Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Energy rhetoric, but little data

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Milliband, argued in The Times yesterday that “we must try every option to shift to a low-carbon world”. He reasoned that energy security and climate change commitments were sufficient incentive to back the government’s policy of building new nuclear power plants.

I, for one, would like to see more data.

Let’s not forget that nuclear power is also a threat to the planet. Whilst melting ice is not a popular move with that most potent symbol of our planet – the polar bear - neither is waste that stays radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. The choices may not be palatable, but surely all the more reason to have good data, presented clearly.

Renewable energy, he said should not be dismissed: wind is producing enough power for 2 million homes. 2,000,000 is indeed a large number – an impressive number even. But it is a meaningless number in the debate about energy and climate change. How many homes and businesses need power? And at what cost?

Milliband rightly pointed to the future with ideas such as “clean coal” which as soon as the technology is ready the government will ensure will be 100% committed to. Whilst he was quick to quantify the potential jobs that will be created through this R&D, he was less keen to share the costs even though they are equally quantifiable.

Neither did he talk of other technology which might provide low-carbon alternatives a great deal more palatable for our polar bears than sitting on radioactive waste for a million years. Yet they do exist.

This whole issue is quantifiable: cost of power, amounts of subsidies, carbon emissions, temperature changes, sea levels, thickness of ice, number of species. I could go on – they are many and varied and all absolutely quantifiable. Yet for some reason we prefer pictures of polar bears to clear data which would help us make good decisions about what mix of power to rely on.

The UK has armies of statisticians paid to collect, collate and present exactly this data. Couldn’t Mr Milliband have included some of their work? He was writing for The Times, after all.

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