Energy industry greenwash overtakes impartial reporting on the BBC

Image of wind farm at dusk

Featured image by Hedgerow Inc. via Good Free Photos

Roger Harrabin has been doing the environmental beat at the BBC for years. When he writes a crock of manure about renewable energy, as he did last week, it raises the question of what’s going on.

Does he not understand how wind and solar fit into the UK’s energy mix? I’m sure he does.

Is he easily swayed by people he talks to? I’m sure he isn’t.

Conan Doyle wrote: once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

Perhaps, then, the reason why Mr Harrabin’s story comes across as a spin piece on behalf of the energy and infrastructure industries, who’re hoping to gorge themselves at the public’s expense under the cover of green PR bullshit, is because that is what it is.

A quick primer. Anyone who can click a link or two on the Gov.UK website can easily learn that the UK is currently 80 per cent dependent on fossil fuels.

Mr Harrabin’s 21 June headline, ‘Clean electricity overtaking fossil fuels in Britain’ therefore appears to report a stupendous, if rather unlikely, achievement.

His opening line expands the theme with a soaring allusion to Britain’s glorious past:

”For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, Britain is obtaining more power from zero-carbon sources than fossil fuels.”

Bloody marvellous! Except that I could swear that Mr Harrabin knows damn well that an honest journalist would have inserted the world ‘electrical’ in front of ‘power’. Power might be well-understood in energy circles as shorthand for electrical generation but you can bet many readers would assume that Harrabin meant overall UK energy supply, and that therefore we plucky, blessed Brits are already halfway to that 2040 zero carbon target.

He’s not even fully reporting what he was told. As subsequently quoted in the story, John Pettigrew, the CEO of National Grid, actually said:

”It’s the first time since the Industrial Revolution that more electricity has been produced from zero and low-carbon sources rather than fossil fuels. (My emphasis)

I mean, how ham-fisted do you have to be at conveying information to overstate the story so grotesquely? I have to assume that a long-serving BBC analyst who has reported energy issues for years knows that electricity only accounted for around 13 per cent [source] of all UK energy consumption last year.

The data is easy to find. Total energy generation was nearly 200 million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe). Electricity generation at 26 mtoe was 13 per cent of the total. So with a fair wind, plenty of sunshine and all our remaining nukes, you can say that that zero and low-carbon electricity contributed all of 6.5 per cent of British society’s energy use, last year. If that counts as overtaking, we’d better look out for snails coming up in the rear view mirror.

(Pale green note: biodiesel and ethanol blended into road fuels make up most of the rest of the non-fossil 20 per cent of UK consumption. The joke being you have to burn 19 litres of diesel or petrol for every litre of ‘green’ stuff your vehicle consumes).

Nowhere in his piece does Mr Harrabin provide readers with any of this vital context. It does quickly become clear we’re only talking about electricity. But the humongous overstatement implicit in the headline has already been planted and sent off to worm its way into news feed summaries and search results across the interweb.

They say you can judge an article by the company it keeps. Both interviewees for this one come from the energy and resources sector. Neither is happy. They complain politicians and the government are not pushing people into greater dependence on electricity green technologies fast enough.

For example:

”Mr Pettigrew has joined the chorus of critics warning government that the progress of electric vehicles is too slow – and urging much more effort to decarbonise heat.”

Then, almost as an afterthought:

Has technology cracked the climate problem?

The veteran energy analyst Tom Burke from e3g told BBC News: “Today’s landmark is a real tribute to technologists. We have cracked technical problems of dealing with climate change. The problems we face are political.”

Thank you for remembering the climate! Asked and answered … kind of. There is another of those pesky missing qualifiers in front of ‘technical problems’. Some? Most? There are scores of them to crack.

More to the point, what both interviewees are saying is the usual establishment code for “give us more public money, tax breaks, subsidies and the rest of it so that the bill for decarbonising the economy – which we’re doing at the magnificently slow rate of 0.9 per cent per year, by the way – doesn’t eat into the billions we’re making from our traditional, planet-degrading businesses.”

“Climate? Yeah, yeah, no worries, we can do technical fixes.

“The public? They get their news from the BBC don’t they?

“Yeah, we’ve cracked that one too”.