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Beyond the auction of promises

Two years ago, the Welsh Government declared something called a “Climate Emergency;”  apparently signing up to the Extinction Rebellion proposition that to save the planet – by which, of course, they mean to save our way of life; since the planet would be better off without us – we have to reach zero carbon by the end of the decade.  In the ensuing two years, all of the major political parties in Wales have signed up to the need to achieve net zero carbon by 2030.  And so we might be forgiven for expecting that the current campaigns for the elections to the Welsh Parliament/Senedd on 6 May would lead with a raft of radical solutions to climate change.

Anyone who entertained such an expectation will be sourly disappointed.  The impact of Covid on the economy is emerging as the more immediate crisis to be solved.  And so, the major parties – Labour, Conservative and Plaid Cymru – have employment as their top priority.  The incumbent Labour Party offers: “A new Young Persons’ Guarantee of a place in work, education, training or self-employment for everyone in Wales under the age of 25, including creating 125,000 new apprenticeships.”  No doubt some of the new apprenticeships will be in installing non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies (NRREHTs)… so that’s okay then.  Meanwhile, the Conservatives are offering a raft of infrastructure spending; including those old favourites, road and house building: “[We will] Build the M4 Relief Road, upgrade the A55 in North Wales to reduce pinch points and the A40 to boost the economy of West Wales [and] Build 100,000 houses over the next decade.”  All new homes from 2026 to be carbon neutral… so well done you.  Plaid Cymru are offering: “2,000 extra teachers and 2,000 extra support staff in schools across Wales” and “A guaranteed job, on at least a Real Living Wage, or high-quality training for every 16–24-year-old;” again, including some jobs installing NRREHTs.

If Labour are re-elected, we can assume that some of the guaranteed jobs for young people will involve planting trees in their proposed new National Forest.  The rest might have to be employed trying to figure out how to actually achieve the proposal to: “Abolish the use of the most littered single-use plastics, protecting the seas and countryside.”  Alternatively, if single use plastics are banned outright, they will have to work out what to do with all of the additional food waste generated in the retail chain as a result.

The Conservatives at least home in on plastic products which can be replaced relatively easily, promising to: “Ban single-use plastics for non-medical use such as plastic wet wipes, straws, stirrers, disposable cups and cotton buds, as well as creating a drinks deposit return scheme.”  They also promise a new Clean Air Act to further curb pollution.

Plaid Cymru want to establish a new Welsh energy company with a view to generating 100% of Wales’ electricity using NRREHTs by 2035.  They also plan to set up a Development Bank and Welsh National Infrastructure Bank to finance the deployment of NRREHTs and the expansion of storage capacity to accommodate them.

The majority of the jobs created though, will be short-term; because NRREHTs manufacturing will continue to take place in China.  Once wind farms and carbon neutral housing has been built, few people are required to manage and maintain them.  There is no requirement for wind mines in the way that steam-fired power stations require coal mining.  Most of those employed in any newly created – i.e., state subsidised – jobs will be able to re-join a greatly expanded precariat once construction is finished.  There is also a local irony for the modern iteration of Plaid Cymru which was born out of the English water companies flooding Welsh valleys to provide drinking water to Birmingham and its surrounding towns.  But in 2021 it is the same Plaid Cymru that will find itself flooding Welsh valleys on a massive scale if the aim is to provide the massive storage capacity to fully balance the energy captured by NRREHTs… including, crucially, maintaining enough summer-generated energy to cope with a Texas-style high pressure winter cold snap.

What the manifestos clearly demonstrate is that none of the parties believe in the supposed “Climate Emergency” that they have signed up to.  Not least because the focus on electricity generation is essentially a displacement activity designed to avoid the mental distress that arises from understanding that what we face is not just a climate crisis, but an overshoot predicament in which economic and societal collapse is as likely to come from resource depletion and food shortages as it is from a warming planet.  Even the Green Party in Wales is standing on an economic growth-based platform, “with an ambitious Green New Deal that creates tens of thousands of new jobs.”  Calling these jobs “Green” doesn’t change the fact that they will involve burning even more fossil fuels, extracting more resources and generating even more greenhouse gases in the production of the massive volumes of steel and concrete in the construction.  And what, pray, will all of those new green deal employees be spending their wages on?  The odds are that they will want to buy cars, take holidays abroad, eat meat, and buy imported clothing, computers, TVs and all of the other excesses of the apex of industrial civilisation that politicians are too spineless to restrict or ban outright in order to preserve what remains of planet Earth.

