21 November 2020
The Green Industrial Revolution
Politics and Economics
This week the Prime Minister outlined a £12 billion 10 point plan to tackle climate change, slash carbon emissions to zero by 2050 and create or protect 250,000 jobs. But Downing Street was forced to admit that just £3 billion of cash was brand-new investment and critics said the 38 page document was comprised largely of reheated announcements.
The Prime Minister’s ten points are (taken from the government’s website):
Offshore wind: Producing enough offshore wind to power every home, quadrupling how much we produce to 40GW by 2030, supporting up to 60,000 jobs.
Hydrogen: Working with industry aiming to generate 5GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 for industry, transport, power and homes, and aiming to develop the first town heated entirely by hydrogen by the end of the decade.
Nuclear: Advancing nuclear as a clean energy source, across large scale nuclear and developing the next generation of small and advanced reactors, which could support 10,000 jobs.
Electric vehicles: Backing our world-leading car manufacturing bases including in the West Midlands, North East and North Wales to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, and transforming our national infrastructure to better support electric vehicles.
Public transport, cycling and walking: Making cycling and walking more attractive ways to travel and investing in zero-emission public transport of the future.
Jet Zero and greener maritime: Supporting difficult-to-decarbonise industries to become greener through research projects for zero-emission planes and ships.
Homes and public buildings: Making our homes, schools and hospitals greener, warmer and more energy efficient, whilst creating 50,000 jobs by 2030, and a target to install 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028.
Carbon capture: Becoming a world-leader in technology to capture and store harmful emissions away from the atmosphere, with a target to remove 10MT of carbon dioxide by 2030, equivalent to all emissions of the industrial Humber today.
Nature: Protecting and restoring our natural environment, planting 30,000 hectares of trees every year, whilst creating and retaining thousands of jobs.
Innovation and finance: Developing the cutting-edge technologies needed to reach these new energy ambitions and make the City of London the global centre of green finance.
I welcome any serious attempt to develop a strategy to get the UK down to zero emissions in the not too distant future. However, what the Prime Minister described as a plan is simply not a plan but a statement of wishful thinking. Some of it may be possible but much of it is based on yet to be proven technology and therefore cannot be said to be the basis of a plan. Let me consider each point in turn.
1. Offshore wind. The UK has already established a significant capacity for generating electricity through offshore wind and indeed some onshore. It is a shame that nearly all of this is manufactured abroad particularly in Denmark and so the numbers of new jobs that would result from increasing its capacity are not particularly great. Also this week the EU stated its plan to generate 300+ GW by 2050 but France which no doubt has at least as much potential capacity as the UK for offshore wind presently has zero as there have been successful objections in the courts by the fishing and tourism industry and by property owners. A reckless expansion of offshore wind risks doing great damage to the maritime environment and the Prime Minister’s optimism expressed at the Conservative party conference that offshore wind could provide all the energy for Britain’s homes seems to ignore the obvious weakness of wind that it is intermittent.
2. Hydrogen. Hydrogen is an energy carrier not an energy source according to the Government’s own website. There are several ways in which energy can be produced from hydrogen but they are all expensive not least because hydrogen is highly inflammable. The idea of developing a hydrogen town is typical of Boris Johnson’s liking for high-profile projects like the garden bridge and the airport in the dunes but it is similarly impractical and certainly unachievable in the timeframe.
3. Nuclear. Nuclear power in the UK generates around 19% of the country’s electricity as at 2020, and it has been projected to rise to one third by 2035. The UK established the world’s first civil nuclear programme, when it opened a new nuclear power station, Calder Hall at Windscale in1956. At the peak in 1997, 26% of the nation’s electricity was generated from nuclear power. Since then several reactors have closed and by 2012 the share declined to 19%. Only one is currently being built. The government says new nuclear is essential if the UK is to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, but the flaw in this is that it is only looking at the emissions during operation. If one looks at the whole life of a nuclear power station including both its manufacture and its decommissioning it cannot be considered as a green technology.
