Saving the planet is such a simple matter.
Just like the public being urged to donate their pots and pans to make Spitfires and Hurricanes during World War II, we can all do our bit.
The thing we need to save the world from, of course, is climate change, the biggest single threat – we are told – faced by this Earth and its inhabitants since the shadow of nuclear annihilation was lifted at the end of the Cold War.
It’s a big battle, but urged on by the green lobby, we’re told we can all make a difference.
And the ‘to do’ list is endless: sell the Mondeo and buy a hybrid petrol/electric Prius; make sure your TV is turned off, not left on standby; never leave your mobile on charge longer than necessary; stop buying beans grown in Kenya and eat locally-grown turnips instead; put a windmill on your roof and throw away the patio heater.
The list goes on and on. But sadly, the truth is that most of this, it seems, won’t make a blind bit of difference.
The trouble, as a new book by Cambridge physics professor David MacKay points out, is that much of what we are told amounts to little more than ‘greenwash’ – a series of pointless gestures and incantations designed to make us feel better about ourselves, to make companies more money and to justify hikes in taxation on ‘non-green’ activities.
We cannot stop climate change by small measures, he says, adding: ‘If everyone does a little, we will only achieve a little.’
The problem, says Prof MacKay in his book Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air, is that the green lobby is being totally unrealistic about what is really needed to achieve the cutbacks in carbon dioxide emission it says is necessary.
The climate scientists say that to keep the warming to manageable levels – a two-degree or so rise – we need to cut our emissions by a staggering 80 per cent by 2050.
This is such a gargantuan task, says Prof MacKay, that we are simply avoiding thinking about it.
It is such a deep cut, in fact, that it amounts to almost total abstinence from fossil fuels altogether.
His book sets out in detail what it would take to meet this target. Just how many windmills Britain would need to build, or nuclear power stations it would need to construct to meet its targets as part of that global cut.
And he claims that virtually no one – not our political leaders, not the companies and organisations pushing greenery at us and certainly not the public – has any grasp of the harsh and inconvenient truths that show what a gargantuan task we face.
‘A lot of the current discussion of energy is dominated by wishful thinking and “greenwash”,’ says Prof MacKay in his book.
Typical of this greenwash, for instance, are oil giant BP’s boasts about the environmentally correct paint it uses on its supertankers, which never once mention the rather less green cargo they carry.
Exhortations that we should turn off our mobile phone chargers are more greenwash – he points out that the energy saved by an individual doing so for an entire year is only the same as that used to heat a single bath.
‘Even more reprehensible are companies which exploit the current concern by offering “water-powered batteries”, “recyclable mobile phones”, “environment-friendly phone calls” and other meaningless tat.’
Prof MacKay believes these are gimmicks and token gestures which will do nothing to reduce carbon emissions.
He is right: everything these days seems to be covered with pious green symbols, trees and pictures of the Earth, and company exhortations that ‘we care’.
A box of tissues in my bathroom informs me that by purchasing this brand I have shown ‘I care for the world’s forests’. Classic greenwash.
Prof Mackay is not denying the existence of global warming. He merely insists that the debate about how we solve it should be honest.
His book attempts to answer the key questions of the green debate on the grounds of hard evidence, rather than ideology.
If we want to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent, as the greens insist we must, then how are we going to replace the power we currently get from burning coal, gas and oil?
Certainly not through the wind and the waves, says Prof MacKay.
‘To do so, Britain would need to build 50,000 big windmills, double the entire fleet of wind turbines in the world – a 75-fold increase in our current wind capacity.’
This would mean that most of upland Wales, Scotland and the North-West of England would have to be covered in tens of thousands of wind turbines. Our entire coastline would be ringed by yet more of these eyesores.
As to hydroelectric power, Prof MacKay estimates that ‘roughly 100 of Britain’s major lakes’ would need to be dammed and controlled to generate the sort of power needed.
Huge tidal barrages would have to be constructed across all our major estuaries.
In short, to convert our carbon-spewing economy into something acceptable to the more radical greens, using totally renewable resources, we would need to turn Britain into a massive power station.
And even then, we need to remember that making electricity accounts for only one-fifth of our total emissions.
Even if we made 80 per cent of our electricity using windmills (a probably impossible and colossally disruptive and expensive undertaking) we would reduce Britain’s total CO2 emissions by only 16 per cent, something never mentioned by renewables campaigners.
The vast majority of emissions are created by transport, heating and food production, which consume vast amounts of energy.
What is the answer? One solution, thoroughly unpalatable though it may be, would be to take the hair-shirt option, abandon our modern lifestyle entirely and return to the Middle Ages.
We would have to swop our homes for huts, shivering in the cold, eating turnips in winter and forgetting about motorised transport.
This would be ecologically correct maybe, but the unfortunate corollary would be that millions would starve.
Biofuels? Forget it. Growing plants to turn into fuel is a colossal waste of increasingly valuable agricultural resources and only marginally viable anyway in our cool climate.
Solar power? Some greens advocate blanketing Britain in solar panels, but the reality is that this would cost many billions for limited benefit.
The money would be better spent investing in a huge international scheme to carpet part of the Sahara with generator panels and pipe the electricity to where it is needed via massive cables.
But such technology as this and things like nuclear fusion are decades away – and the greens say we do not have decades.
No, if we want to maintain our current lifestyle and cut CO2 emissions now to the degree we are told we must, there are only a couple of realistic options, it seems.
First, we need to convert almost our entire transport system to electric power. That means trains, buses and trucks, and all our cars too, leaving only air transport to be fossil-fuel powered.
Then we have to find a clean and effective way of producing all that extra electricity plus the electricity we are already using.
That means perhaps ‘clean coal’ (burning coal as we do today, but capturing the CO2 it produces and burying it underground).
And nuclear. A tenfold increase in nuclear capacity over current levels would achieve the required reduction in CO2 emissions – that would mean building dozens of new nuclear plants in short order.
Nuclear energy is not problem free, of course, nor is nuclear fuel unlimited. And the greens hate it.
However, taking the nuclear option (combined, says Prof MacKay, with clean coal and some increase in renewables) is the only way we will be able to maintain anything like our current lifestyle while still cutting carbon dioxide emissions to levels that the scientists say will save the Earth from global warming catastrophe.
Finally, we could simply ignore global warming, carry on as we are and hope we will be able to deal with the effects of climate change as and when they happen.
A risky strategy although one advocated by some, notably the Danish controversialist Bjorn Lomborg.
Prof MacKay is not a fatalist. There are things we can do, even as individuals, which will work, he says: ‘”Turn your thermostat down” is, by my reckoning, the single best piece of advice you can give someone.
‘So is “fly less” and “drive less”. But hybrid cars and home windmills are just greenwash.’
Since we started worrying about climate change 20 years ago, a great deal of hot air, obfuscation and even a little sense has been talked.
This is a hugely complex issue and one which needs to be dealt with forthrightly and with honesty.
The current trend for silencing dissent – witness the castigation of Channel 4’s recent anti-green climatechange polemic – is, I believe, counterproductive and unhelpful.
Most of all, we need to be realistic. To stop climate change will mean we will need completely to re-engineer our world on a scale not seen since the Industrial Revolution.
Former U.S. Vice-President and climate campaigner Al Gore has likened his recent call for the U.S. to be carbon-neutral by 2018 to JFK’s speech in 1961 promising a Moon landing by 1970.
In fact, turning the U.S. into a zero-carbon economy in a decade makes flying three men to the Moon and back look like child’s play.
Sadly, putting a windmill on your roof and turning off your mobile phone charger will have no more effect than cutting out your pots and pans did in World War II.
The idea of turning scrap metal into Spitfires was little more than propaganda to make people on the home front feel good.
The real sacrifices were, of course, much harder and bloodier. Just as they will be now in the fight against climate change.
By Michael Hanlon
24 July 2008
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