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.