Tuesday, November 28, 2017
Matt Ridley: Supporting wind and solar energy at the expense of the environment
First published November 20th 2017: You can always tell when there is a United Nations Climate Conference of the Parties (COP) coming up, because there are any number of carefully timed press releases about how hot it has been or is going to get in the future. The media has been snowed under with such things for a while now, and sure enough, this week sees the gathering in Bonn of the usual circus of thousands of diplomats, bureaucrats, quangocrats, envirocrats and twittercrats.
Sceptics and lukewarmers are not welcome, despite the falling poll numbers for alarmism: in Britain public “concern” over climate change has dropped steadily from 82% in 2005 to 60% today – which is in line with the scientific evidence that warming is proving slower and less harmful than the models predicted.
As Professor Myles Allen of Oxford University said in September “We haven’t seen that rapid acceleration in warming after 2000 that we see in the models. We haven’t seen that in the observations.” It’s nice to have that confirmed authoritatively, but of course the public has known the truth for some time.
Meanwhile, NASA says the globe has 14% more green vegetation than 33 years ago, largely because of extra carbon dioxide in the air, which makes plants grow faster and use less water doing so, in all ecosystems from the arctic to the tropics.
Germany is an inappropriate, even embarrassing, place for the climate circus to meet. Its “Energiewende” is probably the most expensive, ambitious and comprehensive carbon-reduction policy in the world, for the size of the country. But it has been a pretty big disaster, in its own terms (emissions remain stubbornly high), as well as economically and ecologically. It is the main sticking point in the talks between political parties to form a new “Jamaica” coalition, with the Green party trying to take the “coal” out of coalition and the Free Democrats trying to keep it in.
The German countryside is now pockmarked with 28,000 wind turbines, rashes of solar farms and lashings of anaerobic digesters making gas out of maize crops. Renewables are now providing more than a third of Germany’s electricity, which sounds like a green triumph. But the cost is enormous. The cost of subsidising all this so far is about €190 billion, and is heading for 500 billion euros in total by 2025
In spite of that, the impact on emissions has been small, even if you count biogas as low-carbon (which it is not). This is because to back up and balance the renewables, while killing off nuclear (to appease greens scared by Fukushima), the country is unable to reduce and has actually had had to expand its coal-burning sector. It has built 10 gigawatts of coal-burning power stations in the past five years. Last year Germany’s carbon dioxide emissions actually rose.
Meanwhile, the renewables are causing an environmental disaster as well as an economic one. The wind farms kill thousands of rare birds of prey every year, the biogas plants cause run-off and soil erosion, while the solar farms industrialise and denature the land. Many soi-disant ‘environmentalists’ are shamefully silent. “If dead eagles and kites were found next to chemicals plants or nuclear power stations, the public reaction would be fierce and furious,” says Michael Miersch of the German Wildlife Foundation.
As this quotation illustrates, the green movement is fracturing. Half of it is becoming ever more shrill in favour of the renewable-energy industry, a crony-capitalist business that takes money disproportionately from the poor (through poorly controlled levies on consumers) and gives it disproportionately to the rich through rents and dividends. (To declare an interest, my family business does receive money for one wind turbine, which we give away, but has turned down many more offers; we also get money from unsubsidised coal mining.)
Thus adverts have been appearing all over London recently boasting, unconvincingly, about the halving cost of wind power, though not offering to give up the subsidy addiction. They bear the logos of wind companies and big green multinationals like Greenpeace and WWF. Big Green is increasingly behaving like the PR arm of Big Wind.
Other greens and climate scientists, however, have lost faith in renewables, arguing that they have diverted funds from more worthwhile projects and have effectively killed nuclear power in some parts of the world – because nuclear cannot economically be turned on and off to match the intermittent nature of wind output. Globally, wind power produced just 0.7% of total energy use (including transport and heat) last year, showing how minuscule its contribution to decarbonisation is, even after decades of subsidy.
These two tribes – the ones who argue that only nuclear can deliver carbon-free energy on a sufficient scale to make a difference versus the ones who are wedded to a renewable future, whatever the cost – have now fallen out badly inside the scientific establishment. A paper by Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson and colleagues published in December 2015 argued that the continental United States could meet virtually 100% of its energy needs using wind, water and solar power alone by 2050.
A rebuttal paper, published in the same journal (the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) in June this year by Christopher Clack and 20 colleagues from various universities and companies argued that Jacobson had made absurd assumptions to reach his conclusion. For instance America would have to increase its hydro-electric capacity by an implausible amount to back up intermittent wind and solar. This would be unfeasible physically, let alone environmentally – dams are not good for wildlife.
Dr Clack’s paper argues that Dr Jacobson’s paper “contains modeling errors; incorrect, implausible, and/or inadequately supported assumptions; and the application of methods inappropriate to the task. In short, the analysis performed in [it] does not support the claim that such a system would perform at reasonable cost and provide reliable power.”
To the astonishment of the entire world of science, Dr Jacobson has responded by suing the journal and Dr Clack and his colleagues for defamation, demanding $10 million in damages. Jacobson argues that the Clack paper contains “materially misleading errors” and the decision to publish it “has had grave ramifications” for his reputation and career.
The history of science is full of feuds, often bitter ones, going back to Isaac Newton’s vendetta against Gottfried Leibniz and beyond. But that is how science works – through disagreement followed by discussion. Not by taking your enemy to court. “Using court to resolve sci issues? Generally a bad idea” tweeted Gavin Schmidt of NASA – who has none the less defended a similar law suit by the climate scientist Michael Mann against the journalist Mark Steyn. “Enormously chilling for academic discourse. Would I ever write a paper challenging Jacobson’s analyses, even if they’re wrong? No way” tweeted Professor Roger Pielke of Colorado University in Boulder.
Reality is slowly dawning on at least some of the climatocrats meeting in Bonn, that their success in scaring the world as to future global warming has enabled an eruption of profitable capitalism to occur under the disguise of saving the planet. The economist Bruce Yandle has a phrase for this phenomenon, whereby pious preaching goes along with pure profiteering: “Bootleggers and Baptists”. During Prohibition in the 1920s, an unholy alliance developed between Baptist preachers and the lucrative bootlegging industry, both of which favoured a ban on alcohol, one through misguided principle, the other because they cynically saw a way of increasing the price of their product and gouging the consumer. After little more than a decade Prohibition collapsed under the weight of its own hypocritical contradictions. Will Green Prohibition go the same way? It certainly deserves to.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com.
at 11:46 PM