bubbling cauldron and magic books

Except for what works…

Robin McAlpine – 16 September 2022

When it comes to climate change and Scotland, why is it that everything is on the table other than the approach which might work? Is this political? Constitutional? Is it a question of knowledge or expertise? I honestly amn’t entirely sure, but it means our chance of meeting our net zero targets is very low indeed.

So what works? This is one of those debates you can have for a very long time. Lots of people have their favourite climate change mitigation technique and weighing up all of these different possibilities can absorb a lot of time. So here I don’t really mean the specific details of what goes where, I mean the bigger question of how we get the things there.

It can be air source heat pumps, district heating, electric radiators, biomass boilers, even hydrogen if you’re feeling flush. But whatever it is there is a key question – how are we going to actually get it done? Who’s going to do this stuff?

There is a not too complicated answer to this, which is ‘this is a massive public works programme’. By ‘works’ I mean that this needs to be done en masse, not individually one at a time. By ‘public’ I mean that it needs to be paid for collectively. By ‘programme’ I mean that this has to be very carefully planned and managed.

This is an enormous task. It is a generational challenge, one of those things humans rise to every so often when they build great things.

But not only is this not happening in Scotland, it isn’t even on the table. It isn’t even a scenario worth modelling. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from a recent piece of work by the ClimateXChange. Commissioned by the Scottish Government it looks at three scenarios for how Scotland might meet its net zero commitments. It is informative.

Option one is probably best titled ‘magic’. Here the heavy lifting is being done by unproved technologies or technologies which have been proved not to work. So you could also call this the ‘let the oil industry off the hook’ scenario. 

It relies heavily on Carbon Capture and Storage. It appears that there is no amount of evidence that humanity can produce which will put this nonsense to bed. No large scale CCS plant has ever worked. This isn’t anecdote, it is both the measurable reality and the conclusion of a major academic review recently published.

CCS is a trick to persuade us that we can just keep burning oil and gas. But if CCS is magical, DACCS is total fantasy stuff. This stands for Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage – literally sucking carbon dioxide out the air and stashing it somewhere.

How does it work? Well, the best method is to suck air through sodium hydroxide, dissolving the CO2, producing carbonates. Fish those out and mix with Calcium hydroxide in a precipitator to create calcium carbonate. Then take that and send it to a calciner fed by an air separation unit producing pure oxygen and then heat the lot to 800°C to produce pure CO2 and calcium oxide. Then you take the CO2 and pipe it miles into an available empty oil well. Simples.

Plus it’s a snip at about £700 a ton (same reference). Just to give you a picture of what’s going on here, that means the cost of removing the CO2 produced by the gas boiler of a single house in one year is about £1,500. And this looney-tunes nonsense is one of Scotland’s bets on decarbonisation.

So let’s move on rapidly to scenario two. This one is, well, different – I’m going to call it ‘punishment’. Basically we all go vegan, accept colder houses and stop travelling. I would love to tell you there is actually a lot more to it than that, but nope, there really isn’t.

Which takes us to scenario three (tension building, fingers crossed, eh?) That is… Do 50 per cent of the magical one and 50 per cent of the punishment one. That’s it.

All of this takes us to the far extent of the wit and wisdom of Scotland, and (unless I’ve missed it in the footnotes) it does so without insulating a single house. The possibility of a public works programme isn’t even floated here. So the reality is that none of this is going to happen.

If we were going to have large-scale working CCS in place for 2030 like we say we will, we’d be building it just now – and we’re not even at the basic planning stage. If we were going to be doing DACCS we’d be working out how to make it work at this stage, and we’re not. So it’s not going to happen and everyone but everyone knows it.

Meanwhile let us assume that meat eating isn’t going to become illegal in Scotland soon and nor is it going to be taxed off the shelves. Likewise there aren’t going to be heating inspectors checking that you’ve got your central heating down below 20°C. So you tell me, are we going to achieve this through mass personal sacrifice?

I can’t work out what is going on here. The ClimateXChange is wholly government funded (it’s basically a spin-out of the civil service). Is it doing government’s bidding with this? Is it deliberately setting up an unpalatable dichotomy to push us towards the oil industry’s ‘drill baby drill – but with added magic’ position? Or is it just modelling government policy? trying to tell us government policy is woefully insufficient? Since it’s given us zero workable solutions, I don’t really understand.

And above all why is it not looking at any large-scale solutions that actually would work – insulate houses, mass installation of clean heating (you’re still going to wish it was district heating, no matter how much hard-sell air source heat pumps get), rapidly invest in electric vehicle infrastructure?

