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Newsletter 16th March 2007

- Putting our money where their mouth is: the government's Climate Change Bill - The reality behind the targets - Will an extra thousand railway carriages solve anything? - Double standards

Putting our money where their mouth is: the government’s Climate Change Bill

The government has this week published its draft Climate Change Bill. There is now a period of public consultation lasting until 11th June. The Scientific Alliance will be responding, and we encourage as many readers as possible to send their own comments. The text of the Bill and the consultation documents are available at http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/climatechange/uk/legislation/index.htm.

In one sense, the Bill is to be welcomed. Having talked for so long about the dangers of climate change, the government has decided to do something about it. Not only that, it is introducing the first binding, statutory limits on carbon emissions, and it is proposing that the detailed carbon budget be based on the advice of a new, independent Committee on Climate Change. It is taking a lead, which is what governments are elected to do. And it is basing its policy on the scientific advice of the IPCC. The wisdom of doing so is questionable, in our opinion, but it would be a brave government which did otherwise at present.

The environmental movement has scored a notable success. One of the world’s major economies has gone beyond the stage of paying lip service to the issue and is proposing a legally binding emissions regime. In practice, this may have relatively little real impact, because the only legal sanction seems to be a wrist-slap via a judicial review. Nevertheless, this would be highly embarrassing for any government.

However, major economy though the UK is, it is still responsible for only about 2% of global CO2 emissions (some would argue that this figure should also include aircraft emissions, but the reality is that these lie outside any control regime for the time being). In world terms, the Bill is symbolic. Will this action spur other countries to take similar action? If not, are we really prepared to jeopardise our international competitiveness on a point of principle? Even if all major industrial and developing countries sign up for something similar, what are the chances of them adhering to it? The precedent set by the Kyoto protocol would not seem to encourage optimism in this regard.

More immediately, how will this initiative develop once the current euphoria has died down? There is a way to go after the consultation period before the Bill could be passed into law, leaving a year or more for discussion and reflection. Setting binding targets is one thing, but the government (presumably Messrs Brown and Miliband) must explain to a sceptical public how they will be achieved and how this will affect individuals. We have been told that “green” taxes would be fiscally neutral, but the overall costs – which will not be inconsiderable – will still ultimately be met by the average citizen. It would take a brave person to suggest that majority of voters will willingly accept this.

The reality behind the targets

We have heard a lot recently not just about the UK’s emissions reduction targets but also those of the EU. The letter below, sent to the Financial Times by Professor Michael Laughton of the Scientific Alliance Advisory Forum, points out the practical difficulties in achieving them.

Sir,

If Tony Blair is to support binding targets for renewable energy at the EU summit next week, as reported in your columns today, he had better be clear that according to the EU Commission the proposal is for 20% of total energy supply, not 20% of either electrical energy supply nor 20% of generation capacity as reported. The achievement of such a target is not possible!

At present 83% of renewable energy output is converted into electricity, a percentage not radically changed by the potential use of 10% of renewable fuels in the transport sector. Electrical energy demand comprises only approximately 22% of total energy demand, however, thus over 75% of electrical energy would have to be supplied by renewables to meet the EU target.  Hard scientific and engineering constraints prevent it from being so. Even a much more modest 20% target for renewables in the supply of just electrical energy alone would be difficult to achieve because of the need to balance power input and demand at all times along with ensuring security of power supply at the correct frequency and voltage.

Not differentiating between power and energy requirements is a common error in the debate concerning energy supply. The Sustainable Development Commission made the same mistake in concluding that 87% of present electrical energy demand could be met from renewables.

 Would it be possible for the Prime Minister to at least consult the National Grid engineers for a professional opinion on what is feasible before embarking on an impossible and ultimately expensive commitment, however worthy?  

Professor Michael Laughton, FREng

Will an extra thousand railway carriages solve anything?

Douglas Alexander, the Transport Secretary, earlier this week promised that 1,000 new railway carriages would be brought into service…by 2014. Despite some of the highest fares of any country and severe overcrowding at times, our railways seem to have had something of a renaissance in recent years, and the new carriages are a long-overdue step in the right direction to make journeys more tolerable.

This investment tinkers at the edges of the much larger problem of personal mobility. Whatever economic incentives national (and local) government may introduce, people tend to travel by whatever means is most convenient. Hikes in railway fares have not driven people back into their cars for commuting. High fuel prices and increasingly congested roads have not made people leave their cars at home, by and large. Within limits, you simply cannot price people out of travelling. As we have said before, more radical solutions will be needed.

The other interesting point these new carriages highlights is the contrast in official attitudes to our railways and our roads. Trains are getting crowded? Then buy more carriages. Roads are getting congested? We must not build more roads because the extra capacity will be filled and we will be back where we started. Yes, we will, but so will we be with trains. There is a seemingly insatiable demand for personal transport, and it is not help tackle the inevitable problems by demonising a particularly popular mode of travel.

Double standards

Channel 4’s “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, shown last week, has come in for further criticism, both for the inaccuracy of some of the data, and on the grounds that Svensmark’s hypothesis of a solar influence on climate has been discredited. Doubtless there were some mistakes, but that does not necessarily mean the thrust of the argument is wrong. A parallel case would be the now infamous Mann hockey stick curve, which has been quietly dropped by the IPCC after intense criticism. No-one is saying that this immediately discredits the whole body of work on the influence of CO2 on climate. And, as for Svensmark’s proposition on the role of cosmic rays in cloud formation, a team of scientists would not be setting up a multi-million pound experiment at CERN to test the hypothesis if they thought it implausible.

How much better it would be if people looked at the challenges of others in an open-minded and objective way rather than indulging in personalised attacks. Science is based on assessment of evidence and logical argument, not knee-jerk reactions to something which threatens treasured beliefs.

Supporting the Scientific Alliance

We are grateful to those of you who are already members and supporters. We have not asked for more people to join in recent months because we have not been in a position to administer things properly. You will know that our website is woefully out-of-date, but we are now on course to have a new one up and running in mid-April. At this stage, we should once again be able to handle on-line membership applications.

In the meantime, you can still join by sending a cheque to the address below. Individual membership is £20. Organisations and individuals who would like to make donations to help fund our work should, in the first instance, contact our director, Martin Livermore. We can only maintain and expand our activities with your help.