Let us, if you will, project our imaginations forward 27 years to 2050. It may seem a long way off, but it isn’t. Let’s also imagine that a succession of British Governments have pulled off the remarkable achievement of Net Zero. Britain now has Net Zero carbon emissions, a challenge predicated on the ceaseless predictions of climate apocalypse, averting the prospect of irreversible climate change and even the imminent death of the planet.
A succession of Governments with laws, penalties, quotas, compulsory scrappage and subsidies have achieved the unimaginable and at stratospheric cost to every citizen in Britain. Outside houses (or at least most of them) a whirring heat pump trundles away, pumping its mildly warm water around the house for most of the year, and with variable effectiveness depending on the house concerned. Within, the rooms are all but hermetically sealed to keep the vapid heat the pumps produce inside.
For those who can afford them, an electric car sits outside too, connected to the house’s electricity supply by an umbilical cord. For others, cables are draped across the pavements and every car park across the land is filled with battalions of chargers and more cables. After decades of dedication to the cause every sidewalk across the land has been torn up and the necessary mains cables installed. But no matter – the work is done, and the nation can bask now in its new identity as the leading clean-charging nation on Earth.
On the roofs of houses everywhere are untold numbers of solar panels, at least for those homes with the roof space to accommodate them, busily charging a stack of batteries resembling an extravagant 1970s HiFi system – at least on the days that Britain’s wan and unreliable sun deigns to charge them.
Across the land, field after field has been given over to solar panels and wind turbines.
Vast quantities of private and public money have been poured into this scheme and all for the laudable purpose of Saving the Planet. The righteous glow is palpable. Britain has led the world into the Promised Land.
Let’s have no cynicism here please. Let’s believe that this has all been pulled off with startling success, despite the cost. The naysayers have been crushed, forced to back down and accept that the Cult of Net Zero has taken the country to the gateway to a clean Utopia.
And there have been benefits – of a sort. For the right type of house, the feeble warmth of a heat pump may work very well though it will be exceeded by the righteous glow of the owners who exult in the triumphant conversion of their home. Electric cars are, so I am told, a delightful ride. Gone are smelly exhausts and oil changes, along with clatter of diesel engines and their particulants.
Everyone has done The Right Thing. And of course. it’s better to have a cleaner and non-polluting way of life, especially if one can quietly brush over where and how the necessary equipment was manufactured and the necessary power was generated.
But perhaps by 2050 the realisation will begin to dawn. There will not have been the slightest detectable impact on the climate. Let’s not pretend to ourselves: climate change is real. The climate has been changing since the day since weather began. It changes across time and place. It has always done and it always will.
But after spending all that money and throwing all that labour into Net Zero, the weather extremes, whatever they are and whatever they are caused by, will continue. The prospect of Armageddon will remain unabated, even if Armageddon itself turns out to be curiously elusive. Since Britain produces 1% of the world’s emissions, even if stopping global emissions was capable of arresting or affecting climate change there will be no discernible change from Britain’s efforts.
There will be no impact on the climate for the lifetimes of those who have poured their lives and money into Net Zero. There will be no impact on the lives of their children, their children’s children, or for many generations after that. There will be no suspension of extreme weather events because extreme weather events are a fact of life and always have been. How many fewer extreme weather events would need to be counted for Net Zero to be deemed a success?
Of all the predictions made about Net Zero that is surely a cast-iron guarantee. If it was human activity that brought us to this edge of the cliff, then it cannot be reversed in a few short years. But no doubt when the world turns out not to have ended (just as it did not end when all those self-flagellating movements predicting the end of the world in the past claimed it would) there will be euphoric claims that Britain has staved off the end of the human race.
With so many of the world’s countries carrying on blithely with their coal-fired power stations then little Britain in 2050 may feel good about itself but that’s about it. David Blackmon in the Telegraph questions whether there will be any net energy transition at all.
The actual up-front benefits to those who have paid out for feeling good (which if the Government has its way are every one of us) are going to be very limited indeed. Life will perhaps be cleaner but the physical paraphernalia of Net Zero will be intrusive and ubiquitous from the fields of solar panels and the thump-thump -thump of the wind turbines to the dangling charging cables everywhere.
By then the huge environmental costs of manufacturing and installing all these things will be coming in from scraping lithium off the seabed to the loss of farmland, along also with the sobering realisation that recycling old batteries, solar panel arrays and wind turbines is a far from simple prospect.
The costs of replacing all the Net Zero infrastructure being installed now will be coming home to roost. There’s a real risk that in 25-30 years’ time Britain will be saddled with vast quantities of obsolete and failing hardware.
To be fair, we’d have to replace all the existing cars and boilers anyway by then. The real question is how to generate the additional necessary electrical power by doing away with oil and gas as a source of electricity generation. One estimate (see below) puts the U.S. grid needing to be enlarged by 60%. That includes everything right down to the circuit breakers in domestic buildings, let alone coping with the vagaries and unreliability of renewable energy.
I’m fascinated by wondering what will happen in 2050. For Net Zero policies to work, if they are even capable of working, they will have to be ubiquitous. For them to be ubiquitous means enforcement everywhere regardless of their efficiency or reliability, and if necessary, at the point of a gun. What will we do with the countries that place national energy interests their chief priority and won’t play ball? Go to war with them?
Of course, I’ve ducked past the real point, which is that not only are millions of people going to discover in 2050 that their sacrifices and money have not achieved any change in the clime, but also that in fact Net Zero cannot be reached as well as maintaining energy production at today’s levels, let alone any increases in demand.
And that is the can being knocked down the road and the lie being peddled by almost every politician in business in Britain and beyond who claims to be pursuing Net Zero. “The idea that Net Zero can be achieved on the current timelines by any means short of a command economy combined with a drastic decline in standards of living – and several unlikely technological miracles – is a blatant falsehood,” says Professor Michael Kelly, Emeritus Professor of Engineering at Cambridge, who points out that the implications are obvious.
None of this means we can’t get to a hyperclean new way of life, and I’m all for that. It’s the timescale that’s the problem. And it’s clear to me that Michael Kelly has an immeasurably greater understanding of the practicalities of Net Zero by 2050, both in the U.K. and the U.S., than almost anyone pushing it.
We live in a democracy which means it is the prerogative of the citizens of the United Kingdom to vote for this, if that’s what they want. But I think it’s only fair to stick that in the manifestos and for it to be explained what the deal really is. Otherwise, there is going to be a rude awakening by 2050 and you can be sure that those who led us down this path will have vanished and left others to pick up the pieces.
Stop Press: Read Professor Michael Kelly’s excellent piece in the Telegraph: “People need to know the realities of Net Zero.”