Iain Macwhirter: The heat is on in the battle to achieve net zero



IT’S as much a part of summer as rain and flood warnings. As soon as the temperature rises above 30 degrees, everyone starts talking about climate change. Then as soon as the temperatures return to normal everyone stops talking about it again. Only this year is different, and not just because of the record thermometer readings in London.

Here in Scotland, folk are making the best of the weather knowing that they face a long cold winter of unaffordable energy bills. Global warming seems academic to the million or so Scottish families heading for fuel poverty, according to ScottishPower. It is hard to manage the cognitive dissonance of worrying about being too hot and too cold at the same time.

If the media’s climate coverage seems confused too it is because only the day before yesterday the BBC was running stories about poor people freezing in their homes. Now we are warned not to go out because of “killer heat”. Even Extinction Rebellion seems to have gone cold.

Indeed, there is a risk of a popular backlash against climate targets this winter as voters look for something to blame for bills of more than £3,000 a year. Populists like Nigel Farage realise this, which is why he has switched from campaigning against Brexit to campaigning against net zero, even though our long-term climate has little to do with the current increased cost of oil and gas. Indeed, there is strong evidence that the switch to renewables, like offshore wind, will reduce the cost of energy.

Read more: Do we seriously want to combat climate change? I’m not so sure

We’ve come a long way since the COP26 climate summit dominated news bulletins all summer long. You may be surprised to learn that there is an “emergency” COP27 this year in Sharm-el-Sheikh, but no one seems very interested in it, possibly because failure is a foregone conclusion. Countries in the Global South are experiencing heatwaves that make our summer seem positively cool, but they aren’t talking about climate change any more.

Incredible though it may seem, India, which has recently experienced temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius, is in the midst of an energy crisis because of a shortage of coal and oil and is ramping up production accordingly. India is the world’s second-largest producer and consumer of this most toxic of all fossil fuels. The dash for coal is making a nonsense of the country’s promises about renewables.

The biggest producer and consumer of coal is China, which is also increasing production on a massive scale. In 2021, the year it boycotted COP26, China produced a record four billion tons of the black stuff – half of all world output. Despite protestations that it is switching to renewables, China is still opening coal-fired power stations almost by the week, adding 40GW a year, with a further 250GW planned. Britain’s entire electricity generation, renewable and non, is 75GW.

The inconvenient truth, to paraphrase Al Gore, is that future of the planet will be decided, not by the UK or even Europe, but by these energy giants and their clients throughout the Southern Hemisphere, like benighted Sri Lanka. That is where populations are growing and industrialisation is spreading and along with it fossil fuel use. India is set overtake China’s 1.4bn population next year. In mature countries, like the UK and Europe, populations are declining as countries embrace renewables and post-industrial economics.

Read more: We won’t save the planet by going Green. Economic growth is the only way

These are colossal challenges and it is understandable if some people overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problem. It sometimes seems as if making changes here in this damp little island is futile. The wittering about heat pumps and insulation seems detached from material reality, not to mention Scotland’s draughty housing stock. Vladimir Putin doesn’t care about climate change, so why should we?

Well, because it makes a moral and economic sense. Britain was one of the leaders in the industrial revolution and it has a responsibility to address the consequences. Climate change remains the great political and engineering challenge of our times and will generate millions of jobs. Conservatives like the former Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, realise that switching to renewables. actually makes economic sense.

The UK shows not only that climate emissions can be reduced, but also that it can be done with economic growth. Between 1990 and 2019 emissions fell by 44 per cent while GDP rose by 76%. We don’t hear much about it, but Britain is leading the world in decarbonisation, according to the International Energy Agency, because of the legally-binding commitment to making electricity generation 95% carbon-free by 2035. (The Scottish Government claims that this has already been achieved in Scotland, though in fact only 56% of electricity actually used here is renewable.).

This transition is eminently doable, so do it we must. Renewables generation in the UK has increased from 8GW in 2009 to 48GW today. And the good news is that renewable energy is going to become very much cheaper in the coming decades as Scotland’s extraordinary wealth of offshore and onshore wind is full exploited. It is not hard to envisage Scotland generating all its electricity by renewables even with the phasing out of nuclear power.

There is no doubt about the basic science of anthropomorphic climate change, and that is paradoxically part of the problem. Green is the new consensus. The media requires controversy and when all the Tory leadership candidates commit to net zero, there’s not much more to talk about.

That is the real reason why climate hardly figured in the Tory leadership debate, before the participants decided to stop washing their dirty ideological linen in public. Even the argument about the £150 climate levy is not about abolishing it as such but transferring it from fuel bills to general taxation.

Politicians have been much criticised for sounding complacent about climate change and insisting that it has to be done without diminishing growth. But this is to miss the obvious. That the party which traditionally was most closely associated with the fossil fuel industry (after the SNP) is now introducing world-leading climate change targets. When even the Tories agree on net zero you realise that there’s been a quiet revolution.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald





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