Michael Hanlon

Why do greens hate machines?

The best way to save the planet, says Michael Hanlon, is for the eco-lobby to abandon its ideological aversion to new technology

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When George W. Bush last week stunned the world with his plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions, no one was more surprised than the green lobby. Human psychology being what it is, no one was more furious. It is not so much the scale of the planned reductions that have offended the eco-warriors: how could they possibly quibble with a proposal — supported by China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia — to reduce greenhouse emissions by 50 per cent? No: what gets the greens’ goat is the methods that Mr Bush proposes to employ.

What drives the greens nuts is the boundless technological optimism of Washington, and they have dismissed the plan in withering terms. In the words of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, Mr Bush’s efforts are like ‘a peace plan that allows guns to be fired’. It should go without saying that it is Mr Bush who is right to place his faith in mankind’s ability to think our way out of problems; and it is the poor benighted greens who are wrong.

To the greens, and to many scientists, there is only one True Path to environmental righteousness. That is, of course, to change our lifestyles. To prevent global warming, we must stop generating carbon dioxide. That means driving more economical cars, cutting down dramatically on emissions from power stations, and swathing our houses in polystyrene foam and our fells and dales in windmills.

That is what they say; what they mean, of course, is that we shouldn’t just cut down on these things but stop doing them altogether. Sell the car, take the bus. Better still, walk. Stop going on holiday to easyJetland, stay in a tent. In Wales. In the rain. Forget our civilisation and all the benefits it has brought us, forget any idea of progress and go back to keeping goats.

The ‘lifestyle’ approach is illogical and hypocritical. The concrete industry generates far more CO2 than, say, Britain’s entire fleet of off-road vehicles, yet Greenpeace members never chain themselves to cement mixers, as they did to the Land-Rover production line a few months ago. It also ignores the key point — that just as it was technology that got us into this mess (enabling us, as it does, to extract fossil fuels and create the machines that gobble them up), it is technology that will get us out of it.

The most obvious technofix for global warming is, of course, nuclear power. Atomic power stations look very Buck Rogers and sinister, but in effect they are nothing but giant steam engines — kettles that make electricity rather than consume it. The process of generating electricity using nuclear heat is CO2-free. Yet Britain’s greatest bulwark against global warming is set to crumble. By 2025 or thenabouts, we will have only one functioning nuke in this country — Sizewell B. If the greens were serious they would immediately call for a massive programme of reactor construction across the country.

In the longer term, we cannot exclude the possibility that nuclear fusion may be the answer to our problems, even if it has been ‘about 40 years away’ ever since it was first mooted as a power source —in the 1940s. In June it was announced that the most promising fusion project to date — the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor — will be built in France. Costing more than £6.5 billion, this international project might finally crack the conundrum of how to turn seawater into limitless energy.

Even if we need to carry on burning fossil fuels, there are big steps that can be taken — and which are integral to the Bush plan — to make the process cleaner. Like any gas, CO2 can be liquefied. An ingenious suggestion, which has been doing the rounds for a few years now, is called carbon capture, or geo-sequestration. Earlier this summer Britain’s energy minister Malcolm Wicks authorised £40 million to be used for funding research into a plan to trap the CO2 generated by a conventional power station, compress it into a liquid, and pump it into old North Sea oil and gas strata, replacing the fuels pumped out. In fact, the Norwegians have already been doing this for some time, and to date the experiment has been successful — the stuff seems happy to stay put and has not found its way back into the atmosphere.

And what about biofuels, for which Bush has recently become the world’s number one evangelist? Grow plants (in this case soy) and process them to produce hydrocarbons that can be burnt by trucks and cars. Of course, burning a biofuel produces CO2, just as does burning petrol, but the difference is that this CO2 was previously sucked out of the atmosphere by the plant when it was growing. So if you put shrubbery into your fuel tank and burn it, your net contribution to the atmosphere is zero.

This won’t solve the global warming problem overnight. Cars and trucks produce only 20 per cent of our CO2 output and even switching to biofuel on a massive scale will have no more than a few percentage points impact on total emissions. Nevertheless it is a start, and a good one. Three solutions, then, which if adapted with gusto may — if they work — allow us to not only nudge our Kyoto targets but go crashing through them. But, of course, the environmentalists won’t have any of it.

No one could object, one would think, to carbon sequestration, but they do. Not just the plan to squirt liquid CO2 under the rocks between Norway and Scotland, but other sequestration methods get short shrift too. You can plant more trees, you can hide carbon dioxide on the seabed. It may even be possible to dissolve great splodges of the stuff in the sea by spraying certain chemicals into the ocean. Yes, all have their risks and indeed might not work, but it seems odd not even to consider them.

After the North Sea plan was revealed, Friends of the Earth gave the project a (very) cautious thumbs-up, but the Green party gibbered its distaste, declaring the idea ‘expensive and highly damaging’. Tony Cooper, the party’s adviser on climate change, told me that the plan amounts to ‘a bit of a distraction’. He is certainly not alone. Most green individuals and organisations seem to be deeply suspicious of any technology that might allow ‘business as usual’ on the climate-change front.

Cooper says that sequestration will be too expensive and take too much time, but his objections seem to be more ideological than practical. Then he complains that biofuels will make only a marginal dent in our CO2 emissions. But surely a dent is a good start? I suggested to Tony Cooper that genetic engineers may be able to create a new variety of soy or sugar plant capable of producing road fuel far more efficiently. Surely the greens would at least welcome that? Cooper says that the Green party’s ‘gut opposition’ to GM products would probably rule that one out too.

According to the environmentalist mullahs, there is only One Solution to global warming, and its name is Kyoto. This Japanese city in which a rather shambolic agreement to curb carbon dioxide emissions was signed some years ago has acquired talismanic status among people who one suspects have little idea what ‘Kyoto’ is, would do or how it works. If you ‘sign up to Kyoto’ you are one of the Jedi; if you ‘do not ratify Kyoto’, you have become a Dark Lord of the Sith.

It is this semi-religious belief pattern that leads the greens to make their absurd denunciations; like Jennifer Morgan of the WWF’s climate change programme, who said after the announcement that this was ‘part of the Bush administration’s strategy to prove that the technological approach is the answer to global warming’. Well, quite. What’s wrong with that?

Greens say they are not against technology per se. I suppose this is true. As well as their beloved lifestyle changes there are certain prescribed technologies that are permitted by the liturgy. One, of course, is wind farms (although I suspect that even in the most verdant circles, enthusiasm for carpeting large areas of our countryside with whirling windmills is waning), but shiny, white-heat-style technology they do not like at all, which is a great shame, because human beings, as I have pointed out in this publication before, are, on the whole, longer-lived, healthier, wealthier, happier and freer than at any time in our history. And much of this is thanks to our ‘addiction’ to fossil fuels and ‘dependency’ (green language is infused with the jargon of mental pathology). It is these portable, potent sources of energy and the machines they power that have supercharged humanity’s development.

Of course, we all agree that renewable energy is a wonderful thing. But we should be using all available technologies (not just solar panels and wind farms) and inventing new ones as well. New automotive technologies — hybrid power and alternative fuels such as hydrogen — are the subject of huge investment by motor companies, and rightly so.

Fuel cells, for example, provide a way of powering cars, tractors and household appliances that does absolutely no damage to the environment. They use hydrogen, which is the most abundant element in the universe and, moreover, it is clean. Cars run on hydrogen spit out exhaust fumes made up mainly of water and entirely free from carbon dioxide. Some scientists see fuel cells as the internal combustion engine of the future and look forward to a day when generators run on fuel cells will replace existing electrical distribution systems. The only problem is the expense. Hydrogen has a poor energy density per volume and storing it takes up a lot of space; fuel cells also currently use expensive platinum group metals. But the more money and time that are invested in fuel cell research, the smaller the problems become.

Technology can help us tap into renewable power sources, but it can also help us to use fossil fuels more efficiently. Kyoto-obsessed greens dream of weaning us off coal, gas and oil altogether, but our pollution problem may be better solved by using fossil fuels in a more efficient and responsible way. The high price of oil and gas has already led to advances in the field of coal gasification. This is a process by which coal is broken down into its constituent chemical components before combustion. It is heated to very high temperatures (700?C), at which point it turns into something called a ‘syngas’. The ‘syngas’ can then be converted into energy (electricity, for example) much more efficiently than plain coal. Another bonus of gasification is that the corrosive elements of the ash — chloride and potassium — can be retained.

All over the world scientists are working on brilliant ways to help us save the planet. Only last month scientific magazines reported the invention of ‘smart fridges’ and other electrical appliances which can respond instantly to fluctuations in the national grid. This means that they reduce their energy consumption at peak times. The overall effect, if we all owned smart fridges and air conditioners, would be a massive reduction in CO2 emissions.

Even environmental problems that have nothing to do with energy — saving rare species, rainforests, communities — can best be resolved with technology, if the greens will only give scientists a shot. It is a well-known fact that coral reefs are being destroyed by snorkelling tourists, pollution and fishing. This in turn destroys villages that depend upon the coral reef for fish stocks and protection from the sea. So what’s the answer? Many greens want to stop activities that are harmful to the coral, to haul us out of the water and send us home. But there’s another solution: purpose-built blocks of cement, plastics and steel can be used to repair damaged reefs and make whole new ones, drawing fish back to the area.

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