Low-carbon Britain: a pointless distraction

The UK's new climate change plan suggests we make considerable sacrifices for little practical benefit.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

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The UK’s official Committee on Climate Change unveiled its first report on Monday, detailing why and how Britain must make massive cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the next few decades. But achieving the goals set out in Building a Low-Carbon Economy will be expensive, a distraction from other priorities, and quite possibly futile.

The committee, led by former business leader Adair Turner alongside scientists, energy specialists and economists, believes that in order to have a good chance of stabilising temperature rises caused by manmade GHG emissions at no more than two degrees Celsius, global emissions of GHGs must be cut by 50 per cent by 2050. As it seems unfair that the developing world should sign up to any deal that allows wealthy industrialised nations far higher per capita emissions, the committee argues that Britain must cut emissions by 80 per cent compared to 1990 levels by 2050.

This is economically feasible, says the report, as long as we assume there will be substantial progress in a range of areas, including: the efficiency and connectability of windpower; the rapid expansion of nuclear power; the development of electric cars into viable alternatives to petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles; the creation of a viable means of carbon capture and storage (CCS) – in other words, grabbing the CO2 as it comes out of the power station chimney; and the successful introduction of emissions permit trading to crank up the price of producing CO2.

There are some very big technical and economic ‘ifs’ amongst all that. If all those things come to pass, the estimated cost of these drastic emissions cuts will be in the order of one or two per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the year 2050 – expensive, but by no means impossible. According to the report, the first phase – up to 2020 – will be the equivalent of foregoing half of one year’s economic growth, spread over the next 12 years; if all goes to plan. While that is not the end of the world (but then again, neither is global warming), it will impact substantially on poorer families, with many more forced to live in ‘fuel poverty’. The fuel price rises we have seen this year are a taste of the hardship that bigger energy bills could bring for many people.

If the plan put forward seems detailed and achievable, then a little scepticism seems in order. Just because something seems possible on paper doesn’t mean it will happen in reality. Britain’s GHG emissions have fallen by little more than three per cent since 1990, despite a major shift from coal- to gas-powered electricity generation that achieved substantial cuts as a happy by-product. Britain’s politicians have produced a lot more hot air about the need to tackle climate change than cuts in carbon dioxide output because the real costs have looked unpalatable.

In a best-case scenario, what is required over the next four decades is an enormous research effort, directed at not producing, or even removing from the atmosphere, carbon dioxide and methane. If any of the various elements of this decarbonising plan don’t work, the policy will fail unless other elements make up for it. For example, if carbon capture and storage turns out to be impractical, or the technical problems with making windpower reliable prove to be insurmountable, massive cuts will need to be made elsewhere. As a wily old Prussian general once put it, ‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy’.

Indeed, given that there are considerable problems in the world right now, from access to clean water and sufficient food to the need to provide economic development for a world that will have nine billion people in it by 2050, declaring war on greenhouse gases doesn’t seem the smartest of ideas. As the brightest and best of society beaver away trying to decarbonise every aspect of our lives, this draws valuable resources away from emergencies that exist in the here-and-now for the sake of possible emergencies in the future. In any event, the problems linked to climate change are the very problems we have right now. Why dissipate so much effort on trying to control the temperature in order to prevent (so we are told) worsening water shortages, rising malaria cases, floods, droughts and so on when all of those problems already exist and can be better tackled directly?

Worse, the UK plan is utterly useless unless there is a workable and binding climate change treaty to which everyone – but particularly the USA, Europe, China and India – signs up. And that doesn’t look likely at the moment. In a global recession, will governments really devote considerable resources, postponing much needed development, to tackling global warming? Without everyone on board, the policies suggested for the UK by the committee will make a difference measurable in hundredths or even thousandths of a degree to global temperature – or rather, so small as not to be measurable at all.

On the other hand, the apparent practicality of the committee’s suggestions tends to undermine one of the great selling points of environmental fears for politicians and activists: the idea that we must all reduce our ‘carbon footprints’ as a great, unifying moral idea. The fact that a Committee on Climate Change exists or that all the major parties have engaged in horse trading on the percentage size of the UK’s emissions cuts, shows how important the issue has become to political life today. And we certainly haven’t heard the last of demands that we turn off our lights or put out the recycling. But to the extent that the committee has realised that the minor changes often touted in public information campaigns aren’t going to enable these huge cuts to happen, it actually undercuts the very post-political message that makes the environment so attractive to our leaders.

If it turns out that the problem can be solved by better insulation, swapping gas-guzzling motors for a squeaky-clean electric models and getting the power companies to build nuclear stations and carbon-capturing coal-fired plants instead, where does that leave the all-encompassing eco guilt-trip?

The great thing about the ‘small is beautiful’ notion is that we’re constantly reminded that we are wicked people who are screwing up the planet and that in saving the world, we’re ‘all in this together’. If it turns out there’s a technical solution, rather than a moral one, that doesn’t involve reorganising the whole of society around decarbonisation, the ideology of ecologism is undermined. No wonder that one high-profile environmental columnist was attempting to ratchet up the rhetoric yesterday, demanding that if we don’t all stop flying and travel only by coach within the next four years, the world is doomed.

What Turner and his committee have suggested could be done. Even in pursuing illogical goals, humanity can still excel. There may even be some useful spin-offs in the process (there often are with ‘wars’). But the obsession with building a low-carbon economy is almost certainly a very unhealthy one.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

spiked launched a hot air calculator. DK Johnston asked what the odds are that we’re baking the planet. Brendan O’Neill argued against the politicisation of science. Rob Lyons noted Nigel Lawson’s criticism of the idea that the science is certain and discussed the wartime language of environmentalists. Josie Appleton thought life’s too short to be ‘carbon neutral’. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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