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The real world of long ago


IN MY far-distant childhood we had coal fires in our homes and all our electricity and gas came from coal. I remember being told by my geography teacher that Britain had sufficient to last us another 400 years. I also remember him telling us the joke being put about that continents might be drifting across the surface of the earth. Around the same time my mother explained to me that a United Nations Charter had been drawn up to make sure there’d be no more wars.

There is no prize for guessing which one of those three is still just as true today as it was in 1945. We still have the coal, but I will award the title of ‘Mr Clever’ to anyone who has found the Carbon Brief website which has spotted that ‘the last time (UK) coal demand was this low was in 1757, when George II was king’.

Emissions from the UK are falling, so that must be good for the world’s grimy atmosphere. They have calculated somehow that in 1850 our annual emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) totalled 122million tons (mt). After reaching a peak in 1973 of 660mt they are now down to around 350mt. We are leading the way, says our government. Maybe a pause here to ponder on our human weakness of believing all is well yet at the same time knowing the opposite.

Are we saving the world? You are entitled, even by this point, to think there is much more to say about emission reductions. You may also be worried on a much grander scale: that the whole global warming excitement is based on computer models.

There is indeed a lot more to say. We could talk about China, whose annual CO2 emissions in 1950 were 76mt rising to 364mt in 2000, and then they really got going to supply the world with whatever it wanted so in 2021 their total reached 11,500mt. Mr Clever has already worked out that’s 33 times as much as the UK.

Still in the real world, the top five emitters in 2022 contributed 65 per cent of the global total. UK proportion: less than 1 per cent. Total emissions continue to rise in spite of China’s slight reduction in 2022, due perhaps to their strict Covid lockdown policy.

Many countries have put electricity generation higher up their ‘must have’ list than saving the world from global warming. They have realised that if they had foolishly persisted in a strict ‘Net Zero by 2050’ programme, their populations would eventually have voted them out (democracies) or there would be widespread rioting (dictatorships).

You are now permitted to wonder what is going on: how can the UK be saving the world? Luckily, it is not just down to us. In 1995, Berlin hosted the first United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP1) ‘to establish binding targets and timetables for reducing developed country emissions’. There have since been another 27 of these annual jamborees, often in very attractive locations around the world. COP28 in 2022 attracted more than 35,000 attendees to the sunshine of Sharm El Sheikh.

Number 29 will take place later this year in Dubai. Australia is hoping to hold COP30; there can be no more distant location for the 120 countries involved. How many of the tens of thousands of attendees will walk there, go on their bikes, or travel in electric cars?

If Mr Clever has read about all the COPs’ aims and resolutions he might have thought: Well done! We can stop worrying about the forecasts of climate doom because the experts who look after us have been dealing with it for the last 28 years, and surely they’re welcome to a bit of relaxation between making their momentous decisions.

Alas, after those two last paragraphs it’s time we returned to the real world.

The Conferences’ aims and resolutions are consistent every year: emissions reduction is vital and must take place immediately or very soon. The result is also consistent: a steady increase in those emissions across all 28 years.

We know now that continents move and the United Nations cannot stop wars. We also know that not only have we coal for 400 years but also North Sea oil and gas, plus fracking. The UK has more than sufficient energy to last until practical nuclear fusion arrives.

A final thought from my far-distant childhood. The world of the 1930s and 40s suffered floods, storms, droughts, bitter winters, record summers, hurricanes and typhoons, but the weather people never said the climate was changing. Odd, that, isn’t it?

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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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