50 Shades of Frost.

Lord Frost must have choked over his freshly ironed copy of the Daily Telegraph this morning. Spread across the wide open spaces of its front page – because, as long as there is an England, the Telegraph will forever be a broadsheet – was a map with the whole of Southern England coloured red.

This is to show the areas in which – in the current drought – wildfires are just a flicked match, barbecue ember, or suns rays concentrated through a thrown away bottle away. As the wildfire in Wennington showed at the end of last month, if vegetation and buildings are dry enough, and the winds are strong enough, a small fire can spread out of control and burn down whole streets. We should note that Wennington is on the edge of Rainham marshes, not an area we would normally expect to catch fire. In fact, we got lucky that time, because the winds were quite low. So, anyone who owns a property in that red zone, which stretches right across the Tory heartlands of the soft South, has real reason to be worried.; which would be why the Telegraph published it.

But, this is where ideological dissonance slips in. The Telegraph puts a lot of effort into bigging up all the forces on the Tory right, from Lords Lawson and Frost, to Steve Baker and the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, who like to argue that Climate Breakdown is all a woke plot; that because dealing with it requires a fairer society that would be uncomfortable for people like them, not dealing with it, while hoping with Mr Micawber that “something will turn up”, is the better option.

Indeed, this is just two days after Frost opined in an essay on Public Exchange, that “there is no evidence” that the UK faces a climate emergency.

One can only conclude that he goes through life with his eyes. and ears firmly shut, and has not bothered to read very much. He could just look around him. Perhaps, like so many “non elite” Brexit supporting members of the House of Lords, he hasn’t been around to notice what’s going on here because he’s off on holiday somewhere continental. But, he can’t really miss it there either. If he is in Italy, perhaps he has noticed coverage of the drought that has cause the Po river to dry up on parts of its course. If he has passed through Germany, he might have noticed that the Rhine is now so low that shipping is being restricted. If he has gone to the United States, he can’t have missed the epic drought and wildfires there this Summer which have produced fire tornadoes in California; or the floods in Kentucky that washed whole houses down streets turned into torrents. Had he popped up to the Arctic for a bit of whale spotting, he might have been made aware that it is heating up four times faster than the rest of the planet and the permafrost is melting 43 times as fast as it was.

If he wants some written evidence, maybe he should just read the latest IPCC Report. Current policies, which he thinks are too fast, have us heading for a 2.7C average temperature rise by the end of the century. Crisis? What crisis?

But, of course, he is from a political current that dislikes “experts” and prefers its own prejudices whenever that’s more convenient.

Frost’s proposals are designed to make other people, in poorer parts of the world, pay the price for the over consumption of people like him.

He blathers complacently on – with that blithe self confidence that so many upper class people have, that if you state total bollocks with enough conviction you can disregard any evidence to the contrary – “the prevailing mood is one in which individuals are asked to restrict their use of energy and in which unsatisfactory renewables technology is touted as the best solution to our problems. Instead of focusing on technological solutions that enable us to master our environment and get more energy in a more carbon-efficient way — nuclear, CCS, fracking, one day fusion – we have focused on managing demand so we can use medieval technology like wind power.”

This is such flabby thinking that it beggars belief that he can be taken seriously by anyone with a fragment of critical intelligence. But, let’s look at them one at a time anyway.

  1. “Individuals are asked to restrict their use of energy”. At the moment, the biggest pressure forcing people to reduce their use of energy is the rapid increase in fossil fuel prices (and the profits of the energy producing companies that flow from them). Frost does not favour taxing those profits to give people a break. He stands for the free market (in this context). Nor does he favour an insulation programme that would allow people to keep warm and cook food, using less energy and getting lower bills as a result. Using less energy means less demand for fossil fuels, therefore fewer profits for the producers. Can’t have that, can we? This is of a piece with his complaint in the Brexit campaign that the EU was introducing standards to force vacuum cleaners to become more efficient – on the grounds that a proper clean needs to burn lots of joules. Vacuum cleaning for petrolheads.
  2. That “unsatisfactory renewables technology”, overtook fossil fuels in UK electricity generation in 2020. “Medieval” wind power produced 24% of UK energy demand in 2020, increased 715% from 2009 to 2020 and is now much cheaper per Kilowatt hour than fossil fuels or nuclear; and steadily getting even cheaper. That reduces bills. Once the turbines are up or the solar panels installed, the wind and the sunshine is free. “Unsatisfactory” for fossil fuel producers, no doubt. Very helpful for the rest of us. Oddly, Lord Frost does not seem so keen on “the market” here. He wants to restrict renewables as such. Perhaps not as suicidally keen as France’s Marine Le Pen, who wants to “tear down” turbines that are already up; but in the way that the Conservatives have restricted onshore wind with all sorts of planning “red tape”. You’d think, with onshore wind being among the cheapest energy sources, he’d want to cut the restrictions and “let the market work its magic”; but not a bit of it. You’d think, as a patriotic Brexiteer wedded to notions of “energy security”, he’d want to make the most of an energy source that doesn’t have to be imported. He could make a bit of a campaign of it, painting them red, white and blue and calling them “Freedom Farms”; with banner headlines in the Tory Press screaming “It’s Britain’s Wind!” But, no. If its low prices for energy users with fewer carbon emissions on the one hand, and sustained fossil fuel profits generating billowing clouds of carbon dioxide on the other, its no contest.
  3. In full macho mode, Lord Frost prefers “technological solutions that enable us to master our environment” (my emphasis). So butch. 50 shades of Frost. Let’s see what he has in his special room. “Nuclear, CCS, fracking, one day fusion“. While its in the nature of denial for people to clutch at straws, this is a peculiarly old fashioned vision of modernity. Taking them backwards, which seems an oddly appropriate thing to do… “Fusion” has been the holy grail for nuclear power that has been full of promise for at least 50 years; but has never actually arrived. This year, next year, sometime, never. He might as well argue that “one day” we will power ourselves with Unicorn farts. “Fracking” for oil and gas. No one wants a fracking site in their backyard. Presumably Frost wants to enforce them on unwilling communities “in the national interest” of the profits made by the fracking companies. Perhaps he hasn’t noticed that oil and gas are fossil fuels. So, not a solution to a problem created by burning too many fossil fuels. And not a “carbon efficient” way to generated energy. “Carbon Capture and Storage.” The IPCC Report made it very clear that this is not a technology capable of economic deployment at the scale needed. Indeed, given that this would be such a “get out of jail free” card for carbon intensive industries, you’d think that it would have been developed by now. Instead, rather like fusion, it is the solution that’s just around the corner; and has been for decades. “Nuclear”. There is an argument about how “low carbon” nuclear energy generation is. What is in no doubt is that it is immensely costly. Costlier than fossil fuels. Costlier than renewables. And slow. By So, Frost’s “solutions” are a mix of unproven wishful thinking combined with a cavalier disregard for costs; both environmental and financial. And, that’s it.

With the whole of Southern England a tinder box, perhaps the threat of wildfires in the backyards of prosperous Tory speissburgers might make a few of them pay attention – especially if house price values start being affected. But, with Frost highly influential with Liz Truss, and medieval thinkers like John Redwood slated for cabinet posts in our new and unimproved Conservative government, we can expect a lurch even further to the right. Their problem is that its only possible to safely deny reality so long as that reality isn’t imposing itself on people’s lives, as climate breakdown is. It has been argued that climate is “above politics”. It isn’t, as Lord Frost and his ilk demonstrate. But the reality of it is foundational to any politics that is relevant from here on. We’re not in the Holocene any more Toto.

End of term Report – how badly did the government do?

In a week in which the Health Secretary has wept on TV claiming that he is “proud to be British” a reality check on just how badly his Conservative government have managed the COVID crisis and why is unavoidable.

The graph below shows the deaths per million of the UK – which

-flirted with herd immunity in February/March,

-went for one of the loosest lockdowns in Europe in April/May,

-reopened its economy prematurely over the Summer,

-hesitated over re-imposing restrictions as the virus rebounded in September/October,

-tightened them too late in November (while leaving schools open and allowing infections to rip among Secondary school students especially)

-and is now trying to keep restrictions loosened over Xmas, largely for commercial reasons,

with countries in the Western Pacific region that had a policy to eliminate the virus, not try to “live with” it. Because the figures for these countries are so small, here they are. Compared to the UK’s 877 deaths per million, New Zealand has had just 5, China even fewer with 3; and Vietnam with 0.5.

“Proud to be British”?

If you want to see that on a comparative pie graph of the deaths in each country compared with each other, it looks like this.

The Health Secretary might well weep.

It might be argued that Vietnam and New Zealand’s strategy was primarily to close down their borders and test everyone that came in – quarantining anyone who tested positive – to prevent the virus getting a foothold in the first place. So they did. But that option was available to Britain too in late February. The government didn’t take it – and was very resistant to any quarantining measures for air travelers until the end of May, just as the first partial lockdown began to relax. The current relaxation on restrictions on “high value” travelers is a clue as to why. Such restrictions would affect business travelers – and that would never do.

