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.