Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Is the UK government on a flight from reality?

with 22 comments

This week, I was very pleased to discover that some of my recent output has been listed on a Weekly round-up of blogosphere posts related to anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) on the Science blogs website.  However, I was even more grateful when I saw mention, within that round-up, of a very significant event in British politics last week.

Over recent months, I have posted quite a lot of stuff about hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and carbon capture and storage (CCS); culminating in the items I posted last week (discussed below).  It is therefore ironic that I did not notice the row that erupted last week as a result of a public letter to the Secretary of State for the Energy and Climate Change (Ed Davey) from the Chairman of the government’s relevant independent advisory body (the Committee on Climate Change [CCC]) – former Conservative Environment Minister John Selwyn Gummer (now Lord Deben) – as publicised in The Guardian last Thursday.

The UK government published a draft Energy Bill in May this year, on which I commented at the time – in ‘A very unsustainable Energy Bill’.  At that time, I was concerned about the stated aim of the UK government to become less reliant upon imported gas. More specifically, I was (and am) concerned that it is planning to replace this with oil shale gas (from fracking); rather than encouraging people to get off the grid altogether by investing in micro-generation (such as solar panels).

It seems, therefore, that anticipation had been growing that an announcement would soon be made that the UK is likely to remain reliant upon new gas-fired power generation (without CCS) well beyond 2030.  If the UK pursues this strategy it will do so despite the following:
— 1. The widespread international agreement – of organisations such as the International Energy Agency (IEA); numerous scientists such as James Hansen; and even influential (and formerly sceptical) economists such as William Nordhaus – that humanity can no longer afford to delay decarbonising its energy generation systems.
— 2. The agreement reached at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh in 2009 that – in energy generation a least – fossil fuel subsidies and fossil fuel use both need to be phased out.
— 3. The fact that the Earth has five times more conventional fossil fuel than is now considered safe to burn; and therefore now is not the time to be finding a whole load more unconventional fossil fuels to burn as well.

This all makes me wonder if George Osborne has been paying too much attention to what libertarian ideologues like Richard Lindzen are probably telling him.  Wherever this transparently intellectually incoherent policy is coming from, it was clearly this refusal to phase out fossil fuel use (now that we know it is causing ACD) that drove Lord Deben to publish the CCC’s letter last Thursday.  In it, he began by stating:

Extensive use of unabated gas-fired capacity (i.e. without [CCS] in 2030 and beyond would be incompatible with meeting legislated carbon budgets. These are, of course, designed to balance the costs and risks of meeting long-term objectives and they require significant investment in low-carbon power generation over the next two decades…

What is even more surprising is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer decided to respond so promptly – quite possibly due to the CCC’s suggestion that pursuing gas (from fracking) instead of equivalent investment in renewable energy could be illegal because (as the CCC letter continues):

Unabated gas-fired generation could therefore not form the basis for Government policy, given the need under the Climate Change Act to set policies to meet carbon budgets and the 2050 [emissions reduction] target.

As I made clear on my blog last week, having benefited from an exchange of emails with Professor Robert Mair (on fracking) and with Dr Bryan Lovell (on CCS), I remain convinced that pursuing fracking as a panacea to all our energy problems is insane; but have reluctantly come to accept that we may have to rely upon CCS if we are to avoid significant ACD.  However, this is no excuse for doing as George Osborne has done – effectively telling his own independent advisors that, once again, the non-scientist knows what the best course of action is.

Indeed, apart from putting your hands over your ears and shouting “La la la, I can’t hear you!”, there can only one possible reasons for doing as George Osborne has done – he must believe we can continue to burn fossil fuels with impunity and/or doubt the reality of catastrophic ACD if we do not use CCS to prevent it.

I therefore think it is crunch time for the UK’s Coalition government.  Prime Minister David Cameron, whom I support on many issues, famously said he wanted to make it “the greenest government ever”.  Sadly, it seems to be failing significantly in many ways:  In addition to crippling the green revolution at birth – by removing most of the incentives to get individual households to invest in Solar PV panels on their roofs (etc) – it now seems set to pursue energy independence in the form of fracking.  As The Guardian concludes:

The argument over the [decarbonisation] target is now likely to reach the top of the government with pressure mounting on Cameron to face down critics of the government’s green policies and adopt the CCC recommendations in full.

