While climate change is a real issue and must be tackled, the prime minister’s 10-commandment plan is not the way to go about it
Our fearless leader has descended from the mountain with a 10-commandment plan for a green industrial revolution. At a cost of £12 billion, he will have all Britons driving electric cars powered by North Sea wind turbines and giving up their gas boilers to heat their homes with ground-source heat pumps. He will invent zero-emission planes and ships. This vast enterprise will create 250,000 jobs. I am a loyal supporter of the prime minister, but this Ed Miliband policy makes no sense any way you look at it. Here are 10 reasons why.
First, if it’s jobs we are after then spending £48,000 per job is a lot. Cheaper, as Lord Lawson put it, to create the same employment erecting a statue of Boris in every town. Anyway, it’s backwards: it’s not jobs in the generating of energy that count but jobs that use it. Providing cheap, reliable energy enables the private sector to create jobs for free as far as the taxpayer is concerned.
Second, he misreads how innovation works, a topic on which I’ve just written a book. Innovation will create marvellous, unexpected things in the next 10 years. But if you could summon up innovations to order in any sector you want, such as electric planes and cheap ways of making hydrogen, just by spending money, then the promises of my childhood would have come true: routine space travel, personal jetpacks and flying cars. Instead, we flew in 747s for more than 50 years.
Third, he is hugely underestimating the cost. The wind industry claims that its cost is coming down. But the accounts of wind energy companies show that both capital and operating expenditures of offshore wind farms continue to rise, as Gordon Hughes of Edinburgh University and John Aldersey-Williams of Aberdeen Busines School have found. Wind firms sign contracts to deliver cheap electricity, but the penalties for walking away from those contracts, demanding higher prices from a desperate grid in the future, are minimal and their investors know it. Britain already has among the highest electricity prices for business in Europe because of the £10 billion a year that electricity-bill payers spend on subsidising the rich capitalists who own wind farms; raising them further will kill a lot more than 250,000 jobs.
Fourth, these policies will not significantly reduce the nation’s emissions, let alone the world’s. It takes a lot more emissions to make an electric car than a petrol one because of the battery. This is usually made in China. If the battery lasts for 100,000 miles – which is optimistic – and the electricity with which it is recharged is made partly with gas, then there is only a small saving in emissions over the lifetime of the car, according to Gautam Kalghatgi of Oxford University.
Fifth, the plan will make the electricity supply less reliable. Already this autumn there have been power-cut near misses and there was a bad blackout in 2019. Costly diesel generators came to our rescue, but keeping the grid stable is getting harder, and in both Australia and California, blackouts have become more common because of reliance on renewables. Smart meters that drain your electric car’s battery to help keep other people’s lights on may help. But if you think that will be popular, Boris, good luck, and wait till the lights go out or the cost of heating your home goes through the roof.
Sixth, Mr Johnson is depending on impractical technologies. Ground-source heat pumps can work, though they deliver low-grade heat and can’t cope on a freezing night. Air source heat pumps have not proved so far to be nearly as efficient as promised. They need electricity, make a noise and take up outside space that is not there in a terrace of houses. Forcing us to use compact fluorescent light bulbs, when LEDs were coming, proved a costly mistake.
Seventh, hydrogen is not an energy source; it first has to be made, using energy, then stored and transported. Making it from natural gas is expensive and generates emissions, but making it with electricity is vastly more expensive. Its minuscule molecules can slip through almost any kind of hole, so the natural gas pipe network is not suitable. Leaks will happen at hydrogen fuelling stations, as one did in Norway in June last year, resulting in a massive explosion.
Eighth, this industrial revolution is anything but green. To generate all our electricity from wind in the North Sea, taking into account the increased demand for electricity for heat pumps, electric cars and hydrogen manufacture, would require a wall of turbines 20 miles wide stretching from Thanet to John O’Groats, says Andrew Montford of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. The effect on migratory birds would be terrible.
Ninth, nobody is following Britain’s example. China has announced that its use of fossil fuels will not even peak till 2030. China has more coal-fired power now under development than the entire coal power capacity of the United States. It will use coal to make the turbines and cars and batteries we use, laughing all the way to the bank. The world still generates 93% of its energy from CO2-emitting combustion (coal, oil, gas and wood) and just 1.4% from wind and solar.
Tenth, while climate change is a real issue and must be tackled, Extinction Rebellion is simply wrong about the urgency. If it’s extinction they worry about, let’s tackle invasive alien species, responsible for most extinctions. By contrast, there is no confirmed extinction of a species due to climate change. Nor has global warming resulted in more or fiercer storms or droughts. The extremists’ claims otherwise simply ignore the scientific evidence. Emissions have so far increased crop yields and made all ecosystems greener.
Yes, we need to address the issue, but we would be better off funding research to bring down the cost of carbon capture, nuclear power and fusion. Nuclear is the one form of carbon-free energy that can generate reliable power from a tiny footprint of land. The reason nuclear electricity costs so much today is because we have made innovation in nuclear design all but impossible by devising a byzantine regulatory process of immense cost. Let’s reform that. Small, modular molten-salt reactors are an innovation within reach, unlike electric planes.
My fear is that we will carry out Boris’s promised 10-point plan, cripple our economy, ruin our seascapes and landscapes, and then half way through the 2030s along will come cheap, small, safe fusion reactors. The offshore wind industry, by then so stuffed with subsidies they can afford to lobby politicians and journalists even more than they do to today, will suck their teeth and say: “no, no, no – ignore the fusion crowd. We’re on the brink of solving the reliability issue, and don’t worry, the cost will come down eventually. Promise!”
Boris, this is not the way to the promised land, especially when the government is borrowing £300 billion because of covid. High-cost electricity will prevent the United Kingdom making a success of Brexit. It will bankrupt us in the short run, make us less competitive in the long run and not cut emissions much anyway.
Matt Ridley is the author of How Innovation Works (Harper Collins).