I wrote an entire book on this topic (Total Sustainability) in 2013 but it’s always a good idea to refresh thinking and things have moved on since then anyway. Like almost everyone, I want to protect and help the environment. However, there has always been a wide chasm between good environmental stewardship and what people call ‘green’, which although claiming to want the same thing, actually has halo polishing, feeling good and virtue signalling at its top priorities. I have no time for greens or their policies at all. Most are thinly veiled socialism, but since the poor are most often the main victims, they don’t even accomplish that well. Green is actually just another word for stupid.
When ‘green’ policies are implemented, the environment is usually harmed. Even if the intention is to help the environment, poor depth, scope and quality of thinking mean that many effects of the policies are missed (or blatantly ignored because of other political objectives). These are then labelled ‘unforeseen consequences’ even though almost everyone else saw them right away.
My book was full of examples, but current UK government is providing many fresh ones. The biggest is the set of policies supposedly intended to reduce CO2 emissions. I’m not a believer in catastrophic human-induced climate change but CO2 is a greenhouse gas so it’s sensible to make sure emission levels don’t become problematic. So the issue here isn’t whether government should or shouldn’t be concerned about CO2 but whether their policies are sensible. They aren’t, and are actually worse than not doing anything at all.
Let’s look at the likely default future if government had never even heard of CO2 and just stayed completely out of the way of normal market forces:
With only existing market forces incentivising R&D, by around 2030, solar power in the Sahara or Mediterranean coast would cost around $30 for the energy equivalent of a barrel of oil (approx 6GJ). Some time in the 2030s or 2040s, fusion power will come on stream at relatively low commercial cost. By 2050, the vast bulk of our energy, driven only by default market forces, would come from nuclear fusion or photovolatic solar. Hardly anybody would still be using oil or gas (even shale gas) by then, because it would simply cost too much. In some areas, hydro or hydro-thermal sources would play a significant role too. There would be a little wind energy production, but not much, since it would find it hard to compete on cost without the market being distorted by government. There would be even less from tidal energy.
At some point, home heating would switch over to electricity, which started off perhaps 50% more expensive than gas per unit. Over time, electricity would fall in cost relative to gas until gas boilers fell out of favour and cheap electricity would be both abundant and convenient. Energy poverty would disappear into history, as very cheap electricity would be available to all.
As heat pump technology developed in parallel, they may well become very economically competitive during much of the period between 2020 and 2050, so that some homes would use heat pumps for heating, powered by cheap electricity.
Meanwhile, electric cars would be slowly developing. Self-driving technology too, and all the associated IT and infrastructure. Eventually, in the 2030s, highly responsive driverless pod systems would start replacing public transport, socially inclusive and cheap to run. It is possible to power driverless pod systems using induction circuits in the road surface, or even to use linear induction moors to propel and navigate them, dispensing with the need for expensive AI, sensors, batteries and motors.
In such a situation, most people wouldn’t bother buying their own cars, choosing to rely instead on cheap public pods, pocketing the huge outlay previously spent on cars. There would be less need for car parks, private driveways and garages, less congestion, fewer accidents, and a far lower environmental footprint. Each pod would effectively be shared by many people, replacing the private cars typically shared by one or two people. Many people would convert their garages into extra living space, and new build homes wouldn’t need driveways, so that could mean larger gardens, bigger homes, or less countryside taken by housing.
This near-utopian market-driven future, that requires no government intervention whatsoever, is barely conceivable compared to the future we’re being brainwashed to expect. It would be extremely cheap, highly socially inclusive, with extremely low environmental impact – low resource use per capita and barely any CO2 emissions. The environment would be in far better shape, and our personal wealth would be similarly improved.
Now let’s look at what green government is doing instead, starting from the same 1990s point where electricity was around 50% more expensive per unit than gas. Government policy giving in to pressure from green groups has resulted in gradual phasing out of new-build nuclear power stations, shutting oil and coal power stations, converting others to wood pellets and putting some gas power stations on part time use, installing some bio-fuel generators and regulating that 3% of car fuel had to be replaced by bio-fuel, while large numbers of wind turbines and solar panels have been installed, greatly subsidised at enormous expense to energy consumers. Instead of being 50% more expensive, electricity is now around six times more expensive than gas.
Other green schemes have offered high levels of subsidy to encourage installation of insulation, smart meters and more recently, heat pumps. Ultimately the cost of these is all passed on to taxpayers and consumers. However, much as car repairs generally cost far more when paid for indirectly via insurance than when paid privately, availability of generous subsidies has resulted in very high prices and profits for the suppliers, rather than encouraging a positive R&D spiral towards low cost, high efficiency solutions. With government handing out many of the big contracts, corruption and well-connected but inefficient companies thrive, while other companies with excellent products but poor contacts may not. A highly distorted market where government picks winners instead of market forces guarantees slower development, higher prices and lower environmental benefits. Some people with the right friends have grown very rich at the expense of increased energy poverty for the rest. In the haste to approve anything that might improve the government’s green credentials, many a grand scheme has proceeded in spite of poor economics or environmental benefit.
Heat pumps can provide around 6 times more heat than the electricity put in, but if that electricity costs 6 times more than the gas alternative, there is no overall even on running costs, yet the extraordinarily (and artificially) high installation costs remain. The green incentives that collectively drove the higher costs of both the heat pumps and the electricity have thus resulted in no net financial incentive to switch from gas to electricity, and government is now being forced to regulate against future gas boiler installations.
Meanwhile, the EU requirement to have 3% of vehicle fuel as biofuel provided irresistible incentives for companies to burn down rain forests and forceably displace people who lived in them in order to plant palm oil plantations. Great environmental devastation across much of Borneo, Indonesia and many other countries has resulted, with many poor people suffering enormously.
The very generous subsidising of wind turbines has resulted, as well as huge stress for people and animals living near them, and the deaths of very many birds and bats, in enormous areas of peat bogs being drained, either directly, or as an ‘unforeseen consequence’ of installing roads for their installation and maintenance. Much of the dried out peat has biodegraded, resulting in enormous CO2 emissions. Similarly, subsidising solar panels on rooftops has resulted in wealthy homeowners getting a little richer at the expense of poorer households who have to pay higher energy prices to pay for them. Not only that, it has meant that those panels have been installed on homes in a country which isn’t actually very sunny. The same panel, had it been installed in Africa, would have produced far more much needed energy, saved far more CO2 emissions, and avoided a great deal of the wood-burning that otherwise creates particulates that present a known and serious direct health threat, as well as another direct source of global warming.
I won’t go on, though there are many other impacts that could be listed.
The result of government interfering (very incompetently) has been an enormous rise in the cost of electricity, increased energy poverty, and still increased environmental impact. Heat pumps are nowhere near as cheap or efficient a solution as they should be, and electric heating is now ridiculously expensive. The intermittent nature of wind energy means highly uneconomic use of remaining gas power stations, and lingering demand to reduce CO2 is now encouraging a move back towards expensive nuclear fission stations to fill the gap until fusion comes along.
Even the transport migration to all-electric is jeopardised by the still increasing price of electricity. On latest figures, recharging an electric car battery on a journey can be as expensive as petrol or diesel alternative, but future green subsidies will substantially increase the electricity price.
The only solution to government-induced energy poverty that government offers is enforced installation of smart meters, so that people can see just how much they are having to spend, so may switch off a light now and then. Even here, incompetence reigns. Smart meters are actually a great idea if used wisely. But recent announcements on future smart meters say that energy companies will be able to switch off supply to balance load when the wind doesn’t blow strongly enough. Well, that will certainly encourage people to get them.
With green government declaring itself as a friend, the Earth certainly doesn’t need any enemies.