WHILE waiting for the runners and riders in the Great General Election Derby to be finally declared, I have been to some renewable energy and climate change events.
First was one with Tortoise Media, where it became apparent rather early on that people do not appreciate that electricity is only about 20 per cent of the energy consumption of the UK, so switching half of electricity generation to renewables (as happened on some sunny and windy days this year) does not signify much. The real problem is installing generating infrastructure to replace the 80 per cent of energy that we get from fossil fuels. It also became abundantly apparent that the zero emissions target is pointless. Most of the reduction in UK emissions since the 1990s has been achieved through outsourcing our manufacturing to Asia.
Second event was an Oxford Union debate, ‘This House would break the law to save the planet.’ The proposers included Gail Bradbrook, one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion, who seemed to revel in being taken seriously and revealed that being arrested at a demonstration is a source of almost sexual pleasure. Whatever it takes, I guess. More impressive was Gina McCarthy, a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who pointed out that it is our species, not the planet, which is at risk. She also made the telling point that energy consumption (and thus CO2 emissions) saves lives, particularly in the emerging economies. She was too polite to make the obvious point that Oxbridge undergraduates would be more usefully employed in developing the necessary technologies and accounting tools to track emissions rather than glueing themselves to buildings or preventing adults from getting to work. Unsurprisingly the vote went with law-breaking, but only by about five to three. Maybe there is intelligent life in the dreaming spires.
Finally, I listened to Professor Michael Kelly, emeritus professor of engineering at Cambridge, at the annual Global Warming Policy Foundation lecture on which TCW reported yesterday. Professor Kelly is an engineer; as he pointed out, engineers take legal liability for their calculations and designs, scientific theories are simply subject to peer review. And politicians are seldom sufficiently numerate to understand – he should know this as during 2006-9 he was a part-time scientific adviser to the Department for Communities and Local Government. His position on climate change is pragmatic: specifically, ‘the real-world data shows me that the climate is changing, as indeed it has always changed. It would appear by correlation that mankind’s activity, by way of greenhouse gas emissions, is now a significant contributory factor to that change, but the precise percentage quantification of that factor is far from certain. The global climate models seem to show heating at least twice as fast as the observed data over the last three decades’ (my italics).
His lecture covered the beneficial impact of energy on humanity and the substantial engineering challenges of weaning the global economy off fossil fuel. ‘Substantial challenges’ translates as unquantifiable but huge costs, to the point where we need to be really sure that this is what we want to do, both as a country and a world. Most of all, he urged an informed discussion rather than the hysteria of XR. His evidence-backed view is that if you want to replace fossil fuels, to keep the lights on you need to build nuclear power stations. He also explained the impact of carbon capture (just the capture) technology, which is that it reduces the overall efficiency of a coal or gas power station from 40 per cent to about 25 per cent. In other words, for every two power stations that you want to equip with carbon capture, you need to build a third to power it. There was also bad news on the energy payback in the steel on the average wind turbine.
The best comment came from Lembit Opik (remember him?) who pointed out that climate change activism now had all the properties of a religious cult: there is an apocalyptic threat, we are to blame and extreme action is required.
As we face a month or so of wannabe MPs pledging to spend vast sums of our money on assuaging Greta’s fears, I think it is incumbent upon us all to enquire as to their understanding of the engineering, costs (financial and otherwise) and risks of our current approach.
It will make a nice change from the Brexit questions.