The Way We'll Live, Then
In the last week Europe’s political leaders in and out of the European Union have been engaged in the over-production of promises to transform the continent into a Net-Zero carbon-free green utopia. A few examples:
- Even before the week began, the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, had pledged that the U.K would reduce its climate emissions by 68 per cent from their 1998 figure by 2030—the largest single Net Zero promise of any major economic power.
- Soon afterwards but still early in this week, Britain’s official Climate Change Commission produced its sixth report giving its statutory advice to the government on how to reach its Net Zero target beyond That advice was bold: “Our recommended pathway requires a 78% reduction in UK territorial emissions between 1990 and 2035. In effect, bringing forward the UK’s previous 80% target by nearly 15 years.”
- Not to be outdone, the heads of EU governments, meeting as the EU Council this weekend, announced that they were adopting the emissions reduction target of at least 55 per cent by the year 2030. It had originally been a 40 per cent target. But the European Parliament would prefer an even more ambitious target reduction of 60 per cent.
And in the current atmosphere of an auction on speed, who would bet against the Parliament getting its way?
Now, going carbon free will be extremely expensive both for governments (i.e., taxpayers like you) and for individuals and households. Just how expensive we’ll get to in a moment, though with some difficulty: governments have been very cagy about spelling out its costs clearly. But the financial costs may not give as accurate a picture of the scale of these promises—think how hard it is to grasp what a billion dollars is, let alone a trillion—than a look at what they would mean in visible and practical terms.
On that Climate Change Commission report is extremely illuminating because it breaks down the main effects of going Net Zero under four headings with examples of how we’ll be living under each one. Again, here are a few (with some editorializing in italics by me):
- Take up of low-carbon solutions. People and businesses will choose to adopt low-carbon solutions, as high carbon options are progressively phased out. By the early 2030s all new cars and vans and all boiler replacements in homes and other buildings are low-carbon – largely electric. By 2040 all new trucks are low-carbon. British industry shifts to using renewable electricity or hydrogen instead of fossil fuels, or captures its carbon emissions, storing them safely under the sea. [Choose? We’ll be choosing these changes because the government will prohibit the sale of the cars, vans, and boilers we use now. It’s what we used to call a Hobson’s Choice. And we won’t like all of it because—to take one example—the low-carbon heaters don’t keep people as warm as their current oil and gas-based ones. And what then?]
- Expansion of low-carbon energy supplies. U.K. electricity production is zero carbon by 2035. Offshore wind becomes the backbone of the whole U.K. energy system . . . New uses for this clean electricity are found in transport, heating and industry, pushing up electricity demand by a half over the next 15 years, and doubling or even trebling demand by 2050. Low-carbon hydrogen scales-up to be almost as large, in 2050, as electricity production is today. Hydrogen is used as a shipping and transport fuel and in industry, and potentially in some buildings, as a replacement for natural gas for heating. [Let me be sure I get this thing straight: we intend to electrify the entire country to heat people's homes, fuel their cars, provide power to industry, and do a hundred other things while at the same time making our electricity supply dependent on unreliable renewables, mainly wind (of which perhaps Boris Johnson himself will supply a large percentage.) But I’m being unfair—we’ll also rely on hydrogen (not yet available in sufficient quantities unless we make it from forbidden fossil fuels) and carbon capture (still to be developed.)]
- Reducing demand for carbon-intensive activities. The U.K .wastes fewer resources and reduces its reliance on high-carbon goods. Buildings lose less energy through a national programme to improve insulation across the country. Diets change, reducing our consumption of high-carbon meat and dairy products by 20 percent by 2030, with further reductions in later years. There are fewer car miles travelled and demand for flights grows more slowly. These changes bring striking positive benefits for health and well-being. [That all sounds very jolly? But what if our diets don’t change voluntarily? Or consumers don’t actually like the new low carbon foods predicted here? Or they want to use their cars and fly on vacation more often than the planners predict? Will the planners change the plan? Or ration the foods, car trips, and vacations that the consumers (who are also voters) want to enjoy?]
- Land and greenhouse gas removals. There is a transformation in agriculture and the use of farmland while maintaining the same levels of food per head produced today. By 2035, 460,000 hectares of new mixed woodland are planted to remove CO2 and deliver wider environmental benefits. Some 260,000 hectares of farmland shifts to producing energy crops. Woodland rises from 13 percentof U.K. land today to 15percent by 2035 and 18percent by 2050. Peatlands are widely restored and managed sustainably. [Producing energy crops? Ah, they mean like the U.S. cellulosic ethanol program that according to an article in the Scientific American was supposed to produce energy from wood and plant wastes, reducing greenhouse gases substantially, but that by 2017, after development over three administrations, produced not the predicted 16 billion gallons but ten million gallons or, as one energy expert put it, “enough fuel to satisfy approximately forty minutes of U.S. fuel consumption last year.” You know, there are times when the damn plane just can’t take off from the drawing board.]
After looking at this list of the industrial,, economic and personal lifestyle changes needed to bring about Net Zero in Britain, it seems inevitable that together they must amount to a massive sum. But the report’s chairman sums up the costs in a single breezy paragraph:
Some of our most important work is on the costs of the transition. Low carbon investment must scale up to £50 billion each year to deliver Net Zero, supporting the UK’s economic recovery over the next decade. This investment generates substantial fuel savings, as cleaner, more-efficient technologies replace their fossil fuelled predecessors. In time, these savings cancel out the investment costs entirely – a vital new insight that means our central estimate for costs is now below 1% of GDP throughout the next 30 years.
How credible is that? Let me point out some warning signs in it. The first is that to think the argument that “in time these savings (from going from fossil fuels to cleaner technologies) cancel out the investment costs entirely” is a “vital new idea” is dotty on at least three counts: It’s the rationale for almost all investments. What’s vital about it is the qualification “in time” which for investments of this scale might be centuries. And the timescale might even be never if, as seems highly probable, the price of fossil fuels remains stubbornly lower than the price of technologies still to be invented.
And that risk is illustrated be the following comparison: the sum of 50 billion pounds cited as the annual cost of making Britain and the British virtuously Green is almost exactly the same figure as the 50 billion Euros given by the E.U. heads of government to Poland this week as compensation for killing its coal industry. The two programs are so different from each other in scale and risk that they could hardly cost anything like the same budgetary figure.
Even if the figures added up, however, the Climate Change Commission’s program would still face the larger political problem that its proposals depend on the support or at least acquiescence of the great majority of their fellow citizens in massive potentially unwelcome changes in how they live, work, travel, eat, and enjoy themselves not for a short period but forever. When we see the growing discontent with the privations and regulations that governments have temporarily imposed for protection against a pandemic, it doesn’t seem likely that whole populations will agree to live out their dystopian fantasies.
I wondered how governments would respond to that? Then I remembered something:
“Communism is Soviet Power + Electrification of the Whole Country.” Vladimir Lenin, Report on the Work of the Council of People’s Commissars. December 22, 1920
Goodness gracious. That report was issued exactly one hundred years ago. Next week.