Serious Choices

Gareth Wyn Jones examines the challenges presented by climate change and the difficult choices we face


Governments are fixated on ‘choice’. But there is far too little discussion of the most serious choices we face: reconciling our dependence on energy and on climate-changing fossil fuels with global warming and maintaining our living standards while meeting the aspirations of the less fortunate. Fossil fuels are the source of our prosperity but a serious threat to our future. The associated industries enjoy large tax breaks and subsidies but already cause damage, unreported as off-balance sheet externalities, of over $5 trillion a year globally mainly due to air pollution [IMF report]. Human-induced global warming can only make this bill far higher.

The evidence of global warming and climate change is overwhelming: enough to convince more than 190 countries at the UN COP 21 meeting in Paris last December. All agreed that emissions must be cut dramatically: in the case of Wales and the UK by at least 80% by 2050. Despite the propaganda and fanfare, the agreement is non-binding.  Achieving the formal aspiration to limit warming to 2oC [even 1.5oC] is very fraught and questionable. It assumes atmospheric carbon capture and storage [CCS] which itself could hold serious threats. Even if successful, CCS will do nothing to remove the extra heat in the oceans which are retaining more than 90% of the extra heat.

2015 and early 2016 have already seen unprecedented mean surface and tropospheric temperatures bringing us close to the 1.5oC target (partly due to a major El Nino event). Atmospheric CO2 levels [~408ppm in March 2016] are actually accelerating, despite reports of less fossil fuel burning [Global Carbon Project], Oceanic heat content and sea level rise is growing.  Thousands are dying of extreme heat in the Middle East and India. The drought in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean was a record in the last 900 years. Huge fires in Siberia, North America and Indonesia released more CO2. Crop failures have blighted Ethiopia, Vietnam and parts of southern Africa, with floods elsewhere. Polar and glacial ice are in retreat. All this coupled with growing migration and civic disturbance. The costs of these disasters are annually in tens of billions [Global Supply Chain Intelligence Report, BSI] but our population continues to rise and our human demands and expectations multiply. Yet we are supposedly still well on the ’safe side’ of dangerous global warming.

We must face up to the critical choices. Not only must we cut emissions by over 80% but do so in less than 30 years. Why the rush? Several reasons. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution much of the additional anthropogenic CO2 has been retained in the atmosphere. So in terms of the global warming potential, it is the total accumulated anthropogenic emissions since the late 19th century that are critical. This accumulation feeds through to Planet Earth retaining more of the Sun’s energy. So, in terms of the atmospheric physics, the longer we leave the cuts, the greater the chance of disaster, the steeper and harsher the cuts that then must occur, and lower will be the resulting emissions ‘ration’ left to us and everyone else by mid century and greater the chance of major social and economic disruption. This is frighteningly illustrated in the Figure below.


Nevertheless a popular choice with American Republicans and some on the right in the UK is denial: mangling the data and blaming everything on a huge global conspiracy. Their position is irrational, irresponsible and, indeed, lethal. Unfortunately it is well funded by the coal and oil magnates and free market ideologues.

But even if we take the issues seriously we face real problems. Are there technological and economic paths that will allow humanity a prosperous and low-carbon future? Or are we locked into a spiral from which there is no escape? What indeed does the atmospheric physics suggest are the emission levels can we safely contemplate by 2004 or 2050? Are these achievable and consistent with good living standards?

I will consider Wales but virtually everything applies much more widely.

Internally we use about 100 TWh of energy per year (let’s call it 100 UNITS = each unit being 1 million-million watts). This equates to each of us having 4 one-bar electric-fires burning day and night, everyday of the year to sustain us. The first obvious question is; do we really need all of this energy or can we live well on significantly less?  What technological and lifestyle choices would help us do so?

We certainly waste vast amounts of energy and consequently money but new technologies offer huge opportunities to save power. White goods are becoming much more energy efficient and cheaper to run. EV cars, although currently expensive, use about two thirds less energy per km travelled than petrol cars and, if powered by low carbon electricity, emit no greenhouse gases (GHG). Fuel cell/H2 technology is also clean and efficient and could power our trains, trams and trucks. (International examples exist and new trials on fuel cell trains are commencing in Germany). Of course we would all benefit from walking and cycling more. But we also need much better planning and facilities to tempt us as well as a new mind set.

Unfortunately our houses and offices are notoriously poorly insulated and draughty. In Wales we have many inefficient solid-brick or stone-built buildings compounding the problem but such issues are solvable. Energy saving could increase comfort, decrease fuel poverty, lower our carbon footprint and create local work. Well-insulated housing not only requires less energy but also permits ground and air source heat pumps that are three times more efficient than a direct burn.  If we follow Denmark and Germany and address these matter decisively then we can hope to reduced energy demand by  ~40%. Paradoxically these changes, by moving away from gas, oil and petrol and reducing total energy demand, will actually increase our electricity use (due to electrifying transport, heat pumps etc.) – which is now only just over 20% of the total mix.

Let us assume, after a comprehensive programme of energy saving, that by 2040 we will need about 40 UNITS of electricity and about 20 UNITS of heat to provide us with a good living. So what options are there to achieve this and indeed how much will they cost?

A critical constraint is how much CO2 can we afford to release to produce this energy while constraining global warming, remaining within our global quota and fulfilling UN COP 21 and other agreements including the Wellbeing and Future Generations Act? What does the physics tell us? A simple calculation suggests a limit of about 50g of CO2 emitted per kWh of energy (see also report of UK Committee on Climate Change).  However we must aim lower (~35g/kWh) as our food chain emits GHGs and we may need some GHG ‘space’ for other activities things, such as heavy industry, the food chain and some international travel. The Figure above also shows that we should be planning for further decreases in emissions.

