Dominic Lawson: The Zero-Carbon Mania Is Just So Much Hot Air

  • Date: 05/05/19
  • Dominic Lawson, The Sunday Times

It’s not practicable, voters don’t want it — and it won’t ‘save the planet’

Brexit is too difficult for parliament. So instead, last week, it decided to turn its collective mind — I use the term loosely — to something simpler. Saving the planet. Apparently a decisive contribution to this can be achieved if the UK becomes “net carbon zero” by 2050. That was the purpose of the debate on the “climate emergency” on Wednesday; and, the following day, of a report from the committee on climate change headed by Lord Deben (who as John Gummer achieved dubious fame during the BSE crisis by trying to force-feed his daughter a hamburger).

Unfortunately, the whole business is an exercise in vanity and hubris. The UK generates barely 1% of annual global CO2 emissions. So if we were, by magic, to become “carbon zero” by lunchtime tomorrow, it would mean — based on accepted links between manmade emissions and climate — an average global temperature (in 2040) about 0.005 degrees lower than if we had carried on with “business as usual”. Someone would need to tell the planet, as neither Gaia, nor indeed any of her inhabitants, would notice the difference.

This point was not made in the parliamentary debate (called by that enthusiast for new coal mines, Jeremy Corbyn), since it was a fact-free discourse and devoid of dissenting voices. In her remarks to MPs a fortnight earlier, the compelling prophetess of doom Greta Thunberg at least addressed this argument: she said that Britain’s legacy as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution imposed a special obligation on its people. That is, we should atone for our past wickedness. But if we were to return to the state of nature that Thunberg’s followers in Extinction Rebellion seek, the multinational remnants of our industrial base would simply decamp to countries where the lights stayed on.

Ed Miliband, who as energy secretary promulgated the Climate Change Act, said this wouldn’t be an issue. He told MPs: “I cannot emphasise enough . . . the authority that our ability to act gives us.” That is, if we unilaterally hurtled to carbon zero, China and India will be so impressed that they would rapidly follow suit. Unfortunately, the former Labour leader was unable to furnish MPs with any evidence for this theory.

It is reminiscent of those naive supporters of unilateral nuclear disarmament, who used to insist that if the UK gave up its nuclear deterrent, the Soviet Union would do likewise. The difference is that, if we had done what the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament wanted, it might at least have benefited the economy by reducing taxes that paid for the project, whereas the opposite happens with unilateral climate disarmament, even supposing it were possible to base a modern economy entirely on renewable energy (wind and solar).

It isn’t. Don’t take my word for it. The late government chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir David McKay, told The Guardian in an interview conducted 11 days before his death in 2016: “Because [my] time is getting thinner and thinner I should call a spade a spade . . . There is this appalling delusion that people have that we can take this thing [renewables] and we can just scale it up and if there is a slight issue of it not adding up, then we can just do energy efficiency. Humanity really does need to pay attention to arithmetic and the laws of physics.”

As Professor McKay pointed out in his book Sustainable Energy — without the Hot Air, there is no practicable zero-carbon future without full-on investment in nuclear power, which provides emission-free electricity uninterruptedly (unlike wind and solar power). Yet nuclear wasn’t mentioned by MPs in the debate last week, as the political purpose of their vapourings was to attract the approbation of the sort of folk who regard nuclear power as satanic. […]

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