Guest post by John Kidd
John has a full paper which can be read here
I suggest we are looking at the wrong targets. Of course a reduction in ‘greenhouse gas’ pollution is desirable as this will slow down the increase of average global temperatures (though with the the complexities of the science of climate change it is difficult to point to any one predominant cause). The populist ‘green parties’ protest against nuclear fuel use for electricity generation, and against the exploration and exploitation of non-conventional sources of oil and gas - their protests will halt the development of new technologies.
Further, we all suffer increasing regulation against pollution - good in itself, but onerous in practice. We must better insulate our buildings, often at our cost; and exchange our old cars for new [better performing] cars mostly at our cost: and we don’t like these rules. Meanwhile we have been told that we have passed the ‘oil peak’ and soon it will become much more costly to extract – gas will follow suit in a few years, and coal some time later.
We may review research on wheat yields at Rothamstead from 1843 to the present day where a field, cut into three, has in (a) the best practice, rotating, fertilisers and pesticides applied to it yielding 10 tons/hectare; (b) another sector where the practice is roughly ‘organic’ yielding 5 tons/hectare; and (c) where nothing is done to raise productivity, so yields about 1 ton/hectare.
Oil and gas are important to this agricultural experiment. We often consider them only as fuels, but they are also important chemical feed stocks for fertilisers and pesticides … that are applied at Rothamstead. I suggest that the three lobbying groups (climate change, the ‘greens’, and the regulators) while always bickering forget the real question:-
What will we do when the oil/gas runs out?
Fast forward to the time when there is no oil – when it is uneconomic to lift from deep in the ground. Some bio-diesel might be produced (creating a conflict at Rothamstead as the practice demanded in sector (b) will have no bio-recycling and thus tend to the yield of (c). In any case, there will be no oil/gas for fertilizer or pesticide production, no fuel for transport, no fuel for agricultural vehicles… The world will tend to a low yield of (c) which will not sustain the present 7+billion of people. Most will soon starve.
A solution. In fact two globally applicable solutions are needed.
First is to rebuild our local, national, regional electricity grid so as to incorporate all forms of renewable energy and to invoke a proper [European and other] electricity market place. We have to rebuild the grid as it is too old and cannot incorporate ‘smart’ switching systems. So, for example, we will build a backbone high voltage direct current system across the European Union, the Mediterranean nations and North Africa (EUMENA). Technically this is easy, politically it is difficult.
Second is to build a new transportation system that does not use oil but electricity, and is land-based and very fast so as to deliver the volume of freight and people presently moving globally. This implies maglev as it is superior to standard ‘wheels on track’ systems in every respect, even cost. Again technically this is possible, but again there are political and cross-cultural issues holding back decisions.
It is only when these two solutions are in place that we may relax and look to science to deliver its promise that is always tantalisingly near, but never put into service in a timely manner. If we procrastinate now we will run out of all capacity to transport, manufacture and deploy the only systems that will secure our future.