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22 Responses

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  1. Martin, great post. But we may not have to worry too much longer about the absurdities of politicians because, as has been commented widely elsewhere, if we are within 5 years, possibly fewer than that, of an ice-free Arctic ocean in the Summer then nature’s wrath will make it all look irrelevant.

    Let’s hope that your post, along with so many other truths being expressed out there in the ‘blogosphere’, build political power; it must only be a matter of time.

    Reminds me of that quaint little (Liverpudlian?) saying, “What part of the word no are you having trouble with?”!!

    Paul Handover

    19 September 2012 at 00:59

    • Thanks Paul. Our politicians have ignored a century of melting glaciers; what makes you think they will do anything other than send in the oil rigs when the Arctic Ocean is completely ice-free?

      Martin Lack

      19 September 2012 at 09:22

  2. Carbon Capture and Storage, athough it has been demonstrated in 5 special places under special circumstances, has not proven safe, effective and economical. Not even on paper. Actually, in the general case, there is not even a description of how it would be accomplished. So it’s not even imaginable, so why are people talking as if it existed?

    Patrice Ayme

    19 September 2012 at 06:05

    • Patrice, you need to talk to Schalk Cloete (who is involved in research to make CCS a reality) and/or Dr Bryan Lovell (who has convinced me to stop opposing the only thing that may yet be capable of saving humanity from the consequences of its own stupidity):
      Schalk’s Cloete’s view = Making sense of madness (12 Sept 2012)
      Dr Bryan Lovell’s view = Embracing the madness (14 Sept 2012)

      Personally-speaking, my problem with all of this is that the government appointed experts to tell them if fracking is “safe”. The experts said it is; but emphasised that they had not assessed the climate change risk. Now relevant experts have assessed that risk and the government seems poised to ignore them. If economists/politicians are always going to insists that they can second guess scientists, why do they bother going through the lengthy farce of asking for their opinions? Unfortunately, as Herman Daly once misquoted Oscar Wilde as having said, “an economist is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”.

      Martin Lack

      19 September 2012 at 09:20

      • The link you gave is just a sing song about the beauty of CCS. Failure to read what I wrote. CCS does NOT exist! The way I wrote it did not exist.

        Patrice Ayme

        19 September 2012 at 13:45

        • I am not in favour of CCS, Patrice. I wish we did not need it; but I suspect now that we probably do. However, I am willing to admit that CCS may also just be an equivalent to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which scientists also claim we need but which could just be a new form of technological colonialism; creating a new monopoly of “essential” high tech jobs for people in Western countries.

          As I have just said to Jules below, it would be much more preferable if we could avoid CCS. However, thanks to widespread apathy and/or ignorance, it would seem that the UK government is about to commit the UK to a path that will make it essential that we turn CCS from a dream into a reality. The same truth applies to 4th generation Nuclear fission and Fusion power (all of which will necessitate massive new power distribution infrastructure), unless most households and industries move towards energy self-sufficiency. Failing that, we have to ask ourselves the following questions:
          1. Do super-conductive electric cables exist? No.
          2. But do we need them? Yes we probably do.
          3. Can technology alone save us? No it cannot.
          However, without technology we are doomed (because people have now spent too long in blissful ignorance and/or denial of the nature, scale, and urgency of the environmental problems we face).

          Martin Lack

          19 September 2012 at 14:05

        • Of course technology is the solution. And of course CCS does not exist. Fusion exists, just it’s not efficient enough. And superconductive cables are in operation. There is a huge one in Manhattan.
          The key is that one talk about something, CCS, that does not exist., as if it existed and was available as a choice. Typical propaganda.

          Patrice Ayme

          19 September 2012 at 18:25

        • As I explained last week, Australian researcher Peter Cook has written a whole book about something that even you admit exists. It may well only be experimental but, it clearly exists; and – a bit like Dark Matter – it will have to exist in large quantities if we are to prevent the Laws of Physics being violated.

