Sunday, 21 December 2014
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Our climate crisis needs strong leadership now

Things aren’t looking good for the climate. Several pieces of bad news have this week highlighted the scale of the problem we face in turning the juggernaut of global CO2 emissions and the limits of our current efforts to do so.

Firstly, the International Energy Agency has found that despite the growth of renewable technologies, fossil fuel use is continuing to grow. The dirtiest fuel of all – coal – is growing faster than non-fossil energy sources and around half of plants built in 2011 use old, inefficient technology.

Meanwhile the EU failed to agree measures that would reduce the number of carbon permits available in its Emission Trading Scheme, meaning the price of carbon will likely stay so low as to make the scheme ineffective.

And here in the UK, we’re still struggling to secure the building of new nuclear power stations, most notably at Hinkley Point where EDF is demanding the government guarantee a price for the electricity produced for the next 40 years.

It’s no wonder that another report out today found that investors are still ploughing their money into the fossil fuel industry. The London School of Economics (LSE) and the think tank Carbon Tracker showed that companies spent $674bn (£439bn) last year on new sources of fossil fuels.

The report authors, including the economist Lord Stern who prepared a major study on climate change for the previous government in 2006, warn this is creating a “carbon bubble” that could burst when government policies limiting CO2 emissions come into force, with devastating effects on the economy.

Another way of looking at it is that industry just doesn’t believe effective regulations will come into play, essentially creating a self-fulfilling prophesy where oil companies will hold the world to ransom as the greater risk of economic turmoil will make it harder and harder for governments to actually follow through on their promises to cut emissions.

What this highlights is how vital the need for stronger leadership is right now. Politicians pay lip service to environmentalism without taking the action needed to get the public and private sector to work together to tackle the market failure that is man-made climate change.

The UK government is a perfect example. David Cameron can change his party’s logo, talk about ‘the greenest government ever’ and hug as many huskies as he likes, but it’s completely meaningless when his chancellor is championing a new fossil fuel boom.

The solutions to climate change – nuclear, renewables, carbon capture and storage, even electric vehicles – are not going to happen without state intervention. This doesn’t have to mean governments doing everything themselves, but it does mean acting in a convincing way, and backing it up with a certain amount of funding, to convince the private sector to get on board.

The reflections on Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies that have gone on in the last couple of weeks haven’t produced much consensus, despite what those who try to justify her national hero-status funeral say or believe.

But I think there are two valuable lessons from the former prime minister that could be applied to the problems we face when it comes to climate change. Firstly, the big problems of our age can only be dealt with by people who have the courage of their convictions, who are willing drive through reforms in the face of great opposition.

Secondly, if we leave things to get so bad that only rapid, earth-shaking action will be able to change things then we risk devastating people’s lives in the process (not to mention implementing solutions that may set us up for more problems in the future).


Readers' comments (22)

  • A lot of what Stephen says in the report is true. The problem is not an engineering one but a political one, namely

    1: Greens and NIMBYs opposing the building of Nuclear, barrages, hydro etc. , if it's not a wind farm then its deemed to be wrong.

    2. Political policies - If no private investors are available, government needs to build and run the Nuclear stations, barrages and other alternatives themselves.

    So Yes time for strong leadership and forget political correctness!

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  • "the big problems of our age can only be dealt with by people who have the courage of their convictions, who are willing drive through reforms in the face of great opposition."

    spot on - what we need is leadership and that means politicians being prepared to take decisions that are unpopular with friend and foe if necessary.

    We're facing an emergency greater than Hitler, yet we take no meaningful action in case it 'destroys the economic recovery' or upsets vested interests.

    Instead of agonising over where the next London airport should be, ration flying. Same with petrol. Scrap HS2 - it is a wasteful vanity project and completely incompatible with reducing consumption.

    watch http://carbonomissions.org.uk/

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  • Your fundamental problem is that politicians are in charge, and politicians care only about two things - votes and money. Therefore, they are never going to take strong decisive action on a particular course unless they can be sure of a consensus of public support and even then as long as it doesn't cost too much. Environmentalism and climate change is just too controversial for most politician's stomachs, so it is hardly surprising that time and again we see rhetoric reneged on when it comes to commitment to action. The only way this will change is for a benign, environmentally driven dictator to take over and lead the world by example - but I can't see there being a coup any time soon....

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  • YOU ARE SO WRONG!
    Look, the GMT increases that seemed so obvious stopped in their tracks 15 years ago in spite of the world "polluting" about 30% of all the CO2 ever emitted during that period. Clearly the "models" are wrong, clearly we do not understand these processes adequately to assert that there's a crisis.
    Clearly there is NOT a crisis, we should certainly support the private invstment in wind, solar, geothermal, and we should continue to study the phenomenon of AGW. But there is no crisis, there is no hurry, the case for AGW has collapsed amid bad math, bad science and bad faith.

    When you couple that fact to the peaking of world population mid-century, you begin to understand how really batty the entire proposition is (of AGW).

