So, exciting times indeed; the United Kingdom now has a Ministry for Energy Security and Net Zero, formed as part of PM Rishi Sunak’s recent shake-up of titles and holders of those titles. The new minister, Grant Shapps, will, I think, have his work cut out if he is to succeed in reconciling those two halves of his ministerial brief.
Let’s look at the second element first. On the surface, the UK’s transition to ‘net zero’ - as I understand it, a position where the net output of greenhouse gases from man-made activity - is zero, is progressing well. There has indubitably been a significant reduction in land-based emissions over recent years, and we have apparently firm governmental commitments which will ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles after 2030 and hybrid ones after 2035, which, apparently, will lead to the promised land of net zero by 2050. Sounds good, no?
Well, unfortunately, in my description there is a little phrase of which we should be very careful: ‘land-based emissions’. What that means is that it is a number that represents the gas emissions generated on the land mass of the United Kingdom. What it does not include is aviation, shipping or the effects of goods manufactured elsewhere for consumption within the UK; the total - including all of that - is referred to as consumption emissions. So the first point for Mr Shapps to consider is that while land-based emissions declined impressively by 41.6% between 1996 and 2019, the more realistic ( in my view) consumption decline over the same period was a far less impressive 13.6%. And this is a two-edged sword, because while we could - if we shut one eye - pretend to be high achievers with that land-based drop, we should not forget that the shift in emissions to offshore also represents a parallel shift in employment. So it’s a knotty problem.
Also under the net zero column is the obvious question - is it possible within that time frame? Of course, any answer to that is subjective, as it requires looking into an uncertain future, but personally, I have serious doubts about it. For example, there is nothing in recent years that gives me any confidence that the roll-out of EV charging points can possibly achieve the necessary ubiquity. Neither am I convinced - and we will look at this more in the Energy Security bit - that there is very much more than a snowball’s chance in hell that miraculously our electricity generating network will manage to expand to meet the need not only for power, but for net zero power. But perhaps I am over-negative.
Lastly, in this bit, is the thorny question of whether or not there is enough of the various minerals needed to manufacture the batteries needed to power the clean revolution. It’s not only a question of the absolute availability of cobalt, nickel, lithium et al, but also the location and the ease and timeline of mining. Of course there will be scientific and technological development which will help, but to make definite date commitments (2030, 2035,2050) without having a real grasp on the answer to this question seems to me - well, let’s just say - bold.
There is one final point here, a question of hypocrisy. There is a pair of photographs doing the rounds, which I think first appeared on Twitter a year or so ago. One is a picture of the sainted Swede addressing the UN, face distorted in a vision of hatred, with the caption “You stole my childhood.” The one next to it is of a child of 8 or 10 or 12 scrabbling in the dirt of a Congolese mine, with the caption “Sorry, Greta, I’m digging as fast as I can for the cobalt for your i-phone.” I know where my sympathies lie.
Turning now to the other half of Mr Shapps’ new Ministry, Energy Security. First, it’s been needed for a long time, because there has been no coherent energy security plan in the UK for a generation. Prior to that, I guess it wasn’t really necessary. The country has been generously treated by geography and geology in respect of energy resources. Coal, then then oil, then gas have been plentiful, the first of those probably the most important as it propelled Britain to the pinnacle of industrialisation and powered the Empire’s development. But currently, we are seemingly better at saying we don’t like things than that we can use them. So coal, as a very dirty fuel, has pretty much no supporters as a source of power, although most rational people will still understand its use in, particularly, the steel industry. Oil and gas have fallen out of favour as well, fracked gas is not happening mainly because there are pressure groups that don’t like it, likewise nuclear and onshore wind, the funds put into wave and tide power are, I believe, limited - I could probably go on. But you get the picture. The negative rules the positive, and yet net zero by 2050 has to be reached. Unless somebody - perhaps miraculously our new Energy Security Minister - focusses on what will work rather than what the agitators (and the politicians like Miliband, Davey et al - not a scientist amongst them, by the way) complain of, what we will achieve by 2050 is some cold houses, and a lot less cars on the road (that bit may of course be a benefit…..).
I don’t pretend to have the answers - I’m not a scientist either; but it must be time to let the grown-ups get a grip on the issue. Perhaps creating a responsible Ministry is at last a step in the right direction, even if it is already quite late. After all, as we know, a long march begins with a single step…..