ON Monday, Michael Kelly, emeritus professor of engineering at Cambridge University, outlined the challenges – bordering on the absurd – that plans to decarbonise the economy will bring for society. His gambit was that an abundance of energy has brought about a huge improvement in the state of humankind, with poverty, hunger, illiteracy, pollution and child mortality all falling dramatically since the industrial revolution. We have moved from a world in which most human effort was used for just two tasks – getting fuel for heat and cooking, and obtaining food – to one in which the extraordinary achievements of modern society have become possible. That transformation has been driven almost entirely by fossil fuels, with renewables all but disappearing from the energy supply over the last two centuries.
Yet politicians have now decided, in their wisdom, that it is not only necessary, but actually possible to reverse those two centuries of steady development and improvement in just a decade or two. Professor Kelly’s lecture made it clear just how ridiculous that proposition is. ‘It would require,’ he observed, ‘the assistance of herds of unicorns’ to make it a reality. It’s not only the headlong rush for fossil fuels in India and China, as poverty-stricken billions move towards middle-class lifestyles, but also the technical difficulties of decarbonising the main areas of fossil fuel use in economies – namely for heating and transport. In this analysis, low-carbon electricity, the current obsession of the political classes, is shown to be something of a sideshow: if, as Kelly explained, decarbonising the UK housing stock is going to cost between two and four trillion pounds, it is fairly clear that it isn’t going to happen any time soon.