    I am not a climatologist (actually, the disciplines involved cover a broad range of disciplines). But from the beginning I understood that as the AGW enthusiasts made their case, there was a "science" part (now collapsed) and an "economics" part. The "economics" part was always collectivist and redistributive in nature, some would say it was a con game.

    THERE IS NO CRISIS.

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  • Remind me ... which is it? Is it the 1975 Newsweek report that leading scientists demanded world leaders spread soot on the polar ice caps to keep the world from freezing up in an anthropogenic global cooling ice age? Or is it the jet setting Al Gore / geneticist Suzuki hockey stick that is going to fry us?

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  • Great article. The effects are clear for all to see. We must have more respect for Mother Nature and all forms of life.

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  • The amount most people understand about harnessing natural resources, such as wind power, and using them in a life-enhancing, planet-saving way can be written on a postage stamp”.

    Frighteningly, that’s also true of our glorious leaders, but they are locked into political ideology so if they eventually discover a previous decision was wrong, they can’t admit to it & have to invent ever more bizarre spin to protect the original idea ….however bad it was. (numerous examples).

    We are beset with politicians who are only guaranteed power for five years, so the power mongers all rush for short term fixes to problems which require long-term solutions.
    What care they for the long term benefit of the environment as long as they can remain in power & keep their snouts in the trough.

    Take the push for more wind turbines, it was seen as simple quick win, reactive strategy: The Government believed (wrongly) it would harness the hearts and minds of the 'green' generation, bridge the energy gap crisis for a decade while the new nuclear plants were planned, and developers exploit every guideline going to ensure their wealth from wind is fuelled whatever the weather.

    It's the wrong technology for the problem …because it was chosen by uninformed politicians, many of whom are involved in the scam.

    A lot of the political class have strong financial interests in ‘Renewables’
    to name just a few - David Camerons father in law, Sir Reginald Sheffield, Lord Deben, John Selwyn Gummer, Nick Cleggs wife Miriam, Ed Davey, Chris Huhne, Tim Yeo & a large number of DECC officials are “all in it together” & are making a packet!!!

    The 'windturbine/cash generators' are no more than a brazen 'perpetual subsidies' swindle, costing us £billions for little advantage.

    The politicians who support this scam are either technically naive, or corrupt.
    For either reason they shouldn’t be there.

    Thanks to our glorious leaders' stupidity & refusal to listen to power engineers over the last 25yrs, if we have similar winter weather to 2010, you can expect rolling blackouts from winter 2015/16 (see the OFGEM report 126/12).

    Don’t set me off !!

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  • "The solutions to climate change – nuclear, renewables, carbon capture and storage, even electric vehicles"

    Is this supposed to be an Engineering magazine?

    It's the Sun, stupid.

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  • You are right, there is a crisis, but not as you describe it.

    The crisis is that if we do not stop soon, all the UK effort to pander to the greens will completely destroy what is left of our world competitiveness.

    If there really is a problem we cannot solve it on our own, if we try, the end result is obvious.

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  • No wonder carbon emissions are increasing - the world population is increasing and getting increasingly industrialised!

    Europe's carbon reduction is in part derived by exporting our high energy consumption industry (metal refining and forming) to China, India and South America, whose carbon emissions are increasing.

    According to geologists, the earth was ice free between the major ice ages, and if the definition of an ice age is the presence of permanent polar ice, we are still coming out of the Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation. This would be occurring naturally without any carbon emissions.

    The point about this is that regardless of the arguments about whether climate change/global warming even exists, and if it does whether carbon emissions are even a major causal factor, the biggest driver for reduced reliance on fossil fuels has to be political, namely that the dwindling resources will drive the price up and increase political instability. We have already seen Russia using gas as a political weapon against the Ukraine. The UK must not be permanently dependent on imported fossil fuels. Acts of war or terrorism could easily close down or substantially limit our imports of gas and oil, which would virtually shut the country down. That is why we need strong leaders who can set their sights further than the next election.

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  • Correct; there is no crisis. The very language used by advocates of AGW is wrong. A 'crisis' refers to a single point or an event. At very worst, Global Warming could only ever be 'chronic' since it is something which takes place over time.

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  • Typically hysterical self ritious AGW enthusiast. He needs to consult Piers Corbyn for the real story he actually understands the science. We are actually heading towards a mini ice age. Check it out

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  • A very good article indeed. In view of the reluctance of politicians to act effectively on climate change, I think the only answer is people power and "crowd funding" of organisations such as Avaaz and 38 Degrees. This has been very effective and anyone who realises the importance of urgent action on climate change would want to support their campaigns on this subject. There is also the New Economics Foundation, which has a fresh approach to a new sort of economics that does not trash the planet.

    Lots of people I have talked to want a change from the old economic system which is not serving us now and will not be possible in the future due to raw material, food and fuel shortages.

    Of course the elephant in the room is overpopulation. People don't like talking about it but it must be tackled or else the population will reduce due to starvation anyway.

    It all seems hopeless but there is a lot of pressure that can be brought to bear on politicians by ordinary people.

