Climate change and quidecol
In September this year a new theme on Climate Change will be launched by the Churchill Fellowship for the forthcoming Fellowship applications. This new and topical field fits in well with my current interests, one of which, albeit controversial, is described here.
"We are in the process of seeing dramatic changes in global weather and climate patterns that are caused entirely by mankind as a result of carbon emissions." - Eddie Goldfinch, Fellow
50 years ago there was very little real concern about climate change and it was quite rare to hit the front pages of national newspapers. In the background a few scientists were warning of the potential for 'global warming' and the 'greenhouse effect'. On the positive side the causes of the depletion of atmospheric ozone, which had been of concern for some years, were recognised worldwide and dealt with. Some scientists were predicting that the continued exponential world population growth would lead to severe shortages of food and essential natural resources, including, ironically, coal, oil and uranium but there was little serious concern regarding carbon emissions from the ever increasing worldwide energy consumption. There was, however, quite optimistic expectation that the any energy problems would be solved in the long term by nuclear fusion. Long term then meant about 50 years. Unfortunately that expectation is still a moving target.
Over the past 20 or so years, and very much more so in the very recent few years, there has been great concern regarding the effects of the so called 'greenhouse gases', carbon dioxide resulting from the use of fossil fuels, coal, oil, gas etc, and methane from animals, landfill sites and the warming tundra permafrost. The use of fossil fuels is currently necessary to provide the vast amounts of energy required by modern living standards. I think that the scientific world is agreed and united, certainly at consensus level, if not unanimously, that we are in the process of seeing dramatic changes in global weather and climate patterns that are caused entirely by mankind as a result of these carbon emissions. Climatic scientists have the support of many individuals and groups of ecology activists, especially where the changes are putting the very existence of some animal species at risk.
In my view, the main contributing factors to global warming and the resultant detrimental climate change patterns are:
- The industrialisation expansion resulting in the use of fossil fuels to produce energy.
- The continued expectation and development of living standards in terms of food and comfort.
- The continued expansion of the world population.
Only mankind can solve the energy and ecology problems, by dramatically reducing carbon emissions, but that cannot be done without pain.
Life being what it is, it is very clear to me that the world population will continue to grow, along with the demographic problems that result from continually improving health standards, and energy requirements will grow in parallel. If it where not for the climate change disaster facing the world at the moment, mankind's resourcefulness would solve most of the problems resulting from this expansion. However, these aspects are outside the scope of this note, albeit a major contributor to detrimental climate change problems.
The gaseous emissions are frequently described as being carbon emissions and jargon terms like 'carbon footprint' are used as performance yardsticks. It is only the ecological detriment in the form of carbon dioxide emissions resulting from the use of fossil fuels that is dealt with in detail here. There are numerous other sources of energy than that produced from fossil fuels, the so-called green or clean energy, including nuclear power, hydro power, wind power, wave power and solar power that do not carry the carbon stigma. However, they may have significant other disadvantages. Wind, waves and sunshine may be dependent on geographical, seasonal and diurnal factors. Electricity generation by nuclear power can be subject to political or pseudo-political obstructions, such as the anti-nuclear power lobby instigated by the US coal industry in the 1960s and continued concerns regarding nuclear waste. For simplicity, I will refer to green and carbon energy throughout this note, and detrimental climate and weather effects will be taken as synonymous with ecological detriment.
Our energy requirements cover both domestic and industrial uses (heating, lighting and manufacturing) and transport (both essential and for leisure). The energy is produced either by burning fossil fuels directly, such as in domestic heating systems (coal, gas and oil), or through intermediary power stations producing electricity. In the case of transport, whether by land, sea or air, the fossil fuel used is mainly oil, although much of rail travel and limited road travel is electrically driven. Most uses of energy entail both storage and transport facilities. Coal gas and oil are generally transported by land and sea and can be stored within straightforward physical containment systems. Electricity is distributed through both overhead and underground power cabling, but storage is complex. It can be effectively stored through hydro (water) storage schemes or in batteries. In recent years, battery technology has improved dramatically and innovative techniques (such as storage in the form of hydrogen, by hydrolysing water using electricity) are coming to the forefront.
Many countries have entered into pledges, but not necessarily legally binding commitments, to be carbon neutral, covering carbon dioxide and methane, within a few tens of years: but is this enough? Carbon neutral has diverse interpretations, ranging from eliminating the use of fossil fuels to improving natural carbon capture techniques by reducing the destruction of rain forests and natural peat beds, planting new trees and forests, and the use of other land naturalisation projects in the form of developing highly efficient CO2 absorbing wetlands.
