I start off writing these predictions for 2015 with more than a little apprehension. My first prediction last year would be that the resource crunch would shoot up the political agenda, but I, like every other observer, failed to predict the collapse in oil prices in the second half of 2014. The reasons for the collapse are complex – countries raising production while demand slumps – and it remains to be seen how long low oil prices will continue. So I think I’ll steer clear of making another bold pronouncement on that one!
So, here are my predictions for the year ahead:
The green agenda seems to have become strangely depoliticised in the UK of late. At the end of 2014, the UN rated the UK as the third best country when it comes to tackling climate change, yet the Government and media remained surprisingly muted about it.
The election battle lines have already been drawn: the Conservatives will fight on the economy, Labour on the NHS, Lib Dems on their moderating influence in coalition and UKIP on immigration. The Greens will see a surge in votes from those disillusioned with the other parties, but whether this translates into seats is debatable. In fact their sole MP, Caroline Lucas in Brighton Pavilion, faces a fight to keep her seat given the implosion of her local party after taking charge of Brighton Council.
So my prediction for 2015 is that sustainability progress will continue in the background without clear political leadership.
As with Lima this year, the big UNFCCC shindig in Paris at the end of 2015 will come to an agreement, but it will be a loose one. The current approach – individual nations signing up to individual carbon reduction plans – is a strong one in my opinion as it ends the endless unicorn hunt for a set of robust agreements that everybody can sign up to, from Bogota to Beijing and Washington to Warsaw.
Giving nations ownership of their own plans makes implementation much more likely – unlike, say, Kyoto, which the US agreed to but never ratified. The plans may fall short of what is required, but at least some forward momentum will be created.
An interesting trend has been the continued installation of large scale renewables while investment peaked in 2012. In the UK, renewable energy provided 9.3% of electricity in 2014, up from 7.8% the previous year, yet investment appeared to stall.
This demonstrates the plummeting price of renewables technology as economies of scale and technological advances start to kick in. In fact, one thinktank has predicted that solar will have ‘grid parity’ with fossil fuels in the UK by 2020.
So my prediction is many more records will be broken on renewables around the world, leading pressure on the grid, which in turn will see more developments in the smart grid.
I predicted last year that we would start to see the elements of the smart grid starting to emerge. In early 2014, the UK Smart Grid Forum was established by the Government, a route map published and a £500m low carbon network fund made available. Already in 2015 the Government has let a contract to connect energy companies to the ‘smart meter infrastructure’ – another important stepping stone. However doubts have emerged over whether the 2020 target for an active smart grid will be met.
But this centralised effort may be overtaken again by people and organisations forging their own routes to develop technology. Tesla’s successful model of selling repackaged car batteries to householders with solar panels will spread creating mini-smart grids in homes and industries across the world. The question is when will the first ‘eco-smart fridge’ – one which will delay starting its compressor during periods of high demand – come on the market?
At the end of 2014, the EU withdrew its ‘circular economy package’ for a revamp. The trigger was the realisation that the measures focussed at the wrong end of the loop – trying to divert as much waste material into the recycling industry as possible. Wiser heads have pointed out that the only way to develop a mature circular economy is to create pull through demand ie at the new product stage.
While the Eurocrats beaver away on their new set of measures, industry will get on with their own efforts, driven in the main by large retailers such as Marks & Spencer and B&Q. More of what you buy will have been ‘pre-loved’, but you mightn’t notice!
Gareth Kane is a sustainability consultant, author and speaker. You can follow him on Twitter @GarethKane.