consultation period fairly. Some conservation groups argue that constructing tidal lagoons to generate power would be significantly less damaging to wildlife than building a barrage. Yet there have been accusations that some in Government have already decided that damming the estuary is the only show in town.

This suspicion is dangerous. The various schemes must have a level playing field on which to demonstrate their capacity and feasibility. Ministers must not tip the scales during this consultation period in favour of any favoured scheme. And if the Government does decide the time has come to harness the natural power of the Severn, it must do so with the overall good of our natural environment prominent in its considerations.