The comparison with China is even more damning. The initial outbreak of the virus was in Wuhan. A city of 11 million people, slightly larger than London, the capital of Hubei Province, which has 58 million people, slightly smaller than the UK and about the same as England. As the first victim of the virus, it might be reasonable to assume that the Chinese would have been taken more by surprise and overwhelmed than anywhere else; and there was a period in late December to late January in which there was definite confusion and fumbling at a local level when it was unclear what they were dealing with; but at the same time intensive work was being done on what exactly the virus was, how it originated and was transmitting itself, all of which was being shared with the WHO. And, once it was clear just how dangerous it was, the measures taken were swift, definite and had the clear aim of eliminating it. And, they worked. So, even with a significant outbreak in a densely populated urban centre that is a transport and communications hub, a zero COVID strategy was capable of closing down domestic infections. It took six weeks. It is that that has enabled the Chinese economy to recover at the speed and scale that it has done. The UK government has no excuse – because, after the Wuhan experience, they knew what was coming. They chose not to act.

Even in a comparison with other European countries – which have all tried variations on the same policy as the UK – “balancing” the needs of health against economic imperatives – and which have therefore had a similar result in balancing an ongoing health crisis with an ongoing economic crisis -the UK is in the worst four for death rates (1) so, in football terms, we’d be qualifying for the Champions League. Nothing to be proud of.

More importantly, we are heading for a third wave in January, especially if the Xmas relaxation is maintained, so a Zero COVID strategy and movement is urgently needed and all the forces gathering in different groups around this should be coming together to push to get a West Pacific result.

  1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1111779/coronavirus-death-rate-europe-by-country/

Boris Johnson – “the Saudi Arabia of wind”.

“The food here is terrible. Yes, and such small portions.” (1)

“Hmm. This is burnt AND undercooked.” (2)

This is Boris Johnson’s ten point plan for the Environment with comments (in italics). This “plan” is an almost random curates egg of proposals with no overall strategy – other than a series of hopeful nudges at the private sector in the hope that it will take up the slack and fill the gaps between the limited and truncated ambition and the almost laughably small commitment the government is putting in to realise it; bringing to mind the two jokes above.

“Imagine Britain when a Green Industrial Revolution has helped to level up the country.”

You might have been able to achieve this by voting Labour last December, but for now you just have to imagine.

“You cook breakfast using hydrogen power before getting in your electric car, having charged it overnight from batteries made in the Midlands. Around you the air is cleaner; trucks, trains, ships and planes run on hydrogen or synthetic fuel.”

The poverty of imagination in this vision is almost numbing. Imagine instead that you don’t need to go to work by car every day because there is effective broadband that allows you to work for home more often; nor have to pay through the nose to use a car to travel, because everything you need is within a fifteen minute walk or cycle ride; with longer journeys covered by clean, efficient electric buses, trams and trains or community car clubs. Imagine fewer vehicles and less space required for them, with car parks turned into parks with bike hangars; with a car scrappage scheme paying for travel passes and electric cycles. Imagine your home properly insulated and fueled with renewable energy – and imagine no homeless because we have built an additional 500,000 council houses to passivhaus standards. All of this is doable.

“British towns and regions — Teesside, Port Talbot, Merseyside and Mansfield — are now synonymous with green technology and jobs. This is where Britain’s ability to make hydrogen and capture carbon pioneered the decarbonisation of transport, industry and power.”

Towns and regions and cities all over the world will need to be synonymous with green jobs. This has to become a global norm. Hopefully Britain will do its bit in this global process without striking vainglorious poses about world beating systems – or Apps. CCS will be important for heavy industries but research into it has been going on for a long time without viable results – and can be a fig leaf for carrying on as normal while we wait for a technological solution that might not come. It is not a basket to put most of our eggs in.

“My 10-point plan to get there will mobilise £12bn of government investment, and potentially three times as much from the private sector, to create and support up to 250,000 green jobs.”

“Potentially” – “up to.” So, maybe not even that much. £12 billion of government investment is – frankly – peanuts – and compares pitifully with the £27 billion earmarked for expanding the road network; not to mention the sums being pledged by comparable countries in Europe.

Not exactly “world beating” is it Boris?

The Green Jobs Task Force was announced a couple of days ago with the supposed aim of generating 2 million green jobs by 2030; yet here we have a plan aiming to generate “up to” just 250,000 (an eighth of that figure). Are they making this up as they go along?

“There will be electric vehicle technicians in the Midlands, construction and installation workers in the North East and Wales, specialists in advanced fuels in the North West, agroforestry practitioners in Scotland, and grid system installers everywhere. And we will help people train for these new green jobs through our Lifetime Skills Guarantee”.

And there will be an airport in the Thames Estuary and a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland and, and..Moonshot, what moonshot? Typical broad brush fabulism from Johnson. What are the specifics? How many? Where? Doing what? What funding is committed to apprenticeships in the desperately needed areas and who will manage the transition? What is the plan for overhauling the curriculum?

“This 10-point plan will turn the UK into the world’s number one centre for green technology and finance, creating the foundations for decades of economic growth.”

In your dreams Boris! If you look at the patents filed for renewable energy technology, the UK doesn’t even get its own column, being bundled in with the “rest of the world”. China is right out there in front with 7544, with the USA trailing on 2059, Germany on 571 and Japan on 89. So the UK is well below that. (3)

This ten point plan has neither the ambition or the imagination to stimulate a more positive and creative contribution to the global effort we need from this country – preferring instead post imperial fantasies of being back up where we belong: a slightly greener gated community.

The phrase “decades of economic growth” implies that this can be growth of the sort we have nowwith an ever intensifying pattern of work taking over our entire lives and making depression an epidemic, compensated by accelerated consumption to fill the holes in our souls; overlaid on a widening gap between people in poverty and insecurity and those who need the FT “How to spend it” supplement to work out how to dispose of more money than they know what to do with; rather than the growth in security, health, care, wellbeing, community and shared cultural creativity we need.

This Plan could well be retitled, “everything must change so that things can stay as they are.” (4)

One — we will make the UK the Saudi Arabia of wind with enough offshore capacity to power every home by 2030.”

This is the least we can do. All this is already planned for and on the stocks. There is no mention of onshore wind which the Conservatives have gone out of their way to discourage; hitherto favouring fracking and now fantasising about mini nuclear power stations instead. Perhaps people should be given the choice as to which they prefer in their local area. The comparison with Saudi Arabia is another absurd vainglorious pose. Saudi Arabia exports vast quantities of oil. This programme does not even supply all domestic energy demands.

Two — we will turn water into energy with up to £500m of investment in hydrogen.”

The prominence given Hydrogen here implies that it will be the main plank in replacing natural gas for heating and cooking, rather than looking to going wholesale with electricity generated by renewable sources – either on the grid or on local grids or using heat pumps. There is no rationale here – or exploration of alternative costings – for why they have gone with this. However, the investment allocated is so tiny that it won’t make much of a dent in any transition they have in mind; and there is that wonderful get out of jail free phrase “up to” again; so it might not even be that much.

Three — we will take forward our plans for new nuclear power, from large scale to small and advanced modular reactor.”

There are no specifics here nor any rationale. The small modular reactors are unproven technology. So is the technology currently being built at Hinckley point for that matter, which is already over budget and off target. Investment in nuclear takes a very long time. It is also absurdly expensive compared with wind or solar power – and becomes more so as time goes on. the government is committing to a herd of white elephants. (5) The excess costs for taking on this less than optimal option will be paid for by everyone’s energy bills.

Mean costs per megawatt hour of electricity.

Four — we’ll invest more than £2.8bn in electric vehicles, lacing the land with charging points and creating long-lasting batteries in UK gigafactories. This will allow us to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans in 2030. However, we will allow the sale of hybrid cars and vans that can drive a significant distance with no carbon coming out of the tailpipe until 2035.

Five — we will have cleaner public transport, including thousands of green buses and hundreds of miles of new cycle lanes.”

After decarbonising the energy grid, which the proposals above fumble, this is the most important sector to get a grip on. Emissions have been rising, largely because car companies have been pushing SUVs and there are more cars on the roads overall. SUVs also have a negative impact on road deaths for anyone unfortunate enough to collide with them.

The ban on new fossil fuel car sales from 2030 is welcome, though the loophole for hybrids implies that they don’t pollute. They do. And they should be included. SUVs should also be phased out as rapidly as possible and the companies that build them fined substantial sums every year they continue to do it.

A green transition in transport does not simply imply a 1:1 swap between fossil fuel cars and electric cars, but a significant shift away from cars altogether. The investment in gigafactories will be more significant in the transition to electric public transport. Unlike most cars, buses are in almost continuous use. This can be done much quicker than the snails pace currently projected even by TFL – the best run local transport network in the country. In Shenzen in southern China, they converted every single one of their 16,000 buses from diesel to electric in one year (2016). Where there’s a will…Making the most rapid transition also requires a coherent national transport plan – both to tie city neighbourhood together and provide a web of connections for rural areas too. That requires investment in public transport that is genuinely public.

The level of investment in bike lanes is absurdly small. “Hundreds of miles”, when you consider that there are 247,100 miles of roads in the UK.

