EU Referendum

Energy: "green" folly


I'm seriously beginning to regret my commitment to covering climate change and related matters over the period of the CoP26 eco-fest. Not only do many readers find the CoP process intensely tedious – as do I – but the subject is attracting more than our fair share of self-opinionated "green" trolls to the comments, whose capacity to waste time seems endless.

In any discussion of such matters, though, there is an element of the old "Lincoln" joke. This is the one where his distraught wife, on leaving the theatre after the assassination is accosted by the theatre manager and asked, "… apart from that, Mrs Lincoln", how did you enjoy the play?"

I'm not entirely sure the joke works in the context into which I'm intending to shoehorn it, but I'll give it a go. The point is that, while we are transfixed with contemporaneous issues, there are other things going on which, rightly or wrongly, are being overlooked (or deliberately ignored).

This applies in spades to the precarious nature of our gas supplies, and the ongoing failure of renewables to deliver. The National Grid had wind generation down to 5 percent at midday yesterday, and after the sun had faded, at 5pm, fossil fuels (including coal) were carrying over 50 percent of the load while wind was struggling to deliver 12 percent.

The poor performance of the wind fleet is no single point failure. One major supplier complains that its renewable assets produced 32 percent less power than expected between April and September. The summer, it says, was "one of the least windy across most of the UK and Ireland … in the last seventy years".

Now, though the autumn, the same low-wind phenomenon is repeating, showing up the fundamental weakness in our energy policy. And it is there that lies the heart of our "Mrs Lincoln" moment. Although we are overly reliant on gas, with known reserves declining, this island is not short of energy.

As this website points out, the UK has identified hard coal resources of 3,910 million tonnes, although total resources could be as large as 187 billion tonnes. There are 33 million tonnes of economically recoverable reserves available at operational and permitted mines, plus a further 344 million tonnes at mines in planning. There are also about 1,000 million tonnes of lignite resources, mainly in Northern Ireland, although no lignite is mined.

Furthermore, we are not alone in our fortune. The US Geological Survey (USGS) published in 1975 the most comprehensive national assessment of the nation's coal resources, estimated at 4 trillion short tons. Based on current coal production, the recoverable coal reserves would last about 470 years.

As of December 31, 2020, estimates of total world proved recoverable reserves of coal were about 1,156 billion short tons. However, as the UK website points out in respect of the domestic resource, our "significant coal resource base is rendered largely irrelevant by policies designed to drive coal out of the energy mix and a hostile planning environment for surface mines".

Thus, the precarious nature of our current energy mix - getting more precarious by the day - is not a resource issue. We are, as was once said, an island of coal set in a sea of fish.

The potential shortage of energy is entirely a consequence of policy decisions, made over many decades starting with the Thatcher government, directed at taking coal out of our energy mix – compounded by the failure to develop our nuclear programme. Primarily, though, we are in this situation because successive governments have decided to phase out coal.

Initially, the move away from coal was triggered by the need to break the grip on the National Miners Union on our energy supplies and, in particular, electricity generation. Happily, we then had the discovery of North Sea oil and were enjoying abundant supplies of natural gas. This facilitated the switch.

For a time, we were happily self-sufficient in gas but, from 2005, it became evident that our gas supplies were dwindling and we would no longer be able to meet demand from our own resources.

By then, though, we were in the thrall of Kyoto, leading to the Climate Change Act of 2008, where Gordon Brown's government set "an ambitious legally-binding target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050". Britain was "leading the charge to a low carbon future" and coal, with the imposition of a climate change levies and other disincentives, was on its way out.

According to official sources, there was a 56 percent decrease in coal use for electricity generation between 2018 and 2019. This had followed large falls in the previous three years driven by the increase in the carbon price floor in April 2015, from £9 per tonne of CO2 to £18 per tonne of CO2.

Yet, in its determination to banish coal, Britain was and is largely on its own, setting an example that no other coal-rich nation has followed with the same zeal. As we have seen, global coal usage has increased and when "green chancellor" Merkel dumped nuclear power in 2011, Germany took up the slack with lignite.

This, then, is the crunch. The UK's contribution to global CO2 emissions is less than one percent. What we can do as a nation to reduce emissions on a global scale is negligible. Furthermore, our capacity is diminishing as other nations increase theirs. We are crashing our economy and impoverish ourselves, not for the purpose of reducing emissions but to set an example to the rest of the world. And, as the rest of the world is not following, in effect they are laughing at us.

Even now, plans to give Johnson a face-saving formula, sufficient for him to walk away from CoP26 claiming some sort of success, is under threat as China and India, plus others, seek to water down the final agreement. The UK is not in control of the agenda.

Let us, therefore, at least be honest with ourselves about where we are going and why we are doing it. The direction of travel is towards an increasingly fragile energy supply, with electricity generation which will no longer be reliable or – in many cases – affordable. And we are doing so not to achieve any significant reduction in emissions, but for an entirely political reason, amounting to virtue signalling on a global stage.

Yet, in any and all respects, this policy has failed, and will continue to fail. Whatever the headline outcome of CoP26, it is failing in its original purpose of securing binding commitments from the major CO2 producers on reducing emissions. This was always going to happen and the very best it can offer is to keep the 1.5ºC target "in sight".

This will allow the climate worshipers to assemble again next year for another pointless eco-fest, at an as-yet undecided location, chosen no doubt for its ample parking space for private jets. There, they will be buoyed by more empty promises, as many more millions of tonnes of coal are burnt.

Probably, it is far too late to arrest the UK's suicidal policy – until the deadly consequences have already become apparent, by which time it will take years to remedy the damage. And since all our main political parties are intent on the same course, there is no prospect of immediate relief via the ballot box.

A dynamic population, which was more politically engaged and assertive, might have been able to stave off the disaster, but the green propagandists got there first, selling their simplistic mantras of "saving the planet". In this largely submissive nation, in thrall to authority and prestige, we tend to take what we're given.

But, I suppose it is some small compensation that the children who have been schooled to campaign for "carbon-free" policies will probably suffer most from the folly of leaving valuable resources in the ground. But then, when the temperature does start to drop, at least they will be there for future generations.

Also published on Turbulent Times.