Over the last few years, rapid changes in weather patterns have led to severe storms, repetitive flooding, major draughts, damaging forest fires and extensive famines, and - taken together with polar ice destruction - strongly suggest to me that current national plans do not recognise the urgency of the situation. Indeed, some of the consequences actually exacerbate the problems. Forest fires not only remove the carbon capture capabilities of the burned trees but actually increase the atmospheric carbon burden. What may prove to be a problem without an obvious solution is that increasing global temperatures are already beginning to release the methane from the extensive permafrost belts in the northern hemisphere
Industrial development and living standards
Some of the main problems in determining how to try to tackle climate change result from the widely differing levels of industrial and financial development around the world. The highly developed Western world countries have very high energy uses, per head of population, in comparison with the underdeveloped and developing countries. There is an almost inverse relationship between population levels and development levels. Most of the more prosperous Western countries, particularly the UK, have so-called consumer economies, as opposed to production- or export-driven economies. The latter are generally more representative of the underdeveloped or developing countries. A relatively small proportion of national economies, of which the USA and China are examples, are what I would describe as mixed economies, in other words reliant on both consumption and exports.
The political and financial stability of most countries is very dependent on continued economical growth or expansion. On the one hand, the driving force is the instilled expectation of ever-improving living standards, irrespective of actual pre-existing levels; and on the other hand, the driving force is a strong desire to catch up with the others. Whatever the reason, the end result will be a continuing increase in energy requirements into and well beyond the foreseeable future.
Whilst we are all constantly being reminded about the obvious or direct uses of energy and that we must reduce the uses of fossil fuels, very little attention is given to the less obvious or indirect uses of energy, even though they contribute at least as much total detriment as the obvious uses. In all cases, nature provides everything we need completely free of charge, be it food, fuel or raw materials. However, it must be mined, cut down or collected in one way or another. Invariably, it must be moved from where nature put it to where we want to use it. In other words, it must be transported, and then processed in one way or another, usually in some type of manufacturing process, before it can be used. Every stage of collection, transport and processing involves costs and energy. The costs are in the form of wages paid to workers and profits. Whoever earns the wages or takes the profits will spend on essentials and luxuries, and maybe save a little, and this process continues both over time and across the world. It is a continued and continual money recycling process. Any proportion saved is likely to eventually follow the same path.
The money may well be recycled, but it is clear that at every stage there is an energy input. Every pound (or dollar, yen, rouble, etc), spent anywhere, results in a need somewhere to use energy. It does not matter how large or small the expenditure is or what it is for. It can be food, warmth, a family home, a car, travel or any necessity or luxury for individuals, or any infrastructure capital expenditure or subsidy paid by governments. All this energy has to be produced, either by harmful carbon emission methods or by clean green methods, and currently most of the energy use is carbon energy. Unless or until most of the energy used is green energy rather than carbon energy, there will be damage to the ecology from all forms of expenditure, and thus detrimental climate change. It follows that its acceptability must be carefully scrutinised to minimise expenditure on non-essentials.
Any analysis is complicated because the ratio of expenditure to energy is not a fixed number and ecological damage is almost impossible to quantify. There are many variables in any selected situation, none the least of which are geographical, economical and political considerations. The arguments here are therefore qualitative rather than quantitative and will therefore be subject to challenge.
We need to coin a new term that stresses the concept of the ecological harm, and hence detrimental climate effects, which result directly from financial spending at all levels. Ideally it should be a term or word that is readily understood and easily remembered, irrespective of language. An English pound sterling is known as a 'quid'. For want of anything better, I initially coined the descriptive term 'Universal Quidecological Model' to take account of the universal world nature of the problem. This quickly resolved to become 'Quidecology' [JL1] as a noun or 'Quidecological' an adjective or just 'Quidecol' for short. In spite of the close link of the term with the English pound sterling, this is for linguistic reasons only and should not deter its widespread worldwide use.
Quidecology is intended to apply ubiquitously everywhere in the world and at all levels, from individual spending through to government spending and tax collection. It came about in order to destroy a myth, apparently held by every politician and government in the world, that the finances and the economies of every country in the world and all climate change problems are completely independent of each other. Financiers seem to think that the only stable economies are expanding economies and that living standards can forever improve. My contention is that these goals could only be achieved when (or if) very little energy is produced from fossil fuels.
