Why I think we're wasting billions on global warming, by top British climate scientist

The MoS has campaigned tirelessly against the folly of Britain’s eco-obsessed energy policy. Now comes a game-changing intervention... from an expert respected by the green fanatics themselves

Last week, I was part of a group of academics who published a paper saying that the faster, more alarming, projections of the rate at which the globe is warming look less likely than previously thought.

That may mean we can afford to reduce carbon dioxide emissions slightly slower than some previously feared – but as almost everyone agrees, they still have to come down.

So the time has come to focus on something just as important: that 90 per cent of the measures adopted in Britain and elsewhere since the 1997 Kyoto agreement to cut global emissions are a waste of time and money – including windfarms in Scotland, carbon taxes and Byzantine carbon trading systems.

Futile: Subsidising windfarms, like Whitelee on the outskirts of Glasgow is a pointless policy, argues Professor Allen

Futile: Subsidising windfarms, like Whitelee on the outskirts of Glasgow is a pointless policy, argues Professor Allen

Do I think we’re doomed to disastrous warming? Absolutely not. But do I think we are doomed if we persist in our current approach to climate policy?

I’m afraid the answer is yes. Subsidising wind turbines and cutting down on your own carbon footprint might mean we burn through the vast quantity of carbon contained in the planet’s fossil fuels a little slower. But it won’t make any difference if we burn it in the end.

We need to rethink. For instance, if you suppose that the annual UN climate talks will save us, forget it.  I met a delegate at the last talks in Doha in December who told me he had just watched a two-hour debate that culminated in placing square brackets around a semi-colon.

Since Kyoto, world emissions haven’t fallen – they’ve risen by 40 per cent. And these vast jamborees – some involving more than 10,000 people – haven’t even started to discuss how we are going to limit the total amount of carbon we dump in the atmosphere, which is what we actually need to do to avoid dangerous climate change.

While failing to delay CO2 levels rising through the 400 parts per million level, Kyoto and the policies which stem from it have achieved the loss of jobs from countries such as  Britain – where we have at least managed a small reduction in the emissions we produce – to others whose factories are far more carbon-intensive.

As my Oxford colleague, the economist Dieter Helm, noted in his book The Carbon Crunch, we may have cut the CO2 actually emitted here, but our reliance on imports means the total emissions attributable to British economic activity have increased by 19 per cent since 1992.

can we really tell the citizens of India of 2080 not to touch their coal?

Can we really tell the citizens of India of 2080 not to touch their coal?

Where Dieter and I disagree is that carbon taxes are the answer. A carbon tax will not stop fossil fuel carbon being burnt. While a modest tax would be good for turbine-builders and the Treasury, in the short-term it will not promote the technology we need to solve the problem.

There’s been a lot of talk about ‘unburnable carbon’ – the carbon we shouldn’t burn if we are to keep global temperature rises below 2C. A catchy phrase, but can we really tell the citizens of India of 2080 not to touch their coal?

And to those on the other side who think that solar and nuclear will someday become so cheap we will choose to leave that coal alone, I’m afraid you have some basic physics working against you.
Let’s get down to some numbers.

Our new research paper gives a revised estimate of the ‘Transient Climate Response’ – a term which measures how much the world will warm in the medium term as carbon dioxide levels double.

We found a range of 1C to 2C, slightly down on the 1C to 2.5C range previously suggested by climate models.

But much more important is another, bigger number: four trillion tonnes. That’s roughly the total amount of fossil carbon locked underground before the Industrial Revolution.

So far, we’ve emitted about half a trillion tonnes as carbon dioxide, and are set to emit the next half-trillion by the early 2040s.

The Transient Climate Response also happens to be a good measure of the warming we get for every trillion tonnes of carbon dumped into the atmosphere. If we emit the lot, we’re looking at well over 4C of warming, which everyone agrees would be pretty tough.

Fortunately, there is a solution. It is perfectly possible to burn fossil carbon and not release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: you have to filter it out of the flue gases, pressurise it, and re-inject, or ‘sequester’, it back underground.

