Why Climate Change is an Emergency for Wales

“Forgotten but not gone” – that’s an apt phrase to describe Theresa May who, despite having stepped down as Conservative leader and being very much ‘yesterday’s woman’, is still Prime Minister and still able to do serious damage to everyone and everything around her.

Earlier this month she used her position to slip an amendment into the Climate Change Act, made as a statutory instrument so it does not require scrutiny by Parliament, committing the United Kingdom to achieve ‘net zero carbon emissions’ by 2050.

This is a foolish overreaction to a manufactured crisis. Even her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond – not a man normally known for his clear-sightedness in financial matters – warns that it will cost the UK over £1 trillion and have a severe negative impact on the economy in the long term. My fear, however, is that if Wales remains in the UK while this legislation is being implemented then we may be made to bear the brunt of its impact.

Gwlad and Climate Change

Before I continue, I am going to quote and enthusiastically affirm our official policy on energy generation and use:

Gwlad supports a diversity of energy sources including renewables, but we are opposed to onshore wind because of its disproportionate disruption to landscapes and communities. Likewise we shall not subsidise the use of agricultural land for solar farms, but will encourage the adoption of solar energy in urban environments. We are very supportive of offshore renewable power generation, whether wind, wave or tidal, seeing Wales as being particularly richly endowed with these resources.

“We support investment in modern alternative technologies such as hydrogen technology as a way of storing, transporting and consuming energy generated by renewable methods.

“Gwlad are not anti-nuclear in principle, but we are opposed to large projects such as Wylfa B would have been, that offer poor value for money and provide insufficient benefit to local people.

“Gwlad do not subscribe to the ‘Nimby’ view of objecting to every potential development and recognise that our rural communities are also our workplaces and homes – not just an idyllic landscape to be preserved for tourists. Instead we firmly believe in sustainable rural development providing local jobs and services, but subject to good planning controls to prevent over development and abuse.

“Within those constraints we will encourage the extraction and use of coal and gas where this can be accomplished cleanly and safely.”

Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons

Investing in, and using, renewable energy resources is so self-evidently the right thing to do that I won’t labour the point. As Don Huberts of Royal Dutch/Shell put it in 1999, “The stone age did not end because the world ran out of stones, and the oil age will not end because we run out of oil”. There is every reason to expect that long before fossil fuel supplies become a problem they will be replaced by better, cheaper, more convenient technologies – some of which haven’t even been thought of yet.

Of course, what’s driving the current hysteria over energy use is not the concern that fossil fuels might run out, but the effect on the earth’s climate of the CO2 emissions that they cause. On this point, I have to nail my colours to the mast and declare that I’m a sceptic.

(Faint line) The famous ‘hockey stick’ curve published in Nature by Michael Mann in 1998, alleging that 20th Century global warming was an exceptional phenomenon. This was later shown to have been based on falsified data.
(Bold line) The correct data, showing current temperatures still significantly cooler than during the Mediaeval Warm Period. Taken from S. McIntyre & R. McKitrick, Energy & Environment 14 (6) 751 (2003)

Giving a full account of my reasons for scepticism would take more space than a blog article allows, but it goes back a long way. Back in 2009, I was one of a number of concerned scientists who’d made Freedom-of-Information requests to the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, seeking the release of the raw data lying behind the famous ‘hockey stick curve’ that was frequently seen in the media at the time. This graph, published in Nature in 1998, implied that global temperatures had been stable for centuries and then showed a sharp and sudden uptick in recent decades. After the FoI requests had all been refused, somebody hacked into the University’s servers and stole the data, along with a spectacularly incriminating e-mail from Michael Mann, the originator of the curve, about how he had used various tricks to (in his words) “hide the decline” in long-term temperatures that the raw data revealed. The effect of these revelations was to derail the ‘COP15’ United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen that year, preventing any binding resolutions from being made.

Naturally I, along with everyone else who’d made FoI requests, was a suspect for the hack and it wasn’t long before I was being interviewed by Special Branch. I told them the truth – that I didn’t (and still don’t) know who was responsible for the hack, but I think it’s a good thing that it happened. It remains the case that there has been no measurable rise in average global temperatures between then and now, with global temperatures in the El Niño year of 2016 having peaked at the same level as 1997’s event and the trend between the two being absolutely flat.

Satellite-based global temperature data from University of Alabama at Huntsville. Results confirm the long-term warming trend, but there is no evidence at all that the rate is increasing: if anything the rate has slowed down significantly since the 1997-98 El Niño.

