Surrendering our future

When Britain and Germany raced to scale up their aircraft industries for war in the 1930s, the British competed rather well. Recovering from a late start, we rapidly produced machines capable of winning the Battle of Britain.Today, the two nations are on the same side in a different battle, but Germany alone is mobilising as fast as it did 70 years ago. Our common enemy is global warming, and it is already at our gates. But while our German allies are turning out the renewable energy equivalents of Messerschmitts by the factory-load, Britain is again slow to spring into action. Worse, as we learned yesterday, officials responsible for UK mobilisation have told the prime minister it is impossible for us to build modern-day Spitfires in any number. We should instead oppose European targets set recently for such mobilisation and join other laggards in order to persuade the Germans to scale back their own efforts.

On Tuesday one of the main architects of Germany's renewable energy policy, Hans-Josef Fell, was in London to give a press conference on peak oil. In this issue lies another, related imperative for nations like Germany and Britain to be mobilising for renewable energy as if for war. A group of German scientists, the Energy Watch Group, has completed the latest in a crop of studies showing that oil is depleting far faster than previously estimated, and that a global energy crisis is imminent. Renewable energy and energy efficiency are the only technologies that offer any hope of staving this off in time.

Fell spelt out Germany's success with renewables. In 2000, when he and other parliamentarians pushed through a law to fast-track renewables markets, such sources contributed 6% to the national electricity mix; the target was 12% by 2010. Three years ahead of the target, they are approaching 14% - and have created 200,000 jobs in the process.

International investment patterns tell the story. Some $1 trillion, globally, will go into energy this year, and more than $100bn of that will be invested in renewables. Renewables make up just 2% of the global mix, excluding large hydropower schemes, and yet about a tenth of global energy investment now flows into them. Renewables companies are lining up to be quoted on stock exchanges, and those already listed have strong share prices. But as things stand, only a tiny proportion of this investment bonanza is heading into Britain.

The German renewables market is being fed by funds raised from a levy on energy bills to guarantee premium prices for renewable electricity. Britain's Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform says the UK's renewables obligation, a certificate-based scheme for growing renewables markets, works better. Ofgem and the Carbon Trust are among the many who disagree. It is easy to see why. In 2006 the cost to the average German household of the tariff was £12 a year. The average UK household paid £7 a year under the renewables obligation, but that delivered significantly less renewable capacity. German windpower capacity is 10 times that of the UK today, and the energy it produces is 30% cheaper; German solar power capacity is 200 times that of the UK.

Consider the stakes here. If we fail to contain global warming, we put the economy at risk. If we continue to ignore peak-oil warnings, we will plunge into the chaos of a third global energy crisis. If we continue to allow investment to flow uncontested into countries with a renewables vision, UK plc loses out on any prospect of a serious share in the next global business revolution.

Jeremy Leggett, author of Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis.