the Air Vent

Because the world needs another opinion

A Letter from London

Posted by Jeff Id on July 15, 2010

This is a guest post from Roddy Campbell who coincidentally shares many of my views on energy. It’s an empassioned essay on where the best use of energy dollars, or pounds rather, would be. The post is written in the context of UK events, but applies  equally to the US.  What’s more, I think that if properly understood, the concepts expressed below make sense even without climate change.

Enjoy, It’s a good one


The Conservatives have offered the Liberals a ‘low-carbon economy’ as part of their coalition deal.  This probably means more subsidies for solar, wind, biomass, feed-in tariffs, ground-source, and higher electricity prices.  Success or failure will be measured either as absolute CO2 emissions, or as the carbon intensity of the economy, with unintended consequences unaccounted for.  Is this a good idea, what CO2-emission bang for the buck does it provide, and does it make a difference to our environment and the planet?

Since Copenhagen hopes have receded for a consensus between existing greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters, and the fast growing emitters like China and India.  A global policy framework to control CO2 emissions looks impossible, any unilateral carbon tax or cap-and-trade policy futile.  So what should the UK and EU policy be now, in an environment where the subsidies essential for promoting renewables energy are harder to justify in our impoverished state, and growth has faltered?

This is a map of China; 102 new airports in the first twenty years of this century will be built.  This is on top of expansion of existing airports in main cities as traffic grows. (There are equivalent maps for power stations, for factories, for new towns and cities.)  It puts the CO2 argument against one extra runway at Heathrow into perspective, ditto the global benefit of a wind-farm off the Scilly Isles.

Subsidies for alternative energy are expensive.  These have to be paid by consumers and businesses, or government.  If paid by the former, jobs are exported (with their associated CO2 emissions).  If paid by government they displace an alternative use for those funds.  And the effect the UK, or Europe as a whole, can have on global CO2, even if we accept lower GDP and choose a dramatic policy of wind, solar, biofuels and carbon capture, is tiny by comparison with what we emit now and irrelevant when you include the new emissions coming from the teeming billions who would quite like a bit of what we’ve got.  Even George Monbiot in The Guardian despairs at the futile waste of money spent propping up green electricity generation.

So here we are – we’ve ear-marked a few billion here and there to spend on getting our CO2 down, or rather a few tens of billions after the solar feed-in tariffs.  Other European countries have done the same, although in the cases of Germany and Spain they are beginning to realise that the CO2 bang for their buck is derisory, and Norway has put its huge carbon capture scheme on hold.  All of it wouldn’t even begin to quiver the needle of global CO2 emissions, let alone move it.  Look at this chart if you don’t believe me, it isn’t stopping.  The USA generates c. 50% of its electricity from coal.  20 years ago the regions shown in this chart consumed 1 1/2 times the US.  They now consume 4 times as much, and are commissioning new coal power stations everywhere.  If the US cut its coal consumption to zero, in five years these regions will fill that gap.  So what difference will a few wind farms in little old Britain, a few solar farms in Germany, actually make?  As close to zero as makes no difference.

We should completely stop our efforts to stimulate and subsidize existing alternative energy installations.  It does the planet absolutely no good.  It’s Magical Thinking of the most muddled kind.  The reasoning behind it incorporates every confused and do-good thought in a bouillabaisse of unintended consequences. The thoughts range from ‘fossil fuels are finite, we must act now’ to ‘how can we expect China to act if we don’t’ to ‘we will be at the forefront of green job creation’ to ‘we are controlled by Middle East oil and Russian gas, we need security’ to ‘our consumerist society is unsustainable’, to ‘we are guilty of all past emissions, we must suffer now’, a Big Tent of Nonsense that manages somehow to offer something for everyone.  It’s a tough tent to stay out of, but putting a lot of indifferent or plainly wrong arguments together, none of which stands up to examination on its own, does not create a coherent platform for policy action.

The fact is that the world is not going to emit less CO2 in the next 30 years.  It’s going to emit more.  China and India and Africa will see to that.  If we’re going to fry, we’re going to fry.  There is no source of energy commercially available other than nuclear that can make a dent in it.  So we, in the UK and Europe, should stop trying.  It’s pointless, costs money and jobs, and we may as well fry rich as poor, at least we’ll be able to afford adaptation policies.

There are two other arguments put up by the proponents of renewable policies, or carbon taxes.  Firstly, the argument from peak oil – fossil fuels are finite, the price will rise sharply, so bad wind farms now will look good in a few years. This displays a very poor grasp of how electricity is generated, and what oil is used for.  There is minimal substitutability between oil on the one hand, and gas and coal on the other, and there is no peak gas or peak coal.  Secondly they suggest that pricing carbon will stimulate private sector innovation and installation.  Do they have no idea of the price gap between electricity generated from coal and gas versus renewables?  They’d have to double, and then double again the price of electricity to start getting close.  Existing renewable technologies work, just at completely the wrong price, and there is no real prospect, pace Lomborg, of getting them close.

So here’s a policy initiative, a radical one.  This is what we should do.  It’ll keep the warmists happy, it’ll keep politicians happy, and we’ll be able to hold our green heads high in Brussels.

First, build twenty new nuclear power stations.  The cost per tonne of CO2 saved is streets ahead of anything else, the electricity cost is comparable, it provides energy security, and the French have done it for decades so we know it works.  Now we’ve done our bit for the planet, we’ve met our CO2 targets and shown the way, it hasn’t cost very much, and we don’t depend on Russian gas to keep the lights on.

Second, let’s use some of those billions we haven’t wasted spent on wind and solar and carbon trading on inventing, let’s be first in the race to develop new energy.  ‘Hypothecate’ the billions, dedicate them to CO2 reducing inventions, ie energy.  Spend freely on science and R&D.  Let’s make Britain a centre for excellence, for added value, for intellectual knowhow and intellectual property development, for patents, in the new energy world.  Let’s create Bell Labs, or ten of them.  Their brief would be to develop the energy sources and storage techniques of the future.  Let the premise be:  Imagine fossil fuels have all multiplied 5 times in price.   Develop alternative technologies, that can be deployed in scale, with controllable environmental impact.  Think fission, think hydrogen, think fuel cell, algae, electricity storage, anything.  Let’s suck in the brains of the world.  Would you prefer our useless solar feed-in scheme, at a cost of £7.5bn, saving an ounce and a half of carbon, or the world’s top scientists working in Britain in some of the world’s best facilities, with a chance of developing technology that might actually work without impoverishing us?

Now that would be good for Britain, and good for the world too.  As Mike Hulme, ex-boss of CRU and colleague of Phil ‘climategate’ Jones put it in May 2010: ‘Taming climate change will only be achieved successfully as a benefit contingent upon other goals that are politically attractive and relentlessly pragmatic’.

This is immoral, I hear you say.  Really?  My preferable moral imperative is providing energy to the worlds’ poor, not trapping them in the poverty that we have escaped by continuing to deny 1.3bn people access to electricity.  And wearing a hairshirt myself just won’t help, it’ll hinder.

32 Responses to “A Letter from London”

  1. WxForecaster said

    Great money quotes…
    “…putting a lot of indifferent or plainly wrong arguments together, none of which stands up to examination on its own, does not create a coherent platform for policy action.


    It’s pointless, costs money and jobs, and we may as well fry rich as poor, at least we’ll be able to afford adaptation policies.”

  2. M. Simon said

    I made a similar (if much shorter) argument at Pielke Jr’s blog. I have also been making it from time to time at my blog.

    BTW for long shots I like Polywell Fusion. The odds against are high but the payoff is tremendous. And it is not a long ways from a definite yes/no. About another year or two. And best of all the US Navy is funding it.

    Any way. Alternatives will get deployed fastest if they cut the cost of energy by 1/2 or more.

    We should stop putting funds into wind and solar subsidies and put it into research. Much bigger bang for the buck.

  3. Jeff Id said

    #1, that was my bold –I should have mentioned.

  4. Steve Fitzpatrick said

    Where is Bart when we need someone to refute this heresy?

    Seriously though, what other reasonable options are there? Nobody (not China, Germany, Brazil, the USA, the UK, Russia, or anyone else) is willing to impoverish themselves over this with insanely expensive energy, and woe be the politicians who try to force poverty on their constituency.