Anyway, to make my own position crystal clear – and since everyone seems to follow one Scandinavian climate campaigner or another these days – my opinions largely follow those of Bjørn Lomborg, the former Greenpeace member who chairs the ‘Copenhagen Consensus’ think-tank on world development priorities. Essentially:

  • Over the long term the earth’s climate is self-evidently getting warmer, but this a trend which has been ongoing since the end of the ‘Little Ice Age’ (~1300-1850) and is mainly due to entirely natural causes. Global temperatures remain significantly below those of the Mediaeval Warm Period, the Roman period or the Bronze Age.
  • Emissions of CO2 caused by mankind since the Industrial Revolution have almost certainly contributed to this warming, but they are not the main cause of it.
  • Measures to cut CO2 emissions in the short term would do little to affect global temperatures but would have a disproportionate economic impact, particularly on developing economies.
  • Widespread adoption of ‘green’ technologies whilst they are still insufficiently mature will be counterproductive in the long term. For example, if everyone switched to electric cars tomorrow, CO2 emissions would soar because so much of the electricity would still be generated from fossil fuel power stations working at much lower efficiency than modern car engines. The negative economic impact of such measures would hinder the development of better, more efficient technologies in the longer term.
  • The climate change movement is therefore a distraction which prevents far more pressing developmental goals (e.g. sanitation, immunisation, investment in infrastructure etc.) from being addressed.
Choose your favourite Scandinavian climate activist; Bjørn Lomborg (left) from Denmark or Greta Thunberg (right) from Sweden. I’m with Bjørn.

As the political rhetoric has heated up in recent months, from ‘climate change’ to ‘climate chaos’ to ‘climate crisis’ and now ‘climate emergency’, I’ve looked diligently for any new published evidence – whether observations, measurements or models – which justifies this escalation or undermines the more cool-headed views of Lomborg and others like him. I’ve found none.

The explanation seems to lie entirely in political activism; partly provoked in reaction to Donald Trump’s undisguised scepticism, but perhaps even more so by the activities of Greta Thunberg. She has been flying around the world, rallying the troops like a latter-day Joan of Arc (who was the same age as Thunberg when she led the French army against the English at Orléans in 1429). As the father of a teenage daughter myself, I know how persuasive they can be but Thunberg produces an awful lot of noise and very little substance.

Thatcher’s Legacy

Mrs. Thatcher – founder of the modern Climate Change movement.

Perhaps unusually for Welsh people, I think quite highly of Margaret Thatcher – as Prime Minister of England she did a very good job, and if her reign produced fewer benefits for Wales then the blame lies with those who consistently voted for Unionist parties, especially Labour, throughout the 20th Century. If Wales had been independent then she wouldn’t have been our Prime Minister – simple as that.

Yet it’s a curious quirk of history that much of the obsession with climate change among today’s governing class began with her.  She was the first world leader to give the issue any prominence, and as a qualified Chemist (sadly, very much the exception in a political class which is still dominated by lawyers, journalists and Oxford PPE graduates) she could do so with a degree of authority and credibility.

Even so, it gave her the perfect stick for beating her adversaries in the coal industry, and no doubt this was one of its attractions for her. In 1980s Britain, the quickest and easiest way to reduce the country’s CO2 emissions was to close coal-fired power stations and replace them with gas-fired ones, powered by newly-abundant (and un-unionised) North Sea gas. Since coal is almost pure carbon (which burns to form pure CO2) and natural gas is mainly hydrogen (which burns to produce mainly water vapour), the argument was an easy one to make. I can’t help thinking, though, that it would have given her pause if she’d known the direction in which the climate change movement would develop over the next 30 years.

The impact on Wales

But to come back to Theresa May’s ill-advised commitment, the most important point is that word, “net”, in “net zero carbon emissions”. It doesn’t commit the UK to stop emitting CO2 altogether, simply to balancing its emissions by carbon-sequestration activities such as planting more trees.

It won’t escape anyone looking at the UK’s carbon budget that the Welsh economy is dominated by carbon-intensive industries: whether steel manufacturing in Port Talbot, oil refining in Pembroke, coal-fired power generation in Aberthaw, gas-fired electricity generation in Pembroke, Baglan  and Connah’s Quay, internal-combustion engine manufacturing at Bridgend (for now) and Deeside, and of course the aerospace industry cluster around Broughton. Any UK government wanting ‘quick wins’ in reducing CO2 emissions may find these targets hard to resist. The Welsh Government, which has just passed its own ‘climate emergency’ declaration, would not be in much of a position to fight back, any more than it has been in the case of Ford at Bridgend.

Not only that, but if the UK government is looking for sparsely-populated countryside from which the local population can be cleared away to be replaced by trees, then there’s plenty to be found in Wales. There are also plenty of people – the sort of people that Royston Jones has been blogging about this week – who’d be only too happy to oversee this ‘re-wilding’ of the Welsh countryside, believing that they’d be saving the planet even as they destroy what’s left of rural Wales.

The Emergency

There is no doubt that the Welsh economy is in need of major restructuring, and this would be so even if carbon emissions were not a consideration: we need more high-quality, highly-skilled jobs in Welsh-owned companies to wean us off our chronic dependency on foreign-owned manufacturing plants.

But this won’t happen overnight, and for as long as Wales remains part of the UK with a compliant Labour or Plaid Cymru administration in Cardiff Bay then we are extremely vulnerable to being the ones who pay the price, in jobs and livelihoods, for Theresa May’s flights of fancy.