Six — we will strive to repeat the feat of Jack Alcock and Teddie Brown, who achieved the first nonstop transatlantic flight a century ago, with a zero emission plane. And we will do the same with ships.”

Air travel is significantly down as a result of COVID. Heathrow expansion is probably dead. Much to the relief of anyone who lives anywhere near the airports, who have reported a wonderful release from a constant barrage of noise. There is no mention here of the need for transition for workers being made redundant by this industry. A Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines competition to build a zero carbon emissions aircraft capable of getting across the Atlantic is another of Johnson’s imperial nostalgic wheezes and as fanciful as the Thames Garden Bridge. Serious work on reducing the carbon emissions of shipping is crucial however, and tacked on as an afterthought it seems. Nothing is spelled out here about how this is to be done, nor who will do it, nor is any investment earmarked. It should be.

Seven — we will invest £1bn next year to make homes, schools and hospitals greener, and energy bills lower.”

Must try harder. The schools sector alone needs £28 billion by 2030 to get to zero carbon. Retrofitting housing would be best done through a national plan using local authorities to grow skilled direct labour workforces able to utilise economies of scale with a rolling programme starting with the worst off estates and areas. The current system of grants for homeowners via accredited local installers – of which there are too few – leads to an incredibly inefficient and time consuming system in which improvements are made in penny packets by those most able to afford it – whose energy bills are then subsidised by those that can’t. A perfect example of an unjust transition. The Conservative obsession with treating all situations as an opportunity primarily to benefit small business plays well with their base – mostly small business people – but is the retrofitting equivalent of growing wheat in flower pots.

Eight — we will establish a new world-leading industry in carbon capture and storage, backed by £1bn of government investment for clusters across the North, Wales and Scotland.”

The small total of investment implies that this will be about as world leading as the COVID App and not especially immediate in its impact; and therefore more likely to be playing the role of a fig leaf or gesture to allow business as usual to carry on.

Nine — we will harness nature’s ability to absorb carbon by planting 30,000 hectares of trees a year by 2025 and rewilding 30,000 football pitches’ worth of countryside.”

If you work out that the mean average size of a football pitch is 0.72 hectares, this means that the proportion of land in the UK scheduled to be rewilded in this plan looks like this.

And the annual tree planting total very little more.

“And ten — our £1bn energy innovation fund will help commercialise new low-carbon technologies, like the world’s first liquid air battery being developed in Trafford, and we will make the City of London the global centre for green finance through our sovereign bond, carbon offset markets and disclosure requirements.”

 An energy innovation fund is a good thing, but the aim should be to produce the most usable technologies for the greatest number of people – not follow the commercial imperative that means it will follow the demands of the people who can afford it: thereby skewing research in the wrong direction. “He soon became a specialist, specialising in diseases of the rich.” (6)

“This plan can be a global template for delivering net zero emissions in ways that create jobs and preserve our lifestyles.”

A global template cannot be one in which every country claims it will be world beating and a world leader anymore than everyone can be above average. It does appear to be a plan to “preserve our lifestyles” as they are now – with no reflection that if they were duplicated across the world we would need three planets to sustain them – with strenuous efforts put in to avoid anything that might actually make them better but don’t follow a commercial imperative.

“On Wednesday I will meet UK businesses to discuss their contribution. We plan to provide clear timetables for the clean energy we will procure, details of the regulations we will change, and the carbon prices that we will put on emissions.”

Let us see how much of a contribution comes from business and, conversely, how much contribution they are given. Hopefully the process of managing this will not be outsourced to SERCO or companies run by friends of the cabinet.

“I will establish a “task force net zero” committed to reaching net zero by 2050, and through next year’s COP26 summit we will urge countries and companies around the world to join us in delivering net zero globally.
Green and growth can go hand-in-hand. So let us meet the most enduring threat to our planet with one of the most innovative and ambitious programmes of job-creation we have known.”

It would be nice if we were going to. But this plan is a feeble shadow of what is needed. The government currently has polices that will get to a fifth of the 2050 target. This plan will barely improve on that because only a third of it is new money. An investment of £68 billion would create 1.2 million green jobs in the next two years. The TUC and others have presented the government with detailed plans that it has not picked up on. The consequence will be mass unemployment AND a failure to meet the green transition targets we so desperately need.

  1. From Annie Hall.
  2. From Desperate Housewives.
  3. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1117831/patents-filled-renewable-energy-technologies-by-country/
  4. Lampedusa The Leopard
  5. https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-energy-nuclearpower/nuclear-energy-too-slow-too-expensive-to-save-climate-report-idUKKBN1W909J
  6. Tom Lehrer