by Michael Kelly
One graph I caught up with this week has convinced me that climate change mitigation by supressing carbon dioxide emissions is a busted flush that history will look back on with great ridicule, even if the worst of the climate alarmist predictions come to pass.
Even a water-tight, globally binding and comprehensive treaty in Paris later this year will not change the situation. BP’s most recent analysis [link] of a 20 year forward look for the world’s energy needs also includes the hard data for that last 25 years that the world has been debating carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. Several things leap out from this analysis:
(i) It shows an approximate 40% growth of energy usage over the last 20 years when climate mitigation has been a matter of public debate, and predicts a further 40% growth over the next 20 years on a business as usual basis. To the extent that half of China, much of SE Asia and a growing number of Africans have emerged from grinding poverty over that period, I regard that as a good thing. I am not in any way condoning human profligacy in resource and energy consumption elsewhere.
(ii) The sum total of all the renewable energy does not make serious inroads to this. Indeed Roger Pielke has a graph from last year’s BP data showing that the ratio of non-carbon energy to carbon energy in the world economy has been fixed at 12-13% for the last 25 years, indicating that the carbon energy usage is growing at quite precisely seven times the rate of non-carbon energy to maintain the ratio. [link]
(iii) Note that the contributions of renewables are nugatory, so far and going forward.
(iv) Note the size of the blip represented by the international financial crisis in 2008-9: we would need to multiply the downturn in energy usage by a factor of more than ten to get even onto a linear track for an 80% decarbonisation of the global economy from 1990 to 2050. If we think of the human misery of that crisis multiplied ten, it is a very unlikely call. Who will vote for that?
Two other factors have to be factored in. I have often pointed out that most proposals for carbon dioxide emission reductions that would make a measurable reduction to perceived adverse future climate (and I return to this rather hollow proposition below) comprehensively fail the engineering reality test (see link and link). Last week I heard a distinguished international environmental lawyer and former Prime Minister of New Zealand describe the tortuous nature of the international negotiations on a climate treaty, and that was the last nail in the coffin of climate mitigation in my book [link]. I do not disagree with his stress that New Zealand to do its bit, but only provided it is kept in perspective in terms of consequential pain inflicted on the New Zealand economy and the well-being of its citizens: for each of the last ten years, the carbon dioxide emissions of China have increased by the total amount of New Zealand’s emissions every seven weeks!
The ultimate hypocrisy of carbon oxide emission reduction is exemplified by the use of aluminium in the UK economy. Because of the commitment of the 2008 Climate Change Act, the UK is committed legally to reduce its carbon emissions by 80% of the 1990 levels by 2050. Many wind farms are now in operation subsidised by everyone to pay the rent for 20-25 years occupation of land and air-space of the land owners. The cost of electricity has gone up at twice the level of inflation over the last decade, in part because of these subsides, which are set to grow further. [In the UK, a household is described as fuel poor if it spends over 10% of its disposable income keeping warm in winter – that number has trebled since 2006!] Four of five aluminium smelters, using gas-field electricity have closed down because of this extra cost, and have relocated to China, with a direct export of jobs. The lost production is now imported from China, incurring the transport emissions, but the aluminium itself is made there using coal fired electricity, so making the original global problem of CO2 emissions worse! People in the UK pat their backs on emissions reductions but point the finger at the Chinese! The UK is showing leadership in hypocrisy!
The more I think of it, the project to decarbonise the world economy is a modern version of the biblical Tower of Babel in engineering project terms. Until we get a much clearer idea of what we will get for our money, whether it is $10T or $100T spent on carbon emission mitigation in terms of measurably improved climate in the future, just who would invest their pension money there! If we don’t know the end point, and the cost to get there, the Tower of Babel is the correct analogy. $10T spend on the poor would give the bottom billion an income of $1000pa for a decade, and I find it easier to anticipate the positive outcome for mankind, even if the poor are thwarted in part by corruption in the countries occupied by the poor.
The most important and urgent exercise to undertake now is to scope and cost adaptation actions on the basis of the possible future climates. The Dutch have lived with sea level rise for centuries and they should be our guide. If I live to 100 and see in 2050, I will look back on this time as a modern equivalent of previous manias, such as the South Sea Bubble or the Tulip scam. If the climate has got more dangerous, we will be better able to tackle the challenges. If not more dangerous, we will have nothing but scorn for this period in history. Place you bets. Every time that someone comes up with a neo-Malthusian scare (over population, resource exhaustion, …. ), I quote my hero in this regard: the first Baron Macauley in a 1830 debate on Malthus’s original proposition stated:
“On what principle is it that, when we look we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
He was right then and yet to be found wrong, and I say amen to his view now.
Biosketch. MichaelKelly is Professor of Solid State Electronics and Nanoscale Science in the Division of Electrical Engineering, University of Cambridge.He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1993 and won its Hughes Medal in 2006. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He was formerly the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for Communities and Local Government.
JC note: This is an invited guest post, please keep your comments relevant and civil.