Sometimes there are events that make you rail in anger. Others make you weep. Reading the government’s plethora of ‘net zero’ policy papers ahead of November’s COP26 climate conference, I could barely hold back the tears.
It wasn’t their lack of ambition but the absence of a route map (with sufficient resources and urgency) that made the proclamations such a painful read. We were asked to ignore huge rafts of policies that will make the crisis worse, in exchange for promises that might make it manageable.
There is to be no backtrack on Britain’s carbon/concrete intensive construction of HS2, no revisiting of the £27bn roads programme, no carbon taxes on aviation and shipping, no restoration of the fuel-price escalator, no outright ban on drilling for oil, gas and coal, and no national energy efficiency programme to radically reduce the carbon cost of delivering warm homes. Stripped of these, parliament is offered a route map that will get to Narnia before it gets to net-zero.
Greta Thunberg is right to berate us all.
Britain isn’t the only one falling short of a climate survival strategy. Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia have been lobbying to water down the science case for moving away from fossil fuels. Other countries whinge about climate funding for poorer nations. Baring a miracle, COP26 will end in tears, ‘blah, blah, blah’ and recriminations. Faced with the need of at least a 28% reduction of carbon emissions in the current decade, national promises to date amount to little more than 4%.
World Leaders have learnt nothing from a year of turbulent fires, floods and ‘heat domes’, all of which are impervious to political slogans and promises. Even Britain’s Environment Agency warns that wild weather events present the UK with “adapt or die” choices about the scale of economic and environmental changes needed.
You wouldn’t guess this from even a cursory look at global economics. Governments have been busy re-carbonising their economies rather than decarbonising; building back muckier, not better. In the G20 Group, CO2 emissions have increased by 4% this year, with coal being the main driver of regeneration in China, India and Argentina.
It is the classic addicts response: chasing one last ‘fix’ from their drug of choice whilst promising to go clean tomorrow. It never works. Addiction invariably wins out. Addicts end up stealing from family and friends, pillaging anything they can get their hands on, and blaming it on someone (anyone) else.
Even if you credit Boris Johnson with an honest commitment to facing the climate emergency, he has a sizeable group of climate denying MPs who will block anything genuinely transformative. So too does Joe
Biden and John Kerry. They have Democratic Congressmen, on the payroll of big oil, coal and gas, who will block America’s shift into clean energy economics.
Across the planet, governments (guided by economists long past their ‘sell by’ date) remain addicted to free-market ideologies that are set to destroy us. So it is that we fail to halt rainforest destruction, because the cleared land then grows soya for cattle-feed that maintains society’s addiction to meat. So it is with the building of smokestack factories in India and China, churning out consumption goods that fill the 500,000 containers waiting to be unloaded at America’s East coast ports. So it is too with the UK’s response to its HGV lorry driver crisis.
Governed by pygmies
The greatest tragedy is that world is being led by political pygmies when we need giants. Most Leaders ask all the wrong questions; rarely getting beyond the dreams of a better yesterday rather than a cleaner tomorrow. Britain’s HGV driver crisis couldn’t offer a better example.
The crisis was warned about ages ago. It called for a much earlier deployment of armed forces drivers to ease bottlenecks, particularly in the supply of farm produce to local markets. The bigger answer, however, isn’t the need for more long-distance drivers, but less. This should be the moment for a huge transfer of UK freight from road to rail and waterways. Rail will assume a pivotal role in any economics that seeks to radically cut transport emissions.
All the interviews of HGV drivers say much the same thing; it’s a job younger workers don’t want. The pay is lousy and the conditions even worse. Living in a truck for 6 days a week, eating crap food from roadside cafes, often having to pee and poo in a bucket in the cab; none of this makes sense in any recruitment drive for tomorrow’s economics. We need a better plan.
Rail and regionalisation
Low carbon economics needs a national network of off-road, bulk transportation to support localised/ regionalised distribution centres. These can be serviced by smaller (EV) distribution vehicles, creating ‘clean’ jobs that allow people to go home at night. The Netherlands already runs its entire rail network on renewable electricity from wind turbines; mass transit, less congestion and zero emissions. More countries will follow.
