Fracking democracy, criminalising dissent

This blog was originally published on The Ecologist. Written by Andrea Block, Dr Amber Huff, Dr Judith Verweijen, Professor Jan Selby, Professor David Ockwell, and Professor Peter Newell.

The anti-fracking victory yesterday should not distract from disturbing trends in the criminalisation of dissent.

Three anti-fracking protesters – Simon Blevins, Richard Roberts and Richard Loizou – were sentenced to 15 and 16 months in prison for ‘causing a public nuisance’ in late September this year. A fourth protester, Julian Brock, received an 18 months suspended sentence after pleading guilty to the public nuisance charges.

The ‘Frack-Free Four’ had been arrested during a ‘month of protest’ in the summer of 2017 that aimed to disrupt exploratory drilling activities at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road fracking site in Lancashire. The four climbed onto lorries that were delivering part of a drill rig and remained there for up to four days impeding the vehicles’ movement to the fracking site.

Their sentences were overturned, with the judge acknowledging that they were “manifestly excessive”.  It was a huge victory for the anti-fracking movement, and for everyone concerned about the right to protest in the UK and beyond. Read more ›

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Reaching the tipping point: 1.5 degrees and the 10th Anniversary of the Climate Change Act

Last week showed that the full impacts of climate change are approaching us faster than thought before. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees sending a message that we need to act now, not tomorrow. The previous plan to curtail global temperature change to 2 degrees is too risky, and the IPCC posits we need to aim at 1.5 degrees instead to reduce the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, human health and well-being.

This week, which is also the Green Great Britain week, I participated in the Annual Conference of Energy UK held in Westminster, London. I was invited to a panel discussing the “10th Anniversary of the Climate Change Act – celebrating successes and preparing for the future”, alongside Chris Stark, Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change, Tony Juniper, Executive Director for Advocacy and Campaigns at WWF UK, Jillian Ambrose, Energy Editor of the Telegraph, and Shirley Rodrigues, the Deputy Mayor of London. The conference was well attended by diverse energy industry actors, and the discussions addressed the future of energy generation, the Electricity Market Reform, the power of data and democracy and the needs of customers.

The UK Climate Change Act

The Climate Change Act has been – and still is – a visionary policy that is extremely important for the directionality that is needed in energy systems change, as well change in other associated sectors such as housing and mobility. This is because companies need policy developments they can foresee and anticipate in order to invest and innovate in green solutions meeting future policy requirements. The binding framework of the Climate Change Act, reaching over electoral cycles, is a crucial enabler of this kind of directionality for innovation.

However, we need more than technological change to transition away from a high-carbon energy system. We also need changes in institutions, practices and culture. The Climate Change Act, coupled with the Committee on Climate Change as an independent statutory advisor, has been an important institutional innovation to drive transition to a low-carbon economy.

Especially in its early years, the Climate Change Act resulted in a lot of momentum for change in businesses and communities. For example, regarding low energy homes, we have seen business innovation in terms of new cooperatives emerging, established construction companies piloting sustainable construction and new energy services being set up. In turn, cities and communities have seen the emergence of informal networks and the spread of learning on zero carbon new build, whole house retrofits and community energy. These changes were further supported by zero carbon homes and retrofit policies until 2015.

Losing momentum

To maximise impact the Climate Change Act needs to be coupled with a mix of both cross-sectoral and sector-focused policies addressing heat, buildings, mobility and industry to create new markets for low and zero carbon solutions. The latest progress report of the Climate Change Committee highlighted the success in decarbonising the UK’s power sector, but also noted the lack of similar efforts in housing and mobility. The significant policy cuts in 2015 concerning renewable energy and low energy homes have reduced many companies’ incentives to invest in green energy solutions and slowed down market creation for energy efficiency. We lost a bit more of the momentum that existed 8-10 years ago. Even before this, rapid policy changes and complex policy mixes have caused uncertainty for a range of actors.

Partly similar points as those above were raised by the keynote speakers in the conference. Paul Massara from Electron said that industry and investors need clear signals of the direction of travel – some already provided by the Clean Growth Strategy and the phase-out plans. Rachel Reeves MP, the Chair of the BEIS Select Committee stated that constructing large scale energy infrastructure requires much greater policy stability from the government than we have seen so far.

The UK low-carbon energy transition: challenges and opportunities

There are several conclusions that can be drawn from this event. The UK energy industry has progressed well in decarbonisation so far but also acknowledges the challenge ahead; calling the UK government for consistent policies regarding the direction of energy system change.


So what are the things that could be improved, in terms of policy? I suggest the following:

  • A comprehensive policy framework and a mix of instruments to support change in sectors causing high carbon emissions, i.e. housing and mobility. A well-managed policy mix can create new low-carbon markets and incentives for customer-side efficiency.
  • We need to better exploit synergies in tackling the policy goals for decarbonisation, reduction of fuel poverty and improving energy security. Energy efficiency has often been neglected as a solution contributing to all three.
  • We need to remove policy barriers that slow down low carbon innovation, when policies have not been coordinated across energy supply, use, housing, mobility and so on. For example, established rules for taxation, grid connection and permit procedures may not easily allow the setting up of novel energy or mobility services, creating barriers for their introduction or broader uptake.
  • New collaboration across sectoral boundaries both in industry and administration is a necessity. For example, the delivery of novel mobility and energy services will create future market opportunities but will require supportive policies and the removal of barriers.
  • Support for energy intermediaries that create new connections between actors benefiting from innovations and their uptake is also highly important. Such actors can provide impartial and trusted knowledge to different actors, coordinate fragmented supply chains when needed, and promote the uptake of government programmes.

