April 16, 2024

IIt is meant to be an exploration of humanity’s past and future attempts to degas the way we live. Historical objects mixed with interactive exhibits will show how environmentally friendly energy systems are shaped by imagination and innovation.

But the new Science Museum gallery, Energy Revolution, the Adani Green Energy Gallerywent down badly – with environmentalists.

Last week they held the gallery’s private opening party and confronted guests with banners denouncing the London museum’s decision to accept sponsorship from Indian energy group Adani, arranged through its renewables subsidiary, Adani Green Energy.

The company’s other ventures – which include major investments in Australian coal mines – mean its sponsorship is tainted, protesters say. “No museum or public institution should be helping such a toxic firm boost its brand,” said Rhian Ashford, of the Fossil Free Science Museum Coalition.

The claims are destined to spark another major controversy over museum sponsorship – and over the way the industry is responding to the need to degas our planet. Some support the protesters. Others side with the museum.

“India is a vast country and its electricity system still relies heavily on coal,” says Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change. “It knows it needs to move away from burning fossil fuels and has set up one of the world’s most ambitious solar programs with Adani Green Energywhich is India’s largest renewable company plays a key role.

Activists protest at the Science Museum in 2021 against sponsorship by fossil fuel corporations Photo: SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

“However, you can’t switch from coal to solar overnight, so it’s ridiculous to fight against the new gallery because fossil fuels are still being burned in India,” added Ward, an adviser involved in the gallery’s planning. “These green protesters are trying to discourage people from visiting a gallery that makes it clear that climate change is the most important challenge facing humanity today. It’s crazy and counterproductive.”

But Chris Garrard, a member of the Fossil Free Science Museum Coalition, insisted the protest was justified. “The work of the gallery’s curators is really important, but it has been consistently undermined by museum leaders who have chosen sponsors like Adani, despite the company continuing to expand its coal mining and burning.”

Garrard said the Science Museum refused to listen to widespread protests from stakeholders. “This leaves us no choice but to call for a boycott of the gallery,” he added.

Extinction Rebellion activists outside the Science Museum are calling for their collaboration with Adani to end in 2023. Photo: Denise Laura Baker/Alamy

Ian Blatchford, the museum’s chief executive, said he and his colleagues recognize that “some campaigners have strong views on sponsorship and want to see the whole sector decoupled. However, our trustees disagree with that view and have clearly articulated our approach by encouraging companies, governments and individuals to do more to make the global economy less carbon intensive.”

Climate science professor Myles Allen, from the University of Oxford, was more cautious. “In many ways, companies like Adani are doing a lot more than a lot of Western companies to move away from fossil fuels and build up renewable energy, so it’s a bit unfair to target them,” he said.

“The problem is that no one is required to disclose how they intend to prevent the products they sell from causing global warming. Diversifying into renewable energy is ineffective if you’re still selling fossil fuels – and promising to divest your fossil fuel assets by 2049 doesn’t work either. Until companies tell us how they’re going to fix fossil fuels, and not just move around, we can’t say which ones are on track for net zero. Maybe this new gallery will make it nice and clear – which would be great.”

As for the gallery that sparked this controversy, its purpose is simple. It is designed to demonstrate the technologies that will be needed if humanity is to stop global warming and halt its current headlong slide into a crisis that threatens to cause droughts, melt ice caps, flood coastal cities, cause mass migrations, and lead to large losses of biodiversity.

“This is a new, permanent gallery,” said its curator, Oliver Carpenter. “In 10 years, its content will still have to be relevant. Placing renewable energy in a historical context was therefore crucial for our planning.”

A key example is provided by an exhibit of an electric taxi built in 1897. It was manufactured for several years by the Great Horseless Carriage Company and ferried a fleet of over 70 passengers around London. Known as Bumble Bee cabs because of their bright yellow and black paintwork, each was powered by a lead-acid battery that was recharged after use at the company’s own coal-fired power station.

Its designer, Walter Bersey, claimed that his taxis had “no smell, no noise, no heat, no vibration and no possible danger”, but they were finally withdrawn from service in 1899. Interestingly, it has taken more than 100 years for the electric taxi cab to make its comeback with Transport for London reporting last year that more than half of the capital’s 14,700 trolleybuses are now “no power emission”.

“Things could have been very different if Henry Ford and the discovery of oil and gas fields in America had not happened together,” added Carpenter. “These are the kinds of variables we want to highlight in the gallery.”

Other developments on the road to a low-carbon future include some of the machinery that formed the world’s first public electricity grid, created by Thomas Edison, in London in 1882, as well as some of the remains of Zeta, a nuclear fusion experiment that took place in the late 1950s by British scientists. They mistakenly thought that within a few years it would bring cheap, abundant, low-carbon energy to the world.

“We have had to learn many lessons about energy generation over the decades and, as the gallery makes clear, we will have to learn many more,” added Carpenter.

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