    Nuclear, now and in a big way, is the only thing that will make a measurable impact on global emissions. So what the hell are we waiting for? If china can build 100+ new airports in <20 years, why can't the USA build 100+ new fast breeder plants in the same time (or less!). And we should push every major economy worldwide to do the same. The green loonies have kept the obvious solution off the table for far too long. So I ask again: what the hell are we waiting for?

  5. Brian H said

    #2, M. Simon;
    For another (IMO better) contendah, check out . It is AT LEAST 2 years ahead of PolyWell, and expects to reach scientific unity this calendar year. Its deployability, cost per W, and pricing per kwh are multiples better. As close to zero waste or radiation hazards as makes no nevermind. Comes in small, stand-alone 5MW chunks, so can be installed here, there, and everywhere, minimizing transmission costs and infrastructure.

    Best case extrapolation, during the 5-10 year time frame, UK could see its power costs drop by an order of magnitude.

    ALL Greenie and subsidized and most Big Box electricity sources will be economic roadkill.

    The CO2 issue goes away, back to the Land of Illusions where it came from.

    Water and food shortages and systemic poverty go away.

    And so on. Enjoy!

  6. Brian H said

    P.S. Focus Fusion has so far used and spent about 1/10 or 1/20 PolyWell’s miniscule budget. Zero gubmint support or involvement. Thanks be to all gods!

  7. Brian H said

    correction: “Best case extrapolation, during the 5-10 year time frame, UK could see its power costs drop by two orders of magnitude.

  8. Brian H said

    About the pointlessness of Green Gubmint expenditures, P. when it comes to measures for preventing CO2 emissions, the circle of beneficiary and the cost bearer splits apart. A meaningful reduction in emissions through uncoordinated, single country initiatives cannot be achieved.

    In other words, unilateral Greening shoots off your foot to spite your face.

  9. Brian H said

    correction: P. Gosslein recently reported on the German Finance Ministry Science Advisory Board’s conclusions: ‘when it comes …’

  10. Brian H said

    Implement Preview and/or Edit functions for comments! All the modern websites have them …


  11. JT said

    Hear, hear, uncommon common sense. Most important point, “there is no peak gas or peak coal.” There are hundreds of years of fossil fuels waiting to be burned. If you don’t want all that CO2 in the atmosphere then build nuclear reactors.

  12. Brian H said

    More CO2, pliz!

  13. Ed said

    On average world temperature is +15⁰C. This is sustained by the atmospheric Greenhouse Effect 33⁰C. Without the Greenhouse Effect the planet would be un-inhabitable at -18⁰C. The World and Mankind need the Greenhouse Effect.

    So just running the numbers:
    Greenhouse Effect = 33.00⁰C
    Water Vapour accounts for about 95% of the Greenhouse Effect = + 31.35⁰C
    Other Greenhouse Gasses GHGs account for 5% = ~1.65⁰C
    CO2 is 75% of the effect of all GHGs = 1.24⁰C
    Most CO2 in the atmosphere is natural: Man-made CO2 is less than 7% of total atmospheric CO2 = 0.087⁰C: so closing the whole world carbon economy could only achieve a virtually undetectable -1/10 ⁰C.
    As the temperature reduction that could be achieved by closing the whole of the World’s Carbon economies is less than 1/10 ⁰C, how can politicians think that their actions can limit warming to only + 2.00 ⁰C?
    UK Man-made CO2 is about 2% or equal to 1738 millionths ⁰C: the impact on Global Temperatures that closing the whole UK Carbon economy could ever have.

    So the probability is that any current global warming is not man-made and in any case such warming could be not be influenced by any remedial action taken by mankind. If this is really so, then the prospect should be greeted with Unmitigated Joy:
    • concern over CO2 as a man-made pollutant can be discounted.
    • it is not necessary to damage the world’s economy to no purpose.
    • if warming were happening, it would lead to a more benign and healthy climate for all mankind.
    • any extra CO2 is already increasing the fertility of all plant life and thus enhancing world food production.
    • a warmer climate, within current natural variation, would provide a future of greater opportunity and prosperity for human development. This has been well proven in the past and would now especially benefit the third world.
    However in the light of the state of the current solar cycle it seems that there is a real prospect of damaging cooling occurring in the near future for several decades.
    Nonetheless, this is not to say that the world should not be seeking more efficient ways of generating its energy, conserving its energy use and stopping damaging its environments. And there is a real need to wean the world off the continued use of fossil fuels simply on the grounds of:
    • security of supply
    • increasing scarcity
    • rising costs
    • their use as the feedstock for industry rather than simply burning them.

