Barry Love: In the real world the balance of power is a problem

WHEN did you last meet a happy environmental campaigner?

Their gloom is partly because the real world often fails to measure up to their imagined universe. The bigger organisations also have slick PR teams whose job requires them to provide negative soundbites to the media.

The result is many news items about industrial development set out the basic proposal, followed by stock criticism from an environmental spokesperson, leading to a description of the proposal as "controversial". The inference is the developer has deliberately set out to trash the environment.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But let's not forget our ever-tightening environmental laws. These have brought major benefits over the past 30 years, and they'll bring many more over the next 30 as we all grapple with issues like climate change, waste and energy security.

Change, though, doesn't happen overnight, so the "controversy" usually boils down to a developer trying to operate within the law and realistic timescales, and campaigners in a hurry to see the goals achieved early.

One recent example is the proposal to build a coal-fired power station in Ayrshire. It was greeted with howls of protest because of its projected emissions and the fact it wasn't immediately going to use carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.

But CCS isn't a fully viable technology yet. It's not even legal – it involves dumping liquefied "waste" underground – and needs a change in the law at EU level, so it can have an exception created for it to be excluded from the general ban on tipping waste liquids into the ground. That legislative process is ongoing in Brussels, but in the real world you can't castigate a developer for not using something not commercially available and not even legal.

There's also a worrying lack of perspective in some of the criticisms. For example, the impending EU directive on renewables will set EU-wide targets on renewable energy. The target date is 2020, recognising that these things take time.

The UK's target will be 15 per cent, needing a tenfold increase in renewables output over the period 2005 to 2020. That is a tough target, given problems with practicalities such as planning, connection to the national grid and upgrading the grid to cope with renewable feed-ins. Even if the target is achieved it will still mean 85 per cent of our energy must come from conventional sources, like coal. That is the reality, so those who throw their hands up in horror at a proposal for a new coal-fired power station avoid the issue of where we will get the balance of our energy needs from.

Yes, we will try to reduce consumption while exploring new technology, but we will still need a great deal of conventional power and need to renew our "conventional power" infrastructure.

In the real world, that is the elephant in the room some lobbyists choose to ignore.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Industry is already tightly regulated – and the legal landscape continues to fill with new obligations on emissions, waste and energy efficiency to name a few.

And environmental concerns have a louder voice than ever before, with improved participation in the planning and environmental permitting processes. Legitimate concerns do have to be taken into account.

To some, this is still not enough, but some people have a vested interest in being merchants of doom. To others, it's a relief the private sector is still resilient enough to face the challenges posed by the strict legal regime.

The policymakers and legislators have done their bit in putting together a demanding regulatory regime. It is now for the decision-takers to step up.

Environmental concerns must be heard and taken into account, but they must not be allowed to hijack the process, especially where new business will have to operate to exacting environmental standards through its permit.

No-one said balancing environmental, social and economic concerns was easy, but it can be done and should be done better if the country's energy needs (including renewables) are to be met.

• Barry Love is a partner in environment and pollution at Semple Fraser LLP

Related topics: