Apologies for the radio silence of the last week but I’ve been down under, in Australia, at an AltFi event.
While there I’ve been reading about the Extinction Rebellion protests in London – and feeling increasingly depressed. On paper as someone who supports a well thought through decarbonization agenda, I should be cheered that climate change is being pushed up the agenda alongside Brexit.
I’m not though. Quite the opposite in fact.
I fear that this mass movement is, in fact, going to set back the move to decarbonization by at least a decade. As I’ll explain, my fear is that once we all look closely at what’s involved with the protestors’ demands, we won’t like what we see. And then we’ll experience the counter-reaction.
Obviously, I could at this point make all the usual cheap points. That Extinction Rebellion is an archetypal watermelon campaign, green on the outside but red (Rise Up) on the inside. I could also point out that any campaign with Emma T as the headline act isn’t likely to inspire millions of hard core cynics. I could even mention the criticism that this campaign should really be focused on the countries that will make the real difference to outcomes – the USA, China, and India. And if I felt especially uncharitable, I could recoil in horror at the suggestion that all we need now is a Citizens Assembly to decide what to do next. Don’t we have that – it is called Parliament? Representative democracy isn’t perfect but it’s a damned sight better than the alternatives.
So, with those cheap jibes out of the way, let’s attack the central issue. The 2025 challenge. ER wants us to get carbon emissions down to zero within six years. Thinking this through, lets take industry by industry, starting with the first obvious candidate, the grid. There’s already a huge technical debate about whether we can get to 50% renewables penetration without a massive programme of investing in structured redundancy within the power system. It could mean spending tens of billions of pounds on back up technologies including batteries. There are real technical, engineering debates about whether that move above 50% (or even the 70% level imagined for Ireland), is deliverable in the short term. Moving to a 100% system in just six years could potentially plunge us into prolonged black outs and massive system-wide uncertainty. For a glimpse of what might happen check out South Australia and its issues.
Now, these challenges are all manageable over say a 5 to 10-year time frame for a transition. In fact, these changes are necessary but a badly thought through lunge in jut a few years could deliver massive system-wide shocks we won’t recover from.
Sticking with the utility sector, let us also think through replacing all those gas and oil boilers. If we look at how badly the programme for smart meters has rolled out over the last few years, can anyone tell me why they think a more ambitious programme of getting rid of all the boilers will be deliverable within a few years? Again, this transition is necessary but somehow imagining that complex, adaptive, modern infrastructure based systems can be wholesale changed over in a few years is just sheer ignorance.
Next up let’s look at various industries. It goes without saying that we can say goodbye to most of the UK car manufacturing sector which is addicted to petrol and diesel engines. I don’t know about you but I tend to buy a car with a 5 to 6-year plan which means that we’d have to ban all diesel and petrol car sales NOW to stop the wrong choices being made. I think it is fair to say that in the West Midlands this decarbonization move will go down very badly.
Sticking with the transport sector, aviation is a hopeless case as there is really no alternative to using hydro carbons – at the moment. Which means it must all shut down. Heathrow and Gatwick gone in the next few years. All those holidays abroad to sunny parts beyond a rail network – gone. Not good news for West London. Cruise holidays. Gone. Bad news for Southampton.
And of course, it goes without saying that the UK North Sea oil sector must consider dismantling its infrastructure now, given long time scales for engineering projects. Again bad news for Aberdeen.
More generally I would point out that once these ideas are thought through, most rural areas will be in open revolt. Their diesel cars abolished. Their tractors gone. Farming would be taxed out of existence. Oil boilers gone. Fields plastered wall to wall with solar farms and wind turbines. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to suggest that this programme of adaption will go down like a lead balloon once its thought through. And of course, all those heavy chemical industries in urban areas would have to go alongside nearly every cement plant. Given the timescales involved around planning, the rolling closure programme would have to start this year or next.
I grant you that we might have to plan for many of these changes over the next decade, but we’ve learned from globalization and rapid technological change that too rapid a change is profoundly disruptive and liable to spark populist revolts. Also, for the life of me, I can’t see how any of these changes can be seriously suggested without dispatching commissars from London to every part of the UK ordering reluctant folk to stop emitting carbon dioxide.
Which brings me nicely back to the Rise Up agenda that sits behind these protests. To describe it as communist is I think an understatement. What’s clear to me is that like the Green New Deal being proposed by left-leaning Democrats in the US, this is really a trojan horse for a more radical socialist agenda. Maybe that agenda is what’s needed, maybe we do need a new socialist utopia, but please have the balls to argue that front and center of your agenda. I’ll give McDonnell and Corbyn credit here – they don’t hide their agenda, forcing us to make a judgment about their ideology. But draping communist proposals underneath a decarbonization agenda is simply bonkers and will eventually be seen as such.
Sooner or later we’ll end up with a populist reaction, which is already being felt in the US amongst working class Republicans. They can spot a middle class left liberal hit job a mile off. They are being told to ditch their oil ‘heavy industry’ and ‘shale’ jobs, their 4-wheel drives and their holidays by a metropolitan elite. That’s led many of these voters to back climate change cynics and deniers, setting back the decarbonization agenda by at least four years (the term of office for Trump). Watermelon greens will then revert to the yellow Vest cop out – “ah but we’ll make sure that the changes we propose only hit the rich and everyone else will share in a decarbonization dividend”. And of course, we are back again with the actual underlying agenda which is socialism by the back door. My guess is that most people won’t be fooled by this and will simply ignore the whole agenda.
Thus, we’ll set the whole decarbonization agenda back by a decade, at precisely the wrong time.
Why not focus instead on a practical agenda of change?
Read books such as Drawdown or the works of Tim Flannery and we see a new agenda emerging, one we can all get behind.
Let’s get a global Coal Redundancy Programme together and shut down all the hundreds of coal-fired power stations within the next five years – and offer to replace those programmes with renewables or nuclear. And yes, let’s build a fleet of state-backed nuclear power stations to provide proper back up for the grid, and keep pushing the renewables target up by 10% every two years. In the developing world lets pay for a programme of replacing every kerosene heater with clean solar power (one kilogram of black carbon can cause as much warming in that short time as 700 kilograms of carbon dioxide circulating in the atmosphere for 100 years LINK HERE). Or why not get governments worldwide to pay into a new Bulk Transit Engine transition fund which will in turn sponsor research on replacements for hydrocarbon fuels in the transport sector (especially big ships and airplanes)? And of course, lets’ get a proper carbon tax in place, with a particular focus on the agriculture sector – as Dieter Helm rightly points, the Agri sector is not paying the proper price for its emissions.
This is all boring stuff of course, and the grand utopian enthusiasts will sneer and say it is not enough. But their fundamentalist, all-encompassing visions won’t be possible in the timescales they imagine and will, in fact, destroy the goodwill needed to power change. We’ll all begin to see through their worthy claims and spot a deeper agenda, which is based around a punitive, redistributive agenda. And then we’ll collectively revolt and destroy the credibility of those policy makers trying to effect real change – change that has already resulted in very real improvements in the UK and Northern Europe.
In sum, the Extinction Rebellion route to change is the wrong path. Don’t fall for the false messiahs and utopian enthusiasts. Choose change implemented through evidence-based programmes and thought through reforms, sponsored and enabled by active governments. And work with markets replace than replace them with collectivist solutions.