Wednesday, April 17, 2024
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Carry on driving, and eating beef


WE must fight climate change, we’re told, to save us from being parched, fried or drowned in the rising tides.

By ‘we’ they mean you. In 2020 you helped the UK to chuck more than 326 megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere – that’s nearly 900,000 tons every day, so it’s obvious you need to do something.

Don’t worry, help is available: everybody from the government to your local school is offering a ‘what-to-do’ list. But before you rush off to plant a tree or switch to meatless sausages, perhaps look more carefully at some of the advice.

Eat less meat and dairy: This is always near the top. Cows are bad because they take up a lot of room and they emit methane, which is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. Avoiding meat and dairy products is an effective way to protect the climate, we are told, and at the same time reduce your environmental impact on the planet. Do away with cows and grow trees instead.

But agriculture’s emissions are 10 per cent of the UK total, therefore only 0.1 per cent of the global total. (UK share of global COemissions is just under 1 per cent.) Making cows illegal would have no effect on the climate but would upset a lot of farmers.

What about saving emissions by cutting down on our imported fruit and veg? Should we really be flying in flowers from Kenya and pineapples from Costa Rica? Can’t we manage without avocados? We’re told to do less flying, see below.

Then there’s China (there’s always China): President Xi says climate targets can’t compromise energy security. China’s share of global CO2 emissions is 30 times more than the UK’s, and there is no sign of them shutting down their power stations. They need electricity as much as we do, and there’s a lot more of them.

Plant trees: We must plant lots of trees because they absorb carbon dioxide. They do, but maybe we shouldn’t buy a field just yet. When trees die, and especially when they are burnt, they give up much of that CO2. If you misguidedly turn a sandy or snowy plain into a forest, the change from light to dark will absorb more sunlight and help our old earth to warm up a bit more. That wasn’t what you intended, was it?

Then you have to think about India building 55 coal-fired power stations. Your trees, even if you bought a big field and planted a million of them, will be no use against that smoky lot. (See note above about people needing electricity.)

Walk, cycle, use public transport: Leave the car at home, they say. This advice is not welcome in rural areas, with buses (if there are any) maybe on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Nor will it be taken up by older folk. Neither will it be liked by those who would have a long walk to work, and don’t want to arrive there very wet or very cold or both.

Meanwhile Germany has made another choice: to get rid of a really clean emission-free energy source – nuclear power stations. It will therefore be using a lot more gas. If you want to walk to work to keep fit, then fine. But don’t think you’re fighting climate change.

Cut back on flying: Take fewer but possibly longer holidays that include flights is the sort of advice you find in the posher weekend newspapers. Rising inflation and crippling energy prices may make this kind of nonsense superfluous anyway.

Use less energy: One item on this list is always to turn off anything with a standby light before you go to bed. The one on your TV actually uses about 1.3 watts. Assuming 20 hours a day when you’re not watching anything, leaving that little light on will cost about £2.50 for the year. You can’t really turn off the microwave and the oven because you’ll upset the timers.

Why bother when US coal consumption jumped by 17 per cent last year compared with 2020 levels? Their fracking activities (banned in the UK) have brought the price of gas right down, and they are now a net total energy exporter.

Use green energy: You can’t. You can’t be supplied with green energy through the UK mains system, because it is always a mix. On one random day in February, for instance, the supply was coming from gas, solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, biomass, France, Holland, Belgium and Norway.

We import biomass (wood) fuel mainly from Canada, and bring in LNG (liquefied natural gas) tankers from Qatar, the US and Russia. The UK’s reliance on gas imports is directly responsible for the unpredicted price rises that you may have noticed recently. About one third of our energy has to be imported, yet we have all we need under our feet or at the bottom of the North Sea.

It would be reassuring to know that we are all in this together. But we’re not. Well over half of global CO2 emissions come from four countries: China (32.5 per cent), USA (12.5), India (7) and Russia (4.5). The UK proportion is 0.9 per cent. You’ve just read what China, the US and India are doing. Russia has recently let it be known that it is exporting 100million tonnes of coal to India and China.

The supposedly worldwide battle to reduce emissions is not going well. In fact it’s not going at all. You might as well carry on driving, flying, eating beef and enjoying life.

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Ivor Williams
Ivor Williams
Ivor Williams is a freelance writer and has been a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society since 1984.

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