The current global backlog of goods stuck in transit has forced France to announce a re-think in favour of more localised supply. This ties in with corporate moves into ‘just in time’ contract clauses, localising component supply lines. Many already sing their own praises that doing so cuts the carbon-mileage of supplies by up to 90%. And as governments shift taxation from (clean) electricity onto the carbon base of oil and gas, the shift into an economics that abandons fossil fuel addictions will become irresistible.
Sceptics throw up their hands screaming “And how will you power these localised supply systems when the sun isn’t shining and the wind doesn’t blow?” It is an objection already overtaken by smart science. Battery storage is the fastest growing part of the clean energy sector. From the household, to the neighbourhood and to whole city levels, smart energy has been building out an array of storage mechanisms. Some of these have been in place for decades.
Swapping and sharing
Solar surpluses have long been put into pumped hydro or (as in Southern Germany) used in energy ‘swaps’ with generators of hydro-electric power. Vehicle recharging networks could have even simpler underpinnings.
Munich has 25 weirs on the river Isar as it passes through the City. All constantly generate electricity for local use. Towns, villages and cities across the UK with streams of their
own could do the same; underpinning local EV-recharging networks and tram systems. If allowed to do so, community wind turbines and solar roofs could also add to the collectivity of renewable inputs into local energy security.
Germany’s Energiewende programme saw villages, towns and cities filling their roofs with solar panels. It gave renewable generators the long-term support that Britain removed when the government sabotaged its own Feed-in-Tariff framework.
Today, 1 in 6 of German businesses have installed solar roofs. They follow the 2 million households, schools, churches and community buildings that have done the same; secure in the knowledge they
can sell electricity surpluses (at a profit) into the network of ‘smart’ local grids (that the UK still doesn’t allow).
Britain’s long term subsidies to oil and gas have always gone unchallenged while support for everything carbon-reducing gets constantly attacked as unaffordable.
The government’s original plan was that by 2020 Britain would have 20GW of installed solar PV capacity. The end of financial assistance schemes, however, meant that only 13GW has been installed. Current installation rates are down to about 1.6%p.a.
Big Energy – continuously asking the taxpayer to subsidise its research, construction, decommissioning and disposal costs – hated the idea that households could become contributors to their own energy security. The only ‘Net Zero’ that Britain now has within reach is zero annual solar installations.
The point about this rant is that Britain doesn’t lack options for the radical decarbonisation of its economy, we just lack the leadership and vision to deliver it. The danger is that COP26 will too.
Obsessions with growth
The core of our dilemma lies in the disconnect between physics and neo-classical economics.
Economics discounts the environment as an ‘externality’; something that doesn’t need to be heavily costed because someone else can clean up the mess…later. Now that climate physics, soil depletion and wild weather are calling all the shots, neo-classical economists struggle to find a new core to their thinking. It’s roots are in their obsessions with productivity, globalisation and growth. This is what shackles the Chancellor and puts him at odds with most of his Cabinet colleagues.
Boris Johnson probably doesn’t have to sack Chancellor Rishi Sunak to get round this problem, but he does need to sack the Treasury. Britain (and every other nation) needs a fresh cohort of economists at the helm, all of whom must be grounded in ‘circularity’ rather than growth.
Tomorrow’s economics begins with annually reducing carbon budgets that we all have to live within. Carbon border taxation will play a part but the casino fraud of offsetting will be ditched. Politicians and economists need a new notion of ‘in-setting’ – requiring key energy intensive industries to direct waste heat into local heating infrastructures so that emissions at least have a direct and immediate use. Their carbon emissions, however, must still come within the annual carbon budget. Reclamation, reduction, repair and reuse will then end the deification of ‘growth’.
Physics, not politics, is in today’s driving seat. The sooner we see this the sooner we might steer it (and us) away from the cliff edge. In 1945, the world moved away from one self-made disaster by fundamentally rethinking global rules and obligations to each other. To avoid an even bigger implosion we must do the same again; turning economics upside down, and learning to live within nature’s limits.
It’s what the kids outside COP26 are trying to tell us. The worry is that, inside the Conference chamber, World Leaders are still looking for Narnia.