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Attenborough's Apollo mission

When John F. Kennedy spoke about his ambition to land on the moon back in 1962, he did so in the strongest terms.

12th October 2015    |     Peter Rolton: Chairman, Rolton Group

“Why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? … We choose to go to the Moon! ... We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

This was stirring stuff, written to conjure up images of the archetypal American pioneer venturing to unknown territories and asserting global (or should that be galactic?) dominance. Equally as impressive as the forceful scriptwriting is the fact that this was not just political bluster; America achieved its dream in 1969, making household names of Neil Armstrong and his team of fellow astronauts.More than half a century on, a new initiative has been established with a similarly lofty ambition: to make renewable energy cheaper than coal and thereby permanently curb the effects of man-made climate change. Just as Kennedy spoke of achieving his moon landing within a decade, so too do the scientists and respected industry figures at the heart of this new Global Apollo Programme. By appropriating the Apollo name and its ten-year deadline, they hope to draw parallels between the concentrated effort and expense that was pumped into winning the Space Race and the international push required to find effective ways to bring the cost of renewable energy down. Starting from 2016, they want to change the world.

The thrust of their argument is a rational one: until renewable technologies reach economic parity with cheap, polluting alternatives, they simply won’t be able to compete. Particularly important is the acceleration of research into clean energy storage because although some technologies are already cost-effective in several parts of the world, they will still rely on the crutch of fossil fuel until we can effectively store the power they generate. David Attenborough, one of the programme’s most recognisable signatories, emphasised this point when discussing the issue of climate change with US President Barack Obama earlier this summer.

The use of the moon landing mission as their yardstick is a savvy financial move, too: in their report (, the authors of the Global Apollo Programme estimate that the original mission to the moon cost the equivalent of at least $150bn in today’s money, whilst worldwide spend today on publicly funded R&D in renewable energy totals only $6bn a year. The chasm between the two figures is clear enough, and they suggest that $15bn per year spent on creating a sustainable energy landscape is what’s needed to bridge the gap in the next decade. Over £100bn is spent annually on running the NHS, which is a vital component in ensuring our health now and in the future; surely less than a sixth of that cost per year is worth spending to secure our continued welfare and sustainable prosperity.

Unfortunately, all of this positive momentum is set against a pretty dismal backdrop here in the UK; we’ve just dropped out of the top ten of Ernst and Young’s international league table, which ranks countries in order of their attractiveness for renewables investment, for the first time since it was established 12 years ago. Falling three places in a single quarter, it signals all too clearly our preoccupation with meeting EU targets and shutting down subsidies as we meet them rather than looking at the bigger picture. What the government consistently seems to forget is that these targets are artificial, and if we have the capability to exceed them then we should absolutely be pushing to do so. As Ben Warren, energy corporate finance leader at EY, says, ‘the Government has sentenced the UK renewables sector to death by a thousand cuts’, a point emphasised by the woeful news last week of over 1000 solar industry jobs lost thanks to slashed subsidies.

Schemes such as the Global Apollo Programme underline the point I made in my last blog: fossil fuels will only continue to be used until a better alternative presents itself. The sun alone delivers 5,000 times more energy to the Earth’s surface than humanity needs, so with research and development of the magnitude recommended by the Programme there is no reason why another Apollo-style success should be out of reach. What remains to be seen is whether the UK will get behind the initiative, or whether we will continue to dawdle behind our neighbours in the development of this crucial low-carbon economy. Far from falling in line with the global push, so far Britain appears to be heading in precisely the wrong direction; if things don’t turn back around quickly, we are sure to pay the price both economically and ethically in the not too distant future.

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