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Renewables and austerity can’t decarbonise

My Sunday Telegraph article on the need for realism about carbon dioxide targets:

If the British government declared the abolition of sin by 2050, commentators would be rightly cynical. The announcement last week that Britain will enact a net-zero carbon target for 2050 was instead welcomed, especially by “faith leaders”. Yet without specifying how it is to be achieved, setting this target is about as wishful as pledging to eliminate sin. It is not just a matter of cost – although £1 trillion is not small change (if you had been spending a pound a second and had now reached £1 trillion, you would have had to start when Neanderthals were still on the scene).

Too many Tories think that going green means getting into lucrative bed with the crony-capitalist wind and solar industries, putting profit-seeking lipstick on a subsidy-dependent pig. But this is a futile strategy, politically as well as practically.

In Britain last year, generously using the Final Energy Consumption metric, 4 per cent of energy came from wind and solar, 3 per cent from nuclear and less than 1 per cent from hydro, the three zero-carbon sources. The common misconception that wind and solar are bigger contributors comes from forgetting that electricity is just 20 per cent of energy: the rest is heat, transport and industry.

So eliminating carbon dioxide from the energy sector has hardly begun, yet the cost is already huge and bearing down especially on poorer people, while, as Professor Dieter Helm of Oxford University has pointed out, industry is voting with its feet and taking its emissions to China and elsewhere. It was not true that Britain did without coal recently: a grid interconnector was bringing electricity from Dutch coal-fired power stations, and industry was burning coal imported from Russia. (I hereby declare my indirect interest in a Northumberland coal mine.)

Even if we could figure out a way to run aeroplanes on electricity, or to use less coal to make steel (it takes a heap of coal to make a wind turbine), and even if we were to find a way to make solar and wind power available on demand, there just is not enough space either on land or sea to power and heat the British economy from these low-density sources, not without ruining the entire countryside: a point frequently made by the late Sir David MacKay, chief scientist at the Department of Energy.

The “extinction” protesters say we can do without meat, or foreign holidays. To Tories flirting with this kind of energy rationing policy, good luck at the ballot box – look what has happened recently in Australia, France and America to politicians who promised to push up energy prices to save the climate.

The people in denial in this debate are the ones who think we could reach a 2050 net-zero target with a mixture of renewable energy and hair-shirt austerity. Nor is nuclear ready to help without massive public subsidy. Fortunately, there may be another way, one that Boris Johnson should seize to put clear turquoise water between himself and green dreamers.

For the foreseeable future, fossil fuels will be crucial to sustaining civilisation. A way must be found to use oil and gas, but capture their carbon dioxide emissions – and have the industry do something more than signal its regret; to be part of the solution, rather than most of the problem. The technology for sequestering carbon dioxide, still hopeless a few years ago, is now progressing in Norway, Canada and Texas. Britain has a golden opportunity because the North Sea oil industry has left a network of pipes and wells ideal for injecting carbon dioxide into rocks, where it slowly dissolves. Government is on the hook for some of the decommissioning cost anyway.

What is needed, though, is not some taxpayer-funded boondoggle to pick a winner in carbon capture – because that approach usually picks the most politically well-connected loser instead – but the setting up of a market mechanism to discover innovative technologies.

Professors Stuart Haszeldine of Edinburgh University and Myles Allen of Oxford University argue that government should make all fossil energy producers and importers pay a small but increasing fee per tonne of carbon dioxide, not into the insatiable maw of the Treasury, nor into vague tree-planting scams, but into actual carbon-capture projects that work. Fierce competition would ensue to deliver technologies that capture and, crucially, store carbon for the least cost. 

If Boris Johnson becomes prime minister and adopts such a policy, he can look the opposition in the eye and say: “Unlike you, I have a plan for how we might just get to net-zero. It uses the market, encourages innovation, does not hit the poor or reward the rich, and puts the obligation where it should be: on the fossil-fuel industry.”


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist