Faced with worsening projections for global warming and energy security, learning that the wind turbine maker Vestas will be closing its factory on the Isle of Wight is a bit like hearing that pharmaceutical companies are closing down the production of flu vaccines just as the alert for swine flu goes from level five to full pandemic.
The comparison is useful in more ways than one. It reveals how governments can recognise and act to avert systemic risk in some areas like high finance and flu, but have blind spots or grossly inadequate responses in others, such as climate change. It’s also a useful reminder that when natural systems cross a critical threshold – for example, the number and distribution of people infected with a virulent flu virus, or the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – humanity quickly finds that it is no longer in the driving seat and able to control the direction of travel.
Last month the budget demonstrated the continuing confusion of a political system still struggling to come to terms with the inescapable parameters set by natural systems. The budget was balanced, but only in the sense that anything positive done to promote a low-carbon economy was cancelled out by other measures that will lock in fossil fuel-intensive infrastructure. Both the car and oil industry were happy recipients of budget bungs.
Grasping at the few optimistic straws still blowing around the economy, the chancellor, Alastair Darling, pointed out that the global economy still stood to double in size over the next 20 years.
What he forgot to mention, or didn’t know, is that with each “doubling” of the economy, you use as many resources as with all the previous doublings combined.
Prof Roderick Smith of the Royal Academy of Engineering at Imperial College identified these resource implications of economic doubling. Engineers, it seems, are more adept at understanding material limits. He wrote that the physical view of the economy “is governed by the laws of thermodynamics and continuity” and so, “the question of how much natural resource we have to fuel the economy, and how much energy we have to extract, process and manufacture is central to our existence”.
This year, on a conservative analysis, the UK started to live beyond its environmental means – consuming more and producing more waste than the UK itself can handle – by Easter Sunday, 12 April. This was our “ecological debt day“.
Given that both the UK and the world as a whole already use more resources and produce more waste than collectively our forests, fields, oceans and atmosphere can safely provide and absorb, where, we must ask, will the resources come from to double the size of the global economy?
Darling’s speech was to introduce the first “green budget”, a package meant to put the country on a path to sustainability. It included the world’s first legally binding carbon budget. Yet its targets to reduce emissions are roughly half of what is necessary, according to the climate research work of Prof Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre at Manchester University.
The budget also included roughly £1.4bn of apparently new money to reduce emissions across a range of measures for energy efficiency and renewables. That sum amounts to about 0.09% of the UK’s GDP, and compares sadly to the 20% of GDP that the International Monetary Fund estimates the UK set aside for bailing out its financial sector.
But even here the green hue is darkened by our continuing dependence on oil, coal and gas, and plans to build more runways, roads and new coal fired power stations that capture only a small proportion of their carbon emissions.
Support in the budget to extract an additional 2bn barrels of North Sea oil will produce extra greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the UK’s entire emissions in 2006, including shipping and aviation. Funds for car scrappage schemes, lacking any meaningful environmental criteria, could also see emissions rise rather than fall.
Plans for electric cars may sound attractive, but you still need the clean energy to power them. More than a low-carbon vehicle strategy, if the UK is to improve its own energy security and environment, and tackle climate change, we need a low-car vehicle strategy.
Ultimately, the message sent by the budget was confusion. Setting an emissions reduction target in these circumstances is like setting someone a deadline to give up smoking, and then pushing them into a smoke-filled bar where all the walls are lined with cigarette machines.
Nature may be beautiful, but it also has a mind of its own and can take or leave humanity. That’s why we have to respect it and work within its parameters. Both flu pandemics and global warming are lethal. One difference is that if we go through the next 91 months without changing course, the climate roulette of runaway warming will not blow over. It will endure.
This article was originally published at Comment is Free.