The BBC’s latest contribution to the green energy fantasy turned out to be largely the usual mix of techno-utopian hopium and green energy industry PR. Amid the bullshit, however, was a repeat of a key piece of propaganda by a spokeswoman from the UK’s Committee on Climate Change. This was the almost always unchallenged assertion that Britain has a moral duty to deploy wind turbines and solar panels because it – because of the industrial revolution – is responsible for the majority of the human-produced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
This is superficially plausible. On the eve of the industrial revolution, China and India were among the wealthiest regions of the planet. A century later, Britain presided over the largest and (at the time) wealthiest empire the world had ever seen. British imperialism – powered by the vast reserves of coal beneath Great Britain – had operated a massive forced wealth transfer racket to relieve Asia of the wealth its rulers had accumulated over centuries. It is only right, therefore, that Britain makes the sacrifice of decarbonising its economy first; while China and India are permitted to continue burning fossil carbon in order to develop their economies to western levels.
The sleight of hand in the “Britain has a moral duty” argument can be seen in this chart from an essay by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser at the Global Carbon Project:
Throughout the nineteenth century Britain accounted for the overwhelming proportion of carbon dioxide emissions generated in any year. And while the UK was overtaken by the USA, Britain continued to be a world leader in carbon emissions throughout the twentieth century. For this reason, Britain’s poor must pay the price – via rising energy prices and collapsing public services – for the benefits that the owners of British corporations made (and continue to make) from burning fossil fuels.
But the chart is not referencing the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted, but only the percentage of any year’s cumulative emissions. According to the 1801 census, the UK population at the beginning of the nineteenth century was just 15 million; a large part of which continued to lead agrarian pre-industrial lifestyles. As historian Paul Kennedy has noted, the world’s industrial activity in the nineteenth century pales into insignificance compared to the explosion of growth the followed the Second World War:
“The accumulated world industrial output between 1953 and 1973 was comparable in volume to that of the entire century and a half which separated 1953 from 1800. The recovery of war-damaged economies, the development of new technologies, the continued shift from agriculture to industry, the harnessing of national resources within ‘planned economies,’ and the spread of industrialization to the Third World all helped to effect this dramatic change. In an even more emphatic way, and for much the same reasons, the volume of world trade also grew spectacularly after 1945…”
This being the case, we would anticipate that man-made carbon dioxide emissions – which are a by-product of economic growth – would follow a similar pattern. In the same essay, Rirchie and Roser provide us with this chart:
This time we are looking at the far more important data from an environmental rather than a political point of view. After all, the tens of thousands of species that are currently going extinct are unlikely to be too concerned about the country of origin of the pollution that is killing them. Of course the UK figures on the chart; but in terms of the actual tonnage of carbon dioxide emitted the UK’s efforts pale into insignificance compared to India, the USA and China. As Peter Frumhoff, Director of Science and Policy and Chief Climate Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out five years ago:
“By the end of this year, more than half of all industrial emissions of carbon dioxide since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution will have been released since 1988 — the year it became widely known that these emissions are warming the climate.”
The “Britain has a moral duty to lead” argument is at best another variant of the insanity that has led to the highly destructive Brexit debacle – that Britain is in some way still the global power that in reality it ceased to be in 1944. At worst it is little more than a convenient cover story designed to persuade Britain’s growing precariat to pay even more of its remaining cash to the billionaire owners of the green energy industry.
This was the point highlighted by energy economist Dieter Helm during the BBC documentary. We are not dealing with British warming, we are facing Global warming. And there is little point focussing on relatively minor cuts in carbon emissions from UK electricity generation if Chinese and Indian industry continues to ramp up – and very likely under-report – the gargantuan volumes of fossil fuels being burned. As Barry Saxifrage at the National Observer reported two years ago:
“Even at the relative level, the burning of fossil fuels continues to overwhelmingly dominate global energy consumption. Decades of efforts to shift to safer sources have barely dented fossil fuels’ share, which continues to float north of 85 per cent.
“When we drill down to recent trends in oil and gas it’s even more discouraging. The burning of both those fossil carbon fuels continues to surge dizzyingly upwards, out-running the safer alternatives. Reports show that these twin surges threaten to ‘lock in’ global climate failure.
“The one possible point of hope for our climate and oceans is in the data on recent coal burning. But this data is the most likely to be under-reported. Coal burning has been spectacularly under-reported in the past. Repeatedly. And now, as pressure grows, more and more nations and industries stand to benefit by under-reporting. They face little chance of being caught if they do. That’s because the world lacks any way to verify much of the global coal reporting.
“Meanwhile, construction of coal plants continues to boom around the globe and CO2 levels in our atmosphere continue to accelerate upwards.”
It would be easy enough to blame the regime in China for our likely failure to prevent runaway global warming in the not too distant future. Not only is their government continuing to ramp up fossil fuel use, but it is systematically under-reporting what it is doing; making a mockery of international agreements that assume more than two-thirds of the remaining fossil fuels will be left in the ground. But it is actually here rather than the industrial revolution, where Britain’s political class can find its moral duty to act.
Western governments have deliberately excluded embodied energy from their carbon emissions accounting. While China is now responsible for the majority of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, this is only because neoliberal states like (and especially) the UK chose to offshore their heavy and most polluting industries in the 1980s and 1990s. The Thatcher government was able to close down Britain’s coal and steel industries precisely because the Chinese – who had billions of cheap labourers and a more cavalier approach to environmental legislation – could offer a much lower price. In this sense, carbon emissions generated in China are really British (and American and European) emissions; and should be included in our carbon accounting not theirs.
One reason embodied energy – the energy used to manufacture all of the things we import – has not been included in our carbon accounting is that to do so would remove the green veneer from the 2015 Paris Agreement. The reason western governments were happy to allow developing states to continue to burn fossil carbon even as they made superficial efforts to decarbonise their own national economies was that they were the main beneficiaries of other countries’ carbon emissions.
The environment, of course, does not care. All that matters is that we all stop burning fossil carbon. That means that we begin dismantling the global economy in favour of localised manufacturing based upon a far less materialised way of life. Insofar as we need to produce steel (perhaps for making and erecting wind turbines) that cannot be recycled using electric arc furnaces; then we should make it where it is needed, not on the other side of the planet from where we will have to transport it on oil-powered ships. As Helm points out in the BBC documentary, it makes no sense for the UK to allow our remaining steel works to close if British companies are still going to need steel and will import it from China if they cannot source it locally.
The Bright Green deception is that none of this matters and that we can continue to operate a growing globalised economy simply by abandoning the 85 percent of primary energy provided by fossil fuels and trying to (and most likely failing to) replace it with intermittent non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies which are themselves dependent upon fossil fuels at every step in their manufacture, transportation, deployment and maintenance. The stark reality, in contrast, is that we must choose between abandoning a global economy that allows six out of every seven of us to be here; and abandoning the human habitat which allows seven out of every seven of us to be here. As film director Woody Allen once put it:
“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
I won’t hold my breath.
As you made it to the end…
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