Turn the clock back to 1875? No thanks

The crazy, progress-stalling carbon cuts being proposed at Copenhagen just aren’t going to happen – and it’s a good thing too.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

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‘If we are to tackle climate change in the years after Copenhagen, it is clear we will need to secure change of an unprecedented scale. The change needs to be very big.’

So said the UK energy and climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, delivering a lecture last month at the London School of Economics in memory of his late father, the Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband. Miliband Junior continued: ‘In the United Kingdom we have pledged in law to cut our emissions by 80 per cent. That means we need our electricity and transport systems and homes to be near zero carbon. So we need a dramatic increase in renewable energy – we are planning for a six-fold increase by 2020.

‘We need to dramatically reduce the energy intensity of our homes, with better insulation and more efficient appliances an essential aspect of progress. And if we are to electrify our transport and heating and allow for the intermittency of wind power, we need the total capacity for power generation to go up even as its carbon pollution goes down. The changes need to happen quickly. And the change needs to be permanent.’ (1)

Now, we at spiked are all in favour of ambition, and these aims are certainly very ambitious. Similar figures for cutting carbon emissions are being bandied about by other Western leaders, particularly President Obama. But it’s hard to believe that Miliband really thinks these things are going to happen. Which means the kind of cuts that are now being debated at the Copenhagen climate change summit are riven with a great deal of bad faith. If the experience of the Kyoto Protocol is anything to go by, this means: Agree the cuts now, never mind about tomorrow.

However, we don’t want these cuts to remain unrealised because our politicians ‘lack the will’ to deliver on them. No, we want these targets to be missed because today’s war on carbon is actually an expression of suspicion towards production and progress, and because we think we should elevate humanity’s need to make things and improve living standards over the abstract alleged needs of Gaia. This doesn’t mean being ‘pro-carbon’, of course, but it does mean being ‘anti-carbon cuts’ – on the basis that these proposed cuts express a deep and political suspicion of mankind’s activities, rather than being practical, achievable or desirable suggestions for solving the problems of pollution.

In September, Steven F Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute put the proposed carbon cuts into perspective in an article for the Wall Street Journal: ‘For the US, the 80 per cent target means reducing fossil-fuel greenhouse-gas emissions to a level the nation last experienced in 1910.’ (2) However, in 1910, the population of America was 92million. Today, it is around 300million. In 2050, the US Census Bureau estimates the US will have 420million people (3). What that means for greenhouse gas emissions, argues Hayward, is that on ‘a per-capita basis, we’d have to go back to the level of about 1875‘.

One can imagine that post-Civil War America wasn’t very big on carbon emissions. The first popular motor car, the Model T, wasn’t launched until 1908. The Wright brothers didn’t even get off the ground at Kittyhawk until 1903, and mass aviation didn’t start for a long time after that. Electric light bulbs had been designed in 1875, but it was only in 1880 that Joseph Swan started putting the first models in people’s houses in England. In other words, the carbon emissions of societies in 1875 were tiny by today’s standards – because those societies were less advanced.

Of course, reducing emissions to those levels by 2050 would not mean a return to those living conditions. By 2050, we can hope that petrol-powered cars will be objects of curiosity, having been replaced by electric vehicles. Alternatives to coal- and gas-generated electricity should mean power is produced with far fewer carbon emissions. We may still need to burn fuel to power aircraft, but this could be biofuel that captures carbon from the atmosphere and simply releases it again in flight. Last month, a short test flight by the Dutch airline KLM was part-powered by biokerosene, suggesting that low-carbon flying isn’t a million miles away.

So, can the UK cut emissions this drastically simply through such innovations? No. The government doesn’t believe it can, anyway. The 80 per cent figure quoted by Miliband is a mixture of wishful thinking and typical New Labour dodgy accounting. In the government’s Low Carbon Transition Plan, it notes that economic ‘modelling indicated that Europe would meet its target most efficiently by importing 20 per cent of its reduction target in the form of international allowances’, a line of thinking the UK government will copy. In other words, the planned cut in carbon emissions is actually 64 per cent, not 80 per cent, with the UK buying the rest at the expense of development elsewhere in the world.

