Targets for renewables are unattainable, futile – and will cost us trillions of pounds
It is surprisingly common for our main political parties and policy-makers to agree about something. When they do, they are usually wrong; the longer they agree, the wronger they get. Few important people dare challenge them.
Forty years ago, all three parties thought that you could control inflation only by having prices and incomes policies. The government, businesses and trade unions negotiated the levels of both. The guru economist JK Galbraith announced that such policies would “last forever”. Then Mrs Thatcher questioned them. By the turn of the century, no free country in the world had prices and incomes policies.
Some time in this century, we reached a similar state of clever-silly unanimity over green policies, especially carbon emission controls and renewables targets. All parties (except five brave Tories voting against) voted for the second reading of the Climate Change Act in 2008.
I have just re-read the environmental sections of the three main party manifestoes at the last general election. Although they lay in to one another (“Labour have said the right things about climate change, but these have proved little more than warm words”), they are comically interchangeable. They all want the same policy – answering 15 per cent of energy demand from renewables by 2020, and making the British economy “carbon-neutral” by 2050. The latter target is agreed by all EU states, but only Britain, in that Act, actually made it law.
In any subject involving “science”, we voters still respond more deferentially than we do to ordinary political discourse. So, for some years, we humoured the climate-change lobby, and nodded our heads gravely when experts told us we must help save the planet. But most of us behaved like churchgoers listening to boring sermons. We accepted what we were told, on the unspoken assumption that it wouldn’t make much difference to anything and because the vicar (originally the Rev T Blair) seemed quite a nice chap.
This began to change for at least two direct reasons – rising electricity bills and sprouting wind-farms. We started to wonder whether it was true, as environmentalists argue, that conventional energy costs must inevitably rise and so a green levy would miraculously cut our bills in the end. We began to notice that in the United States, thanks to the shale revolution, prices have fallen dramatically and so have carbon emissions. Today, we observe that coal, gas and oil prices are falling too.
As for wind farms, it seemed a bit strange that an innovation designed to save our beautiful world wreaked unique havoc on the best landscape. When we learnt that wind power needed vast amounts of conventional power back-up because of intermittency, we started to see it as the greatest physical folly in our island story.
Yet no mainstream political party engaged with this. You could tell that they were worried about the symptoms of their own policies – hence Ed Miliband’s call for an energy price freeze. But none wanted to discuss the causes. Owen Paterson, then the environment secretary, was the only minister who dared raise doubts. He annoyed what he calls the “green blob”. David Cameron duly sacked him this summer.
In the Global Warming Policy Foundation lecture on Wednesday, Mr Paterson said of wind farms that “this paltry supply of onshore wind, nowhere near enough to hit the 2050 targets, has devastated landscapes, blighted views, divided communities, killed eagles…” When this was quoted on the BBC News, he was saying no more than millions of ordinary people have been saying for years. Yet it was very striking to hear it in public, because no other elected person charged with these responsibilities had said anything like this before.
It would have been better still if the BBC had completed the Paterson sentence. He went on to say that wind turbines had devastated “the very wilderness that the ‘green blob’ claims to love, with new access tracks cut deep into peat, boosted production of carbon-intensive cement, and driven up fuel poverty, while richly rewarding landowners”. This, Mr Paterson also said, is “the single most regressive policy we have seen in this country since the Sheriff of Nottingham”. He is right, and because his party, and the Liberal Democrats, and Labour, have all agreed to the sheriff’s extortions, they are letting Nigel Farage play Robin Hood. As the theme song of the TV version used to say, “He cleared up all the trouble on the English country scene, and still found plenty of time to sing”.
Mr Paterson’s argument is that there are much better ways to get cleaner energy. He talks about shale, Combined Heat And Power, “small modular nuclear” and the interesting things that NHS hospitals and others who have their own generators can do to “shave the peaks off demand”. Being no expert, I cannot tell whether he is right here, though these ideas seem to accord with his desire to bring common sense to the subject. He also raises a bigger point, which is that what we have set ourselves is unattainable.
The wind power needed for the EU to hit the 2050 targets would have to rise from the current 42,000 turbines to 500,000. For this you would need, Mr Paterson calculates, an area which would “wall-to-wall carpet Northern Ireland, Wales, Belgium, Holland and Portugal combined”. According to International Energy Agency figures broken down into national components, target fulfilment would cost Britain £1.3 trillion. That is roughly the size of our national debt.
So obviously Mr Paterson is right to say that we should invoke the clause in the Climate Change Act which allows for its suspension. But, despite his notable trenchancy, I would say he is being quite cautious about what is really happening. Even if Britain and the whole of the EU were to stick to our emissions targets (which we surely won’t), and to hit them (which, actually, we can’t), we would still not come anywhere close to what we are told is needed to save the planet. This is for a very simple reason: the rest of the world won’t do it.
Last year, carbon emissions per head in China exceeded those of Britain for the first time, and China has more than 20 times as many heads as we do. The EU is responsible for less than 10 per cent of global emissions, so when we set our targets we knew – and said – that we were in no position to stop global warming. The point was to set a lead which others would follow.
They haven’t. Since the debacle of the Copenhagen Summit of 2009 when the developed world failed to persuade the developing one to join our saintly masochism, this has been obvious. There is a “second commitment period” of the process started by the Kyoto Protocol. New Zealand has withdrawn from it. Canada has repudiated Kyoto altogether. The only two non-European countries still in the second period are Kazakhstan and Australia, and Australia is now reviewing its commitment. Europe’s gesture has proved futile, and is getting ever more expensive, in taxes, bills and jobs. Even the European Commission has spotted this, and is beginning to tiptoe away from the policy.
But not the British parties and policy elites. In August 1914, Sir Edward Grey famously said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe”. He was speaking of the war we had inflicted on ourselves. A century later, we are threatening to put them out again, with different motives, but equal folly. Everywhere else, the lamps are staying on.
Isn’t it rather extraordinary that no mainstream party has dared to point any of this out? Don’t they know there’s an election on? Is it surprising that voters think “They’re all the same”?