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The Government's answer to global warming? Cold feet

Oil companies, keen to feed our fossil fuel dependency, blame green levies for rising prices. Yet clean energy could be cheaper too

Joss Garman
Saturday 12 October 2013 21:31 BST
Green protest: Supporters of the detainees outside London’s Russian embassy
Green protest: Supporters of the detainees outside London’s Russian embassy (Getty)

It is now close to a month since my dear friends and colleagues were taken at knife-point from our ship, Arctic Sunrise. A day earlier, Russian security forces fired live ammo into the water around their small inflatable boat as they peacefully demonstrated against the first oil rig to attempt drilling in the Arctic waters to the north of Russia.

They are now being held in cold cells for 23 hours a day in Murmansk detention centre, in the biggest city inside the Arctic Circle, while we wait to hear if the trumped-up charges of "piracy" will keep them in jail there for a possible further 15 years.

It is a horrifying prospect that Greenpeace's crew of 28 activists may not see their children, partners and parents for the next decade – and all for the apparently heinous crime of peacefully hanging a banner to protest against the new scramble for the fossil fuels under the Arctic. The two British freelance journalists who were also there to report on the action face the same threat.

I know my friends were motivated by the thought of oil spills in this unspoilt wilderness. They knew too that there is no scenario published by anybody anywhere in which the world can burn the oil from under the Arctic and at the same time keep global warming below the dangerous levels that governments have agreed they absolutely want to avoid. Scientists say that we've lost as much as three-quarters of the Arctic sea ice in the past 30 years alone. With hundreds of billions of tons of water pouring into the oceans from melting glaciers and ice sheets, last month's blockbuster UN report on climate science reiterated warnings that cities including Shanghai and New York are at risk from rising sea levels. In the absence of political leadership on global warming, the activists felt that it was up to them to stand up to the oil giants.

As driving becomes ever more expensive, and the cost of heating and lighting our homes goes up and up, perhaps it's tempting to think we really do need to chase after the last fossil fuels at the ends of the Earth. Last week's headlines screamed about the cost of the green subsidies coming off all our energy bills, and the Prime Minister responded by launching a review that will consider further cuts to green measures. Just as we're told that Arctic drilling is necessary to keep our cars on the road, so we're told that fracking the countryside is the way to shrink bills, though there's little evidence to support these notions. With the cost of living on all our minds, I can see why it might seem that dirty energy is a necessary evil and that cleaning up our fuel supplies is a luxury we can't afford in these austere times.

There's no doubt that is what the energy bosses would like us to believe. They've dropped the pretence that they're green, and are now openly blaming clean energy investment for rocketing bills. Never mind that green levies account for less than a 10th of an energy bill. Or that the main reason for price hikes is the rising cost of gas. Or that the way to stabilise bills is therefore to cut our gas dependence by cutting demand and investing in the alternatives. No solution can be acceptable to them if it doesn't fit the business model that keeps us hooked on fossil fuels.

It's a similar story when it comes to the cost of oil. The best and easiest way to cut the cost of oil to consumers is to produce cleaner, more efficient cars – or, better still, cars that don't run on oil. Of course, cutting oil demand isn't what you're after if your business model relies upon selling more of the stuff.

Extreme projects such as Arctic drilling will make money for the energy giants only if customers are kept hooked and forced to pay the high price necessary to make such enterprises viable. We're all kept trapped, reliant on the vagaries of the crazy business strategies of a handful of giant companies, and as long as we remain so we can expect our energy costs to keep going up.

The great irony of this situation is that while the costs of these fossil fuel projects are going up and up, the costs of the clean alternatives are going down and down. In some countries, wind and solar energy can already compete with the dirty fuels without any subsidy at all – and in a few years' time that will be the case here too.

Granted, it will take a few years of government support to make our cars cleaner, our energy generation greener and our economy more fuel efficient. But once we've made the switch, these technologies offer us more than a chance to stabilise energy bills.

Rather than driving inefficient cars that eat our hard-earned cash, paying through the nose for ever more expensive imported gas to heat and light our homes, and compromising on the kind of world we leave for our children and grandchildren, we should cut our dependence on fossil fuels now. In doing so we would also break free of the energy giants themselves.

Germany has already begun to do just that. As the country shifts towards renewable power, ownership of energy generation is moving to households, farmers and small businesses – and that is hurting the energy giants that operate big, centralised fossil fuel and nuclear plants.

The German transition is showing how, with the right political leadership, it is possible to democratise the energy sector so that it works for the common good, not just the good of those bosses who are doing so well from selling us expensive fossil fuels and denying us an alternative.

Joss Garman is deputy political director at Greenpeace UK

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