Is it Realistic to Think Government Will Abandon the Net Zero Commitment?

Most countries have now committed to reducing their CO2 emissions to Net Zero; Germany by 2045, the USA, Japan and Europe, including the U.K., by 2050, China by 2060 and India by 2070. Under these circumstances, I suggested in the Daily Sceptic on March 11th that climate sceptics should accept the direction of travel and focus their time and energy on trying to ensure the Government puts forward reasonable policies in order to achieve Net Zero.

From the comments on my article, it seems that some climate sceptics still believe it is realistic to persuade the Government to abandon Net Zero. I would certainly agree that the Government needs to slow down the timetable for Net Zero and it needs to ignore the claims about ‘climate emergency’ and ‘the clock is ticking and we are at one minute to midnight’. If these claims are true then we are all doomed anyway because it was clear from COP26 that China and the other countries of the developing world, which between them produce 63% of global CO2 emissions, have no intention of reducing their emissions in the near future.

Our Government needs to consider carefully which policies will work and which won’t. For example, I listened to Any Question on the radio on Saturday April 2nd and the panellists from all the political parties blithely talked about generating ever more energy from wind. This is madness. If we become too dependent on wind energy then when we have spells of weather with low wind speeds there will be power cuts and our homes will be without light and heat.

There is also talk of increasing the amount of solar energy, which at the moment is much less developed than wind. But there is a reason why solar energy is less developed and that is because it does not make sense in the U.K. Our maximum energy requirement is during the winter when we need to heat our homes and offices. But in the winter there is very little sun in the U.K., the days are short and the sunlight weak.

The only presently available option for both reducing CO2 and having a reliable electricity supply is nuclear energy and the Government should be upfront about this and commit to a major programme of new nuclear power stations. But successive governments have neglected nuclear energy and the industry has all but disappeared in this country. We cannot just wave a magic wand and new nuclear power stations will appear. Even if the Government decides tomorrow to go with nuclear it is unlikely that any new power stations will be operational until the 2030s and in the meantime fossil fuel power stations will still be needed.

There is also the issue of China, which is by far the largest emitter of CO2; it produces approximately 30% of global CO2 emissions. China and other developing nations have been quite clear that their priority is not climate change but improving the living standards of their population. So China has said it will keep increasing its CO2 emissions during the present decade but from 2030 onwards it will gradually reduce them until reaching Net Zero in 2060. Many people question how much we can rely on the word of the Chinese Government and would argue that the U.K., which produces only 1% of global CO2 emissions, should pedal more slowly until we are clear that China, and indeed the other countries with large CO2 emissions such as the USA and India, are keeping to their promises.

So there are practical reasons why the U.K. should move more slowly towards Net Zero but is it realistic to argue it should abandon Net Zero altogether? A point often made by climate sceptics is that throughout its history the Earth has shown variations in temperature. There were periods when it was warmer than now and periods when it was colder. But human beings were not around for most of these previous climate change episodes, whereas we are around now and we have the technological and scientific tools to better understand the Earth and its climate. The theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) has been proposed to explain the main observations. Firstly, the rise in atmospheric CO2 levels, from under 300 parts per million (ppm) before the Industrial Revolution to over 400 ppm now, is assumed to be due to human activity, burning fossil fuels and cutting down trees. Secondly, the increase of just under one degree Celsius in the Earth’s temperature over the same time period is assumed to arise from the increase in CO2 because CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Whilst I would completely agree that AGW is not proven, it is plausible and has the support of the majority of scientists.

Over the years, climate sceptics have made a number of criticisms of AGW, for example that CO2 absorption is largely ‘saturated’ and adding further CO2 will not greatly increase atmospheric warming, or that the correlation between CO2 density and temperature is imperfect and in the middle of the last century there was a period of 30 years when the temperature did not change. AGW supporters then counter these criticisms, for example by agreeing that the main absorption band in CO2  is ‘saturated’ but adding there is still absorption in weaker lines and the wings of main band, or that the Earth is a large and complex planet and when plotting CO2 density versus temperature you need to take a multi-decadal view such that you use the running mean over 20, 30 or 40 years. These and other technical issues have been widely discussed over the years but the majority of scientists still support AGW. 

Climate sceptics have also proposed a number of alternative explanations for the increase in the Earth’s temperature, for example it is caused by solar activity or it is a natural statistical fluctuation. But again, these explanations have not attracted widespread scientific support. Until there is either a show-stopping criticism of AGW or a compelling alternative theory to AGW it seems unlikely that governments will abandon Net Zero.

John Fernley is a retired scientist who was a Research Fellow at University College London working on Atomic Physics and subsequently a director of a wind energy development company.

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November 2022
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