The green energy targets being pursued by Britain’s main political parties are so impossibly deluded, fantastical and overambitious that they could only be achievable with the intervention of herds of magical unicorns.
So says Cambridge engineering professor Michael Kelly in a stinging rebuke to the Net Zero policies currently being championed by Boris Johnson and his rivals in their desperate race to the green bottom. The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are all committed to carbon emissions reduction targets which they cannot hope to attain and which will be hugely damaging both to Britain’s prosperity and freedoms.
Professor Kelly has said:
“For the world to reverse two centuries of industrial development in a few decades would require the efforts of herds of unicorns.”
Kelly was speaking in London at the annual lecture of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.
His speech – Energy Utopias and Engineering Reality – is a much needed corrective to the view, shockingly prevalent among the groupthink-afflicted political class not just in Britain but throughout most Western economies, that dramatic decarbonisation is both desirable and possible.
According to Kelly, one of the few serious thinkers to have considered the practical implications of taking an economy ‘Net Zero’, decarbonisation is neither desirable nor possible – at least not outside a 400-year time frame.
Green evangelists often talk about decarbonisation being the next Moon landing – one of those massive projects which the weight of government can get behind to create a better future.
But in fact, Kelly argues, the better analogy is President Nixon’s 1971 State of the Nation address in which he promised to throw whatever funds were necessary to finding a cure for cancer. Five decades on the cure remains elusive.
So the recent academic plea for mass leave of absence to ‘save the planet’ was quite misleading in appealing to the moon-shot as an exemplar – climate is more akin to the cancer example.
The target of decarbonising the world economy by 2050, he argues, is unrealistically ambitious.
In order to keep global temperatures to within 1.5◦C of pre-industrial levels, we intend to eliminate emissions of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide) by replacing all the energy developments since about 1880 with zero-carbon alternatives. This is to be achieved by 2050. Even reaching the old target of an 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions would be miraculous; this is a level of emissions not seen since 1880. I assert that a herd of unicorns will be needed to deliver this target, let alone full decarbonisation. I also point out the utter nonsense of Extinction Rebellion’s demands to complete the task by 2025.
Whatever paltry efforts Western economies make to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels are being dwarfed by a developing world which is hungry for real, reliable energy.
One notes that we have not had an ‘energy transition’: fossil fuels have continued to grow steadily at a rate about 7–8 times that of renewable technologies over the last 20 years. The energy demand of the major developed countries has been static or in small decline over that period. Most of the increase has come from growth in the global middle class, which increased by 1.5 billion people in the 20 years to 2015. The World Bank is anticipating a further increase of 2.5 billion by 2035, much of it the result of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and BP estimate a further 40% growth in global energy demand by then.
In the UK there has been a steady fall in carbon dioxide emissions since 1990. But in the international context, this is entirely pointless.
However, UK decreases are dwarfed by global increases. After no-growth years in 2016 and 2017, global carbon dioxide emissions grew by 3% in 2018. European emissions fell but the growth in all the other parts of the world was 17 times greater.
Worse, Britain’s – and Europe’s – decarbonisation has been achieved only at great cost to the economy, particularly with regards to balance of payments. UK manufacture has simply been offshored to China.
Figure 9 shows the increasing deficit of the UK balance of payments with respect to manufactures since then. In other words, a significant proportion of our emissions have been exported to China and elsewhere. Indeed, over the period 1991– 2007, the emissions associated with rising imports almost exactly cancelled the UK emissions reduction!
Some of the measures introduced by the Climate Change Committee have actually made global emissions worse. Where we once smelted aluminium using electricity generated from a mixture of nuclear, gas and coal, we now import our aluminium from China where electricity is nearly all made from coal. What is worse, the smelter in Anglesey had a contract to use more electricity when the local demand was low (at night and on weekends); costs were kept lower for everyone. Now the smelter has gone, local consumers have to pay more for their electricity as the generators are less efficiently used.
This is not – it hardly needs stating – a good look for all those political parties claiming to want to help workers and revive business in the regions: on energy and the environment, they are all pushing the very policies guaranteed to make British regional workers suffer.
Even were decarbonising Western economies practicable – which it is not – its putative benefits would be more than offset by the much more dramatic increase in carbon emissions from economies like India and China.
Kelly likens this to one group of people (the Western economies) digging tiny holes only to have another group (India, China etc) appearing with relays of wheelbarrows to fill them up again – and more.
I now have a simple pragmatic question to ask. Suppose I agree to pay you £100 to dig a two-metre-deep hole for me to bury family treasure. You set about digging, but find your progress thwarted by a hundred people with wheelbarrows full of earth coming to fill in your hole. What would you do? Keep on digging regardless or stop and try to find out what is going on? To your protest that you are being paid to dig a hole, you are told that the others are being paid much more to fill in any holes that appear!
At this time there are people in several countries, including both the United Kingdom and New Zealand, both of whose passports I hold, who are straining to turn off the last coal-fired power stations in the cause of climate change mitigation. But the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, the largest civil engineering project in the world, will help over 2 billion people in West Asia and Africa out of poverty and hunger over the next 30 years, just as earlier projects took 600 million people in China from rural squalor to middle-class comfort over the last 20 years. The initiative will include 700 new coal-fired power stations, over a third of which are currently being built. I do not support the neo-colonialist tendencies associated with the initiative, but it will go further than any other project to deliver the first and second of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: the elimination of world poverty and hunger. The climatic Sustainable Development Goal is number 13 on this list.
Professor Kelly’s speech ought to be required reading for the Britain’s political class and its attendant Civil Service, mired as they are in green groupthink. Exposure to the facts confounding their uncosted, ill-considered green virtue-signalling might well cause their heads collectively to explode. But given how badly their pie-in-the-sky policies have betrayed the people they’re supposed to serve perhaps that would be no bad thing.