Quidecol or quidecology means, perhaps counter-intuitively, that it makes no difference whether one spends money on food, travel, fun or fuel. If the expenditure is essential, it is fully justified. If expenditure is not essential, it should be carefully scrutinised. The important factor is to scrutinise purpose and, where necessary, limit expenditure.
Quidecol considerations apply over the complete range of economies, levels of infrastructure development and political situations, but in differing ways. They are most restrictive in consumer-based economies where much of the economy (and therefore jobs and living standards) depends on expenditure for what may be regarded as luxuries - in other words, items that may be wanted but not necessarily needed. In the less developed world, in many cases where economic viability is very much dependent on exporting, the converse may be the case and most expenditures are on necessities rather than luxuries, because of the high proportion of poor people, many even at poverty levels. In what I have described as mixed economies, both situations apply.
It is worth considering that some of the consequences of the Quidecol arguments being put forward here vary from the trivial to the gigantic. It does not matter how small or how large is the expenditure, the same principles apply. We must spend on what we need, which is not the same as spending on what we want.
The biggest myth that Quidecol highlights is the belief that we can continue to enjoy ever-improving living standards and at the same time eliminate climate problems. Only when the ratio of carbon to green energy production is very low can such a situation exist.
Another major myth is the belief held by some that the main way to eliminate detrimental climate change is to reduce energy consumption by subsidising home insulation projects. Quidecol dictates that it is better to utilise any subsidy money by expanding green energy capacity, rather than using it to reduce the energy consumption by the same quantity. Similar arguments apply regarding electric cars. Electric vehicles use no less energy than fossil fuel driven vehicles. However, they gain from two factors, firstly the energy (electricity) is generated more efficiently in bulk than in individual combustion (petrol or diesel) engines, and secondly it is less polluting. However, a big potential unknown is long term battery life and the associated replacement cost.
A very widely held myth concerns so-called food miles. The Quidecol philosophy means that food miles are only of any significance if the resultant cost of the product is higher than that of a similar, locally produced product.
Quidecol is intended to be a tool to make politicians, members of the public and governments around the world realise the importance of controlling and reducing carbon emissions now. If implemented, it will be effective but it will hurt. Complacency is not acceptable. It is unfortunate that there are no direct links between the parties that cause the climate problems, the parties affected by them and the parties mostly affected by remedial steps. This is true at the individual level, at country level and at regional level.
Implementation requires a considerable degree of judgement and integrity. As stated, the principles apply at all levels. At the individual or family level, the difference between need and want is the key - for example, in replacing home equipment or taking foreign holidays. The potential downside consequence is the potential for reduced employment, with resultant hardships. This is a big conflict. At the political level, reduction of taxation to put money into people's pockets means that it will be spent. In this case, the downside is a need for more energy, leading to ecological consequences.
At government level in times of inflation, there is strong pressure for wage increases to at least equal the level of inflation. Anything less is perceived as a fall in wages and therefore the standard of living. Quidecol would suggest that until the green energy generating capacity is much higher than it now is, such conflicts must be accepted. However, Quidecol does not inhibit genuine need expenditures. Some of the consequences of the Quidecol philosophy will be difficult for many people to understand now, but as the effects of climate change hit harder and more frequently, they will just have to be accepted. Ironically, Quidecology also supports the suggestion that a financial recession is good for the environment and hence climate change.
In this context, I therefore suggest that top priority for any major expenditure must be expansion of green energy generating capacity to the almost complete exclusion of all non-essential projects. It should be noted that any energy generating construction project will use approximately one third of the energy that it will ever generate just to build it, whether it is a carbon or green plant. Put another way, it takes about 8 years for such plants to break even financially, given an amortisation life expectancy of about 25 years. The UK nuclear power programme that started in the 1960s performed better than this yardstick, but how many major wind farms will last for 25 years? The current nuclear plant under construction at Hinkley Point is due to start generating electricity around 2025 but most of the Quidecol expenditure required during construction will have been carbon energy rather than green energy. It can be shown that similar figures apply to any project intended to reduce carbon emissions, such as home insulation, which is why such projects should be given lower priority than expanding green energy capacity.
Edward Goldfinch (CF 1970) is funding two Climate Change Fellowships this year and one each year thereafter, as a way of saying thank you for his Fellowship in 1970. He has previously funded a Fellowship in the environment theme.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.