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Measuring up to emissions targets

The extent of the human race’s impact on climate is not known with any degree of certainty, although the prevailing message in much of the media is that, to all intents and purposes, it is. Along with this message often goes the view that there is a relatively small clique of people who, for whatever nefarious motive, continue to oppose this apparent consensus. The Trump presidency takes a far more sceptical view of this consensus than its predecessor, and the scientific establishment is seriously concerned about what may happen between now and the next election. However, at least one of the public faces of science in America sees the longer term trend going against scepticism (Bill Nye is hopeful that climate deniers will eventually die off).

To quote from his interview, “[In] the case of climate change, I think the people who are in denial about it will age out. There are very few millennial aged people who aren’t concerned about climate change. There are a few, but very few. So as the electorate ages, climate change will be taken very seriously.” Given the consistency of the messages received by young people, he may well be right, but that doesn’t make the prevailing view 100% correct.

We should never forget what Einstein said about scientific proof: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” But what passes for received wisdom may often lag behind any change in scientific paradigms. For now, policy is made on the understanding that carbon dioxide emissions need to be drastically cut. Given that, the objective should now be to go along the least regrets path, with a policy that achieves the aim as efficiently as possible but which does not leave us with a white elephant of inadequate infrastructure in the event that the impact of carbon dioxide on average temperatures and weather patterns turns out to be less than currently expected.

Mainstream believers in the threat of dangerous manmade climate change are never going to agree – or even have a profitable debate – with those who are sceptical of the magnitude of the problem and are thereby tarred with the brush of ‘denialism’. But an effective no regrets energy policy ought to be something that all reasonable people can agree on. It should be good, then, to read headlines such as Nation proves economy can expand while emissions fall.

This piece is on a study by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit , run by the former BBC environment correspondent Richard Black, funded by organisations such as the European Climate Foundation and the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment and with an impressive Advisory Board of the great and the good (for more about funding of groups such as the ECIU, see the recent newsletter Undue Influence). This is, in effect, a snapshot of part of the climate change establishment, committed to putting out positive messages to support emissions reduction policies.

At the same time as the study was released, (Lord) Michael Howard (former Conservative leader and a member of the ICEU’s Advisory Board) had a piece published on the Guardian’s comment website: Climate change is good for the economy – and Britain is the proof. Political support for this message is important, and the fact that it comes from the centre-right shows how much the whole political establishment is part of the climate change establishment.

As the ECIU puts it in its tagline, this is ‘informed debate on energy and climate change’. This is not a million miles from what we in the Scientific Alliance try to promote – ‘challenging and informed scientific debate’ – but unfortunately there is very little opportunity to engage in debate, since the kind of heretical views expressed in this newsletter put us beyond the pale to many of those who support current policy.

The thrust of the ECIU study is that cutting emissions does not jeopardise economic growth. To quote from the Times report “The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit said in a study that as a result the average Briton’s carbon footprint is now 33 per cent less than in 1992 and people are more than 130 per cent richer. It pointed to a number of reasons for the shift, including the 1990s ‘dash for gas’ power, a switch to a more services based economy, policies since the Climate Change Act was introduced in 2008, energy efficiency schemes and cutting methane from landfill sites.”

This should not really be a surprise to anyone. There is a long-established trend for energy intensity – the energy consumed per unit of economic output – to decline with growth. There will doubtless have been some contribution from specific climate change policies but, for example, World Bank figures show that per capita energy consumption declined from 3,597 kg of oil equivalent in 1990 to 3,020 in 2012. This is a fall of over 16% and likely to be greater by 2016. So, reduced energy use alone accounts for at least half of the quoted 33% reduction in the carbon footprint.

If we also take into account the move from coal to gas, these two factors probably account for most of the total reduction. The costly programme of expansion of wind and solar energy will have made a modest contribution, but at the expense of grid security. And, as has been pointed out numerous times, any future large scale replacement of despatchable gas or nuclear energy by renewables would be extremely difficult without cheap energy storage on a massive scale. Which brings us to one of the other reasons quoted for carbon footprint reduction: the ‘switch to a more services based economy’.

To put it another way, the UK (in common with other industrialised countries) has continued to lose manufacturing jobs. Those jobs, as is well known, are now being done in China and other emerging economies, but Brits still consume the products. In other words, no matter how good the country’s performance may look on paper, global carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise. Our economic growth would have been reduced considerably if we had not been able to import so many manufactured goods from countries with higher emissions than our own.

It is these sorts of issues that need to be brought out into the open. If we are to have precautionary emissions reduction policies, we need to make sure that they are well designed so that they contribute to global reductions (the only ones that count) as well as being as economically efficient as possible. There’s certainly scope for debate there.