If you want to infer an answer you could probably do worse than to look at the position being taken on electric car charging. Here the government (through the privatisation-obsessed Scottish Future’s Trust) explicitly wants to get public charging out of the way of the glorious free market so that the private sector can deliver. So is all of this just right wing dogma?

There is one more explanation, and I’d love to tell you that I think this is the correct one. That explanation is that massive public works programmes are hard to pull off if you’ve only got the powers of devolution. A substantial start can be made, but in the end if you try to do this inside the UK as it is you will eventually hit a brick wall.

I’d like to say that is the reason we’re only modelling magic and punishment, but there are reasons why that doesn’t seem to be right. First, how often is the Scottish Government blocked from doing something by lack of powers and we don’t hear specifically that said? And second, this is a wonderful, wonderful case for Scottish independence. Again, if this was the real reason, wouldn’t it be worth saying that out loud?

So I don’t know. I fear this is the result of setting targets for appearances sake, not knowing how to meet the targets so just letting the vacuum be filled by the most powerful lobbyists, which in this case are undoubtedly the big energy companies.

Two things seem certain though. First, we’re going to miss these targets by a long way if we don’t change path, existential targets we don’t get two shots at meeting. And second, unless some kind of enormous pressure is brought to bear on the Scottish Government, it is not going to change path.

5 thoughts on “Except for what works…”

  1. Too right, Robin. There’s a lot more to it than district heating, of course, but if we acknowledge that district heating – whatever the source – is the way forward for urban areas, then the pipe grids ought be being laid in all new housing developments, and they are not. And however we deal with older houses, all new houses ought to be required to meet the highest insulations standards, and they are not.
    If combustion vehicles are to be phased out soon, then a comprehensive charging network urgently needs to be built and currently there few signs of that happening.
    It may not be for our public authorities to actually carry out these tasks, but it certainly is their responsibility to see that they are are done, and organise as required.
    It’s all pretty pathetic, and rather frightening.

  2. Re Carbon Capture. The global scale of atmospheric CO2 is such that even a workable carbon capture technology will be totally inadequate, The winds blow where they will and the tonnage of CO2 to be removed is gigantic, as it is related to the total tonnage of fossil fuels ever burned. Try to think of the volume of CO2 that even one VLCC cargo produces, or the output of a large coal mine ( there are plenty of these still going ).
    The CO2 probably can only be removed by very long-term natural processes. What we can do is stop adding to it.

  3. Well said, Robin. However, take any `transformative change` that is actually needed in Scotland, and you could say exactly the same. What has still to sink in with many in the political classes is that the solutions to environmental problems are also the solutions to Scotland’s economic and social woes as well.
    Arthur – I very much agree with you too. Scotland’s reafforestation could make a tidy contribution not only to the UN’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration ( https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/ ), but also to the natural processes that we know could extract some of that CO2. But that is predicated upon the transformative change that Robin correctly asserts is simply impossible within the devolved settlement.

  4. Concerning EV charging, it had to be said that most of the chargers provided by the decent private networks actually work, at more or less their rated capacity, most of the time. I wish I could say the same about the ChargePlace Scotland network – but sadly I can’t, certainly not based on our experience in Spring of this year.

    That said I’m strongly in favour of good high quality public services delivered by the public sector, but a) they must be high quality and they must be delivered, and b) some services are enhanced by competition and for some competition simply doesn’t make sense, and I wonder if EV charging is in the former category.

    But that’s a diversion. Let’s talk about 100% Passiv Haus standards for new build using 100% Scottish wood and wood products, 100% Enerphit standards for retrofit, district heating, free electric public transport, and 20-minute-walk communities.

  5. We were well warned and now we’re too late.
    See also Bill McGuire ‘Hothouse Earth’. There’s no chance at all of meeting targets and the UK government seems hell bent on an apocalyptic future. Maybe the super wealthy think they can eat their vast piles of money post apocalypse.
    We are facing a literally hellish future. Even at that, some kind of survival will require the swiftest move from fossil fuels. That’s just not happening. As you know Truss will pursue fracking and more oil extraction, e.g. Rosebank – far bigger than Cambo. The only way to break that kind of corruption and power in the UK is Scottish Independence. The latest poll of 52% gives some hope. However, we know Westminster will play every dirty game; they will lie and cheat as they have done before. This will be the fight of our lives.

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