Energy transition will be inconvenient, but we must brace ourselves

Climate change penalties must be complemented by supports and options

As I was reading Harry Potter by torchlight during a power cut last week – a two-hour glitch, nothing to do with the power shortages we're hearing about – I felt nostalgic for Kosovo. We knew all about power cuts when I was in Kosovo. It was called a "five-star posting"in development terms; living in the tiny post-conflict economy was full of minor inconveniences for the European Union and United Nations employees working there. A shortage of fresh basil and fresh milk. Stray dogs and dust. Low water pressure and a patchy power supply. Navigating cracks in the pavement, giant holes actually, that no one sued for tripping over or falling into.

The air was polluted with diesel fuel from generators, exhaust fumes from old cars, and smoke from coal- and wood-burning stoves. Kosovo was encumbered with two ancient coal-burning power plants and, in addition to energy shortages, more than 50 per cent of all consumers were connected illegally.

When I was in Kosovo (this one-time ex-pat’s equivalent to band camp), the electricity company implemented an ABC system of load shedding. Load shedding is when electricity is cut off to groups of consumers because the entire system is at risk. In Kosovo those categorised as A customers lived in high-paying areas and had nonstop power supply. Those categorised under B lived in average-paying areas and had four hours of electricity and two hours off, and those living in areas where debtors were worst were C customers, getting two hours of supply and four hours off.

A contingency plan would prioritise private houses and hospitals in the event of power shortages, and large energy users would be the first to go

This all came into my head when I was thinking about Eirgrid’s recent generation capacity warning. Government sources are quoted as saying a contingency plan would prioritise private houses and hospitals in the event of power shortages, and that large energy users would be the first to go.


There’s nothing like watching Netflix by candlelight, my brother-in-law quipped over the power of 5G, and I wondered selfishly, as you do, where our small business would fit into this contingency plan. Have you ever tried to run a restaurant in a power outage? It’s fairly inconvenient when the barista stops churning out shots of fair-trade organic, and you’re desperately suggesting orange juice instead.

Perhaps we might escape. The Commission for Energy Regulation has subsequently said that “short-term supply risk has declined due to planned return to operation of generators, but margins will remain challenging during the winter period”.

Despite this reassurance on the electricity front, between the changes necessitated by carbon budgets (if nobody mentions the ruminant in the room then energy transition is chief among them), the fallout from Covid and global supply chain shortages, I think things are about to get much less convenient.

But not as inconvenient as it is for 770 million people who, according to the International Energy Agency’s World Economic Outlook 2020, do not have access to electricity at all. And almost a third of the planet’s population is in need of access to energy, according to James Henderson, director of the Energy Transition Research Initiative at Oxford Institute of Energy Studies. Poor countries that have not contributed to global warming tend to rely on coal-fired power, and Henderson notes that the $100 billion annual contribution promised by developed countries under the Paris Agreement (agreed at Cop 21) to developing countries in climate finance for energy transition is nowhere near being delivered.

Privileged and naive

When Covid-19 arrived, I thought maybe it was the planet's two fingers to human activity. Global warming is also undeniably caused by our activity. So Mother Nature says "Serves ye feckers right". But to reimagine Covid as a taking-stock opportunity is both privileged and naive. And for all the pain and misery the pandemic caused and continues to cause us, and despite our dramatic reduction in movement, greenhouse gas emissions reduced by only 3.6 per cent in 2020, which is significantly less than the 4.8 per cent reduction in carbon emissions proposed by the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) for each of the next five years.

When we were in Kosovo, one snowy night as we walked home from work (during a power cut), we were held up at gunpoint. After we regained our senses and cancelled our bankcards, we were given a telling-off by a Zimbabwean security officer about the need to “target harden”– to make ourselves less vulnerable. As a war story it’s underwhelming, but the need to target harden has become one my all-time favourite pieces of advice, even if I don’t always adhere to it.

Ostensibly dissecting a mess of politics, laws, conflict and expropriation, the UN and EU missions in Kosovo were, with all that advice and expertise and money, attempting to stabilise a region. Now the task is to stabilise the planet. Just energy transition is a major element of that task.

As we wait with bated breath for the Government’s allocation of the CCAC’s carbon budget among various departments and we send off our delegations to Cop 26, we need to brace ourselves while also analysing what’s fair using local and global comparisons. The principles of penalising certain economic and social behaviours while investing in supports, development and alternatives are the same as they were in Kosovo. It will be inconvenient, but we must target harden.

Angela Ruttledge is a restaurateur. She co-owns Monck’s Green and Olive’s Room