The government’s new emissions target will despoil the countryside, rob the poor – and enrich landowners like me
‘Greener food and greener fuel’ is the promise of Ensus, a firm that opened Europe’s largest (£250 million) bio-ethanol plant at Wilton on Teesside last year, and has now shut it down for lack of profitable customers. This is actually the second shut-down at the plant — which takes subsidies and turns them into motor fuel — the first being a three-week refit to try to stop the stench bothering the neighbours.
Welcome to the neo-medieval world of Britain’s energy policy. It is a world in which Highland glens are buzzing with bulldozers damming streams for miniature hydro plants, in which the Dogger Bank is to be dotted with windmills at Brobdingnagian expense, in which Heathrow is to burn wood trucked in from Surrey, and Yorkshire wheat is being turned into motor fuel. We are going back to using the landscape to generate our energy. Bad news for the landscape.
The industrial revolution, when Britain turned to coal for its energy, not only catapulted us into prosperity (because coal proved cheaper and more reliable than wood, wind, water and horse as a means of turning machines), but saved our landscape too. Forests grew back and rivers returned to their natural beds when their energy was no longer needed. Land that had once grown hay for millions of horses could grow food for human beings instead — or become parks and gardens.
Whether we like it or not, we are now reversing this policy, only with six times the population and a hundred times the energy needs. The government’s craven decision this week to placate the green pressure groups by agreeing a unilateral and tough new carbon rationing target of 50 per cent for 2027 — they wanted to water it down, but were frightened of being taken to judicial review by Greenpeace — condemns Britain to ruining yet more of its landscape. Remember that it takes a wind farm the size of Greater London to generate as much electricity as a single coal-fired power station — on a windy day (on other days we will have to do without). Or the felling of a forest twice the size of Cumbria every year.
Yet this ruthless violation of the landscape is not even the most medieval aspect of the government’s energy policy. Its financing would embarrass even the Sheriff of Nottingham. Every renewable project, from offshore wind farms to rooftop solar panels to bio-ethanol plants, is paid for by a stealth poll tax levied from everybody’s electricity bills called the renewable obligation (RO).
The RO already adds an astonishing £1.1 billion a year to the electricity bills of Britons; by 2020 it could be £8 billion, or 30 per cent extra. Unlike the poll tax, which was merely not progressive, this tax is highly regressive. It robs the poor — including those too poor to pay income tax — and hands much of the money to the landed rich in three different ways: higher wheat and wood prices; rents for wind farms; and the iniquitous ‘feed-in tariff’, by which the person who produces electricity by ‘renewable’ means is paid three times the market rate. As a landowner myself I refuse to join the feeding frenzy of the last two, but I cannot avoid the first.
Lord Turnbull, the former Cabinet secretary, put it this way in a report for the Global Warming Policy Foundation this week: ‘It is astonishing that the Liberals who attach such importance to fairness turn a blind eye to this transfer from poor to rich, running to billions a year. If you live in a council tower block in Lambeth you don’t have much opportunity to get your nose into this trough.’
Driving up the price of electricity this way destroys jobs. One Spanish study suggests 2.2 jobs lost for each one created by green energy schemes, another Scottish one finds 3.7. If you don’t believe the numbers, ask a local widget-maker if the size of his electricity bill affects his ability to take people on or lay them off.
So let’s recap. The current energy policy is taking your money off you through your utility bills, handing that money to a rich landowner — like me — to buy first-growth claret with, putting up the price of your food and your (chipboard) furniture, threatening your job and spoiling your view.
It had better be worth it. The sole intended benefit you will get from all this pain is lower carbon emissions. Not a guarantee of a cooler climate, because Britain is such a trivial part of the world economy, and carbon dioxide’s effect on climate is one of several factors. But at least it will give William Hague a warm glow of satisfaction in showing the Chinese what he calls ‘the UK’s international moral leadership on the issue’.
But notice I used the word ‘intended’. Does any of this actually lower carbon emissions? With the single exception of hydro, not one of the renewables has managed to save an ounce of carbon. Wind is so unreliable that coal-fired stations have to be kept spinning in the background (powering them up and down wastes even more energy and carbon). Wheat for ethanol is grown using tractors running on almost the same amount of diesel — and is anyway full of carbon itself (infra-red rays do not distinguish between carbon atoms from plants that grew yesterday and from plants that grew 300 million years ago). Solar will always be a statistical asterisk in cloudy Britain.
As for wood, consider the effect of a simple rule passed by the London borough of Merton in 2003 and slavishly emulated by planners all over the country. The Merton rule requires all developers who build a building of more than 1,000 square metres to generate 10 per cent of energy ‘renewably’ on site. The effect has been to make it worth my while to thin my woods in Northumberland for the first time in decades.
How so? Faced with the need to find an energy source sufficiently dense to fit on site, developers have turned en masse to wood (or biomass as they prefer to call it). This has led to convoys of diesel lorries chugging through the streets of London to deliver wood to buildings — how very 13th-century! Delivering, drying and burning this wood produces far more carbon dioxide than delivering gas would.
And lo, by bidding up the price of wood, the effect has been to cause landowners to harvest their timber younger than before, which increases carbon emissions. Thus enriched by having lost less money in managing woods, people like me take a holiday — on a jet. So as policy own goals go, the Merton rule is a quintuple whammy. According to one estimate, Britain is producing about six million extra tons of carbon dioxide each year as a result of redirecting its wood supply from current use by the wood-panel and other related industries into energy supply.
The neo-medieval policy of picking winners — or rather losers — creates a salivating lobby for subsidies (even the RSPB takes money from wind farms to shut it up about their eagle killing). But it is saddling ordinary Britons with uncompetitive energy prices, lost jobs, rising fuel poverty, spoiled landscapes — and higher carbon emissions too. Time for a peasants’ revolt.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 21, 2011