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David Rose: Welcome To Britain’s Industrial Counter-Revolution

David Rose, Mail on Sunday

The stupidest international agreement since the Treaty of Versailles expired at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Fifteen years after its launch, the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change died a miserable failure. Few are likely to mourn.

According to Kyoto’s authors, it should by now have triggered a five per cent fall in the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, they have risen by 58 per cent because the world’s faster-growing economies never ratified Kyoto at all, nor the drastic cuts in the use of fossil fuel it prescribed.

China, America, Brazil and India simply ignored it, while Canada, New Zealand and Russia, although initially committed, later cast it aside.

In Britain, however, the Government remains wedded to a post-Kyoto strategy, and along with the rest of the EU has agreed to ‘extend’ the treaty’s provisions. One consequence of this is the new Energy Bill, which by 2020 will triple the subsidies paid by taxpayers and consumers to ‘renewable’ energy suppliers to £7.6 billion a year.

The bungs paid to operate offshore wind turbines – the most expensive form of energy ever devised – will rise 16-fold to an annual £4.2 billion. The hated onshore turbines will also get huge new subsidies, at least doubling their number to about 6,500.

Even this underestimates the Bill’s full burden, which is closer to £110 billion. Among its enormous further costs are those which will be incurred by the inconvenient fact that wind turbines make electricity for only a third of the time.

Replacing coal or ageing nuclear stations with wind requires new back-up capacity powered by gas at the same time – though this itself will be uneconomic because when the wind is blowing it will have to be switched off.

Meanwhile, as Oxford University’s Professor Dieter Helm points out in his recent book, The Carbon Crunch, Britain’s claim to stand as a shining example of emissions rectitude is bogus.

Yes, the UK’s own production of CO2 fell by 15 per cent between 1990 and 2005, but this was achieved only by exporting British industries to countries such as China, where on average two new power stations fuelled by coal – by far the dirtiest type – come on stream each week.

Taking this into account, writes Prof Helm, means the emissions caused by UK economic activity rose by 19 per cent. It doesn’t matter whether one is a global warming sceptic, or an alarmist: considered either as an effective means of cutting world CO2 emissions, or as a way to restart growth, Britain’s energy strategy is self-defeating.

And however much subsidy existing renewable technology gets, it will never be enough.

In 2008, David Mackay, now the chief scientific adviser at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), wrote that if one put a strip of wind turbines more than two miles wide around the whole of Britain’s coastline, it would still generate only less than half of the country’s electricity needs.

Needless to say, the cost would be utterly ruinous.

So what should we be doing? The immediate answer is obvious. Thousands of feet beneath Lancashire and many other areas is a vast and readily accessible energy source: clean natural gas, which can be tapped through fracking – pumping in water and one non-toxic chemical to release the gas trapped in shale rock fissures.

This in turn should be used to fuel modern ‘combined cycle’ power stations whose emissions are only 37 per cent of the coal plants they would replace. All of this could be achieved with no subsidy at all. By such means, America, where fracking began on a large scale in 2003, has reduced its gas price by two-thirds and cut its CO2 emissions to the levels of 20 years ago.

However, the ultimate scandal is that the new technologies that really do present an opportunity to create a low-carbon future are being starved of funds.

One is nuclear fission using thorium as a fuel, which produces less than one per cent of the radioactive waste of a conventional, uranium reactor and cannot be used to make weapons.

Another is fusion, which makes energy by fusing hydrogen nuclei in the same way as the sun. Critics sneer that for decades fusion has been said to be ‘20 years away’, suggesting it will never be realised. Yet in the past 15 years, significant advances have been made at the experimental reactor at Culham, near Oxford.

Professor Steve Cowley, the project’s director, told me that by the mid-2020s, there would be a ‘Wright Brothers moment’ when people finally grasped that commercial fusion power was attainable: the successor to Culham, being built at Aix-en-Provence in the South of France, will, he said, produce a self-sustaining fusion ‘burn’ with a net output of 500 MW for an hour.

However, in the meantime, he admitted, progress is frustratingly slow because of the lack of funds.

The UK budget for fusion research amounts to a pitiful £25 million a year, a tiny fraction of the money being thrown at wind power.

Prof Cowley said it was unlikely that a commercial model would be built in Europe before the 2040s – though China may beat us to it.

The eminent physicists Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking have stated that the fusion budget should be increased tenfold.

What accounts for UK energy policy’s incoherence? Driving it is a ‘wind industrial complex’ – a bizarre alliance between Greens, a term applicable to many Liberal Democrats, and the commercial renewable lobby, including prominent Tories such as Lord Deben (formerly John Gummer), chairman of the Government’s Committee on Climate Change, and Tim Yeo, who heads the Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee.

Both men, as this newspaper reported last year, have had extensive financial interests in green energy, although Deben resigned them when he was appointed to his Government post.

Deben may once have been a Thatcherite Minister, but when he mouths the DECC mantras about ‘green growth’ and ‘green jobs’, the supposed bonanza when the number of turbines achieves some unknown critical mass, he sounds indistinguishable from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

Hence the extraordinary report issued last month by Deben’s Committee, which claimed that in the long run, existing renewable technology would prove much cheaper than gas.

Here, the Committee tried to predict the price of gas in 2050 and then compared it with the likely cost of wind in 2020. ‘It’s pretty ludicrous,’ Prof Helm said. ‘Imagine if in 1940 you’d tried to predict what it would have been in 1977. The Committee’s claims are meaningless.’

Another of the report’s claims is equally questionable: that the rising cost of UK energy will not drive yet more business abroad. Several key firms – such as steel giant Tata – have already said that it will.

British policy, enshrined in the current Bill, is being driven not by evidence but by irrational dogma, and to question it is to be accused of endangering the planet. Only this explains the ferocity of opposition to fracking.

In reality, a disaster of a different kind looms: years of chronic impoverishment while competitors roar ahead and world CO2 emissions rise unchecked.

Welcome to the British industrial counter-revolution.

Mail on Sunday, 6 January 2013