In a C&TH exclusive Dale Vince interview, the eco-entrepreneur, climate activist and Skydiamond creator says he believes in populism with a green purpose. Interview by Chris Haslam.
Dale Vince Interview: Founder Of Ecotricity Talks Voting, Green Populism & ‘Finding Another Way’
It’s bleak reading, but in a recent study by the Woodland Trust, one in three young people in Britain said they were scared about climate change, with 28 percent feeling overwhelmed. We know how they feel. News feeds are filled with devastating man-made disasters, climate sceptics peddle lies about renewable energy and fossil fuels, while the government downgrades its net zero pledges seemingly on a whim. It’s enough to make you want to quit society and live in the woods.
Which is precisely where Dale Vince, 62, started out. In his early years, he unplugged from mainstream society and lived in a van, powered by his own homemade wind turbine. That turbine inspired him to launch Ecotricity, the world’s first green energy company, which made him a multi-millionaire. But far from sitting around counting his money, he’s committed to finding better ways of doing things. He’s the chairman of the world’s most eco-minded football team, the aptly named Forest Green Rovers; he recently founded Ecojet, the world’s first electric airline; and his Skydiamond plant can literally make diamonds from the air.
Often polarising, but equally passionate, Dale has always been an outspoken champion of the green movement, and in recent times, has turned his attention to politics. Anyone who has seen him go toe-to-toe with climate deniers and flip-floppy politicians knows he’s a force for good. Surely, if there’s anyone who can ease our climate woes, it’s Dale.
‘Rather Than Finance Protest, I’m Urging People […] To Vote’
Earlier this year Dale, a vocal and generous supporter of Just Stop Oil, was plastered across the right-wing media for funding so-called ‘eco zealots’. A determined advocate for climate protests and direct action, Dale has recently changed his approach. ‘The next election will be the most important in my lifetime, so rather than finance protest, I’m urging people [especially young, first-time voters] to vote to save the planet. This government has declared war on net zero and “green wokery” in a way that is not just dishonest, but dangerous.
‘I believe that the only way to stop drilling in the North Sea now, science, logic and protest having failed, is by choosing a new government.’
He goes on to say: ‘When I started Ecotricity three decades ago, renewable energy was a crazy idea, one that was only interesting to hippies and academics. Today, it’s a global mainstream industry at the heart of every government’s net zero strategies.’ In the UK, renewable energy now accounts for 42 percent of electricity and Dale hopes it can get to 100 percent in as little as ten years. ‘Thirty years ago, it was expensive, unreliable and unknown, now it’s the cheapest form of energy we can build. Everything’s in our favour. It’s exciting.’
Asked why so many people still seem to have an issue with green living and renewable energy, Dale is unequivocal: ‘I’m just going to say government. Taxes, subsidies and regulations are pointed in the wrong direction. They make it harder to do net zero things and make it easier to carry on doing the polluting things.
‘Our economy isn’t a force of nature – we get to choose how it works and, at the moment, we choose [to be] burning fossil fuels. That’s a choice made by our government.’
‘First [The Papers] Said Climate Change Wasn’t Real, Now They Say […] We Can’t Afford The Transition’
The role the media plays is discussed and, again, he’s quick to point the finger. ‘Nine out of 11 national newspapers in our country are right wing. Firstly, they said climate change wasn’t real. And now they say, well, OK, maybe it is manmade, but we can’t afford the transition [to net zero] at that pace. We have this fundamental problem that too many people in our country aren’t convinced that climate change is real.’ It’s a depressing, but important conversation, and one Dale is only too happy to have face-to-face with those naysayers.
He explains his idea of ‘green populism’ and the need to ‘keep it simple and talk to people about what bothers them. Politicians like [Donald] Trump, [Nigel] Farage and [Boris] Johnson really cut through with simplistic, sometimes bombastic, messaging, but they don’t care about the facts, or the truth of what they say. Without lying, we have to be more like them. We have to craft messaging that people can get, about the things they care about. If you talk about jobs and the economy [rather than polar bears], then you’re talking in people’s wheelhouses. That’s what most people care about.’
‘It’s Not About Giving Stuff Up – We Just Have To Find Another Way To Do It’
As for solutions, Dale is impassioned. He’s convinced that a new – non-Conservative – government is vital: ‘There’s an election in the next 12 months, where we can change everything.’ He also believes in engaging with people who think differently. This brings us on to his own ventures and his idea that ‘being green and getting to net zero is not about giving stuff up – we just have to find another way to do it’.
Skydiamond is a sparkling example of this mindset. Among the world’s first zero-impact, carbon-negative diamonds, its stones are grown in the Cotswolds using only renewable energy, carbon and rainwater. ‘That project came about because I was looking into carbon capture and thought the most permanent form of carbon is diamond. I thought, rather idealistically, I’d be able to go into a company and hand over a sack full of diamonds [representing their carbon footprint] and they could be handed out to the staff.’
This wasn’t possible, but the gemstones the facility can grow are among the most sustainable available and a world away from environmentally-damaging mining. ‘We just use the wind, the sun, the rain, and carbon dioxide. It’s a 21st-century version of alchemy, where we turned carbon dioxide into something really quite special,’ Dale says.
Continuing his desire to ‘just find another way’, Dale recently launched Ecojet, his emission-free hydrogen-electric powered airline.
‘We can’t get the bulk of people [to support] net zero living if we’re telling them they have to stop flying,’ he says. ‘The big aviation players have pencilled in 2040, maybe 2035, to be flying with electric and hydrogen, but the reason we jumped into this now is that we haven’t got 15 years just to get started on this journey. We’ll have our technology ready in 12 to 18 months from now, so we’re jumping in with both feet saying, “we’re not even from this industry, but if we can do it, why can’t you!’’’
Whether he’s leading by example or simply shaming big business (and politicians) into doing better, Dale seems relentless in his pursuits. In our conversation, we barely scratch the surface.
As well as the ventures mentioned, there’s his mission to turn grass into gas. ‘It could be an entirely new industry and help us get off of fossil gas, which dominates home heating, and make it from a sustainable source grown right here in Britain, which creates habitats for wildlife in the process.’
And that’s not all: ‘We’re also doing some research into the production of food from grass. We’ve discovered grass is an amazingly nutritious plant – we just can’t eat it raw. But we can extract twice as much protein from it, so we’re working on a process to extract food [protein] from the grass, which solves two problems, energy and food security, while also providing a massive sustainability boost.’
Dale is exhaustingly prolific, with a phenomenal CV. While he surrounds himself with experts, it’s clearly a single vision from someone who’s acutely aware of the problems we face and is actively looking for solutions, while also appreciating the need for the nice things in life. Maybe we all need to be a little more Dale.