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Newsletter 21st September 2007

- An inconvenient truth or a convenient teaching aid? - Environmental costs and benefits - Electric cars

An Inconvenient Truth or a convenient teaching aid?

Readers may recall that the then Education Secretary Alan Johnson, and then Environment Secretary David Milliband sent a DVD of Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” to all secondary schools in England as part of the “sustainable schools” programme (Newsletter 13th April). The government, enthusiastically endorsing the view that the debate over the science of climate change was over, saw this as a good way of getting the message over to the next generation.

But not everyone agrees. Thursday’s Daily Telegraph carries a report of a legal challenge by one parent and school governor: Stewart Dimmock, who has two children at a school in Dover. He is asking for a judicial review of the government’s action. With Mr Milliband now having moved on to higher things, the challenge is actually to Ed Balls, the current Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. On 27th, there will be an oral hearing. If successful, Mr Dimmock’s case will be heard and a decision made by the judge.

The challenge is based on a provision in the 1996 Education Act requiring that local education authorities, school governors and head teachers "shall forbid… the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school". If material of a political nature is presented to children, then the same parties have an obligation to take "such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that… they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views".

The success or failure of this challenge rests, therefore, on two decisions:  whether or not “An Inconvenient Truth” does indeed represent a partisan view and, if so, whether sufficient balance is being provided when it is shown to children. In practical terms, it is the first decision which is more important. If a judge rules that the film is indeed partisan and unbalanced, then this would be both highly embarrassing for the government and should give politicians both here and in other countries pause for thought about how certain the science espoused by the IPCC truly is.

It is interesting to contrast the reception given to Al Gore’s polemic and the Channel 4 documentary “The Great Global Warming Swindle”. The latter came in for virulent criticism both for the science on which it was based and its presentation. With such a challenging title, it was bound to court controversy, and some of the criticism was indeed justified. However, it presented a point of view, rather than putting forward incontestable truth. If balance is needed, perhaps the answer is to show both programmes and then debate the points raised.

“An Inconvenient Truth” on the other hand, not only received a rapturous reception (including an Oscar for Gore himself) but valid criticisms have been brushed aside. More worrying than any factual errors is the exaggeration and use of emotional imagery to ram home the points. A viewer is left with the misleading impression that a large rise in sea level is likely to cause major coastal flooding this century, at a time when the IPCC is actually reducing its forecasts, and also that polar bears are immediately threatened, whereas most colonies are thriving. That doesn’t strike us as a balanced view, and it will be interesting to see if the judge next week is of the same opinion.

Environmental costs and benefits

This week, a new report by John Llewellyn of Lehman Brothers has been published. Entitled “The Business of Climate Change II”, it is a follow up to one published in February. In it, Llewellyn estimates the effective cost of carbon implicit in some of the policy choices made by government, and some may be surprised by his findings. His argument is that a proper macroeconomic analysis would show that some initiatives simply are not cost-effective.

The headline figure is for photovoltaics, or solar power. Because the equipment is so expensive and the output so low, the effective cost of carbon (borne to a very large extent by the taxpayer via government subsidies) is $6,300 per tonne. This compares to a current market price of around $70 per tonne in the European carbon trading system. Germany is sometimes held up as an example to follow because of the relatively high penetration of solar cells, but this is simply because the government is prepared to put in far more subsidies than other countries. Whether German taxpayers would agree if they knew the full picture is a moot point.

But ultimately, the wisdom of going down this route has to be questioned when there are much more cost effective alternatives available. They may not be as sexy, but low energy light bulbs can reduce carbon emissions at a cost of only $10 per tonne. In the meantime, European governments continue to push ahead with other more expensive options. Offshore wind comes in at a relatively reasonable (but still uneconomic) $150 per tonne, but the estimate of the implicit cost of carbon to meet the EU’s new car emission targets is $700-$2,300 per tonne.

The message from governments seems to be to reduce carbon at any price. This is both wasteful and foolish. New technologies need to be nurtured until they become economic, but actively commercialising them at taxpayers’ expense is surely not sensible when more cost-effective alternatives are available.

Electric cars

Much is heard from time to time about electric cars. On the face of it, they sound ideal: clean, silent and not a whiff of CO2 emitted. But the reality is somewhat different. Despite continued improvements in battery technology, any practical car developed so far can travel only a very limited distance before needing recharging. This may be OK for cities if there are sufficient charging points available, but would be no good for longer journeys. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what the motor industry comes up with and whether all-electric cars will become competitive with internal combustion or hybrid vehicles.

A more important point, though, if electric cars really do take off, is the source of the power and the overall efficiency of the whole system. Petrol engines are not particularly thermally efficient (less than 30%), while diesels may typically achieve over 50% efficiency. But coal-fired power stations operate typically at about 37% efficiency, and gas ones at up to 45%. In both cases, transmission losses to the consumer are estimated at 7.7%. The electric motors which drive the cars themselves are over 90% efficient, so the power losses at this stage are relatively small. On the face of it, generating electricity and distributing it to cars gives a similar overall efficiency to the petrol engine, but is beaten by diesels.

So, a move to electric cars would make little difference to overall energy use and, if fossil fuels are used to generate power, pretty much the same carbon emissions would result. Adding extra renewable generating capacity to power the cars would be both more expensive and give only an intermittent supply: perfect for those whose cars only need recharging when it’s sunny or windy. The only reliable answer would be additional nuclear capacity. For any country which seriously wants to reduce carbon emissions, this is surely the only way forward.

Electric cars, as any supposed panacea, need to be looked at more carefully before we rush to judgement. And, of course, if they are successful, they do nothing to ease congestion, but would be exempt from congestion charges. An interesting conundrum…