Since the 1997 Kyoto agreement, world emissions haven¿t fallen ¿ they¿ve risen by 40 per cent

Since the 1997 Kyoto agreement, world emissions haven't fallen, they've risen by 40 per cent

If you’re using fossil carbon to drive a car or fly a plane, you just have to pay someone else to bury CO2 for you.

The only thing that actually matters for climate policy is whether, before we release too much, we get to the point of burying carbon at the same rate that we dig it up.

Nothing else matters – not for climate, anyway. Not efficiency targets, nor even population growth, provided we meet this goal. Unfortunately, turbines, fancy taxes and carbon trading schemes aren’t going to help us do so.

How much is too much? Well, if the Transient Climate Response is 1C-2C, we’ll need to limit future emissions to around a trillion tonnes of carbon to avoid more than 2C of warming.

It could be a lot less or it could be a bit more, but since this is the middle of the range that everyone agrees on, let’s get on with it and revisit the total when temperatures reach 1.5C. That’s when we’ll have more of an idea of where we’re going.

So with a trillion tonnes to go, we need to increase the fraction we bury at an average rate of one per cent for every 10 billion tonnes of global emissions.

That’s not a policy – that’s a fact. For every 10 billion tonnes we emit without increasing this sequestered fraction by one per cent, we will just have to bury more later in order to catch up.

If this is what needs to be done, why not just make it a condition of licensing to extract or import fossil fuels? In forestry, if you fell trees, the law obliges you to replant.

We must use the same principle: a law to compel a slowly rising percentage of carbon dioxide emissions to be sequestered and stored.

Fossil fuel industrialists will need a few years to gear up, but they won’t need taxpayer-funded subsidies.

They’ll simply need to do this to stay in business. All past evidence suggests that when industry is faced with technical challenges it needs to overcome, it’s ingenious at finding ways of doing so.

For our part, all we need to decide is that we want them to start now, rather than letting them carry on as they are – and let them claim in 20 years’ time that it’s too late, and that they need massive subsidies for carbon burial because they’re too big to fail.

We might eventually decide to build more windfarms, or drive electric cars, or just to reduce our dependence on Russian oil and gas

We might eventually decide to build more windfarms, or drive electric cars, or just to reduce our dependence on Russian oil and gas

You might argue that this would need a cumbersome agreement. Not so. All the countries who take this seriously have to do is make it clear we won’t import goods from China unless they have been made using fossil carbon treated in the same way.

If Apple makes its laptops there, it won’t want them singled out as causing dangerous climate change.

Of course, there will be a cost, passed on to the long-suffering consumer. But making carbon capture mandatory would trigger a headlong race to find the cheapest sources of carbon dioxide and places to bury it.

Frankly, I’d rather pay an engineer in Poland to actually dispose of carbon dioxide than some Brussels eco-yuppie to trade it around.

Even on relatively pessimistic estimates, if the sequestered fraction rises at one per cent per 10 billion tonnes, it would be getting on for 20 years before the cost of carbon capture would exceed the £100 per year and rising that the average UK household already pays in assorted windfarm subsidies.

The impact on petrol prices is even less dramatic: 50 per cent carbon capture, which we might reach by the 2040s, might add 10p to the cost of a litre of petrol. That’s well under what we already pay in fuel taxes which, we are told, are supposed to help stop climate change.

We might eventually decide to build more windfarms, or drive electric cars, or just to reduce our dependence on Russian oil and gas.

But if we enforce carbon capture, these will become economic and energy-security decisions, and nothing to do with climate change.

So there you have it: one policy, that everyone can agree on, which would actually solve the problem without Brussels bureaucrats dictating what kind of light-bulbs we can buy. Sound good to you?

  • Climate physics nerds may protest that it can’t be that simple, because each tonne of carbon in the atmosphere has slightly less impact than the last. But then carbon cycle nerds would point out that for each tonne of carbon we burn, a slightly higher fraction remains in the atmosphere as other carbon pools fill up. And as so often happens in science, if we bring these two sets of nerds together they annihilate each other in a brief burst of powerpoint, and we end up with the relationship we first thought of: 1-2 degrees per trillion tonnes of carbon.
Myth-busting quiz

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