Stumbling upon an obscure independence-supporting website the other day I discovered that I’d been accused, effectively, of climate change denial by its editor, an abusive figure on the fringes of the Yes campaign. This was because of a Herald column in which I argued that achieving net zero would require a Covid-style global effort involving the state, universities and industry working together. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Environmentalists often say that they want the climate crisis addressed as if it were a war. Well, that’s what a war effort looks like. It is only through technological innovation inspired and financed by the state, and delivered through collaboration with industry, that we will get through this thing. This seems to me so obvious that I never actually believed anyone could disagree with it. But they do – and very aggressively, it appears.
But with COP26 now only weeks away, it’s time to put away childish things.
The current energy crisis, caused by a failure of the wind to blow and a quintupling of gas prices, is the shape of things to come. It has placed energy at the very heart of politics for the first time since the 1970s oil price shocks. Suddenly, supply is no longer guaranteed and people are worried.
Britain used to be self-sufficient in oil and gas, but the UK Government yesterday ruled out development of the Jackdaw gas field off the Aberdeenshire coast. Not an easy move in the midst of a gas crisis.
Scotland is also phasing out nuclear power stations and coal is history.
This leaves us acutely reliant on imported gas, courtesy of nice people like Vladimir Putin.
Abandoning fossil fuels is going to involve repeated energy shocks. Without technological innovation, and massive investment, achieving net zero will involve punishing hikes in household fuel bills. Energy bills are already forecast to rise next year up to £2,000 for a typical dual-fuel customer – and that will only be the beginning as we reverse the 20-year “dash for gas”.
Plunging the nation into fuel poverty would be the surest way to lose public support for decarbonisation. It is already under strain right now following the lifting of the energy price cap. There are calls to reopen our coal-fired power stations, develop fields like Jackdaw and Cambo, and look again at the fracking of shale gas. The only way to avoid this “carbon default”, as it is sometimes called, is to accelerate the development of renewables far beyond anything we have seen hitherto.
This is a democracy, after all. Energy security is one of the first responsibilities of government. If voters can’t heat their homes, or if they lose their jobs, they will turn against environmental policies much as they have turned against Extinction Rebellion protesters blocking roads. Why are we freezing, they’ll say, when China is still opening coal-fired power stations by the week? Why are we paying huge bills so half of India’s households can use firewood as cooking fuel?
Boris Johnson is now promising to make UK electricity 100 per cent carbon free by 2035. A noble aim. But achieving that involves a step change in industrial production of renewables and a global effort to boost supply.
We have seen great improvements in the cost of renewable energy. Wind power is more than competitive now with nuclear. Solar panels are falling in price all the time and being produced on an industrial scale by Chinese companies. But this is only the start.
There is no point in Britain achieving net zero if it isn’t replicated worldwide. That will require the installation of at least 15 terawatts of solar, hydro and wind power across the world, plus the development of batteries to retain the electricity produced, plus entirely new transport infrastructure to use it.
Net zero will also require carbon capture and storage (CCS) which many environmentalists seem to loathe, but without which bodies like the International Energy Agency say net zero is “virtually impossible to achieve”. CCS will require huge investment in research and development.
This is nothing less than a second industrial revolution. The energy companies and National Grid will play a major role since they have the expertise in power transmission and storage.
Oil companies will have to become renewable fuel companies – rather like Equinor which is developing the world’s first floating windfarm off the Scottish coast.
Insulating Britain involves a lot more than supergluing bottoms to motorways.
There needs to be a revolution in building materials and construction techniques so that every house becomes effectively a generator of clean energy rather than an energy sink. Aviation is far from being the biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses at 3%. It is dwarfed by steel and concrete – production of which is exploding in the Global South.
We require a multi-disciplinary revolution in our education system to generate technical expertise necessary to turn our universities into innovation factories to find solutions. Private industry will have to be mobilised also through subsidy, tax and direction to become part of a global effort. This is exactly what happened during the pandemic. The Government co-ordinated the efforts of our universities and the pharmaceutical companies to develop, manufacture and distribute hundreds of millions of life-saving vaccine shots. It collapsed the normal 10 years it takes to develop a vaccine into 10 months. That could not have happened without centres of excellence in gene editing like Oxford University. It could not have happened without AstraZeneca and other companies conducting the trials necessary to establish the effectiveness of the vaccines.
Without government cajoling and public money, pharmaceutical companies could not have built the factories to manufacture vaccines on an epic scale even before they were proven to work. And, of course, it took the NHS to get it into our arms.
Why is this in any way controversial? How else could Covid have been defeated? And how else can the challenge of climate change be tackled? Should we have refused to accept Covid vaccines because they were developed by private industry, by Big Pharma?
Should we have opposed the UK Vaccines Taskforce because it was a Conservative government that sponsored it?
This is not a time for tabloid technophobia and ultra-left demonisation of industry. Nor will net zero be achieved by reversing economic growth, throwing millions out of work, and causing a permanent economic depression.
That really could start another war. We need more economic growth, though of a different kind to that which relied on fossil fuels.
In the end, there will be no net zero without public support, and right now it’s on a knife edge with the energy crisis. COP26 is also hanging in the balance because developing countries are refusing to cancel their growth plans.
We simply do not have the time to indulge naïve dreams about building a socialist utopia before fixing the climate.
If we don’t start from where we are, the project will fail and we might as well start kissing our asses goodbye.