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Separating the self-flagellation from the greenhouse gas

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Speaking to the media at the Youth4Climate event last week, Greta Thunberg berated the UK for continuing to extract oil and gas from the North Sea while pretending to be green ahead of the coming COP26 conference.  Not only that, but as the originator of the industrial revolution, Britain is doubly guilty:

“Of course, the climate crisis … more or less it started in the UK since that’s where the industrial revolution started, we started to burn coal there, so of course the UK has an enormous historical responsibility when it comes to historic emissions since the climate crisis is a cumulative crisis.”

So, here’s an interesting question that Greta has probably never had to answer, and which many of my readers will probably get wrong.  If we add up all of the carbon dioxide emitted by households, businesses and industries within the boundaries of what we now call the United Kingdom, when will China – currently the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide – overtake?  2025?  2035?  2050?

No, in fact, China overtook the UK in cumulative carbon dioxide emissions two decades ago in 2002:

The reason for this is that China’s march to industrialisation following its admission to the World Trade Organisation, arrived just at the point when the world’s conventional oil deposits were beginning to deplete.  Moreover, by December 2001, while oil was still in demand, most of the developed states had made deep cuts to their coal use.  This gave China access both to its own deposits and to cheap deposits from around the world.  But coal is a particularly heavy emitter of carbon dioxide, and China’s emissions from coal had already passed those of the UK – for the last time – in 1968:

Today, China consumes more than half of all the coal burned worldwide.  And, thanks to campaigners like Greta, will be permitted to continue burning coal until 2060 – although it claims that it will begin reducing its consumption after 2030.

In energy terms today, the UK consumes just 54 terawatt hours per year from coal.  This is just enough to power a couple of steelworks and cement works – without which we won’t be deploying any more wind turbines – and to keep a couple of old power stations on standby for the – many – days when the wind refuses to blow hard enough.  Compare this with China’s 22,853 terawatt hours per year:

Indeed, the UK’s total energy consumption is a tiny fraction of China’s; as it has been since the early 1970s:

It is also worth noting that the UK has gone much further than the rest of the world in terms of the percentage of its energy mix that comes from (non-traditional biomass) renewable sources – and in fairness, so has China:

To be clear here, my intention is not to beat up on China.  Not least since much of the pollution it emits, is generated making consumer goods for the wider world… consumer goods, by the way, that activists like Greta seem to take for granted.  Rather, the comparison between the land area containing the most polluting combination of households, businesses and industries, and the equivalent – largely de-industrialised – UK landmass is to demonstrate the absolute futility of expecting the UK to lead the world in anything more than a miniscule way.  That is, if the magic energy fairy waved her wand and allowed the UK to meet all of its current energy needs from fresh air, the reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions would be so small that nobody would notice.

If the aim is to cease pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, then big polluters like China, India and the USA must stop burning fossil fuel today.  Singling out the UK because some industrialists responded to pan-European timber shortages by burning coal decades before the UK even existed, may satisfy some innate quasi-religious desire for self-flagellation, but it does almost nothing to halt greenhouse gas emissions.  And, being realistic for a moment, the idea that modern Britain’s puny attempts at decarbonisation – which, by the way, come at enormous cost – are going to put “moral pressure” (the old “white man’s burden”) to change onto today’s big polluters is fanciful at best.

Indeed, if contemporary Britain is showing the world anything at the moment, it is that switching to non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies while you still depend upon increasingly expensive natural gas for back-up, will leave your economy desperately short of energy just when you need it most.  Moreover, for all of the false promises that wind turbines and solar panels will deliver energy too cheap to meter, the reality is that businesses and households are currently being driven to insolvency by eye-wateringly high prices of gas and electricity which can only worsen as supply becomes increasingly intermittent.

These rising prices – which, because of a global shortfall in fossil fuel supplies, will not be going away – are rapidly turning the bright green approach to climate change into a political hot potato.  With a Tory government firmly entrenched in the UK, and with no opposition to speak of, it was inevitable that the UK would adopt eco-austerity for the poor and eco-socialism for the rich.  Just as they imposed austerity for the poor and socialism for the rich in the aftermath of the 2008 crash.  In yesterday’s budget, for example, there were no benefits for those in the bottom half of the income distribution once taxes and inflation are factored in.  Nor was there any attempt to cushion the coming blow from spiking energy prices this winter – such as a proposed cut in VAT.  The Chancellor did cut the tax on bank profits though.  His friends in the airline industry got a handout too, in the shape of a cut in passenger duties.

As prosperity retreats behind the security gates of the remaining affluent enclaves within the London-Cambridge-Oxford triangle and the archipelago of suburbs in the top-tier university towns, it is painfully obvious that the cost of the government’s preferred approach to green policy is going to fall disproportionately on the shoulders of those who cannot afford to pay.  As one of the government’s own backbench MPs put it a few days ago:

“It’s clear to me this agenda will not work in the coming years if the government imposes significant extra costs on people who cannot afford to pay them – simple as that.”

It is in the nature of human beings – and, indeed, of every other creature on the planet – to be here-now orientated.  And faced with a choice between food and warmth today versus making a futile environmental gesture for tomorrow, I am afraid that so-called “green” concerns are going to fall to the very bottom of the political agenda in the very near future.

As you made it to the end…

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