Reality Kicks In

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From Climate Scepticism


The truth will out

Today on BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme, a remarkable interview took place between the presenter, Simon Jack (“SJ”), and Sir Dieter Helm (“DH”). During the interview Sir Dieter said many of the things that have been said repeatedly by climate sceptics. One can only assume that he – unlike most, if not all, sceptics – was allowed on to say what he did, because he says we (by which he means society globally – more on that below) need to “decarbonise” in order to “deal with” climate change.

The interview followed an extensive section commencing with a clip of then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announcing his government’s plans to decarbonise electricity generation by 2035, followed by the good news that offshore wind has (according to the BBC) been “a staggering success story” and that “prices have fallen by 75% in the last decade.” “It’s cheap and it’s clean”, we were told (where are the BBC Verify Team and the climate misinformation specialists when you need them?).

There followed an interview with Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin, apparently a believer in net zero, but not a supporter of putting the pylons to take the power from offshore wind farms to where it is needed, via his constituency. That was followed by an interview with EDF’s Director of Offshore & Ireland, Ryanne Burges, in which she claimed that offshore wind is competitive and that “renewables is [sic] the cheapest form of energy that we have at this point in time.”

Simon Jack proceeded from that interview to the next by asking “So are we at an impasse now between what’s possible, what’s affordable and what’s acceptable to the people? That’s the question I put to Sir Dieter Helm, Professor of Economic Policy at the University of Oxford, and I said to him [sic] whether we’re having an honest debate, as I put to Ryanne there, about the costs and trade-offs required to get to net zero.

DH: No, I think the debate is, er, has been to date pretty dishonest. I mean, you know, the idea that well it’s, you know, all going to be cheap, er, there are going to be no costs and all benefits, you know, it’s all, er, up-side is a delusion, you know, we are er nearly 80% fossil fuel-based in this country and if people genuinely want to decarbonise the whole system, er in 25 or 28 years, and decarbonise the entirety of the electricity system in, what, 12 years, or in Labour’s case, about 6 or 7, then it, we should have a debate about what that involves, how that will actually change our landscape, er what the costs will be, and what implications follow for the intermittency and for the networks, etc., and whose going to pay those bills. And what happens is you run down a route encouraged by lots of lobbyists and others, er, for er very reasonable reasons, you run down a route without thinking through the consequences and what’s required – and Nick Winser’s report is very good on this – is a proper spatial plan. We have to know how it all fits together, what in totality is required, and how that’s co-ordinated. Otherwise you end up with people being told it’s not going to cost them anything and then discovering that switching from a higly carbonised economy overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels, on a fast track to one that isn’t, is actually going to be costly. And at the first whiff of cost, like the first whiff of gunpowder at a battle, er the edifice starts to crumble, or at least starts to be politically questioned, and that’s exactly what’s going on now. And it was all very predictable, and the spatial planning, the summation of what’s required, a proper plan to get from here to there, and honesty about the cost, would do a lot to help us address climate change, er as opposed to getting just de-railed, which is what the risk now is.

SJ: And just a final thought, on our sort of trajectory towards net zero, the Government is very keen to stress that we’ve cut emissions by forty-something per cent, and at the same time our economy has doubled in size, it shows that those two things are compatible. What do you make of progress to date? And obviously the UK has been lauded as a leader in offshore wind, and sort of getting emissions down most of any G7 country, are we at some kind of inflexion point about, in our progress towards that, is our progress going to be linear from here?

DH: Well, the important thing to always bear in mind is the word global in the words “global warming”. It doesn’t matter where the emissions are cut, and it doesn’t matter where the emissions are caused, we have to get er these emissions down. And, you know, the UK has two great things to contribute to the globe on climate change. Offshore wind – because we’ve got one of the best locations in the world for it – and, er, carbon capture and storage because we’ve got a network of depleted wells offshore in the North Sea. What we’ve actually done is fast-tracked, er, the reduction of emissions, which is not surprising for an economy which has also for the last twenty, thirty, forty years been fast-tracking the closure of its manufacturing industry. You know, we are 80% services. If emissions can’t be got down in a service economy like ours it will be extraordinarily difficult anywhere else in the world. But simply importing all that stuff, rather than producing it at home, doesn’t do much for climate change. And the question is one which I think isn’t understood in the UK, er an politicians mislead us. You know, it’s not the case that if we get to net zero in the UK we’ll stop causing climate change. You have to stop all those imports and think about all those foreign holidays, etc. Erm, you know, what we have to do is address global warming and that means that we have to think how is the best, what’s the best thing we can do with the money we’re gonna have to spend to get down global emissions of er carbon, and the sad fact is, er, for those who believe, you know, we can unilaterally do this, is that er, you know, elsewhere offers lots of opportunities as well. And we should always measure our carbon consumption, stop kidding ourselves that if we import something instead of producing it at home, somehow that makes us virtuous. Well, it doesn’t, and again what one requires is realism to get on the serious path to global decarbonisation.


Sir Dieter’s words speak for themselves, but I hope I fairly paraphrase his message as follows:

1. We’ve had a pretty dishonest debate to date. It’s not all upside. There are real costs, in terms of damaging the countryside, problems with intermittency of supply, and serious financial implications – who is going to pay for it?

2. We have lacked a proper plan. Now that the detail is having to be worked out, and the costs (financial and otherwise) are becoming apparent, the edifice is beginning to crumble.

3. Destroying our manufacturing base and exporting our emissions, by having our products made elsewhere, isn’t virtuous at all, it’s self-deceiving. This is about global emissions, and exporting emissions isn’t the same as reducing them.

4. We’re now effectively a service economy. Cutting emissions here is easier than in a manufacturing economy. It’s going to be very difficult to achieve elsewhere.

5. We can’t deal with climate change unilaterally. Others have to cut their emissions. The politicians have misled us.

6. If we’re serious about this, then you can forget your foreign holidays and your imported products.

Let’s hope at least some well-placed politicians were listening.