The impressionist on why solar power is a no-brainer and how the coalition government is failing on green issues
You’ve got to hand it to Alistair McGowan. Where most “green” celebrities have done little more than chosen a hybrid car or turned down the thermostat, here’s one who both knows his stuff and walks the walk – and is hilarious to boot.
McGowan isn’t exactly short of things to do. Best known as an impressionist and comedian, he’s also a playwright, actor and singer. But despite his busy schedule, over the past two decades he’s always found time to campaign on environmental issues – and to try and reduce the impact of his own lifestyle.
His latest cause is solar energy, and in particular We Support Solar, the campaign to stop the government cutting back on financial subsidies for solar photovoltaic systems.
So what is it about this particular energy technology that gets McGowan so fired up? Speaking on his way to . “The idea of being able to harness the sun’s energy and power everything we need from it is so amazing, and we now have the technology to do that. [But] other countries are way ahead of us, and I just can’t believe that we’re not committing to it and engaging with it in the way that we should be.”
He’s talking about the shake-up of the feed-in tariffs, the government scheme that promotes renewable energy systems by rewarding their owners for each unit of electricity produced. As part of an recently announced review, the government is consulting on a plan to reduce the level of support for solar systems larger than 50kW, a change that would disadvantage the larger end of solar projects for schools, hospitals and community groups.
In McGowan’s view, this is an outrage. “The whole industry is being undermined by government action. Here we are with a government that said in their manifesto that they were going to be the greenest government, but the only green thing about them is the splash of colour on their logo, as far as I can see.”
Are generous feed-in tariffs really so important for solar to succeed? “Absolutely. Whether you’re talking small scale or large scale, one of the things that attracts people – and attracted me when I recently had solar panels fitted on my house – is the fact that you’re going to get your money back. You obviously want to do something which is going to benefit the environment … it’s fabulous to feel like you’re a cottage industry … not just denuding and drawing from the environment, but giving something back … But the financial aspect is important to people – you’ve got to attract customers, you’ve got to attract investors, and the feed-in tariff is a huge huge part of that.”
That’s a view shared by most green commentators, but there are exceptions. What about the claim by George Monbiot and some others that solar is too expensive and inefficient to make it worth supporting in a cloudy country like the UK?
“Twenty years ago, 30 years ago, videos were expensive”, McGowan replies. “Last year Kindles were expensive. As soon as there’s a demand, things come down in price, and that’s what will happen and has happened already with solar. Across Europe, it’s being embraced, and obviously we think, well, Spain, that makes sense because they’ve got a lot of sunshine. It’s not about sunshine, it’s about daylight … and there’s more than enough in this country to make solar viable. One of the leading countries in the whole solar industry is Germany. Their climate is exactly the same as ours, and yet we are, I think, at 0.1% of the take up of solar compared to Germany – 0.1%! – which is absolutely shameful.”
Worrying too much about today’s cost, says McGowan, is to miss the point. “It would be like the government in the 19th century saying no, we’re not going to put railways down, everyone else can do that but we don’t see the point. Or in the 1950s the government saying we don’t want to build roads and motorways, we just don’t think it’s important … it really is head in the sand stuff.”
So, a clear thumbs down for the coalition. Does McGowan think that Ed Miliband’s Labour party would be any more ambitious on green issues? “It’s very hard to say”, he replies, switching with unnerving ease into Miliband’s nasal twang (the first of many vignettes he drops into our conversation). He does admire Miliband, he says, but it’s always easier to look good in opposition than in power. Politicians needs to be more brave, he says – and that’s something they could learn by taking some leaves out of Ken Livingstone’s book.
It strikes me that McGowan himself is being quite brave by taking such a strong position on environmental issues. Over the years he’s worked to raise awareness for WWF, the charity Trees for Cities, recycling, driving, flying, climate change. Does he worry that he might fall into the trap that some other celebrities have, of flying the green flag only to find himself shot down in the press for the eco-imperfections in his own life?
“A little, yes, because there’s always something I’m being made aware of – as we all are – that has a huge impact on the environment. Once I become aware of things I try and adjust my behaviour accordingly. Meat, for instance. For many years I went around talking about recycling, reducing car use, and not flying as much, and then suddenly people were saying that one of the worst things for the environment is meat production. Now, I cannot give up meat, but I have tried to significantly cut down. And so in that respect I’m someone who realises how difficult it is to change ingrained behaviour completely. But we can all make some sort of effort.”
One area that many green celebrities really struggle with is flying. Changing one’s car is evidently easier than giving up a glamorous jet-setting lifestyle. But in this respect, too, McGowan is unusual. He doesn’t just limit his own flying; he was also one of the people who bought a strip of land in Sipson, near Heathrow, to try and block the proposed development of the airport.
“Yes, after we bought the land – I hadn’t flown much anyway, but I didn’t fly then for three years, and looked into every holiday or job I had in terms of trains and boats. And it’s really enjoyable actually to not fly. I think airports are one of the most sad experiences of your life.” (He adds in passing that airports are what he worries heaven might be like: “Terribly disappointing, with lots of people from Leicester wondering around not knowing where they’re going.”)
“I still had lots of holidays,” he continues, “I went to places like Dubrovnik, Vienna and southern Spain on trains and boats, and it’s a really enjoyable experience. It becomes part of the holiday. You feel sort of Edwardian, and become really intrepid.” When McGowan did finally have to travel by air – for a filming trip in South Africa – he found that he “hated the experience of flying. The whole trip didn’t feel like I’d been anywhere – that horrible thing where you’re picked up and put somewhere else. But again, I would say that it’s impossible to live a completely green life: you can’t not have any kind of environmental footprint, but you can make it as faint as you can. Fly when necessary but not all the time.”
McGowan uses travel as a jumping off point for an impromptu comedy routine involving Andy Murray’s flying footprint, the potential for Jason Button and Lewis Hamilton to car share, and a series of scarily good impressions of football names such as Rio Ferdinand, Carlo Ancelotti (“he is, urr, green man, but also blue man”) and his old favourite David Beckham (who McGowan suggests should show the same leadership on environmental issues as he has done on tattoos). It’s spooky to watch his whole face morph into those of his characters.
McGowan is a football addict, and once tried to combine his two passions by creating the green version of the Premier League, ranking clubs on their environmental standards. He met with the FA about it but the plan was scuppered by the Premier League’s branding restrictions. “But I did persuade Wimbledon tennis club to improve their recycling,” McGowan says proudly, “and I pushed the RSC to recycle at Stratford. Wherever I go I make a noise, which I think is the important thing – try to make a noise wherever you are.”
All of which is hugely impressive. But can any of it really make any difference in the broader scheme of things? I wonder whether McGowan, who recently researched his family links in India, ever worries that British impressionists, footballers or even politicians can only tinker around the edges of environmental problems when countries such as China and India are growing so fast. Can Brits really have an impact?
“Yeah, we’re one world … the success of one nation’s investment in environmental best practice has to then be copied and taken on. If we can see that it works, which [solar] does in Germany, if India and China can see that it would work here, they will embrace it”.
“People are always looking for an excuse not to be part of this greener future”, he adds. “First of all it was America: why should we do it if George Bush doesn’t? Now it’s China and India … but we shouldn’t forget that the Chinese and the Indians are looking to develop many of their industries in a very environmentally friendly way. And they’re going to outdo us soon. Yes, they’re building coal-fired power stations, and yes that is a mistake … but they’re also looking at the long-term and thinking how can we develop in a more environmentally friendly way. They’re going to outstrip us very very soon – as everyone has done.”
Sent with MobileRSS for iPhone