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Letting a thousand flowers bloom

This quote from Chairman Mao – perhaps more correctly let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend – is usually interpreted as a brief experiment with free-ish speech in the early days of the People’s Republic of China. In practice, it was quickly followed by more repression of those who chose to follow this path of ‘rightist deviation’ and some historians consider the campaign a deliberate attempt to flush out opposition. Given the Great Helmsman’s lack of scruples, this does not seem at all unlikely.

But let’s be generous and see this as an encouragement to more debate and openness. This is to be encouraged in science as well as other fields, and would be particularly welcome in highly polarised debates such as that about energy policy, in which proponents at both end of the spectrum will not tolerate dissent. The problem is, of course, that energy policy is currently inextricably tied up with government plans for drastic ‘decarbonisation’ of the economy.

It’s very refreshing, then, to see this headline – Wind farms blowing us off-course, scientist says, reporting on a study by Professor Myles Allen of Oxford University – not just because it introduces a welcome note of caution to the argument for investing huge sums in expanding renewable energy generation, but because of the author. Prof Allen is very firmly in the mainstream of climate science and a major contributor to the work of the IPCC. He is convinced that something has to be done to mitigate the effect of climate change, but is prepared to question the received wisdom on how best to do this.

Actually, despite the headlines, the conclusions of the study (published in Nature Climate Change) are broader than that, essentially that it makes no sense to waste money on expensive ways of cutting carbon dioxide emissions now when that money could be better spent in other ways in the future. To quote the Times story “Spending billions of pounds on new nuclear power stations and offshore wind farms could make it harder to prevent dangerous climate change, a study has claimed.”

He argues correctly that spending on projects which in themselves do not make economic sense and which depress growth is pointless in a world in which net emissions continue to grow because of the behaviour of much larger economies than our own. However, he is very definite about what our descendants will need: to be able to capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide.

I wouldn’t necessarily agree with his view of what may need to be done in future, but I applaud his recognition of the futility of taking expensive and ineffective action today for the sake of being seen to do so. Interestingly, this brings Professor Allen onto some common ground with Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. Professor Lomborg has come in for intense criticism for arguing essentially along the same lines, except that his preferred longer term option is to develop geo-engineering solutions.

To make any real progress on these thorny issues, we have to get away from the doctrinaire differences and name-calling that characterise so much of the debate. When ‘warmists’ refuse even to share a platform with ‘deniers’ (a term used sometimes to denote even a whiff of heretical thought) there can seem little point in trying to engage constructively.

There are differences between the views of Profs Allen and Lomborg. Myles Allen is firmly in the camp that believes damaging climate change is likely and that action must be taken sooner rather than later. Where he differs from the current consensus is in saying that present approaches are costly and ineffective and that attention needs to be focussed instead on developing effective carbon capture and storage solutions.

Bjorn Lomborg, on the other hand, is unconvinced of the need for action now – because whatever we can do is not cost-effective – and believes that future generations will have far greater capacity to do something effective. Although the two seem to be sharing common ground, Lomborg’s failure to acknowledge the view that we have to take action immediately places him beyond the pale for many environmentalists. His definitely seems to be a case of right deviationism.

Although a meeting of minds can sometimes seem like a remote possibility, in practice there are broad criteria which should be acceptable to both ends of the spectrum of opinion if they are being sufficiently constructive. Those concerned about the imminent threat of anthropogenic climate change want to make a real reduction in carbon dioxide emissions without compromising energy security (although some would be pleased to see a big reduction in energy use). Those who see the short- to medium-term threat as overstated want to see a secure energy supply and have no real concern about this being low-carbon as long as this does not push prices up.  

The no-regrets policy that should be acceptable to both these groups is to expand nuclear energy generation. Unfortunately, the current Hinkley Point C debacle is casting its cloud over nuclear more generally and we may have to wait for more definite proposals from manufacturers of alternative designs for the situation to look more positive. The alternative approach of developing Small Modular Reactors might also bear fruit, although the expected benefits of mass production do not necessarily outweigh the scale advantage of large-scale reactors.

Accepting that, without a hypothetical efficient and affordable system to store energy on a vast scale, expanding renewable energy raises system costs, reduces energy security and has only a modest impact on net emissions would be a useful start, but there are too many vested interests for this to be widely acknowledged in the short term. But in the UK, George Osborne shows no enthusiasm for prioritising emissions reduction over energy security and economic growth and the notable failure of Germany’s Energiewende to bring emissions under control will surely become more and more of an issue. More politicians may be prepared to ease back on the building of more wind and solar farms.

In the meantime, all we can really do is to encourage constructive debate and a meeting of minds, it that’s possible. Myles Allen has broken ranks to question the credo of renewables. Now we need more to follow.