Sunday, 21 March 2010

Aiming for a no-carbon economy

Taking the 'low-carbon' path means we are designing an economy not fit for purpose

Mike Mason, Friday 19 March 2010 10.51 GMT
Who would get on a flight across the Atlantic if most of the aeronautical engineers in the world were saying that the plane had a 50% chance of crashing before it got to the destination? No one. So why then are we prepared to take our chances on a planet which the vast majority of serious scientists say has a high chance of catastrophic system failure? I don't care whether the odds are 50% or 10% or even 1% - this is the only planet going and we're all on it.
In that case, when governments talk of aiming for a "low-carbon economy" by 2050, shouldn't we all rejoice? Perhaps not. If you're going to design an aeroplane you have to know how far it is expected to fly. Designing a transatlantic airliner that "nearly" gets across the ocean is not only a disaster for the passengers but it is also a waste of money. The same is true of the move towards a "low-carbon economy", which I believe is the wrong path to take. Here's why.
There are greenhouse gas emissions from industry, transport and the domestic sector, and there are emissions from agriculture and land use change. Take those emissions from agriculture, which are difficult to reduce substantially, and combine them with a world population that is expected to grow by 50% by 2050 and incomes that are growing at rates of up to 6% in the developing world, and you have a situation in 2050 where roughly 10 billion people are living at a standard close to ours in the UK. All those extra and relatively rich people will drastically increase those agricultural emissions.
Bearing that in mind, how much wiggle room do we have to generate future emissions before we set ourselves on the route to catastrophic climate change? Some notable scientists are saying we should emit no more. Some, more pragmatic voices, are arguing that the risks are acceptable if we stabilise at 450 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere by 2050. The Stern review suggests the emissions level we would need to do this is around 13bn tonnes per year. After we've factored in the emissions from agriculture, which we need to feed ourselves, what's left for industry, transport and homes? Zero.
Not only is it zero, but we've got to get there by 2050. This is a massive engineering project – the biggest the planet has ever seen. We could do it, with the technology we already know about, provided we abandon our squeamishness about nuclear power, windfarms in our backyards and carbon capture and storage. However the timescale is short. It is shorter than the life of a power station, or a gas grid, or even a new jumbo jet.
Now, here's the danger. There is a big difference between a "low-carbon economy" and a "no carbon economy". Both will need massive investments in new infrastructure and the deployment of huge swaths of new technology which will take decades to build. However, getting the last bit of carbon out of the economy is going to be terribly difficult, and many key choices needed to get there must be made more or less today. Look at a few examples.
The EU and individual governments are pumping billions of Euros into a form of carbon capture and storage that will only save 85% of emissions. Let's allow 10-15 years to get the technology sorted, and then 10-15 years to build the power stations. That takes us to 2040. If the life of a power station is 40 years, what are they all going to do in 2050? If we are serious about saving the planet we have to shut them down prematurely – what a waste of money and time.
Here's another. The UK has 20m homes with a gas supply. The government is currently providing incentives to install really efficient gas-fired combined heat and power in those homes. This will lock in 20 million sources of CO2 that can't be captured – instead of starting now to phase gas out of our homes and shift everyone to heat pumps.
Another example is the plan for Heathrow's third runway, which will allow more planes to come in. New planes have a 30-40 year lifespan. The runway won't be built for 10 years. The planes and runway will be obsolete before they are worn out – unless of course we spend a vast amount of new money on the research and development of biofuels. I don't see that in the coming budget.
In short, by going "low carbon" we're designing an economy not fit for purpose. We will waste a lot of time, and spend a vast amount of money, installing long-life assets and infrastructure that future politicians will have to scrap. You couldn't think of a more expensive and wasteful way to approach such a major and costly project. We will have designed that transatlantic airliner that doesn't quite reach the runway at the other end – but sadly you and I will have to fly on it.
• Mike Mason is the founder of Climate Care and Biojoule. He is looking for feedback on his "no-carbon economy" idea - please post your thoughts below.