Wales can only be rescued from this by electing a Welsh Government that genuinely puts Wales’s interests first, and ultimately by winning independence.

9 thoughts on “Why Climate Change is an Emergency for Wales

  1. Stephen, with all due respect I believe you fail on two points. I’ve long acknowledged that Thatcher’s policies will interminably be debated as to whether they were freeing up the entrepreneurs or abandoning communities, as to whether she was necessary tough medicine or a milk snatcher. There is simply no such thing as an unequivocal truth in these regards, only sides of coins. But nobody can objectively claim such a divisive figure to be any sort of ‘great’ PM. Contrast Churchill, universally lionised despite all his flaws and whatever his domestic record had been. And her legacy lives on today, no least in how unbalanced and London-centric England is, unsustainably so, I’d argue.

    Your second mistake is in not stepping back from the whole “Is it, isn’t it?” hullabaloo of whether *Anthropogenic* Global Warming is a thing, to ask whether or not pumping shit into our atmosphere from now till forever is a good idea regardless. Acid rain wasn’t a hoax, nor was the ozone hole. Both problems eliminated, or at least ameliorated by green policies.

    1. Fair comments David. In reply, I’d say that my comments on Mrs. Thatcher aren’t really intended as either praise or condemnation, but a factual pointing-out that she was the first prominent leader of any country to flag up climate change as matter for concern, and that her motives for doing so were probably mixed. I see it as a historical curiosity that climate action is usually seen as a ‘left wing’ cause, despite its earliest champion having been a ‘right wing’ prime minister.

      On your second point, I’m not here to advocate pumping stuff into the atmosphere ad infinitum for the sake of it. There’s a fairly long correspondence on that subject in the comments below this article. My main concerns are (a) going for net-zero in Wales too quickly will disproportionately damage people’s livelihoods because of the nature of the Welsh economy, while having negligible global impact, and (b) going for net-zero globally too quickly, based on using still-immature renewable technologies, will have an adverse economic impact that will slow down the development of better renewable technologies (or better non-renewable-but-zero-carbon ones, such as nuclear fusion) and so cause net damage to the environment in the longer term.

      1. Oh yes, I concur that there is undoubtedly a lot of spivvery and crooked politics surrounding ‘green’ energy, that much is obvious. These sorts of people probably do more harm than good in furthering adoption of the simple ethos of cleaning up our act for the sake of our one and only planet. I feel it’s a sad inevitability that good ideas for humanity and our world get seized upon and warped and perverted to the nth degree by bad faith actors. The fight for workers’ rights, to communism; racial equality to BLM; caring for our planet to ‘enviroshysters’, to quote Jac. The great shame is that fusion has the potential to be our salvation if we can crack it, but there are too many powerful vested interests in ‘green’ and fossil fuel energy which will not want it to happen.

  2. Also, natural gas is mainly methane, not hydrogen. No doubt cleaner than coal of course, but still burns to produce CO2.

  3. That’s true, but with natural gas (CH4) there are four hydrogens for each carbon, so naively (I know that in reality the thermal budget is more complex) burning gas produces about a fifth as much carbon dioxide as burning coal.

    No other energy substitution gives as big a carbon reduction for so little effort or expense.

    1. Don’t forget the undoubted lower amounts of sulphurous compounds and such too.

  4. CH4 + O2 = CO2 + H2O Carbon (C) atomic weight is 12 and Hydrogen

    For the same energy release, Coal emits about 200 pounds of CO2 per 1 million BTu. Methane emits about 120 pounds of CO2 per 1 million

    Methane is CH4. Carbon’s atomic weight is 12 and Hydrogen’s atomic weight is1. Combustion of CH4 is CH4 + O2 = CO2 + H2O.
    Coal’s carbon is about 84% and 4% hydrogen with nitrogen, oxygen and sulphur making up the rest of the composition. Methane is 75% carbon and 25% hydrogen. If you exclude everything but C and H from the equation, hydrogen is only about 5 % and carbon 95%.

  5. CH4 + O2 = CO2 + H2O Carbon (C) atomic weight is 12 and Hydrogen 1 . Methane is 75% carbon and 25% hydrogen

    Coal’s carbon is about 84% and 4% hydrogen with nitrogen, oxygen and sulphur making up the rest of the composition. If you exclude everything but C and H from the equation, hydrogen is only about 5 % and carbon 95%.For the same energy release, Coal emits about 200 pounds of CO2 per 1 million BTu. Methane emits about 120 pounds of CO2 per 1 million Methane is CH4.

    1. OK, the fact that I gave up chemistry after O-level to concentrate on maths & physics is showing. Your figures are correct, as borne out in this very helpful reference which shows 116 pounds/million BTU for methane vs. 211 for coal. Methane is still by far the lowest-CO2 fossil fuel, and coal by far the highest, with oil roughly halfway between them.

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