The Energy Report

The Energy Report by WWF, Ecofys and AMO; January 2011, 253pp

Reviewed by Austin Williams | February 2011

If you enjoy reading end of year accounts, or poring over corporate brochures, you will love The Energy Report – the eco-equivalent of a BP audit statement. Written by a huge number of people from WWF, together with some from Ecofys (a Dutch renewable energy consultancy), it has been designed by AMO, the consulting arm of Rem Koolhaas’s OMA. 

Its stated aim is to show how the world can be powered by 100 per cent renewables by 2050. The first half is the hi-gloss, high quality design stuff with sound-byte pull-quotes in huge letters over images of sand dunes at twilight. This section is partial, rhetorical and speaking to the converted. It is an example of what is called advocacy research, which, unlike real research has a biased objective and uses facts to prove it.

The second half of the report – written by Ecofys – is data heavy and visually tedious, presumably because the designers didn’t think many people would get that far, or that geeks don’t appreciate aesthetics. However, it is this latter half that is the useful, relatively value-free analysis of the data.

The WWF section contains grainy photos of cars in unspecified flood conditions overwritten with the warning that “Climate change is already a reality”. A row of evil, black metal canisters is combined with the statement “Nuclear is an unethical and expensive option”. This section is thus merely polemic and we’ve heard it all before. Notwithstanding the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, the WWF’s anti-nuclear stance runs counter to many leading environmental activists, but this is not allowed to stand in the way of a rhetorical flourish.

By contrast, the Ecofys half of the report comprises future modelling scenarios, based on relatively neutral assumptions. In the process of outlining their projections for 2050 and beyond, at least they allow for manufacturing improvements that would happen,regardless of the nudging hand of environmentalism, over the course of the next 40 years. So, for example, it predicts general improvements in steel smelting resulting in efficiencies of 2 per cent per annum anyway. Similarly, the trend to substitute high energy clinker for fly ash in concrete production will lead to a natural reduction in fuel use.

Ecofys states that they are hopeful of “increasing living standards and continuing economic development.” When you scratch the surface, it doesn’t actually mean it Take, for instance, the authors’ recommendation that “renewable energy must be at the heart of… international aid programmes” without the slightest concern for what this might mean for the sovereignty and development of under-developed countries. Liberals might recall the devastating conditionality programmes of the IMF in the Seventies; where it gave aid at extortionate interest rates. Conversely, this report’s conditionality is based on not giving any aid in the first place, unless the recipient can show responsible fuel behaviour. Lo, the missionaries can still taketh away.

There is one peculiar theme that runs through the document: the recommendation that we in the West should reduce our meat consumption by half in order to free up land for biomass crops. The Developing World will be allowed to eat 25 per cent more meat than they do at present, although how this totalitarian rationing will be orchestrated is not explained. Equally perverse is the recommendation that “everyone has an equal right to healthy levels of protein”, which makes the meagre Millennium Development Goal (“to halve the number of people who suffer from hunger”) sound positively revolutionary.

As a Dutch-Swiss co-authorship, this report has a few refreshingly non-standard environmentalist attitudes that would have undoubtedly infected a UK publication of this type. It is, for example, a welcome relief to find not one trace of Malthusianism in this document.

However, environmental activist, John Thackera condemns WWF of being in bed with Big Tech. “Ecosystems and natural justice,” he says, “have never been a priority for the de facto house architect of globalizaton (…and) a technology company with no pretensions to be competent on social or environmental issues”. This is the ultimate Green insult, intended to allude to the “evils” of Big Pharma. He suggests that the low-tech underdeveloped world should be our model for the future. Mercifully, even though this report advocates that we drive and fly less and ”avoid things we don’t need”, what commends the latter half of this report is that it appears to have much higher ambitions than normal

The Energy Report by WWF, Ecofys and AMO can be downloaded here 


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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