Listen to the teenage zealot

by January 27, 2020 0 comments

One does not have to buy into Greta Thunberg’s apocalyptic angst to see that something has to be done on climate change. Changing to a cleaner energy future is a good thing in itself

An unfamiliar white patina covered our lawn recently, something seldom seen any longer, certainly not here in the South: A frost. For the first time this year, I considered digging out my heavy coat from the depths of the cupboard but it wasn’t really cold enough.

Where have our winters gone? I miss them. No doubt having written those words, the country will freeze for the next month but there is no sign of anything remotely wintry in the long-term forecast anywhere in the country, not just in London. It is hard to recall an old-fashioned winter where it would snow at least two or three times between December and April.

This mild pattern is noticeable across the entire European continent and has been for some time now. In Moscow, the authorities sprayed fake snow around the city centre over the New Year to give the residents a sense of the season. The temperature in the Russian capital last week was 4oCelsius; usually it is -10oCelsius or lower.

I remember visiting Moscow in late January and it was -25oCelsius, with the River Moscva frozen so solid you could drive across it. They used to call it General Winter — weather so ghastly that it was an integral part of Russia’s defences, repelling Napoleon and Hitler, among others. Now it’s not even Lance-Corporal Slightly Chilly.

All the great eastern and central European cities — Berlin, Warsaw, Vienna and St Petersburg — are exceptionally mild, though winter could yet have a sting in the tail. The so-called Beast from the East that arrived late in the season a few years ago temporarily shocked us out of our complacency but it was relatively short-lived and not that exceptional in any case.

Mild Januaries are now the norm. We have a lovely old wooden toboggan that has hardly been put to use since the 1980s, which is the last time I can remember a succession of cold winters. Growing up in Kent in the 1960s and 1970s, heavy frosts and blizzards were an annual occurrence. Not now.

I am reluctant to attribute what might prove to be temporary weather glitches to long-term climate change but there is clearly something going on that cannot be ignored. We don’t have to buy into the apocalyptic angst of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, on show again in Davos last week, to recognise that something has to be done.

Whether or not you are a sceptic about the impact of carbon dioxide on the climate or question man’s involvement in producing the greenhouse gas, our energy future is a non-carbon one, like it or not. Virtually every Government across the world has committed to this as an overt aspect of public policy and those that haven’t, like China or the US, have a rapidly growing green energy sector poised to exploit the move to a carbon-free future.

If US President Donald Trump wants to be remembered for anything other than being impeached, he would throw his weight behind it because it is happening anyway, even in his own backyard. American greenhouse gas emissions are falling despite his commitment to fossil fuels.

Perhaps Trump would be persuadable if he were to recognise there is a hard-headed economic imperative here. He should listen to someone like Marco Alvera, an oil and gas CEO who understands what is going on and has ideas to address it.

At a conference in Venice at the weekend, he said we should commit to the one clean energy source that is plentiful, easy to transport and getting cheaper to produce. It is all around us, does not have to be drilled out of the ground in parts of the world favoured with the right geology and does not pollute the atmosphere. It is hydrogen, the most widespread element in the universe. Like many businesses reliant upon carbon-based energy, Alvera’s Italian energy infrastructure company, Snam, has no long-term future unless it adapts because its pipelines, compressors and storage tanks will be useless as oil and gas come under pressure from state actors around the world. They can be used for hydrogen instead.

However, this is more than just a commercial calculation. Alvera has published a book compellingly setting out the case for Governments, manufacturers and investors to get behind hydrogen now before they head off down other less-promising blind alleys.

Hydrogen can be burned to drive a turbine, can be piped into homes for boilers, cookers and air conditioners and converted into electricity using a fuel cell to power a car or a lorry. Unlike wind and solar power, it is easily

stored and can generate the intense heat needed by industrial processes including manufacturing steel and cement. The only waste product is water.

True, there is nothing new about the concept. Fuel cells were developed in the mid-19th century and some buses were running on hydrogen in Germany and Britain in the 1930s. There are cars today that have been converted to hydrogen but they are expensive and there is no infrastructure to support them. Manufacturers like Toyota are developing hydrogen cars with their Mirai range but few others are following suit. They should.

In the past, hydrogen has been too expensive relative to fossil fuels but that will change as new taxes are loaded onto coal and gas to meet carbon dioxide targets and the cost of renewable energy continues to fall. No one pretends the transition will be straightforward but if there’s widespread adoption of the technology and the necessary infrastructure, it will become increasingly affordable.

This is a reasoned, not a hysterical, approach. Alvera likes to adapt the argument known as Pascal’s wager to our climate change conundrum. The 17th century French philosopher and mathematician asked what we should do if we had to bet our lives on the existence of God. Pascal posited that the rational response was to behave as though he did exist because we have nothing much to lose if it turns out that he doesn’t but risk eternal damnation if he does.

Climate change is the same. If Greta is right then the consequences of doing nothing are calamitous. But if she is wrong, changing to a cleaner energy future is a good thing in itself and can even generate growth and prosperity. You do not have to be a teenage zealot to see sense in that.

(Courtesy: The Pioneer, The Telegraph)

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