Are there options to generate our 40 UNITS of electricity and 20 UNITS of heat under these constraints? Indeed there are. The major renewable energy sources, PVs, off and on shore wind, tidal etc. all have life-cycle footprints well below 50g CO2/kWh. This compares with about 350-450 g/kWh for gas, more for oil and double that for coal (without CCS). The carbon footprint of nuclear power is highly contentious. While industry sources claim levels as low as 10g CO2/kWh, independent analyses quote values near to or above 100g with suggestions that, as lower grade uranium ore is used, this will increase further. The current UK government strategy favours electricity from a mix of nuclear and gas plants, the latter, if possible, using UK-fracked gas. This strategy is quite clearly completely incompatible with our UN, EU and UK targets [by at least 5 fold] and with any serious attempt to combat damaging climate change.

Ironically nuclear is also hugely expensive (Hinckley C Nuclear Electricity at inflation proofed £92.5/MWh) and technologically questionable. This ties us into foreign capital for two generations and is unlikely to meet the timetable of an >80% decrease before 2040.  It can only be contemplated in a stable society but the world around us is destabilizing! In comparison recent UK solar power projects have an agreed price of £50/MWh, onshore wind ~£80/MWh and off-shore reducing to £85 by the mid twenties (Eversheds).

While the case for exploiting renewable energy resources is compelling each sources of electricity and to an extent heat is itself contentious. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. All are partly discontinuous or unpredictable and require especially electrical energy storage backup which itself carries environmental and economic costs. [NB. The present system itself also requires such storage hence the success of the Dinorwig Pump Storage scheme]. Furthermore renewable sources are more dispersed, less energy dense, can be unsightly and demand a different distribution system to that which evolved from monolithic coal or oil-fired stations. But combined with emerging smart and more localised grids and storage, for example in EV cars, they offer a new relationship between the people and their power; one that could catalyse much more resilient local economies.

Critically the current playing field is not flat but strongly biased towards fossil fuels as we ignore their huge externalised cost. Even so renewables are remarkably competitive and may well, in 10 to 20 years, become increasingly competitive. This is quite apart from their importance in combating the looming threats from global warmin. Simply dividing the IMF figure for ‘negative externalities’ by the total global carbon emissions implies that each tonne of CO2 emitted already equates to about £100 worth of dis-benefits. In the case of coal this amounts to £100 ‘externalised dis-benefit’ per MWh of power. For comparison the wholesale price of electricity is about £30-50 per MWh. Given these distortions we need, immediately, economic tools, either a growing carbon tax or an effective cap and trade mechanism, to reflect both current reality and the future threat.

Energy saving and energy efficiency must be the priority. As this may not be in the interest of some commercial suppliers, mechanisms devised to do so; free markets solutions are unlikely to suffice.

All fossil fuels should be abandoned by 2030 at the latest. Given the short time horizon and the life of major infrastructure investments, gas is unlikely to be a viable intermediary solution but may remain an essential backup in emergencies. Nuclear power is a fraught option. As it absorbs huge subsidies it may be positively dangerous, distracting from better solutions. Not only climate change but other growing global threats make our world fragile, yet our problems are world-wide and all embracing. I shudder to contemplate nuclear plants in Aleppo or Maiduguri were I have been working. There is surely a case for developing more resilient and more local solutions, but underpinned by international links to exchange of electricity and stabilise supply.

The status quo is not a viable option but the public lacks a clear appreciation of the choices we face. UK government plans are inadequate and WG’s tepid. So perhaps we must all shoulder a personal responsibility. We have, individually, a responsibility to work to lower our carbon footprint from the current average of about 15 tonnes of CO2 per year in Wales to the ~2 tonnes in 2040, which is compatible with the global target. We are blessed with a rich variety of renewable energy resources and it is entirely reasonable that those with the resources be recompensed for them. But it is unacceptable, at one and same time, to complain about a renewable scheme in one’s locality and drive a high-powered petrol or diesel car or fly off on exotic holidays.

Choice involves risk; the risk of making the wrong choice. The “deniers” choice carries huge risks; runaway global warming could become embedded into our planetary system. It would not only drown Llandudno and the Gwent levels, make Cambridge a seaside town and depopulate the Nile delta, but ensure centuries of global disasters and civil strife  – “no man is an island”. Any policy based on nuclear plus gas choice is scientifically inadequate, has the wrong time scale, is inordinately expensive and, ironically for a free-marketer, would make us clients of external state-controlled capital.

The energy saving/renewable energy choice has its hazards but could meet the physical criteria in time. It will require technical innovation and social change as well as a very clear political will to reduce waste and promote low carbon technologies. These include re-engineering the grid, transport and space heating, increased afforestation, and GHG-efficient farming and electricity storage (batteries and pump storage etc.) It should comprise an EU-wide carbon tax (or real cap and trade scheme) and confer on Welsh government full powers in this field. Paradoxically we must combine local action with transnational electricity flows and coordination to marry efficiency and effectiveness. Can we live well in such scenario? Certainly. Will we live differently? Almost certainly. Had such a programme been pursued diligently for the last 15 to 20 years, would the trials of Port Talbot have been averted? Quite probably.

Few issues are more vital. All National Assembly candidates must be quizzed on their choices. In the last analysis physical reality trumps economics. We have prevaricated too long and created a rod for our own backs. We must now find the economic solutions to the physical challenge.

Gareth Wyn Jones is Emeritus Professor at Bangor University. He Chairs the IWA's project, Re-energising Wales.