Let me emphasise from the start that I am absolutely all for the design and manufacture of vastly improved, cleaner, less polluting, more efficient machinery to make our lives better in every way. I’m delighted that I live in the 21st century and not in a prehistoric or medieval hovel as untold generations of our ancestors had to. We have all benefited from the fantastic ingenuity of human beings, often inspired in the face of adversity, and I have no doubt whatsoever that we can continue to be innovative. It would be insane to believe otherwise.
The reason we live better lives than we used to is in no small part, but not entirely, due to the simple principle that in a capitalist (i.e., natural) economy improved products sell themselves because they are generally better than what went before. If you think about it, that’s how evolution happens.
Turkeys, and there have been plenty of them, end up being kicked into the gutter of commercial oblivion because they weren’t good enough.
Several thousand years ago the use of stone tools gave way to copper and its alloy bronze because the new metallurgy made it immeasurably easier to manufacture a far wider array of implements and adornments. Iron, which took longer to learn to smelt, next transcended bronze for some of those purposes because it is far harder. Metals are just some of the materials human beings have developed which we take for granted but form the basis of everything we are.
No-one had to impose them through quotas. No-one went around making stone tools illegal to promote the interests of the bronzesmiths. Tribal chiefs didn’t fine stone knappers for selling too many flint axes.
Jump on to early modern times.
The industrialist entrepreneur Joseph Arkwright (1732-92) became phenomenally wealthy because his development of the spinning frame drastically improved the cloth manufacturing process by speeding up production of yarn from cotton. His genius was using water, and later steam, to power the frame (which he hadn’t actually invented). He wasn’t helped by Government quotas.
Arkwright’s genius extended to his vision of round-the-clock factory production at Cromford. His machinery and practices formed the basis of the modern factory system. We might regret many aspects of that world, among them the exploitation of labour and terrible working conditions, but the fact remains that virtually every part of our world relies on the template he established, not least the ability to manufacture on an epic scale. The spinning frame has gone the way of many older inventions, supplanted itself by better, more efficient and cheaper production techniques.
No prizes for guessing which very large Far Eastern country has taken factory production to levels Arkwright could only have dreamed of.
This process has continued to serve as the bedrock for the richer and more comfortable lives most of us in developed countries enjoy today. But all too often, Western developed countries have let other nations take advantage. And now it’s happening again, but this time it seems to be deliberate negligence.
It’s one thing for governments to incentivise and facilitate innovation and production, and also to pass laws imposing minimum standards of production, safety and welfare for those who work in industry. That’s what governments are for.
The world has changed though. Thanks to the cult ideology of Net Zero some governments, including our own, have started trying to destroy the entire basis of human brilliance and ingenuity in a way that has no parallel other than in totalitarian states.
If electric cars represented an overall improvement on internal combustion engine (ICE) cars by being collectively better to drive, cheaper to buy and run, at least as easy to ‘refuel’, had longer (or even equivalent) ranges, used less energy, lasted longer, had better resale value, were less environmentally damaging through being easier to make, using less metals and were easier to recycle, they’d sell themselves. Those are all minimum standards the Government could have set, but hasn’t.
In fact, even if EVs were more expensive to buy but all or most of the other improvements applied, we would go out and buy them because they’d be all the rage – just like iron was once, just like spinning frames were once, and radios, televisions and wristwatches rather than pocket watches (or no watch at all). But in most regards EVs fall flat (just like their batteries), not least the prospect now of having a punch-up at a motorway service station when an EV needs recharging.
Let’s take an example: the British motorcycle industry all but disappeared in the 1980s because Japanese motorcycle companies like Honda and Yamaha flooded the market with products that, while not perfect, outperformed British bikes with higher specifications and performance.
You can argue about the merits of the Japanese bikes all you like. The proof is in the pudding. My father, a dedicated rider of British bikes, laughed like a drain at my Honda 175 in 1978. “You’ll never get anywhere on that,” he mocked. A year later he bought his own and left his AJS to rot in the garden. He never touched another British bike.
