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Change and Flexibility

The old adage that good news isn’t really news today seems truer than ever. Bad news is reported rapidly across the internet and social media, and there are unfortunately relatively few good news stories that command as much attention. Something such as the Olympics is the exception.

But it’s not just current news that is generally bad; increasingly we see dire predictions about the future. In fact, perhaps this has always been the case. After all, think how much science fiction envisages a dystopian future. Computer modelling, which is the source of most of the current stories, uses algorithms to make projections about what may lie in store for us, rather than the imaginings of authors. But, rather than being seen as ‘what ifs’ or a form of sophisticated science fiction not based purely on an author’s imagination, too often they are reported almost as facts.

Not surprisingly, this practice is rife for one of the defining issues of the early 21st Century: climate change. After all, it is not possible to do controlled experiments on the climate. All we can do is to observe, attempt to explain and project forward. All such projections should come with a strong health warning, but that is not in the nature of the news media looking for a good story.

The more we know – or think we know – the more we want to take action to avoid a bad outcome. This is a natural human reaction, and it is difficult to stand by when the need seems pressing. In the case of global warming, there is a strong argument that, even if the degree of warming is uncertain, and even if it may be only partly influenceable by actions we might take, the potential consequences might be so severe as to make inaction intolerable.

In these circumstances, there is a strong argument for a ‘least-regrets’ policy; to do what may have some effect but which might also be a good course of action even if the worst does not come to pass. The problem is that people naturally also want to plan and the possible solutions require decades of work and investment. The very real danger then is that we may only discover twenty years later that we have gone down a technical and economic blind alley, unless we can retain a degree of flexibility.

This argues, then, for us to retain as much flexibility as possible, to take account of new technology or new understanding of what is happening. This is not the case at the moment. Instead, the juggernaut of renewable energy technology pushes inexorably on, without any serious questioning of whether it is the best way forward.

Carbon dioxide clearly tends to push average atmospheric temperatures up, all other things being equal. Still up for debate – despite the desire of some to censor any critical comment – is the degree of that influence and the consequences that might flow from that. So far, there is little indication that the positive feedback loops assumed in the IPCC’s models do in fact function, but we have to accept that they might and the consequences for some regions could be very severe if so.

So, the general consensus is that emissions must be cut sooner rather than later. What might a no-regrets policy look like? The logical way to proceed would be to find ways to reduce emissions as cheaply as possible without compromising energy security or normal life. The best first step is to reduce energy consumption. Reducing utility bills is good for customers, so there should be little for anyone to quibble with. This wass fine until the flexibility of the approach in the UK was drastically reduced by the plan to provide every home with a ‘smart’ meter over the next few years.

The theory is that making consumers aware of how much energy they are using at a particular moment will encourage them to switch off unnecessary equipment, reduce demand and save them money (that will eventually pay for the capital cost of the meter). The reality is an £11bn project of doubtful value other than to utility suppliers, who will have real-time information on their customers’ energy usage. Smart consumers can use less energy without needing smart meters.

After reduction of energy demand, the next obvious way to reduce emissions is to replace coal-fired power stations. The most flexible approach is to go with the lowest-cost route at the time. Currently, this is to use gas, together with nuclear to provide baseload. However, the decision taken was to put in binding targets for the contribution of renewable energy to the total supply across the EU.

Because it is much easier to reduce emissions from the electricity generation network than from transport or heating, this has effectively meant a rush to convert this sector to renewables in the form of wind, solar and biomass. All of these may have some part to play, but the targets have put a straightjacket on energy planners and are far from delivering the desired result at a reasonable price.

Some economists suggest that a better way to reduce emissions would be a so-called ‘carbon price’. There are practical difficulties with this, not least that this would have to be adopted globally at a standard rate if it was to do anything for global emissions. Currently, this is not going to happen, but pricing carbon for the generating or supply sector in particular regions or countries would certainly give the right signal to achieve high-level targets as efficiently as possible. On the other hand, the UK government’s unilateral introduction of a carbon price floor seems to have done little in real terms, while potentially disadvantaging the business sector.

Whatever the answer, flexibility is the key. Individual large projects are difficult to scrap, but policy directions can certainly be altered in the light of changing circumstances and the evolution of technology.