Environment Agency chief Lord Chris Smith has admitted climate change has forced him to change his position to now be in favour of nuclear energy.
And the former Labour Cabinet Minister will use a keynote speech tonight to say he is in favour of fracking provided that there is a major programme of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) for gas-fired power generation.
In an address to the RSA, the EA chairman will describe how the UK could lead the world on wave and tidal energy generation and will urge the Government to fast-track other low carbon or renewable energy sources.
Lord Smith will call for more research and investment in energies that take advantage of the coastline and rivers – saying the loss of market leader status on the development of wind turbines was a mistake that should not be repeated.
And he proposes a similar approach to hydropower and nuclear energy as alternatives to coal, where they meet rigorous environmental standards.
Lord Smith says that decisions about the development of such energies are “challenging”, but that the UK must act quickly to secure an advantage over other countries and meet the UK’s ambitious CO2 targets.
In the RSA speech, titled ‘Are green and growth compatible?’, Lord Smith defines the challenges facing the UK on sustainable growth and examines the role of government, business, regulators and the green movement in achieving it.
He criticises those in the green movement who oppose all growth and praises big business that has already recognised the benefits of green growth and sustainable production. And he makes a robust defence of the role for good regulation in setting a level playing field, supporting innovation and reducing pollution.
But his strongest criticism is reserved for those in the Republican Party in the USA, such as Sarah Palin, who have overseen the “disastrous politicisation” of climate change and prevented action, while welcoming the cross-party action on climate change in the UK.
In his speech, Lord Smith will say the UK Government should not abandon either green or growth and should continue to invest in wave and tidal power.
He explains: “We lost out to others and we’ve been having to buy heavily from abroad in recent years as a result. Let’s not make the same mistake again. We are an island surrounded by waves and tides. This is the most obvious natural source of energy we can look to for a renewable future. Yet the development of the technology is still at an early stage and we need to give far greater emphasis and support to it.
“There is too little sense of a coordinated programme to take this forward...and already the US has stolen a march, announcing their first commercially licensed tidal energy project in New York Harbour. America estimates that water resources could deliver 15% of the nation’s electricity supply by 2030. We need to get our skates on.”
On the controversial issue of fracking, Lord Smith cautiously supports the process, and added: “It won’t always be easy. There will sometimes be occasions where, in seeking one environmental objective, we risk upsetting another.
“Potentially, fracking ticks the box on energy security, on availability and on cost. But does it tick the box on environment? The answer is complex, and is something like 'up to a point'. But with careful use of the drilling technology, with rigorous monitoring and inspection, and with the development of a major programme of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) for gas-fired power generation, then shale gas could be a truly useful part of our energy mix in the years to come
“We need to secure some of the early-mover advantage that is still there to be reaped from this technology. The International Energy Agency believes CCS will be the key to delivering a fifth of all the greenhouse gas emission reductions we need by 2050. Let’s be at the forefront of this.”
And on the issue of nuclear energy, he adds: “If you had asked me 20 years ago about nuclear power, I would have taken the traditional 'green' view and said something like 'over my dead body'. I am happy to admit, however, that I have changed my mind – and it is the prospect of climate change that has changed it for me.”
On the challenge of adapting to climate change, the Environment Agency chief describes the future battle: “Top of the list are floods and droughts. These will threaten us more frequently. And we need to build in better resilience – whether it’s building flood defences, or preparing individual properties for better protection, or allowing flood plains higher up a river to be used once again for water storage…or encouraging companies to develop innovative solutions that can help people to cope with either too much water or too little.”
In response to Lord Smith's comments, Friends of the Earth Energy Campaigner Tony Bosworth said: "Lord Smith rightly highlights the unknown environmental impacts of fracking - until it's proven to be safe, this technology should be shelved in the UK as it has been elsewhere in the world.
"We know 85 per cent of people want to see more clean British energy, not gas - Ministers should focus on this instead of backing technologies which are unproven or, like nuclear, are consistently late and reliant on vast public subsidies.
"The Government's plans for the electricity market must ensure that renewable energy fills the gap caused by the closure of power stations and the collapse of nuclear investment - this will boost our economy by creating thousands of new jobs."