          Martin Lack

          19 September 2012 at 18:46

  3. Lets try role play Martin- you are the PM, [after a nasty gardening accident DC is no longer fit to govern and Clegg has disappeared after a trip to Afghanistan- you are the only person to do the job]. The facts- there is about a years worth of fracked gas in the ground that would contribute to just 5% of annual gas use in the UK for 20 years. Is it really a problem? A CCS plant in Scotland will cost £Bs but it can be used to squeeze out the last few million barrels of UK oil. A restructuring of UK energy will be the biggest infrastructure project in history, the loans are cheap and jobs will come but debt will last 50 years+.

    You know the truth about AGW but you also know you could lose the election.
    What does a poor PM do?


    19 September 2012 at 10:47

    • Without checking your “facts” Jules, I would say the PM should consider the fate of his children and grandchildren; rather than the longevity of his own public service.

      As I have made clear over recent months; I used to view both fracking and CCS as insane fossil fuel lobby propaganda – i.e. excuses for perpetuating our reliance upon fossil fuels long after the point at which the prudent course of action would be to leave them in the ground.

      Because of the decades we have wasted arguing about the nature of reality (i.e. whether or not reality is happening and/or we are responsible for it); and decades wasted pursuing policies that do not work (i.e. emissions reductions targets rather than carbon pollution taxes), I must reluctantly admit we will now need CCS if we are to avoid global ecological meltdown.

      Martin Lack

      19 September 2012 at 10:58

      • Ok, PM Martin, the problem if you lose the next election [or your leadership in a coup] is that the next person really is power mad and a fool [Delingpole wants your job!] you want change but what strategy do you take given most people are thinking about today and not the next generation.
        Fracking in the UK is an irrelevance {British geological survey estimated 1 year of gas} CCS is big money and it would be better if the wealthy Germans did the research. Given the economy is it not a better idea to take a long selfish view. You ask the experts what do we need to do as a nation- we can go radically green or safeguard borders/beaches/food/and fuel supply and adapt.
        What is your strategy?


        19 September 2012 at 12:12

        • What is your strategy, Jules? Adaptation is a cruel myth. Most species and/or a majority of populations will not adapt; they will expire. Reality must be embraced; and the sooner it is, the less painful it will be.

          Martin Lack

          19 September 2012 at 12:22

  4. Personally [If I had your imaginary job!] I would borrow, lots, rebuild the rotting victorian infrastructure, build the Severn Barrage, have massive investment in university research, alternative energy, and tax breaks for green energy. On a global level I would push the EU, US, etc to invest. But I would be very aware that I could get just 2 terms out of the strategy. The debt would eventually catch up and people being short-sighted would vote for the low tax option.

    as for the other details, I would slash the armed forces, get rid of the individual services and have one self defence force. I would make it a government crime to fail kids education, I would have a massive green but greenbelt housing program. And I would borrow and keep on borrowing.

    Oh, I would use science and its principles to make policy on things like recycling, energy production, personal transport, and health etc.

    Your turn !


    19 September 2012 at 12:34

    • Any concessions I may have made regarding CCS should not be seen as a rejection of renewable energy or the green economy.

      The green economy has not been tried and found wanting; it has simply not been tried. If the government wants to solve our energy problems it must reduce demand by encouraging efficiency and self-sufficiency. This could avoid massive new infrastructure projects like replicating the National Grid – which centrally-generated renewable and/or nuclear energy will require.

      So, you see, there is much on which we agree. However, if that is the case, why do you appear to want to dispute that what the government is proposing to do is insane?

      Martin Lack

      19 September 2012 at 13:42

      • This is weird defending the government, I view it as pragmatic. As a ‘kinda’ green/socialist/anarchist I am happy to be sold a brave vision of borrowing to fight a war. We are talking very big money and my pragmatic side doesn’t think it is going to happen unless nature truly goes to war with us and it will be rather late. In reality the government [in current democratic/economic environment] gets to spend a few tens of billions on schemes. Clearly this is not enough. Even to repair/replace the Victorian infrastructure of water/waste/ rail etc on which we have been living off is not ‘politically’ possible. We kick the problem into the long grass for another government to kick back into the long grass. Most ie. 2/3rd of expenditure goes on the big three: health/welfare/education- the other big players at 40bn each are debt and defence. It doesn’t give much room for grand schemes.

