By Barney Smith
On Tuesday afternoons, some of us have been tuning in to a series of interesting webinars hosted by Oxford University about different facets of climate change and decarbonisation (www.energy.ox.ac.uk). This has given rise to a set of rather random thoughts stimulated by, but not directly related to, the Oxford webinars.
One early suggestion was that the target of zero-carbon involved some unexpected choices. Given an old, heavily polluting, coal-fired power plant, would it be better to replace it now with a modern gas-fired power plant which would pollute much less, but would nonetheless do so for a further twenty years, or would it be better to let the polluting coal-fired plant continue in the hope that at the end of five years it would be replaced by a wind farm which would not generate any noxious emissions at all. The obvious question is “Why not replace the plant immediately with a renewable source”? Is this really an issue about balance sheets and the timing of capital expenditure?
Another thought was that in rural sub-Saharan Africa the low population density makes the introduction of standard electricity grids prohibitively expensive, with the result that average energy access is below 20 per cent. One obvious solution is to introduce micro-grids for a village or small area, powered by solar panels with batteries. However a survey of existing micro-grids mainly in Zambia and Uganda found none that were sustainable, financially or otherwise.
The people interviewed all wanted electricity, but projects failed because they had other more pressing needs such as food and water, so that times arose when they could no longer pay for the electricity or maintain the system. Too often the micro-grid was not well aligned with the village’s needs, or the whole system was not considered: for example, the electricity may be affordable but the equipment that uses it may not be. “What do we want?” and “How are we going to pay for it?” must be addressed at a very local level.
A further point involved how justice is to be defined in the context of environmental improvement. The “polluter pays” seems a good principle, but in many cases in Europe the burden falls on the poorest, who are most likely to drive an older, and thus more polluting, car. And, more widely, research shows that it is generally the poor who are most at risk from the effects of climate change.
And there are also some more banal decisions which may perhaps be more important in terms of justice, rather than economics. For example, how do we assess the performance of on-street charging facilities for electric vehicles. Should we favour those who would prefer to bend their knees or those who would prefer to bend their back- a choice which may involve taking a view on the age and resources of the likely users? This feeds into the question of how we envisage the charging machines being used. How will the costs be apportioned? Indeed, how important is cost as against ease of use? ditto for installation, for maintenance, for repair? Each time the question should be the same “Is this the correct solution?” “Who pays?” “Is this fair?”
An inability to ask similar questions was responsible for the “Gilets Jaunes” protest in France, which started two years ago and is still not extinguished. Not enough people saw that what was appropriate in Paris with plenty of public transport and an efficient Metro would not work in the rural areas where there was no public transport. The real question was not “What is the best solution from an economic perspective?” but rather “What sort of transport system do we want?”
Finally, it is worth adding that on Tuesday 1 December, in the last webinar in this term’s series, Prof Stuart Haszeldene (Edinburgh University) gave a magisterial talk on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). His fascinating insights ended with the tantalising statement that for the average advanced industrial society the cost of redressing the climate balance was not that much-about 1per cent of GDP, the equivalent of another Christmas Day. By comparison with the ravages of Covid 19, that does indeed seem to be relatively modest.