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The limits of green idealism

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Cynics will no doubt point to the coincidence of the UK government announcing a “plan” to decarbonise transport just as preparations for the COP26 conference are gathering pace.  After all, having signally failed to decarbonise the 20 percent of our energy which comes in the form of electricity – fossil fuels still generate 34.7 TWh of UK electricity – there is no reason to believe that the UK government is about to decarbonise the 40 percent of our energy – mostly oil – which powers our transportation.

While the plan is doomed to failure, its announcement provides two key insights into government thinking and philosophy which help us understand how this is going to play out.  The first – and easiest – of these is that the government approach is techno-utopian.  What do I mean by this?  The plan provides no serious attempt to curb carbon emissions in the only way currently possible – to cut back on our use of fossil fuels, with the most profligate users cutting back the most.  Rather, we are treated to a raft of supposedly “over-the-horizon” technologies which will magically save the day without anyone having to take a hit to their standard of living.

There is no need, the minister explains, to cut back on commercial air travel because we already have battery- and hydrogen-powered planes.  Well… sort of.  In June 2020, news channels around the world reported on the largest battery-powered plane to date making its first flight.  For example, Tom Metcalfe at NBC News reported that:

“When a small white-and-red Cessna Grand Caravan plane took off from Moses Lake in Washington State on Thursday, it was flying into history.

“The aircraft flew at more than 100 mph to an altitude of around 2,500 feet, made a few turns and then landed after 28 minutes — an otherwise unremarkable journey for a common aircraft.

“What made history was under the hood. The eCaravan, as it has been dubbed, is powered by a 750-horsepower electric motor, supplied with energy by more than 2,000 pounds of lithium-ion batteries. Weighing in at over 4 tons, with a wingspan of over 50 feet and room for nine passengers, it’s the largest electric plane ever to have flown.”

It is, of course, those 2,000 pounds – 200 pounds per person – of batteries which is the limiting factor.  And that is simply to fly 50 miles.  A commercial airliner carrying some 380 people for, say, 500 miles would require some 760,000 pounds – 380 US tons – of batteries; 215,000 pounds higher than the current maximum take-off weight for a Boeing 777.  And so, as with all things battery-powered, the minister was obliged to follow up with hydrogen… in this instance the false claim that Britain already has a hydrogen-powered commercial airliner.  It doesn’t; it has a part share in a theoretical Airbus hydrogen-powered plane.  Not to be sniffed at, but thus far both types of hydrogen power – combustion and electric fuel cell – have been dogged with problems within the much simpler car industry.

In absolute terms, road transport is a far bigger problem; and the minister is correct to point to the growth in electric car sales.  If we include hybrid vehicles, then electric vehicles accounted for ten percent of new car sales last year; largely because of companies taking advantage of state subsidies to renew their fleets.  And these figures are not quite as positive as they first appear.  As Fleet Industry News reported in 2018:

“Paul Hollick, managing director of TMC, said: “Our data shows that although businesses may have the best intentions when it comes to adopting PHEVs, they are not being used in the way manufacturers intended… data on 1,500 PHEVs shows they have a real-world fuel economy of 39.3mpg – many ULEVs have official combined fuel consumption of more than 120mpg – while some drivers do not charge their cars at all.”

The infrastructure simply doesn’t exist to power fleets of battery-only electric cars; and nobody is planning to build the additional 700 charging stations per day in readiness for the ban on new ICE cars in 2030.  Nor is anyone in a hurry to build the 20 additional nuclear power stations required to provide the electricity.  And these are trifling concerns compared to the real show-stopper of attempting to convert our diesel haulage trucks to electricity.  Even the minister recognised that any truck fitted with sufficient batteries to drive several hundred miles would have little room left for cargo.  This is why he made the absurd suggestion of erecting overhead power lines of the kind that once supplied electricity to Cardiff’s buses (which at the time was the most efficient means of powering road transport with coal).  It is worth noting that his department had to renege on the project to electrify the railway lines between Cardiff and Swansea and between Bristol Parkway and Bristol Temple Meads (in the centre of the city) as the cost of just one line between London and Cardiff spiralled out of control.  And yet the same department is now proposing to electrify all the roads that haulage trucks currently operate on!

It might be – although I very much doubt it – that a breakthrough in nuclear fusion or the rapid deployment of fourth generation nuclear might provide us with quantities of useable energy unimaginable in the oil age.  And with that energy boost, technologies as magical to us as ours would have been to Stone Age people may be developed.  But it is foolish in the extreme to bet our species’ continued existence on it.  But in a sense, government is not making that bet at all; which brings us to that second insight about how this is going to play out.

The UK government – along with its counterparts across the Western democracies – has been spending far too much time listening to economists and behavioural psychologists, and nowhere near enough time talking to physicists and engineers.  As a result, they have conjured a vision of a world without fossil fuels which bears no resemblance to what a world without fossil fuels would actually be like.  Call it a green new deal or a great reset if you like.  But as the vision buts up against the physical constraints of life on a finite planet, they have become increasingly concerned that simply waiting for the dream to become real is not going to work.  Free markets, it would appear, cannot break the laws of thermodynamics.

Something more will be needed.  But mired in the legacy of neoliberalism, governments cannot bring themselves to go over to the dark side and start ordering corporations to deliver the necessary changes.  Instead, we have entered this odd halfway house in which governments resort to banning the things that they don’t want – ICE cars and trucks, domestic gas heating and cooking, etc. – in the hope that clever people somewhere else will come up with a practical alternative.  It might work, but again, I’m not holding my breath.  And given the likely consequence of dispensing with fossil fuels before practical alternatives have put in an appearance, it is the policy equivalent of jumping out of an aeroplane and then halfway down throwing away your parachute in the expectation that this will encourage you to fly!

I’m not exaggerating here.  Get this wrong and undermine the global transport networks and food-growing parts of the world will have crops rotting in the fields even as urbanised places like the UK will be experiencing mass starvation.  Without ships and heavy trucks, almost all of the things we depend upon become insecure to an extent which makes the current pandemic-induced shortages look trivial.  At the very least, while we wait for those clever people somewhere else to deliver those yet-to-be-invented technologies, we might want to embark on a programme of de-growth and re-localisation so that as much as possible of our life support can be maintained locally.  But, of course, that would require that politicians admit that their great green dream was nonsense from the beginning.

As you made it to the end…

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