        The solution for both left and right is for the market to pay who will then charge us. Green energy is being funded this way and the success of this system has allowed private interest in the Severn Barrage. The new high speed rail links are cheap in comparison [£20 billion] but probably carbon neutral. As for issues like a new runway/airport for London the CO2 element is minimal [relatively], UK CO2 emissions for aviation are 1.5% so even if we double air travel it is not a huge impact. The big producers of CO2 are electricity and cars [which produce 3x more than HGVs].
        Energy alternatives are coming online reasonably fast, there is room for stimulation in university research grants, and some big projects. Insulation is the easiest and most cost effective CO2 reducer, and stricter building control is something that would be easy. Fixing older homes is achievable and it could go on the ‘to do list’.

        The alternative to large scale coal/gas is nuclear- I think it would be worth the investment but there are issues not least massive over-run costs. Is the government being sensible under-writing some of those risks?

        Cars- If HS2 and other rail schemes are marginal CO2 savers then the electric car and city mass transport systems are the only option. [powered by nuclear] And, electric cars do have problems. In the long term we could get builders/planners to build communities of homes/retail/industry but that would be reversing 50 years of the car and would take as long.

        Given the big issues things like fracking [which is more hype than actual gas production], recycling, an extra Heathrow runway- etc- are just like government spending in that they are rather small scale.

        Governments don’t have much choice especially democratic ones. I think they lack imagination, I think they make some concessions [like fracking] knowing it is not part of the big picture, and I think it would be democratically impossible to sell the new nukes to the current electorate. And catastrophe is just far enough away to ignore for the time being [or so they hope]

        But what is the conservative [small c] approach Martin


        19 September 2012 at 15:49

        • Wow Jules, that’s more of a manifesto than a comment but, thank you all the same. What with you attacking my position on fracking and Patrice attacking my position on CCS, I am inclined to think, “with friends like these who needs enemies?”

          However, I think we all agree that solving our energy crisis is going to take a lot of time and money; and the longer we wait the greater the final bill will be for implementing the solution(s). The trouble is, we have not really started to try and solve it yet and, as you say, politicians continue to kick the whole thing into the long grass. I think I will dedicate a separate post to this (policy paralysis) subject next Monday. Can we, on that basis, end this discussion here.

          Martin Lack

          19 September 2012 at 18:56

  5. Sorry if I appear to be missing your point- micro generation is good- I agree [although if you are poor and don't own your home you pay for your neighbours solar]. Wind at a micro level is pretty rubbish, so if every available roof was installed what is the estimated contribution?

    Fracked gas vs Russian or Norwegian gas, they are finite and they will cost. Fossil fuels are just that, Nigerian oil for ones Prius is probably worse than frack gas for your worcester boiler but both are bad. I just go along with the more cautious voices about fracking concerning cost and production.


    19 September 2012 at 16:14

    • I was just re-reading a letter submitted to the Geological Society by Professor Peter Styles (Keele Uni), as published online on 16 July 2012 (to which I objected)… I now note one very good reason for not transporting gas long distances in pipelines: In transit, 1.5% of the gas escapes unburnt. Given that the gas has a global warming potential of 72 (over a 20-year period), this is worse than burning all the gas at source (72 x 1.5 = 108%). I am therefore not opposed to lowering our dependency on imported gas. What I am opposed to is further delay in decarbonising our energy generation systems.

      Martin Lack

      19 September 2012 at 19:10

  6. I shall wait to continue the discussion upon your next post, in the mean time, I have been stimulated to look further into micro solar, as well as what we have to do [to save ourselves]. I notice many suggestions, big and small but a manifesto for an achievable transition possibly needs to be written.


    19 September 2012 at 19:21

    • Thanks. BTW, I agree micro-wind turbines are pretty much a waste of space (or should that be air movement). :-)

      Martin Lack

      19 September 2012 at 19:29

  7. [...] 2012/09/19: LoE: Is the UK government on a flight from reality? [...]

  8. [...] Is the UK government on a flight from reality? (19 September 2012) [...]

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