Furthermore, that cut is measured from 1990. But the UK has already made substantial cuts thanks, in large part, to an entirely coincidental shift from coal to gas for electricity production. (Gas has a higher proportion of hydrogen in it, so it produces fewer carbon dioxide emissions when burnt.) Add in the British economy’s long-term shift away from making things, a messy business we increasingly outsource to China, and suddenly it is clear that the UK won’t need to cut actual emissions by anything like 80 per cent to meet this target. This is like declaring you can run 100 metres in world-record time, but forgetting to mention you’ll be starting from halfway down the track. The demise of manufacturing and other events mean that Britain is already on the way to becoming ‘low carbon’.

Even then there are some pretty major hoops to jump through. The government is relying on solving the problems of intermittent electricity supply from renewables, while hoping that carbon capture and storage (CCS) can be made to work viably on a commercial scale to make using coal ‘clean’. It also means foisting ‘smart meters’ on every home which, as Rob Johnston pointed out on spiked yesterday, means handing a considerable degree of control over household energy use to the power companies while nagging us all to have darker, colder homes (see Smart meters? A dumb idea).

Just to put the tin lid on it, the UK Met Office today declared that greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 if the world is to have any chance of keeping the global temperature rise at or below the target of two degrees Celsius (4). Other researchers and green activists have demanded even faster cuts in emissions. For example, the 10:10 campaign is demanding a 10 per cent cut in UK emissions by 2010 and others think that emission should fall by 25 per cent by 2012.

In other words, the UK government is declaring that it will make drastic cuts which, in reality, it doesn’t believe it can make, but even these cuts won’t be enough to achieve its stated target for holding down global temperatures. On this basis, the only sensible role for carbon emissions is to go into your garage, turn your car engine on, and choke yourself into oblivion.

But oblivion seems to be the spirit of the age, wiping out the gains of the past 200 years or so. The UK, and the European Union more generally, has simply become sniffy about that dirty business known as industry. As the manufacturing bases of Europe’s old powers increasingly disappear under competition from Asia, there has been a world-weary rejection of making ‘stuff’, and of modern life in general – at least amongst the elites and the commentariat. Why, we are asked, do we want to have material possessions, travel the world or have so many gadgets, especially when their production and provision emit so much CO2? Here, rejecting carbon has been become a way of rejecting all the trappings of modernity: carbon is frowned upon, not simply because it pollutes, but because it is the byproduct of manufacturing, jobs, the creation of stuff, global travel, and so on. Carbon, frequently, is codeword for ‘modern life’, which is what some people really want to scale back. The inspiration for public policy seems to have shifted from Adam Smith to Morrissey.

It is not surprising, then, that according to many leading greens, the only way out of this bind is for people to do, make and travel less. As one of the UK’s sustainable development commissioners, Professor Tim Jackson, put it earlier this year: ‘The truth is that there is as yet no credible, socially just, ecologically sustainable scenario of continually growing incomes for a world of nine billion people.’ Whatever way you spin it, to achieve the kind of reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that is being talked about in Copenhagen will involve, at the very least, people being poorer than they would otherwise be.

We need more honesty and vision in this debate. Firstly, we should make it our priority to raise people out of poverty, which is why it is only right to support developing nations as they do just that, rather than to tie them down with demands that will hold back their modernisation. Secondly, we should cut out the moralising about humanity screwing up the planet. It’s our planet, like it or not, and we should do what is best for us. Thirdly, we should have a bit of faith in ourselves to solve the problems that development creates, rather than reject development itself.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

(1) Ed Miliband’s Ralph Miliband Lecture: ‘The Politics of Climate Change’, ClickGreen, 21 November 2009

(2) No: Alternatives Are Simply Too Expensive, Wall Street Journal, 21 September 2009

(3) US Interim Projections by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 2000-2050, US Census Bureau

(4) UK Met Office warns carbon emissions must peak by 2020, BBC News, 10 December 2009

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Topics Science & Tech


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