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The problem in microcosm

It is just a few weeks until politicians, scientists, luvvies and various officially approved activists jet into Scotland to attend the auction of false promises that is the COP26 conference.  And no doubt fearing the adverse comments that have grown in recent years about their burning more carbon in an afternoon than most of us ordinary folk burn in a year, our elders and betters have decided to greenwash their image.

For security reasons (honest) the great and the good will be staying in some of Scotland’s most luxurious hotels such as Gleneagles – some 35 miles from the conference venue on the banks of the Clyde in Glasgow.  Which raises the thorny problem of transport.  Having blown the annual carbon allowance of a small African country getting to Scotland, the last thing our glorious leaders need is to be seen being ferried back and forth in oil-powered limousines. 

The obvious solution might have been to take advantage of the new fleet of 68 battery-electric buses which recently entered service in Renfrewshire and Glasgow.  But again, for security reasons (and nothing to do with having to sit next to the unwashed masses on their way to work) it was decided that using public transport was too difficult.  They could, perhaps, have chartered the two new hydrogen buses which are to be exhibited at the conference – although given that industrial scale hydrogen is made from reformed natural gas, and given the current price of gas, that may have proved to be too expensive.  In the end, they opted to purchase a fleet of high-end electric Jaguar Landrover electric cars to ferry dignitaries to the conference venue.

This decision though, overlooked one small but essential detail.  Those cars are not going to charge themselves.  And it turns out that even in Scotland – a world leader in renewable energy technology – the government has fallen woefully short in meeting the need for 700 charging points to be installed every day until 2030 if the UK government is to meet its aim of banning new internal combustion cars.  Indeed, there is just one charging point – in Auchterarder village two miles away – serving the Gleneagles resort.  The result, as reported in The Scotsman over the weekend was both predictable and far from green:

“It is more than a little embarrassing that oil-powered generators are having to be set up to power the plush, electric Jaguar Land Rover SUVs being made available to world leaders at the Cop26 climate summit because of a lack of charging points.”

There is, of course, more to this than the embarrassment of world leaders discovering that “going green” often leaves you more dependent upon fossil fuels.  Because at a small-scale this incident exposes everything wrong with the attempt to overcome climate change in a largely unplanned manner.  Time and again, the approach taken by governments across the western world has been to set unrealisable goals while banning the fossil fuel technologies which keep the current system working, and then hope that clever people somewhere else will figure out how to achieve them – an approach I have likened to throwing yourself out of an aeroplane in the hope that this will encourage you to sprout wings and learn to fly.

Building expensive electric cars does not cause charging points to magically appear on the side of roads any more than building wind farms causes the wind to blow continuously.  And as the UK has discovered to its cost this month, installing lots of wind farms before you’ve figured out how to overcome intermittency leaves you dangerously exposed to an increasingly volatile market in natural gas.

It is 29 years since the states of the world met at the Kyoto conference and agreed to begin reducing carbon dioxide emissions.  Since then, billions of dollars, euros, yen, and pounds have been spent deploying non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies (NRREHTs) subsidising various forms of biofuels and providing grants and cheap loans for everything from new electric cars to home insulation.  And what has been the impact on greenhouse gas emissions?

Even those states – like the UK – whose emissions haven’t grown, have only achieved this by outsourcing their manufacturing to the Far East so that our pollution shows up as their emissions.  But at least all of those NRREHTS we have been deploying have weaned us off fossil fuels… Right?  Well, not quite.  As Robert Rapier at Forbes explains:

“Despite the blistering growth rate of renewables, it’s important to keep in mind that overall global energy consumption is growing. Even though global renewable energy consumption has increased by about 21 exajoules in the past decade, overall energy consumption has increased by 51 exajoules. Increased fossil fuel consumption made up most of this growth, with every category of fossil fuels showing increased consumption over the decade (although coal’s growth was close to zero).

“Thus, while renewables have helped reduce the growth of carbon dioxide emissions, global carbon emissions have grown due to the overall growth rate of fossil energy consumption…”

Indeed, and despite our best efforts, NRREHTs still account for a tiny fraction of the energy we would need just to stand still:

The sad reality is that there is not enough left of planet Earth even to replace the energy we currently rely on from fossil fuels with NRREHTs.  Not least because NRREHTs currently depend upon fossil fuels at every stage in their manufacture, transportation, deployment and maintenance.  Worse still, oil production has already peaked – meaning that there will be less and less with each passing year – gas appears to be reaching a peak now, and without oil-powered machinery, much of the coal thought to be available to us may also be inaccessible in future.

If the scientists and world leaders at the COP26 conference were to be honest for once in their lives, they might just explain what ought to be obvious – that there is no technofix and there is no realistic way in which we grow our way out of a crisis which was caused by growth in the first place.  In short, and in the not too distant future, those who survive the coming energy and food shortages are going to have to get used to a far more energy-constrained and far less prosperous way of life.

As you made it to the end…

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