Issue 252: 2020 10 22: A Green Light

22 October 2020

View from the Cotswolds

Green light at the end of the tunnel?  Decarbonisation here we come!

By Paul Branch

Every now and again in these columns there has appeared what some might interpret as histrionically vitriolic criticism of our government’s lack of action and leadership across a wide range of issues, including the critical area of climate change and what to do about it.  As a counter to this view, there appears to be considerable actual work afoot across various government departments to back up our commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.  And all supported by encouraging research into the new technologies we will need in order to meet the objective and make sure many of us aren’t fried in our graves by the time we reach that deadline.

Some of the research documents I’ve seen focus not only on the technology but pay particular attention to the confluence of two overarching streams of events: climate change obviously being one, but Covid-19 is perhaps surprisingly the other.  You could argue that one was bad enough and that the recent arrival of the dread virus has only added to our woes.  However the scientists doing the research, whilst recognising the difficulties involved, take a more positive view: that the advent of Covid actually presents many opportunities to resolve the conundrum of climate change, and that without the stimulus provided by the virus we stood a far greater chance of arriving at 2050 with nothing to show in the way of stemming the tide of rising global temperatures.  They also take a holistic approach to the problem: technology is all very well but nothing is guaranteed to succeed, so put your money into a diverse range of possible solutions (much like the global search for a Covid vaccine) and expect an ongoing evolution of technology rather than rely on huge leaps in capability; and make sure we move people’s skills and employment opportunities across from old energy industries to the new cleaner environment, at a rate that avoids huge spikes in unemployment (admittedly already exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic) and the ensuing public unrest.

One local research institute involved in this activity is Climate Econometrics based at Nuffield College, Oxford.  Modelling of global climate change and the world’s economy indicates some important conclusions: a) the earth’s temperature has risen steadily and consistently due to industrial activity and other factors, so the phenomenon isn’t cyclical and won’t be going away of its own accord; b) recent successful attempts to reduce carbon emissions have led to a rise in per capita GDP, so going greener and economic growth are not incompatible; and c) the cost of moving from an old industry to a modern successor can be achieved without major aggregate cost, notwithstanding the need for local compensation when old industries die (eg, coal mining), an issue deftly ducked by politicians up to now.

The efficiency of wind turbines and solar cells has greatly increased over the past 20 years, commensurate with falling costs which means that these energy sources are now effectively cheaper than natural gas.  Last April the UK’s share of renewable energy generation reached 60%, so getting up to 100% by 2050 actually looks doable.  Other sources of green energy worth taking further are nuclear, in the form of small modular reactors already used in submarines, or molten-salt waste burners which use non-fissionable thorium or the spent uranium rods from older reactors (which gets over the issue of waste disposal).

Generating clean electrical energy is one thing; storing the stuff to make it usable for transport is quite another as lithium-ion batteries would need major improvements to facilitate long ranges for cars, trains and aircraft, and short recharging times.  Initial research indicates that electric vehicles could be powered by graphene or carbon nanotubes, a potentially cost-competitive technology.  These lightweight materials exhibit exceptional electrical and mechanical properties which allow them to act as electrode super-capacitors, charging and discharging rapidly with sufficient power storage capacity for distance travel.  A further possibility is that the electric vehicles themselves could be used as storage units plugged into an intelligent grid.

The overall management of all these developments opens up the opportunity to generate genuine employment potential in new industries and research, as well as redeploying skills from other areas such as manufacturing and offshore activities.  This in turn could serve to maintain economic growth by offsetting any downturn from the effects of Covid-19 and the closure of traditional energy and manufacturing industries.  It won’t be easy, it’s certainly worth trying for, but it all depends on the magic word “management” which is where the government comes in, and not only for funding purposes.  The good people at Climate Econometrics sum it up rather nicely:  maintaining employment and rising living standards while “decarbonising” the economy will require an integrated approach.

A wander through the government’s on-line portal to climate change is refreshingly reassuring as it talks of these technologies and other initiatives across the wider topic of decarbonisation, and where our money is being invested to help achieve the 2050 target date.  It’s really nice to see reinforcement by actual historical deed of what we need to do more of: as an example, since 1990 we’ve apparently cut emissions by over 40% and increased economic growth by over 60%.  The unfortunate recent soundbite from Boris about the UK becoming the Saudi Arabia of wind power tends to undermine confidence in whatever good work is going on though – it demonstrates yet another remarkable U-turn in the man’s thinking, if that’s the right word, and highlights his ability to leave himself open to incredulity at the hot air he manages to generate.

Responsibility for the various activities cited is said to be spread across three main departments of government: Business (and Energy & Industrial Strategy), Transport, and Environment (and Food & Rural Affairs).  And therein, gentle reader, lies the rub – it doesn’t look or feel much like joined-up government, the term “integrated” doesn’t leap out at you, and for something this critical to all our futures you’d think there would be one body, one leader charged with pulling everything together and making sure the likes of Ashok Sharma, Grant Shapps and George Eustice deliver on their green commitments as well as doing their respective day jobs.  You’d also like to think we’d learnt from the lack of dedicated management of Covid-19.

On reflection a task as varied and as important as this should probably be assigned to people who have a breadth of knowledge and experience across the technical, economic and social spectrum, so the least qualified would be professional politicians, and certainly not their special advisers.  A solution therefore would be to take the role, responsibility and authority away from the normal Cabinet (but clearly not from Parliament) and give it to a bunch of physicists to sort out – whether Pure or Applied, these are the sort of people to bring our electric train with all lights flashing green through the long, dark tunnel of Covid-19 and into the sunlit uplands of 2050.


With grateful acknowledgment to Climate Econometrics and its associate, Dr Jennifer L Castle, Tutorial Fellow at Magdalen College, University of Oxford, and devoted mother to two of my (Leicester City supporting) grandchildren.

Tile image:Max Kleinen

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