It is true that Wales has potential access to large amounts of renewable energy in the form of wind, rain and tides – the tidal reach in the Severn Estuary, for example, is the second highest in the world.  The problem though is the same energy cost of energy calculation which is currently undermining the fossil fuel industries.  The remaining oil deposits – such as the Canadian and Venezuelan tar sands or the US shale plays – are too energy expensive to be free standing.  As a result, they require an increasing transfer of wealth – either via bank lending or government subsidy – to keep producing.  In effect, banks – by creating new currency – and governments – by borrowing and taxing that new currency – transfer surplus energy from the wider economy to the energy sector.  The various versions of green new dealism merely extend the energy subsidy to NRREHTs and their associated infrastructure.

The switch to NRREHTs is anything but an energy revolution though.  Previously, the switch from renewable energy to coal, and then from coal to oil as the primary energy source, resulted in the creation of new suites of technologies – for example, steam locomotives and ships, and then internal combustion engines and aeroplanes.  NRREHTs, on the other hand, are merely part of the suite of technology which emerged out of the oil age.  That is, they are an add-on – and not a particularly useful one – to the existing arrangements.  This is overlooked in places like Wales and the wider UK, where we are entirely dependent upon imports for almost all of our life-support; but where we are able to generate lots of electricity from wind.  This creates the impression that NRREHTs are of far greater importance than is actually the case.  Not much has changed since energy expert Kurt Cobb was giving lectures in 2018:

“I recently asked a group gathered to hear me speak what percentage of the world’s energy is provided by these six renewable sources: solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy.

“Then came the guesses: To my left, 25 percent; straight ahead, 30 percent; on my right, 20 percent and 15 percent; a pessimist sitting to the far right, 7 percent.

“The group was astonished when I related the actual figure: 1.5 percent. The figure comes from the Paris-based International Energy Agency, a consortium of 30 countries that monitors energy developments worldwide. The audience that evening had been under the gravely mistaken impression that human society was much further along in its transition to renewable energy. Even the pessimist in the audience was off by more than a factor of four.”

Notice too, that the addition of NRREHTs has failed to dent our voracious consumption of fossil fuels which, other than in periods of depression – to which we can add 2020-21 – have continued to rise remorselessly:

There is simply no way that we get to increase the energy we derive from NRREHTs – or from NRREHTs plus nuclear – to meet current levels of consumption, while simultaneously reducing fossil fuel consumption to zero, without destroying what remains of the human habitat on planet Earth.  As Roger Pielke at Forbes has pointed out, the task is truly enormous – to replace fossil fuels by 2050 – i.e., two decades after the Climate Emergency deadline – requires that globally we deploy the equivalent of 3 nuclear power plants every two days or 1500 wind turbines over 300 square miles per day, ceaselessly.  And the longer we leave it, the bigger the task becomes.  Moreover, Pielke reminds us that:

“Of course, in this analysis I am just looking at scale, and ignoring the significant complexities of actually deploying these technologies. I am also ignoring the fact that fossil fuels are the basis for many products central to the functioning of the global economy, and eliminating them is not nearly as simply as unplugging one energy source and plugging in another.”

Pielke is optimistic; assuming that if only we can get the politicians to do the sums properly, we can get beyond the “auction of promises” and begin the journey to net zero.  The reality though, is that there is not enough left of planet Earth to provide us with the means.  As the surplus energy available to us declines remorselessly, so even resources which had previously been booked as “reserves” – i.e., those that are economically viable – slip beyond reach.  And even recycling – which currently allows us to consume far more copper, aluminium and steel – becomes unviable at higher energy costs.

The reality of our situation is that we are on the downslope of the fossil fuel-powered industrial civilisation:

In the absence of an alternative high energy density power source to replace oil, coal and gas – which currently does not exist – the surplus energy needed to sustain a consumer economy will continue to decline.  Prosperity will continue to shrink, with the few who can still maintain a middle class standard of living, retreating to their gated communities while poverty and homelessness become ever more visible.

As early as the 1950s, a few geologists began to raise awkward questions about what might happen when it was no longer possible to continue increasing the amount of oil we extract.  Around the same time, scientists began to raise the alarm about the growing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  At the time, they were able to comfort themselves that clever people would overcome the problems long before they became an emergency.  And then we collectively went back to sleep.  The oil shocks of the 1970s woke us up for a short time, and we promised ourselves that we would overcome our addiction to fossil fuels.  But rather like Saint Augustine, it was always left to the future.  Instead, we went on one last debt-based consumptive boom before shortages began to bring the final curtain down on industrial civilisation.

Just like the hungover survivors the morning after, ever since 2008 we have been stumbling around trying to ignore the mess that we all know will have to be cleaned up somehow.  But since none of us is quite ready to roll up our sleeves, we have distracted ourselves with fantasies about starting another party without the energy and resources required to make it happen… all the while blaming the other political team for our thumping headaches and feelings of nausea.  And so we have elections – like the ones here in a few weeks’ time – in which supposedly serious political parties offer yet another impossible auction of promises which serve to demonstrate that not only do they not have viable answers, but they clearly lack a full understanding of our predicament.

As you made it to the end…

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