Two Energy Futures: Barriers to Clean Energy Political, Not Technological


For Canadians looking for inspiration in the fight for a cleaner and fairer energy future, there’s a valuable new resource available at Two Energy Futures. Created by the activist group UK Tar Sands Network, the website provides visitors with a detailed infographic that shows the contrast between a fossil-fuelled future and a future powered by clean, renewable energy.

Projecting from our current energy usage, the first future shows that continued reliance on fossil fuels would mean a steady expansion of extreme energy sources, including fracking, deep-sea drilling and the tar sands. The climate impacts of these dirty energy sources will be increasingly severe, and the social implications include intensified global conflicts and the further exploitation of vulnerable populations.

While the parameters of our current trajectory should be familiar, the cleaner, fairer energy future contains a surprise: the world’s energy needs could be met using current levels of technology in wind, solar and other renewables. Coupled with transformations in transportation infrastructure and the elimination of the undue political influence of fossil fuel companies, this future presents an outline for averting the worst effects of climate change and building more just societies.

The aim of Two Energy Futures is not simply to help us envision a better world. What the site shows is that we have the technology right now to phase out fossil fuel production and transition to an economy that relies on clean, renewable energy. The next time someone tells you that we have to be reasonable when it comes to energy policy, show them the Two Futures site. There’s nothing reasonable about continuing fossil fuel production.

In an interview with DeSmog Canada, UK Tar Sands Network activists Ruthi Brandt and Emily Coats discuss the development of Two Futures, their work in solidarity with indigenous communities in Canada and how the global character of tar sands production needs to be countered by a global movement for climate justice.

1) How did the UK Tar Sands Network come about, and what kind of campaigns/activities have you been involved with to date?

The UK Tar Sands Network was founded in 2009 by Jess Worth and Suzanne Dhaliwal after first hearing about the Canadian tar sands and realising that although this devastating fossil fuel was relatively unknown in the UK, our government, fossil fuel companies and banks were deeply entwined in it.

Our campaigns have two core strands – working in solidarity with First Nations who are at the frontline of tar sands extractions; and building a campaign in the UK to raise awareness about the impacts of the tar sands and rally opposition to the UK‘s role in supporting the industry.

For the former we support First Nations delegates when they come over to the UK, and Holland, for AGMs of companies that operate or finance tar sands projects on their land, as well as help them reach a UK and European audience with their local campaigns.

In terms of challenging the UK‘s role in the industry, we have recently focussed on the use of sponsorship by UK oil companies to secure social acceptability for their activities. From sponsorship of the Olympics, where BP was a “sustainability” partner [the Greenwash Gold campaign], to sponsorship of the arts (both BP and Shell sponsor various arts institutions such as the Royal Shakespeare Company [Reclaim Shakespeare Company] or many of the activities at London’s Southbank Centre [Shell Out Sounds]); and more recently sponsorship of scientific research in many universities across the UK (such as Shell sponsorship of an Oxford Geoscience lab].

We are also challenging the UK government’s cosy relationship with Canadian government and oil industry lobbyists who are trying to weaken a piece of legislation (the ‘Fuel Quality Directive’) that would discourage tar sands from entering the EU.

2) Following from the last question, why do you think it’s important for people in the UK to mobilize around a Canadian energy project like the tar sands?

Tar sands affect us all because of their direct impacts on the climate, as well as the role they will play in locking us deeper into the fossil fuel path, instead of allowing renewable sources of energy to develop.

People in the UK are also able to elevate the struggle of frontline communities by applying international pressure. We have often found that by taking action in the UK in solidarity with Indigenous communities we can generate much more Canadian media coverage than when action is taken only inside Canada.

Currently, the UK has its most direct chance yet to influence the future viability of the tar sands industry. If the Fuel Quality Directive goes ahead as planned, it would send a clear signal to the industry that tar sands are not welcome in Europe, and could set a precedent for other countries to adopt similar legislation. People in the UK have a key role to play in ensuring our government does not cave into the aggressive lobbying by the Canadian government and oil industry to weaken this legislation.

