Lights out in Nottingham or Nigeria?

I admit to twinges of sympathy for the communications department at E.ON UK. Not because of the anti-coal protesters, in action again this weekend at the Ratcliffe power station, but rather the hideous brand name bestowed by the German parent company.

In rugby we call this a “hospital pass”. It’s no surprise that bright young climate campaigners have labelled their efforts as E.ON F.OFF.

A less explicit banana skin tripped up chief executive Paul Golby in his introductory video for Talking Energy, the company’s YouTube invitation to public debate. A full 15 seconds into the film, he declares that:

There is no question that we all need power; the world simply cannot function without it.

Well, almost a quarter of the world’s population has no choice but to function as best it can without electricity. Too often the energy debate is framed within the comfort zone of the other three quarters. Something is nagging me that UK climate campaigners might also be neglecting the global dimension in their strategic focus on coal.

As Editor of OneWorld Guides, I’m more sensitive to the fortunes of campaigns such as the enterprising Light Up Nigeria Movement. In promoting the right of Nigerians to a decent electricity supply, activist Amara Nwamkpa echoes the sentiments of Mr.Golby in pointing out that “electricity is the lifeblood of any developed economy”.

Earlier this month we learned that China is bidding very seriously for a share of Nigerian oil. The Chinese model for acquiring rights to African natural resources is to offer sweeteners of new infrastructure. China builds coal-fired power stations like we make bread and butter pudding. Nigeria has plentiful supplies of coal.

You can see where this is heading. Tough questions loom. Does success in the UK campaign to halt development of Kingsnorth power station take Nigeria any closer to switching on the lights so that kids can learn and health centres function? Are we even sure that it will reduce global emissions?

The only way to prevent a rash of new coal combustion across Africa and South Asia is to come up with a renewable technology which is cheaper, faster to install and more appropriate to rural communities whose need for power is desperate but very modest. The Light Up Nigeria campaign demands a tiny 300 watts per capita by 2015. We already use 6,000 watts per capita in Europe.

The best way to find these new technologies is to persuade companies like E.ON to intensify their research programmes. And the most effective means of persuasion is a sharp rise in the price of carbon and a sharp fall in demand for their product.

Coal-fired power stations in the UK survive only because a decade of advocacy and political endeavour has failed to create this enabling market environment. Enter the Camp for Climate Action, not unreasonably justifying their direct methods by reference to this inertia.

The Nigerian campaigners are more articulate and better connected than the Climate Camp people and their cause more immediately compelling. I’d love to put the two campaign teams in a room and challenge them to find a message for Copenhagen of greater impact than the sum of their parts. It’s not just the north-south politicians who are failing to connect on climate change.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK