Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Is it worth it? The question kept nagging at me as I stood in a drizzly Derbyshire quarry, watching a miracle of British engineering. Is it worth pushing ahead with deep cuts in CO2 emissions if the rest of the world won’t follow?
The miracle in front of me was a digger powered by an internal combustion engine that ran on hydrogen – something that was, until a few months ago, thought to be impossible. Pundits and politicians like to hymn the praises of electric vehicles. But batteries have their limits. They are expensive, slow to charge and heavy. They can’t realistically power planes or trains or ships or heavy lorries – or, indeed, big diggers.
JCB (whose digger and whose quarry this was) had already produced a diesel engine that reduced air pollution by more than 99 per cent. It had come up with a small electric excavator, too. But a 20-ton machine, usually the first onto a building site, cannot run on batteries – even if it were somehow able to keep taking time off to recharge. Another solution was needed.
Full disclosure: over the years, I have occasionally worked as an adviser to JCB. For precisely that reason, I don’t normally write about the company. But, on this occasion, I reckon I’d be failing as a columnist if I didn’t tell you about the vastness of what it has just achieved.
Lord Bamford, who chairs the business, could simply have consolidated during the epidemic. He had already turned his family firm into a global leader. Another man, in his situation, might be easing his foot off the accelerator in his eighth decade.
But Bamford is, at heart, an engineer. He refines, he tinkers, he improves; he looks for what others have missed. Perhaps it is in the soil. JCB is headquartered pretty much at the epicentre of where the industrial revolution began – a revolution that was made by refiners and tinkerers and improvers, typically men who left school in their early teens, keen to get straight into the workshop.
JCB’s nearby engineering school occupies one of Arkwright’s first mills. The Bamfords themselves, if you go back far enough, were ironmongers and blacksmiths.
So when he told his engineers to find a way of creating a hydrogen engine, they swallowed their scepticism and set to work, grouping the supposedly insuperable objections under eleven headings. While the rest of the country grumbled its way through the second lockdown, they solved them one by one.
The implications are colossal. The country that invented the engine (Thomas Newcomen, who built the first practical fuel-burning engine in 1712, was another iron-monger and tinkerer) has found a way of saving the sector. Britain produces around 2.5 million internal combustion engines every year, nearly two thirds of them for export. Until a few weeks ago, the entire industry faced oblivion. Now, with a few adjustments, it can stay in business.
I tell you all this, not just to remind you that we remain a nation of innovators, but because my opening question is a serious one. If there is a global shift away from fossil fuels, then Britain is better placed than most countries to supply the new technology. It will still be more expensive than leaving things as they are, obviously. But there are ways to harness market forces, making the transition cheaper and smoother.
So let’s ask the question again. Britain, following drastic reductions, is now responsible for only one per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. If we acted in isolation, we could return to the Stone Age and it would barely make any difference.
Obviously, we won’t be acting wholly in isolation. The EU has committed itself to a measure of decarbonisation, as has Joe Biden’s America. Then again, as Donald Trump once put it, with characteristic bluntness: “Look at China, how filthy it is! Look at Russia, look at India: it’s filthy, the air is filthy!”
China is the world’s biggest polluter, responsible for 28 per cent of carbon emissions. India is third, at seven per cent. Both countries are reluctant to commit to binding targets. Is there much point in pushing ahead without them?
I suppose I ought to add, at this point, that I believe the world is heating, at least partly in response to human activity. If you disagree, fine. But there is then no point in arguing about targets and international deals. If you fundamentally don’t think there is any problem, we will just go round and round in circles.
If, on the other hand, you see a problem, the question becomes how to tackle it affordably and proportionately. Our aim should be to harness the genius of the private sector – to use inventions like that hydrogen motor – so as to minimise extra spending and extra bureaucracy.
It is fair enough to argue that someone needs to make the first move. It is fair enough, too, to point out that the whole world should not hang back simply because two or three states won’t join in. The question is one of proportionality.
It is here that my doubts arise. The commitments we have made go beyond most of our competitors’. The EU and the United States lag behind us, though not by much. Canada, Australia and Japan lag a bit further. China talks vaguely of peaking around 2030. A clutch of states – Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia – are barely bothering to go through the motions.
Leading by example is all well and good. Impoverishing yourself in order to make a point, not so much. The danger, as with all government initiatives, is that we reach a critical mass where, even if it becomes clear that the rest of the world isn’t following, a powerful lobby of rent-seekers and eco-corporatists continue to drive the policy for its own sake.
Don’t underestimate how painful the adjustment will be. “Energy is not just another sector of the economy,” the great Matt Ridley points out. “It is the thermodynamic lifeblood of prosperity.” Modern civilisation became possible when falling energy prices released human beings from back-breaking labour. In 1880 a minute’s work would buy four minutes of artificial light. In 1950 it was seven hours of light. By 2000 it was five days.
None of this is to say that we should give up. There will be more breakthroughs like the JCB engine. Batteries should, over time, become cheaper and lighter. New ways might be found to heat houses. We might even happen across a completely new, clean energy source – fission, say. The cost of climate mitigation, like the cost of adaptation, will fall as technology improves.
All I am asking for is perspective. We need constantly to weigh costs and benefits; to tackle the freeloader dilemma; to consider that innovation might lower prices, and so make calculated postponements rational; to ask whether there are other priorities (in 2020, for example, there was).
We should, in short, approach climate change in a transactional rather than a millenarian spirit, looking for maximum effectiveness rather than seeking to flaunt our piety. Conservatives, of all people, ought to understand that.