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  • Polar views on this emotive and fundamentally important topic.
    I don't believe the science is good enough yet to make those decisions. I do believe there is time to make the correct decisions.

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  • The writer takes a questionable stance (man-made causation) and wants other industries and taxpayers to foot the cost for green-lobbyists' industries and scam politicians. Sorry, but I am not buying into the snake oil salesmen.

    Stop the political manipulation and let the marketplace work. If green is good, the market will adjust.

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  • Perhaps someone could use the space harpoon to bring the politicians back to reality?

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  • I've really enjoyed reading George Monbiot in this week's Engineer - Next week Nigel Lawson...?

    More seriously - clearly many commentators to this article disagree with the various stances of the article (state intervention, The 'Science', how apocalyptic climate change is, oil companies (and industry in general?)’ holding the world to ransom’). I’d be interested to know if the whole of The Engineer team fully agree with the article or if there is still scope for debate? For me this article goes along too far with the fear inducing apocalyptic vision of the future, possibly aiming to scare people into action, which actually encourages apathy and cynicism on all ‘sides’ and which I actually think puts people off engineering as the source of solutions to climate problems.

    On Margaret Thatcher – we should remember that she was operating in the period where strong moral disagreements existed in how to run society (public/private etc.), so it was relatively easy for her or someone like her to appear decisive. To have this today we need strong people with the courage of their convictions on both ‘sides’, the restrainers/limiters/regulators and the ‘expanders’ – whether it be simply through the mechanisms of the market or free experimentation in bold technologies. It is only through proper debate an interrogation of each side’s ideas that a clearer path will emerge.

    There are no guarantees for the future (which I see the ‘limiters/regulators’ hope for) and the market isn’t infact as dynamic as it could be or its supporters pretend – yes things get dug up & goods sold – but where are the transformative technologies that may allow us to effectively harness and even control the climate as we harnessed water and wind in the past? On the other hand – it is disingenuous of market reformers to try to hijack the state when people have largely supported the opposite at the ballot box.

    What is The Engineer's stance or views on population limits, problems and solutions as they are very related to the climate topic?

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  • It may be time to start thinking about fuel rationing (especially related to travel) as we transition to clean energy over the coming years. And certainly government subsidies to fossil fuels should be phased out asap.

    Rationing was applied fairly and effectively during World War II. The current emergency is a war against our own polluting lifestyle, which is in fact a war on the planet itself.

    The principles of rationing and how they might be applied during the transition to clean energy are examined here:

    http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-climate-bomb-failures-to-confront-the-unspeakable-and-the-way-ahead/5329875

    @Abettervision

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  • What a crock! I thought this was supposed to be an engineering magazine not a supplemental of Socialist Worker.

    This is little more than an opinion piece... and a biased opinion at that.

    Try and stick to engineering and facts rather than peddling political and biased environmentalist propaganda if you want people continue to regard this as a serious engineering publication.

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  • Who'd have thought a blog could be based on opinions?

  • Any government serious about reducing carbon emissions would implement a fossil fuels tax, in proportion to the estimated damage which the pollution causes.

    Of course there are all kinds of arguments used against this, such as "we can't accurately estimate the damage" or "it will drive industry overseas".
    But these needn't be show-stoppers. We can probably estimate the damage within some reasonable margin. And we can impose import tariffs on countries that don't play along.

    The real reason it hasn't happened is that politicians are heavily 'lobbied' (= bought) by rich and powerful vested interest groups with a short-term profit mentality.

    I'm no tree-hugging socialist. I believe that the free, FAIR market gives the best results. But the market needs to include 'externalities', such as the value of a functioning ecosystem, in order to work sustainably in the long term. Hence the need for carbon taxes and similar measures.

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  • This article could have been written 10 years ago it is so naive and simplistic. It is now clear that many of the global climate models are flawed as they did not "predict" that warming has not increased for the last 15 years. The comments here are true in parts, that we work on a 5 year economic cycle at best, and that we are facing a longer term reduction in fossil fuel resources.

    Until we acknowledge the real source of the problem we are not going to come up with solutions to it. That is, we need alternative sources of fuel and food because of a growing world population. Please stop deflecting us from the real problems with this garbage!

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  • I always read these with interest, it’s always some one else’s problem, we need strong leaders, some needs to stop this, that or the other, the problems are actually ours:

    We use the fuel,
    We make the choices about what we buy and from who,
    We decide who we buy power from,
    We decide how we travel.

    It’s all down to us as individuals, if we make the change for ourselves and stop blaming everyone else then the problem will be sorted.

    Do I think it likely, no, we will watch the volcano erupt as the did in Pompeii all too late..!

    Tony

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  • Individual responsibility is important, but even if I find a way to live an entirely sustainable, zero-carbon lifestyle, what about the other 7bn people on the planet. You just have to look at the other comments on this article to see how likely it is that everyone in the world would want to do the same. And it's just not practical, feasible or possible for most people in the world. Unless we change the way we produce and energy at a national scale, the status quo will prevail. That requires scientists, engineers, business, government and, yes, individuals, to work together towards a common goal.

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