What about heat pumps? Trust me, I’ve inspected two systems owned by neighbours and I had a quote for one. I gave up on the spot. I’d have to half-gut my 18th century house to have it caked in expensive and largely futile levels of insulation (which also means having to redesign every window bay in a house with thick stone walls), spend a small fortune (despite the grant) for the plant itself, give over a large part of the utility room to the collection of pipes, valves and tanks, see my electricity bill go through the roof, and all for the privilege of sitting in tepid despair and saying goodbye to hot baths. No thanks. What kind of a sales pitch is that?
Of course I’m not going to buy a heat pump as they stand. Just as someone in the eighth century BC would have turned down an iron sword if it was softer than a bronze one. In the days of the late Bronze Age the man with an iron sword was king.
You’ll see that thus far I have not mentioned climate change. I’m not going to engage with that directly because that’s not the point here, apart from the single consideration that if that’s the problem I am at a total loss to know how EVs and heat pumps on offer at the moment are going to make any difference.
It is preposterous to claim that panic-stricken measures thrown together with various arbitrary deadlines, compulsory quotas and fines are going to prevent us from falling over the supposed precipice and undo in short order the claimed consequences of well over two centuries of industrialisation.
Even if it’s as bad as we are being told, then it is already too late. How can switching to electric cars and heat pumps have any visible or detectable effect on the climate in our lifetimes, let alone those of several further generations? Especially in a country with a tiny carbon footprint?
Much worse, it is even more preposterous to believe that buying electric cars manufactured in China where carbon emissions are on an epic scale, dependent on electricity generated by burning fossil fuel and based on mining far large quantities of minerals than ICE cars, to say nothing of ripping up thousands of miles of pavements to kit houses out with the necessary cabling, is going to do anything to modify our impact on the environment.
Since by all accounts it looks as if most EVs will be scrap within 10 years of being made, their impact is going to be even worse, most of all because of the problem of recycling the batteries and having to manufacture even more cars to make up for their shorter lives.
With current EV cars likely to be unusable within a decade without a small fortune being spent on new batteries, they are the equivalent of an ICE car needing a complete new engine after the same interval. Tell that to my 33-year-old Volvo 740 which is still going just fine, thank you very much (with a carbon footprint a fraction of an EV car). In seven years, I won’t even have to pay any more road tax.
Likewise, it’s absurd to claim that manufacturing and installing complex heat pumps, also dependent on vast quantities of electricity to operate (I was quoted 10,000 kWh of electricity per annum to run one in my house) is going to make a difference.
Those are just two examples of producing new machinery which will come at huge cost to the environment on their own, to say nothing of the massive financial cost to those who buy them. Heat pumps of course cost more to service than boilers, and now we learn that EV owners are being hit with massive hikes in insurance costs (a story that originated in the Guardian, no less).
It’s also nonsense to suggest either EVs or heat pumps will represent permanent solutions to the supposed problem. One thing you can be sure of is that with so much money to be made, most will be obsolete by the time they are bought or installed, with the marketing of ‘upgrades’ following on their heels, to say nothing of the colossal impact of recycling car batteries and all the gubbins that make up a heat pump.
Worse, some of this new equipment is dangerous. The stories about electric cars spontaneously combusting are on the rise. Lithium batteries are not fully developed technology.
Thanks to the Government trying to enforce their sale in short order with deadlines and quotas there will be a huge problem with simultaneous breakdowns and obsolescence a few years down the line.
It’s inconceivable that there won’t one day be far better ways to make EVs or machines to heat our homes. But those improvements would arrive a lot more quickly if Government set minimum standards and manufacturers had to meet them to sell their products instead of being encouraged, even forced, to sell inferior goods by the state.
The plain and obvious fact is that whatever problems these innovations are supposed to be solving they are not up to the job. The technology is woefully behind the task it is being set. That doesn’t mean it won’t be one day. But right now it’s the stuff of dreams.