    In France the results of the French long-term energy strategy with its massive commitment to nuclear power is impressive.
    Even if one is concerned about CO2, it seems to pay off, French CO2 emissions / head are the lowest in the developed world. So a wholehearted commitment to nuclear power, is the only thing to make good common sense.

  14. Chris Wood said

    The overwhelming sense of this post from Roddy Campbell sadly ensures that it will never happen. There are too many vested interest, political, ideological, capitalistic, self serving, you name it.
    History shows that what really needs to be done rarely is!

  15. HotRod said

    Chris – how can you tell what history shows? We’ll never know the counterfactual.

    Thanks for the compliment.

  16. HotRod said

    Ed – you mention security of supply, scarcity and rising costs.

    I’m not sure what the issue is. Security of supply is what it ever was, why worse now than before? You might say more diverse supply.

    Scarcity and cost – gas and coal are plentiful and startlingly cheap, energy as a percentage of gdp has been falling for decades hasn’t it?

    I find arguments that ‘we should do it anyway for security scarcity and finity’ quite weak.

    Typing this on a crazy blackberry hope it comes thru ok.

  17. This gas is delivered to homes to provide warmth. Many heaters, gas heaters free-standing, and kitchens using natural gas as fuel. The production of electricity with natural gas as the process used to generate electricity using coal. Can be used to heat water and produce steam, then water. The system is an effective method to produce electricity, but can be even more effective through the use of a combined cycle system.

  18. […] the rest at the Air Vent here, and be sure to have a look at the graph showing China’s plan for airport […]

  19. AusieDan said

    I have three concerns with the suggestions being made.
    (1) putting more money into research without a major change in the social envirionment of the research establishment means more waste and more mis-information.
    So reform R&D before giving it more bickies.
    (2) We have very goood, low cost infrastructure for producing power.
    Different between different countries but each designed (by the old invisible hand) to yield reliable, low cost, low investment power.
    Maintaining and increasing that should be our objective in the future as well.
    Extend the life of existing facilities as long as that is cost effective.
    Introduce new investment at the lowest cost, highest ROI, on an as required basis ONLY.
    (3) consider (possible) need to boost global CO2 levels if and when needed to boost plant and food production.
    Don’t rush into curb CO2 emissions until we know what is happening to temperature (run away hothouse – another ice age – or just business as usual).
    Let’s start being cautious for once (but don’t mention the cautionary principle – just move forward cautiously).
    That’s all.

  20. Spen said

    I am not sure that economics will prevent stop the political initiative to develop a low carbon economy. The UK parliament (ALMOST UNANIMOUSLY) has passed the Climate Change Act which is intended to reduce the UK carbon footprint by 80%!! at a cost of over £18 billion per annum. With boneheads like this in power anything could happen. Its a politician’s dream – saving the planet and a vast new source of taxation (and they will be counting their gold-plated pensions when the truth eventually dawns).

  21. Lawrie Ayres said

    We have a bunch of complete idiots running Australia right now. They not only refuse to contemplate nuclear in any form; the Green allies want to close our nuclear medicine facility. They still want to tax emissions even when the vast majority of world scientists are saying CO2 makes very little difference to temperatures or climate. They still believe in the most expensive alternate technologies, wind and solar. I fear the insane are running the asylum.

    When does the madness stop?

  22. Garry said

    According to the World Nuclear Association, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has more nuclear reactors on order or proposed (14) than the UK (13).

    The USA has 21 on order or proposed while China – no surprise here – beats everyone with 39 on order and 120 reactors proposed (169 total).

  23. Charlie said

    I agree with every word.

    It doesnt matter if you believe in AGW or not, the simple fact of the matter is that rampant expansion by the China, India and some of the other developing powers in South America will dwarf even the most ambitous efforts of the west. And they’re not going to give up developing and improving their position in the world just because some fat twat politician in the UK says so.