4. Electric vehicles. This is a very ambitious and probably unrealistic target. In quite a short period of time the government has changed its target banning the sale of petrol and diesel engined vehicles from 2040 to 2035 and now 2030 just 10 years away. The development life-cycle of new cars is about seven years and so it is quite impossible for the manufacturing industry to reach this target. At present the average price of an electric car is £10,000 more than that of the conventional car with the cheapest coming in at £22,000 Drivers are not only put off by the price of electric cars but also by the shortness of their range. For those who do not have garages at home in which they can charge the vehicle there are simply not enough charging stations around the country.
5. Public transport cycling and walking. This seems a particularly vague part of the plan. There have already been substantial efforts to encourage cycling by creating new cycling lanes leaving frustrated motorists sitting in traffic jams in their lane watching an empty lane next to them. For people who use their cars for practical purposes like going shopping, cycling and walking is not an alternative. It is no doubt worthy to encourage cycling and walking but there is almost no way in which one could measure the success of this initiative in reducing carbon emissions.
6. Jet zero and greener maritime. The plan embraces building the first long-haul passenger plane with zero emissions and while the UK does have leading aviation firms based in Britain like Airbus and Rolls-Royce the technology only exists for zero emission passenger planes on a much smaller scale. Flying to New York in a zero emissions plane is a very long way off. If the technology is based on adapting lithium ion batteries as used in road vehicles then the problem will be the volume of lithium required. Some years ago, at a seminar at the Department for Transport, I asked the late Professor David Mackay, the then Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change and an expert in sustainable energy, how many cars could be built with known reserves of lithium. He estimated that it would be about a billion. Clearly if the world is going to be able to switch entirely to electric vehicles and if those vehicles include trucks then there is not enough lithium to do this. And there is certainly nothing like enough if we are also going to use it in aeroplanes and ships.
7. Homes and public buildings. It is clearly a worthy aim to make homes and public buildings more energy efficient but this will come at a huge cost. Nothing in this plan indicates how those costs will be met. The government wants 600,000 heat pump installations per year by 2028. The average installation costs between £9,000 and £17,000 and is highly disruptive involving geological analysis, and then extensive work to the house and garden. It may save on heating cost but will increase the electricity bill and since it runs on electricity it can never be completely carbon neutral unless all sources of electric power are renewable. The plan is strangely silent on solar panels. We have just had installed solar panels on our roof. Our house is L-shaped and so in daylight some of the panels will always be active. Solar is a slightly misleading name as the panels work on UV light which is still present under light cloud. So even in November we have already generated quite a lot of electricity.
8. Carbon capture. The idea of carbon capture and storage is that the system would trap emissions from power plants or chimneys before they enter the atmosphere and fuel global warming. The Conservatives have been going on about this for more than a decade. David Cameron abandoned it after winning the 2015 election when it was in the manifesto, claiming it had always been subject to affordability. Here the government has brought it back without explaining how it is now affordable when it is still unproven.
9. Nature. In their 2019 manifesto the Conservatives promised to plant huge quantities of trees. In this plan they have actually brought down the number which seems a strange step. I personally cannot see the credibility of a government that continues to destroy large areas of nature with its foolish and hugely expensive HS2 project.
10. Innovation in finance. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak, together with the Lord Mayor of the City of London, has already made announcements along these lines of green finance and there’s nothing new in the plan.
In summary if the government could deliver on this plan the UK would be in a better place. The plan needs much more than just a set of targets. Right from the beginning of my business career I was taught Management By Objectives (MBO) as first explained by the great Peter Drucker. First you determine your Base; then you set an Objective; then you decide the Method by which you will achieve that Objective and then you decide how you will Measure that you have achieved that Objective. Once you have achieved that Objective that becomes the new Base from which you set further Objectives. This methodology will work in any environment including government, and certainly including planning how to achieve net zero carbon emissions in the UK.
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