Therein lies the dangerous message of the Government’s new eco laws and deadlines: EVs and heat pumps don’t need to be good enough to be sold on their own merit. This totally undermines the claim that the green revolution is a fantastic opportunity to reboot Britain’s economy.
Currently they are being sold on the basis of moral blackmail pinned round an arbitrary deadline and imaginary precipice. Nor has the Government done anything like enough to install the support infrastructure – another reason why the take-up is so poor.
The Government’s solution is coercion, not improvement. The much-heralded recent rowing back on some of the deadlines was window-dressing, and only intended to target the next election. They’re a sham.
Even worse, it’s laid the whole market open to Chinese industry, which is the only outfit capable of supplying cheap second-rate products in volume to meet the deadlines (it’s the same with almost everything else so why should EVs and heat pumps be any different?) This makes it even less likely British industry will be able to produce innovations in a commercially viable way. Energy costs more in the U.K. than almost anywhere else.
In any case, as was shown the other day on this site, Britain’s reduction in carbon emissions has been achieved in no small part by running down industrial production (economic suicide). Therefore, claiming Net Zero is going to create a new industrial revolution with thousands of jobs is a total contradiction since the eco lobby will go mental if new factories result in any elevation in carbon emissions.
So, here’s the deal. I’d happily replace my rural house’s oil boiler with a heat pump if the latter was cheaper to buy, cheaper to run, more durable and better at heating my house. I’d happily replace my car with an EV if it was cheaper to buy, cheaper to run (which it might be at the moment – insurance aside – but soon won’t be when new taxes are imposed), had at least as good a range and was as easy to recharge as my ICE car is to refuel.
Almost none of these things is true, so until then I’m going to carry on for as long as I can with what I already have. In any normal marketplace we wouldn’t need the moral blackmail, deadlines and laws enforcing their sale because the EVs and heat pumps (or some alternative) would be so good that everyone would be queuing up to buy them. Normal competition would do the job.
I don’t doubt for one moment that ICE cars and gas or oil boilers should, at some point, go the way of steam engines and paraffin heaters. Of course they should. Life moves on. Innovation is what human beings are all about. But it’s a rum deal when the next generation of technology represents a backward step.
The only thing I am certain of is that the combination of inferior products, arbitrary deadlines, quotas, fines and legal sanctions will stifle the pace of development. A small number of people will make astronomical amounts of money before disappearing into the sunset with their swag. Vast quantities of EVs and their batteries will end up in scrapyards along with heat pumps before the next decade is out. And the public will have been swindled out of their savings to bankroll this chaos.
And if you want to know what happens to old wind turbines, just watch this video about dumped turbine blades in Australia by my old BBC colleague Nick Cater. Answer? Just chuck ‘em in the bush.
Worse, I can foresee a time when a new round of legal provisions will outlaw the current crop of EVs for having a devastating impact with the mining of minerals and damage to the environment because of their batteries, along with heat pumps for using far too much electricity.
Quotas, coercion, fines and arbitrary deadlines are the last refuge of political scoundrels, as perfectly exhibited by the old Soviet Union. They are a fast track to evasion, corruption, inferior products and squandered time, opportunity and resources.
Far from being grateful to us, future generations are more likely to curse our era for wasting untold quantities of resources on second-rate manufacturing and all for the sake of saving face because the Government failed to win its own argument.
Politics always was and always will be about the short-term. It’s no different with Net Zero, despite the Government’s claims and those of the useful idiots who egg them on, some of whom are champing at the bit at the chance to make a killing.
What a wasted opportunity. It’s a scandal.
I’m wondering what happens down the line when it finally becomes apparent that none of this has had any impact on the problem it was supposed to have? If anyone thinks we’re going to slide into a utopia of static weather patterns with no divergence from the ‘since records began’ mean, they’re going to be very, very disappointed. Then what?
My closing question then is, what’s the real agenda here? Somehow, just somehow, I feel sure it will involve following the money. ‘Twas ever thus.