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Jonathon Porritt @ Low Carbon Communities Network conference

Jonathon Porritt at the Low Carbon Communities Network conference

This is a summary of Jonathon Porritt's speech at the Low Carbon Communities Network conference, Jan 14th 2012.

Jonathon gave a speech that was both inspiring and challenging. He started by setting out the barriers we are facing, but also showed ways forward. He spoke for about 20 minutes: his key points were in summary:

All around the world work on the low carbon economy is being done against a backdrop where fossil fuel investments and subsidies are prioritised, leading to a hugely ‘unlevel playing field’. There is a need to build in the externalities to level that field. In US much leading edge work on climate change is now focusing on impacts on health rather than on CO2, using increasingly authoritative health impact appraisals of coal fired power stations to start to force the industry to take this externality on board.

While the energy playing field is systematically distorted to favour fossil fuels all low carbon work is having to work against the grain of the market. We have to work very hard to make change happen. But the markets are starting to come to a very different place.

Grid Parity for PVs is out there in the not too distant future. The Grid Parity Moment (GPM) will come when we can deliver solar generated power at prices that are as or more competitive than fossil fuels. When do you see the G P M? Are you optimistic - is it 2014 - 15? - the very near future that many analysts believe or is it the more cautious or negative view from companies such as BP, where the GPM is not until 2024-25.

Because when that GPM comes the markets will act very differently. Investments will shift very fast. And let’s recognise that we are at a point where Chinese manufacturers are certainly working to get to the GPM by 2015. “I never thought that I would be around at that moment. It was not in my mind that this level of scaling and innovation would happen so fast”. And those Chinese manufacturers are not really interested in Grid Parity - 1 dollar / watt. They are looking to get to 50 cents / watt - that’s twice as cheap as fossil fuels. And that’s out there in the not too distant future.

Look down the pipeline on any low carbon technology. The pace of change is breath-taking. Electric vehicles are about to change radically as the batteries move from current clunky dirty technologies with huge increases in efficiency. The ‘merest glimpse of innovation’ will show you how far battery technology will change in the next 5 years. Every low carbon energy technology is undergoing an innovation revolution.

I don’t know why our politicians don’t get it! I don’t want to deliver knocking copy. But it is staggering that when there is this set of wealth generating technologies emerging, our politicians are completely failing to move forward. Are they looking for opportunities in a tough situation? No - they are preaching austerity and ignoring this ‘glittering jewel’. In fact they are ‘systematically trashing this opportunity’ in a way that will make them a laughing stock in the future.

It is hard to believe that politicians are so inept and so badly advised by civil servants that they are missing this opportunity. Greg Barker has started to use the language of the Daily Mail with talk of how ‘what we don’t want to do is to load the whole cost of this new technology on to peoples’ bills’. This is not a smart way to invest in and build a new low carbon economy: the prize and the opportunity are being thrown away.

A further barrier is that communities themselves are often struggling to see their role is in this change. Forum for the Future worked with the National Trust in two rural villages to assess how far we can we move such villages in the low carbon direction and tackle the disillusion that people feel about climate change. Before and after surveys showed that well informed and supportive work can have a very real and positive impact on that feeling of helplessness. There are many other examples.

We can do it at that level but barriers of scale persist. Another barrier is us. Many are scared of change. This new way forward is hugely challenging for those people who just want to see electricity as something that comes out of a socket.

There are these barriers - the level of disengagement, the distortion of the markets, the global picture, the current government.

And given the barriers it is astonishing. We are crashing through those barriers, developing a new economy built on the proliferation of low carbon projects, many at community level.

We can’t just do this through good projects. However much we scale up we have to combine all this on the ground action with engagement with political action and policy change.

Every radical transformation of society has always been the result of combining ‘on the ground’ work and political action. That combination is as important today as it ever has been.

In questions Jonathon covered a range of issues, including work by local councils, new political movements such as Occupy, the ‘stupidity’ of nuclear power (he announced a new paper on the economics of nuclear power to be out in a few weeks), and approaches to a low growth / zero growth economy (he suggested that we have had this landed on us by recent developments).
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