3) Are the tar sands your main focus or are you active around energy issues in the UK as well? 

Tar sands and the British companies which extract them (BP, Shell) or finance them (RBS) are our main focus. We of course support activities rejecting other fossil fuels, especially extreme energy, like the recent inspiring opposition to the first fracking attempts in the UK.

4) For the Two Energy Futures site, where did the idea come from and how was it developed? What are the sources for the data?

For some time we had felt that much of our work focused on highlighting the problems with tar sands without giving time to rebutting the key arguments being put forward by the industry’s proponents.

We knew that there was a wealth of research describing ways that the world could gradually phase out its reliance on fossil fuels, and never need to develop the most carbon-intensive sources such as tar sands, while still allowing an improvement in living standards for the majority of the world. But we knew that this information was generally buried deep in technical documents and did not seem to be getting through to people, who, following the disappointing Copenhagen COP 15 climate change summit, seemed increasingly disillusioned in fighting climate change.

So we set about creating the Two Energy Futures infographic to illustrate that, despite what people tell us, it is perfectly possible for everyone on the planet to have a good standard of living without relying on fossil fuels. We wanted to show people that there IS an alternative.

We also wanted to highlight that even if governments and the private sector follow through with all their current promises to reduce carbon emissions, we would still be starting to see many dangerous and disastrous effects of climate change. On the other hand, if we switch to renewables by 2035, we do have a fair chance of stopping climate change.

We teamed up with researcher and author Danny Chivers, who trawled through various sources to create two possible future energy scenarios. The data for the ‘Fossil Fuel Future’ came from the International Energy Agency and for the ‘Cleaner Fairer Future’ it from the latest Zero Carbon Britain report by the Centre for Alternative Technology as well as the book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air by the energy expert Dr David MacKay.

5) Who is the audience you’re trying to reach with this project?

We wanted as many people as possible to realise that despite what we’re told by oil companies and governments (and everyone else), we don’t have to develop fossil fuels. Not even the ‘clean ones.’ Not even ‘in the interim.’

This project was designed for activists and campaigners to use any time someone asked them ‘but what’s the alternative?’ It was also designed to be a tool for us and other campaigners focused on specific issues to be able to situate tar sands, fracking, etc. in the wider struggle for a cleaner energy future

We hope that it can eventually be useful for schools, universities, policymakers, and anyone that questions the ubiquitous narrative that fossil fuels are the only way forward.

6) What do you perceive as the main barriers to action on energy and climate? Do you think that people are concerned that a transition to a clean energy future would lower their standard of living, for example?

The main barriers are political and stem from economic interests. However, many people, though worried about climate change (or other ill effects of fossil fuels), believe that we need fossil fuels in order to maintain a modern society. The aim of the website is to therefore address these concerns and show that the barriers are political not technological.

Though energy use will need to change for the fossil fuel-free future, the website highlights the fact that – if done correctly – it won’t have adverse impact on living standards, but rather the opposite. Which is why we chose to call this future Cleaner, Fairer Future.

7) Tell me a bit about the Action Wall component of the site and what you’re hoping to see come out of it.

The Action Wall is where we offer people ways to become engaged with the ideas the website stands for. Its main feature is a world map where people are invited to share what they are doing in order to bring about this cleaner and fairer world.

We hope that many people will share their stories, and the map will be covered with actions from all over the world. This will – hopefully – have the dual effect of (1) strengthening those that are already acting, reminding them that they are not alone, but rather part of a huge, global movement; and (2) encouraging more people to become active, both by showcasing the strength of the movement, and by helping them get inspired by projects they might want to try to emulate, or join.

To learn more visit Two Energy Futures, or check out the following links for more information on clean energy activism in the UK:

Greenwash Gold campaign

Reclaim Shakespeare Company 

Shell Out Sounds

Shell sponsorship of an Oxford Geoscience lab 

The Fuel Quality Directive 

Opposition to first fracking attempts in the UK

Zero Carbon Britain 

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