Interview: Jeremy Leggett


Those who braved the frosty cold and slippery paving stones of central Oxford in order to attend the second ever Oxford Climate Forum on Friday and Saturday of 3rd week, were welcomed by a host of speakers with a range of diverse ideas. Talks spanned the full gamut of issues: from macro-level discussions about where the responsibility falls for rectifying the mistakes of environmental neglect, on the one hand, to micro-level explanations of the role of specific technologies in beating global warming, on the other. Extolling the virtues of green technology, and lambasting the political world for its failure to appreciate the urgent need to sever dependence on non-renewable energy, was Jeremy Legget, whose speech marked the end of the two day forum.

Jeremy Leggett is the intelligent face of the green movement. He has written books on peak oil and the environment – ‘Half gone: oil, gas hot air and the Global Energy Crisis’ and ‘The Carbon War: global warming and the end of the oil era’ – and now heads the UK’s biggest solar energy company, Solarcentury. He has also been chief campaigner for Greenpeace.  But Leggett did not always fight as a representative for the environmental cause.

“My research was on the history of the oceans”, Leggett tells me, speaking over the chatter that fills the Oxford town hall after the close of the forum. “At Oxford”, he adds. After completing his DPhil, Leggett was on the faculty of Imperial College, an expert in the field that he now opposes, and whose controlled demise he campaigns for. “I was a creature of the oil industry”, Leggett tells me. “Fully paid up.” So what caused him to turn his back on oil and embark on a career that was so diametrically opposed to it? “I got worried about global warming mid-eighties,” says Leggett, “long before it was fashionable. I quit on grounds of conscience, thinking that many other people would do the same. But not many did.”

Leggett is vehemently opposed to our reliance on fossil fuels for two reasons. On the one hand, he thinks that governments have grossly underestimated the threat posed by peak oil. “It’s not that there isn’t enough oil”, Leggett insists. “It’s that the flow rates are unsustainable.” In the event that peak oil turns out to be a fantasy, would he then be unconcerned by dependence on fossil fuels?  “There are people who are worried about peak oil who aren’t worried about climate change,” Leggett responds. “And vice versa. I’m worried about both.” Although he acknowledges that “both of these are issues of complex risk assessment in the face of massive uncertainty,” he is insistent that the stakes are too high in both cases. “With both of them, at a minimum it’s about wrecking the global economy. A lot more in the case of climate change. These are high stakes issues. And both are high risk. In fact, climate change isn’t just high risk. It’s odds on certainty.”

So Leggett advocates a wholesale move to renewable sources of energy because, as far as he is concerned, the cost of staying with traditional fossil fuels will be cataclysmic. Whether it’s the effects of global warming or the economic calamity associated with peak oil, we need to move to renewables. And the timeframe is not a large one. “I think we’ve got a matter of years before we get to that inflection point,” he warns.

Leggett focused in his talk on inflection points in renewable energies as they progress towards commercial viability. But now he tells me that “there are inflection points in the climate system too.” To you and me that’s ‘irreversible climate change’, beyond which we can’t prevent the effects of global warming on the planet and on human life. It’s for this reason that Leggett is so opposed to nuclear energy. Nuclear power takes ten years to go from the drawing board to the national grid, according to the nuclear industry itself. According to Leggett, we simply don’t have this time. Renewables, contrary to popular belief, are ready to go straight away. “We could be one hundred percent by 2030”, says Leggett.

His area of expertise – solar energy – is said to have reached its inflection point in 2004, and has been an increasingly viable option ever since. Although Leggett advocates a reliance on multiple forms of energy – and firmly believes that a mixed approach is the only sensible way to attack dependence on fossil fuels – he is keen to sing the praises of solar energy. His company, Solarcentury, has been responsible for some of the more eye-catching feats of solar panel engineering, such as the CIS tower in Manchester. Photovoltaics is now becoming an increasingly viable method of electricity production. It ticks all the boxes that any source of energy, renewable or not, must. For starters, homes fitted with solar panels can become not just carbon neutral, but actually providers of energy to the national grid. This excess of electricity created is something for which the homeowner is compensated – this has prompted residents of Solarcentury’s solar powered chalets in France to refer to them as their pensions.

On top of this, solar energy is not constrained in its potential to provide significant amounts of electricity. In the fantastical scenario in which solar panels are fitted to every rooftop in rainy Britain, the subsequent amount of electricity generated would be sufficient for the country’s needs.

Leggett has explained the necessity of moving from fossil fuels to renewables, both out of concern over peak oil and concern over climate change. Why, then, is there not a greater exodus from non-renewable energy? He identifies sheer lack of political will as the main culprit. He bemoans a culture that is “desperately resistant to change”. In particular, he is sceptical about the credentials of this government. “There are some actors in the government who get it”, he says. “But they’re losing the battle and they’re not fighting very hard. They’re going to end up looking ridiculous. The greenest government ever? Give me a break.” He is a little more sanguine about the prognosis globally. “A lot depends on what happens in Germany and Japan, especially Japan. They’re probably going to be getting rid of 54 nuclear reactors in Japan.”

While a move away from nuclear energy is welcome, provided the hole is plugged by renewable energy, does he think that this is the direction that the Japanese and Germans are going in? “If stupid decisions are made about tar sands and fracking, perhaps not.” But he has faith that this is not going to happen. If his appraisal of the world’s predicament with respect to both fuel and the climate is anything close to being correct, let’s hope he’s right.


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