    I read somewhere that China outputs more CO2 in something like 11 days than Australia does in a year. And despite this, PM here, Julia Gillard, still wants a ‘price on carbon’. Australia could shut down for a year and the the world’s CO2 wouldnt notice. Trying to lower global CO2 this way is like trying to lower global sea levels with a teaspoon.

  24. T G Watkins said

    Excellent essay – send to the politicians, MSM immediately.

  25. Chuckles said

    ‘First, build twenty new nuclear power stations.’

    No, build thirty or forty, and when you’re done, help build them anywhere they don’t have sufficient energy supplies. While you’re at it, get rid of all the insane hidden taxes, levy’s and whatever they call them.
    Cheap plentiful energy/power is key (as well as security of person & property etc of course).
    Need water? Dedicate a nuke or two to desalination. Need vehicle fuel? Dedicate a nuke or two to synthesise it. Repeat as necessary.

  26. Brian H said

    Economics will have its way, one way or t’other. The question is when and whether, like the US’, the electorates of UK, Oz, Spain, Germany, etc. will twig to the rip-off being engineered between the Green Globalists and the pols and their ‘house scientists’ before really serious economic damage is done.

    And lest we forget, economics has to do with survival. The BRIC nations etc. are much closer to the mega-grinder of poverty and hence much more aware of this fact. But it awaits everyone who destroys their own means of sustinance.

  27. Annie said

    In Australia, our Prime Minister trotted off to the G20 and did a deal to sell our uranium to Russia. Yet this Government won’t even discuss building nuclear energy plants.

    Our Prime Minister reniged on her pre election promise not to introduce a carbon tax, while turning a blind eye as multinationals and governments buy up our best farmland. The Australian Government is allowing the farm to be sold off. Now, thanks to their deal with the Greens, they’ll drive what’s left of our industry offshore, most likely to China. What kind of future are we offering our children and grandchildren? I’m sickened at what Labor and the Greens are doing to Australia.

    As Briah H says above, “poverty awaits everyone who destroys their own means of sustinance.”

  28. tonyb said

    Very nice article.

    For sure Britain desperately needs a grown up source of power that befits a major economy. Fiddling about with windmills simply won’t meet our needs whilst impoverishing us with costly energy. So Yes to 20 nuclear power stations in the UK preferably within five years when the lights will start going out (impossible I know)

    Secondly, groups of like minded countries should get together to develop renewable energy sources that are approriate to their circumstances, actually work, and will deliver low cost energy (the bedrock of our economies)

    For example there are a group of sun belt countries that could develop solar power, whilst there are countries with shores washed by the sea where wave and tidal power would be beneficial.

    Horses for courses-solar rechnology is an expensive luxury in the UK but could be sensible in Spain. Wave power would be great for the UK but inappropriate for Switzerland.

    But before fiddling round with next generation renewables we need to get the basics right, and assuming we won’t be allowed to build any more coal fired power stations AND we want energy security AND we want ‘cheap’ energy I don’t see any alternatives to Nuclear at present.


  29. Barry Woods said

    From the Guardian last December – post Copenhagen

    An upset ‘warmist reporter’ nails the politics….

    But China’s growth, and growing global political and economic dominance, is based largely on cheap coal. China knows it is becoming an uncontested superpower; indeed its newfound muscular confidence was on striking display in Copenhagen. Its coal-based economy doubles every decade, and its power increases commensurately. Its leadership will not alter this magic formula unless they absolutely have to.

    Copenhagen was much worse than just another bad deal, because it illustrated a profound shift in global geopolitics. This is fast becoming China’s century, yet its leadership has displayed that multilateral environmental governance is not only not a priority, but is viewed as a hindrance to the new superpower’s freedom of action. I left Copenhagen more despondent than I have felt in a long time. After all the hope and all the hype, the mobilisation of thousands, a wave of optimism crashed against the rock of global power politics, fell back, and drained away.

  30. Brian H said

    Really? Copenhagen’s failure was just Reality reasserting itself, and thank God for it! The proposed forced march to defective ‘green tech’ financed by huge rental payments to developing countries NOT to develop was so blindingly destructive and stupid that it beggars description.

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