A Sustainable Shetland question

Originally asked 17/7/09 by Richard Gibson in a letter to the Shetland News (and elsewhere)

Sadly this isn't a game and couldn't be more serious. It is about facts that the majority of scientists believe will cause world disaster unless we act very quickly to curb both reliance on fossil fuels and rising population - and even then it may be too late because global warming is adding urgency to a dangerously volatile mix.

Even if these predictions have an element of 'greenwash', we cannot stand back in isolation and hope for the best without understanding how global problems will effect Shetland, its environment and its privileged population.

From what little I know about the detail of Viking Energy's planning application it appears to be poorly put together but, inescapably, Shetland has one of the richest resources of renewable energy in Europe and it is unlikely that government will allow us to remain uninvolved when the crunch comes - and will impose development by edict rather than persuasion (UK planning laws have recently been changed to allow fast tracking of nationally important development).

Most of the current debate misses the point that unless we recognize the threats that face us, and stop bickering about detail, Shetland's future will be shaped by powers beyond our control that will have little regard for our environment and wildlife.

Much better for the community to come together and broker the best deal it can - including how we can safeguard our and our children's, future in a very different and difficult world.

Shetland Islands Council's standpoint appears to be about money rather than creating a sustainable future and Sustainable Shetland's about short term protectionism.

Neither offers a convincing rallying argument to bring the community together.

To help fill this void I urge Sustainable Shetland to spell out its vision of the future and how it will be achieved and maintained in the face of global threats (popular opinion will do little to help unless it is informed opinion) and Shetland Islands Council to look beyond the money and formulate policies for a truly sustainable future for us all.

Richard Gibson


PS: As a basis for constructive involvement try "Sustainable Energy Without the Hot air" by David J C MacKay" (free on the web in digestible chunks at www.withouthotair.com)

A Sustainable Shetland Reply

Thank you to Richard Gibson for a very thoughtful letter. I agree wholeheartedly that climate change is a real and pressing issue. I also agree that the necessity to “do something” about it has resulted in an element of greenwash.

The difficulty is in evaluating which green claims actually stack up, and which are a cynical marketing ploy. Which ones address climate change, and which actually make the situation worse, albeit with a nice green label?

We believe that the Viking Energy wind farm fits into this latter category. The carbon payback for this project is based on a very simple model - a mainland central Scotland site, central Scotland climate, and no interconnector. When this is applied to Viking Energy it becomes deeply and fundamentally flawed. The spreadsheet model has a simple yes / no option to show whether the site will be restored. You will see there is no option for “we will try to restore some parts of the site but we have no idea if it can ever work”. There is no calculation of the effect of leaving roads, ditches, turbine bases and other foundations on site for ever. No calculation for the effects beyond the 25 year wind farm lifespan is given. Showing the carbon effects 10, 20, 50 or 100 years after the wind farm would make the carbon impact more meaningful.

So in recognising that something should be done, we have to be careful to do the right thing, and not make the situation worse for short term popularity, political gain or because it might make some money.

Biodiesel is a great example of this. Superficially it provides “green, clean renewable energy”. The Brazilian government, a handful of wealthy land owners and the biofuel industry argue that biodiesel make use of Brazil’s “world class land resource”. The reality however is that the many of the soybean crops producing biodiesel are grown on cleared rainforest. Biodiesel from soybeans reduces (through the dubious notion of substitution) carbon emissions, but not as much as leaving the rainforest alone in the first place. Thus biodiesel from soybeans contributes to global warming.

Since blanket peat acts as both a carbon sink, and active carbon sequestrator, building wind farms in this environment puts us into a similar scenario as the clean green biofuel from Brazil.

Not a great legacy to leave our children.

I would respectfully argue that Sustainable Shetland’s position is not about short term protectionism, we are trying to prevent an ill considered idea which will make a bad situation worse.

Shetland is faced with a live planning application which we believe could cause real economic Shetland and environmental damage far beyond these shores. By damaging a valuable carbon sink we risk making climate change worse, not better. By spending a sizable chunk of our total Charitable trust assets on this project, and locking ourselves into long term debt, we endanger the very funds we hope to preserve.

Our primary objective at the moment must be to remove the real and immediate threat of this planning application. We hope that once this threat has been removed, all of us, as a community, including the people behind Viking Energy, can sit down and have a sensible discussion and formulate a sensible action plan about how Shetland addresses global climate change and our own sustainability as a community. This discussion should not limit itself to the production of electricity, or energy for that matter. A sustainable community would also consider everything from food supply, to transport, infrastructure to housing, economy to how we live as a small community.

The danger in focusing on all that just now is that the runaway train that is Viking Energy will steam ahead unimpeded.

I urge everyone concerned about this project to object now, a simple email to say “I object because …” is a good start. If writing a letter, post it by Saturday to make sure it arrives by Tuesday 28 July.

Kevin Learmonth

Vice chair - Sustainable Shetland