The Scienttific Alliance Newsletter - Changing and informed scientific debate

Looking back...and forward

Another year is nearly behind us, bar the merrymaking for Christmas and the New Year. This time last year, we were looking back on an exceptionally wet summer across the UK and other parts of western Europe. 2013, on the other hand, has seen a more normal seasonal pattern.

As in any year, there have been some extreme events across the world – devastation in the Philippines caused by typhoon Haiyan in particular – but it has been a quiet hurricane season and the a typical one for tropical storms overall. Western Europe had its own problems this month caused by high winds; the storm surge in the North Sea was the worst for 60 years and only improvements in flood defences in the meantime prevented a repeat of the disastrous flooding in East Anglia and the Netherlands in 1953.

The lack of any discernible trend in weather patterns this century did not prevent climate change activists trying to pin the blame on fossil fuel burning and holding up such events as examples of what will become commonplace this century if global emissions of carbon dioxide are not drastically reduced. This seems an increasingly desperate attempt to strengthen the case that global warming is a real and present danger, in view of the lack of any upward trend so far this century.

The view from activists seems to be that the political will to pursue radical emissions reduction policies will weaken unless they put the fear of God into people. Certainly, little progress was made at this year’s climate change summit in Warsaw (COP19), despite the thousands of delegates who spent up to two weeks on intricate negotiations. There is a feeling that the momentum is ebbing away, which is only reinforced by the new Australian government’s rolling back of that country’s climate mitigation policies.

To hammer home the point, a report produced this week for the RSA (A new agenda on climate change: facing up to stealth denial and winding down on fossil fuels) seems to have produced headlines different from those intended. For example, in the Times we read under the headline Public won’t change to save the planet, “Only a fifth (21 per cent) support paying extra for goods and services to help to deal with climate change. Almost three quarters (72 per cent) said their own standard of living is more important to them than helping to solve problems caused by climate change.”

The thrust of the report is that more needs to be done to persuade people of the need for emissions reduction by emphasising the “broader systemic threat to public health, national security and the global financial system”. However, this seems rather like flogging a dead horse. Like it not, the Establishment must realise that, unless already convinced of the case, the average citizen is at best bored with the topic of climate change. They have more immediate problems which they will always prioritise over long-term projections.

In the absence of concerted global action, EU Member States would be better saving taxpayers’ money to spend on healthcare and infrastructure, adapting to changing weather patterns as necessary. As the extent of change induced by carbon dioxide becomes clearer and our understanding of climate improves, and as energy generation and storage continues to develop, any action deemed necessary later this century may be both more effective and more readily accepted.

One of people’s more immediate concerns, directly linked to climate change policy, is energy. Rising prices and increasing levels of fuel poverty have raised public alarm and give rise to the kind of responses to opinion surveys reported by the RSA. While this is particularly true of the UK at present, where it is exacerbated by low pay increases and alarmingly high house prices, the pinch is being felt elsewhere as well. In Germany, which has some of the highest energy prices in the EU, there are rising numbers of people unable to pay their bills.

With no economically-attractive, low-carbon energy source being available – with the exception of nuclear, and the latest plans in the UK have unfortunately pushed the price of this higher than expected – we are being forced to choose between affordable, reliable, high-carbon generation and expensive, intermittent renewables. Governments are keen to spend our money on the latter, but voters are beginning to disagree.

Another conflict comes with transport. Many mainstream environmentalists would have us ditch our cars and cut back on flying, using trains, buses and bikes instead. In the UK, this is coming to a head via two issues. One is the long drawn-out debate about new runways (or a new airport) in the economic heartland of the London region. The other is whether the country should at long last invest in domestic high-speed rail, linking some northern cities to London.

The decision again comes down to priorities. Air travel is both affordable (without public subsidy) and the preferred means of transport over medium to long distances. Without government interference, its use will continue to grow, particularly as other parts of the world maintain their rapid rate of development. Most European countries have invested in their hub airports and provided multiple runways to increase capacity. And yet Heathrow – still one of the world’s busiest airports despite having just two runways – has been held back from expansion while successive governments have vacillated in the face of vocal opposition.

To some extent, this is an accident of geography. Heathrow grew from a modest airfield, with no thought that it would reach its present size or have such an impact on neighbouring areas. Other major European hubs – Schiphol, Frankfurt and Charles de Gaulle, for example – do not require flight paths over a major city. But, whatever the objections, we have to accept that international air travel will continue to grow for the foreseeable future and any major economy has to provide sufficient capacity or risk becoming less competitive. There are hard questions to be asked about where such expansion should take place in the UK, but that is no excuse to duck them.

As for HS2, there is a real risk that the extended decision-making process will result in an expensive, inflexible (and possibly outmoded) transport link which will do little to stimulate growth in the North and prove too costly for many citizens to use. Many, indeed, might still prefer to catch a cheap flight to Manchester.

Looking forward, we know that we will be no closer to a decision on airport expansion this time next year, and it seems unlikely that the go-ahead will have been given for HS2 either. The next climate change summit, COP 20, will have been held in Lima and it is highly improbable that any more serious momentum will have been injected into the search for a binding international agreement on emissions reduction.

Perhaps 2014 will be seen as the year when the international will to seek to control the climate via energy policy begins to wane more noticeably. Already, even the chairman of the UK Committee on Climate Change has recently admitted that unilateral action is useless. Perhaps next year will be the one in which the UK government – still the only one with supposedly legally-binding emissions targets – begins to prioritise energy security and affordability over failing renewable energy and biofuel policies.

If one Member State breaks ranks, others will be keen to follow. Even Germany, with its enormous fleet of wind and solar farms, could once again reverse its stance on nuclear generation. In the meantime, French citizens continue to enjoy the benefits of low-cost, low-carbon nuclear energy, with suppliers happy to export the surplus to bolster the less reliable supplies in countries with higher levels of renewables.

A happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year to all readers. The next edition of the newsletter will come out in early January.

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