When the wind don't blow
Beautiful late autumn weather in southern England currently – clear skies, crisp air and barely a breath of wind. Ah, wait though. No wind means no wind-generated electricity, and we all know what that means, don’t we? Yes, the percentage of our energy coming from burning coal rises. That increases the atmospheric pollution that is precisely what those earnest, self-anointed clever people at the COP26 jamboree got together to tell us how to reduce. I guess we all agree that one of the best ways to do that would be to stop burning dirty fuels to generate power; the question that goes with that thought is how do we manage the transition period, from dirty to clean? I discount the argument that because rich, industrialised nations burned a lot of coal in the past, so new, industrialising nations should be given a bit of a pass. History is history, facts are facts, and you can’t change what happened in the past to make it conform to your current sensibilities. (Incidentally, I see in today’s newspaper that Thomas Jefferson has been removed from his plinth in New York – how long can it be until the name of the nation’s capital city is changed as well, for exactly the same reason as Jefferson has been moved on?)
Actually, just to talk about the transition period is slightly misleading, because as well as that there will always be a need for back-up, when – you’ve guessed it – the wind don’t blow. Now, contrary to the screeching of the protesters, the performance of the UK on cleaning up its act is in relative terms quite impressive. One can, of course, argue that this success has been bought by exporting dirty manufacturing processes, and thus simply sending the problem elsewhere. There is some truth in that, and indeed it applies pretty much across the board to western industrialised nations. It’s a subject I shall come back to in the weeks to come….
The most obvious solution in the short term to the fill-in issue is natural gas; it’s far cleaner to burn than coal, and – it seems – is in plentiful supply in the rocks of the UK. Why don’t we use it? Because our successive governments are more prepared to follow the semi-hysterical screechings of fringe political parties and schoolchildren (who didn’t bother to finish school) who claim to be “following the science”. Hmm….
That’s just one example; I’ve written before (and will probably do so again) about others. My point today, though, is about the nature of our government (actually, I could make that plural, because it applies across most of the democratic world – the problems in the totalitarian world of course are different). The number of government ministers and senior civil servants who have science or engineering degrees is minimal; and yet, these are the people tasked with understanding competing ideas about the solution to highly technical questions – like, how do we marry energy security with a cleaner atmosphere? Or, how do we handle the monstrous problem of waste, particularly plastic waste?
I don’t decry non-scientific degrees, of course. After all, that’s what mine is, and I’m not going to devalue my own academic qualifications… But there is a problem, and it starts at the top; too much weight given to emotive verbiage, and not enough to genuine scientific and engineering knowledge. Unqualified people are advising other unqualified people, who then make decisions based on that advice on subjects about which they know little. Unless we can change this, we’re all going to suffer when the wind don’t blow.
Since writing this, I’ve come across an excellent article on the same subject by Kate Bingham in The Times, November 23rd. She is certainly someone to whom we should be listening, avidly.