There is also cause for optimism in many areas. The opportunities digital innovation enables for the decentralisation of the power and heat sectors, and the increasingly low cost of wind and solar-powered generation supporting such changes, are good examples. However, these changes also bring forward new questions about how customers can benefit from the ongoing energy transition and about democracy related to data. Both the Big Six and the new entrants have important roles to play in the low carbon energy transition – and at least those at the Energy UK Annual Conference seemed to be largely in consensus on where we are heading.


Paula Kivimaa is a Senior Research Fellow in the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) and the Sussex Energy Group. She is also a Senior Researcher in the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE).

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Constructing a low-carbon future together


A supply-side perspective for the delivery of high-performing, low-energy non-domestic buildings

As part of a series of missions introduced to deliver its Industrial Strategy, the Government announced its commitment to halve the energy use of all new buildings by 2030. This commitment is a first step in the right direction, if the UK is to meet its Climate Change targets.

To progress beyond this though, we clearly need a robust policy framework to fill the prevailing vacuum. Such a framework would set clear direction and establish large-scale demand for low-energy/low-carbon buildings. Read more ›

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Privilege, techno-optimism and changing the world

Some thoughts by Noam Bergman on EASST 2018

The EASST conference is the European biannual conference on science and technology studies (STS) – the study of how society, politics, and culture affect scientific research and technological innovation, and how these, in turn, affect society. It is a good place to hear a variety of interesting and unexpected viewpoints, and 2018 was no exception.


One of the first talks I heard was by Jonnet Middleton. Far from a usual conference presentation, this was an autobiographical story dappled with social science; it was one of those unusual talks that makes you glad you came along. As a PhD student, Jonnet wanted to engage in the act of mending, pledging not to buy any new clothes and wanting to fix things herself. She visited, and later settled down, in Cuba, eschewing first world privileges for a significantly more precarious life with limited infrastructure and safety nets. She’s shed many of our common Western habits as well, explaining she’s been online for 24 hours… in the last year. This was her first paper and public speaking event in several years, and might be her last, as she does not intend to stay in academia. Almost too inspiring!

That was one of many discussions around the roles of research and researcher, both in and out of conference sessions. I was taken aback by one particular comment. Alena Israel presented a paper about a local and (temporarily) successful struggle against hydropower dams on the River Marañón in Peru. A discussant said there were many studies of hydropower plants being built, with similar economic and political analysis, and this was not interesting. He insisted the interesting thing was what you did with it, specifically how you advanced the relevant theories. This is a standard social science approach, requiring novelty in theory, not just a good case study, but to me it misses the point. Hydropower plants have become increasingly controversial. Is destroying part of natural Amazonia worth the carbon emissions it saves? Would the power produced help local populations, or the Brazilian mining industry? Important, substantial questions. The case study is interesting in itself, while I find furthering theory for its own sake meaningless: I don’t research sustainability to advance theory, I do it to advance sustainability.

Technology, research and activism

There were also many discussions around technology, from the humble smart meter to global geoengineering. I was especially interested in the question of smart technology and what it has to offer. Can we move from techno-economic, top-down drivers of smart cities, to bottom-up, people-centred models? I would have said no, but I was impressed by Gregory Trencher’s talk on how the smart city narrative inspired people in a small Japanese city to tackle endogenous social challenges developing their own techie initiatives. I continue to doubt that smart homes will give us convenience and comfort, which are elusive, moving targets defined by consumerism; and even the hype about energy savings has been questioned.

I came to the conclusion that I am not so much techno-sceptic as I am an ‘anti-techno-optimist’. There is an underlying assumption in public discourse – and sometimes in research – that technological development (i.e. ‘progress’) is inevitable, benign, and the key to solving all our problems. The techno-optimism shone through strongly in quite a few presentations, although questions and private conversations with their authors revealed that actually, many shared my ‘anti-techno-optimism’ approach – that just wasn’t the question they were researching, or they had neglected to mention that this was going to be compared to less ‘smart’ methods. But these things need to be said, these narratives challenged.


Image by Joe Brusky (CC BY-NC 2.0)

At the opposite end of the sustainability spectrum, my own paper was a study on the fossil fuel divestment movement and its impacts. I enjoy researching activism when I get the chance, although it takes me back to a familiar dilemma. We are facing the slow unfolding of environmental catastrophe, of which climate change is the greatest symptom, but not the disease; it is the fever that could kill the patient. Is my research, in fact, advancing sustainability, or merely advancing that amorphous knowledge base that academia treasures? If I want to promote sustainability, to play a small part in reversing or slowing this trend, is academic research the best route? Or is it better to invest more in activism, opposing destruction while building alternative communities and systems?




Dr Noam Bergman is a Research Fellow at the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) at the University of Sussex.

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Warm Homes for All: how do we speed up the uptake of retrofits?

energy efficiency

Highlights from CIED/ACE roundtable event by Nora Blascsok

Making our homes as comfortable and aesthetically pleasing as possible is an aspiration of many.  However, not enough people realise that measures to make their homes more energy efficient can also deliver these outcomes. How do we make sure people know about this and care? What is the role of government in helping those who can’t afford to make these improvements and are struggling to pay their energy bills due to the inefficient, old building stock they live in?

These were some of the questions discussed at a roundtable event on ‘Warm Homes for All:  Can a mix of integrated business models, flexible finance and community intermediaries close the policy gap?, hosted by the Association for the Conservation of Energy (ACE) on 25th June in London. The main purpose of the event was to discuss the policy recommendations of the new Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) report ‘Warm Homes for All’. Read more ›

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The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent Sussex Energy Group.

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