The influence and effects of CO2

The other day we were on our way to a recycling centre which, ironically, is not accessible by public transport.  On the motorway we overtook a lorry. On its side it advertised the fact that it was delivering the sort of oil we use in our cars, made, or perhaps I should say refined, by BP.  After the problems encountered by the Sackler family in giving away money in sponsorship of the arts, we now have Sir Mark Rylance bringing to an end 30 years of involvement with the Royal Shakespeare Company because of its continued sponsorship by BP.  Sir Mark’s involvement with the RSC was in any event rather strange as he considers that the works attributed to Shakespeare were in fact written by another knight, Sir Francis Bacon.  But although BP subsidises tickets for the under 25’s, he is concerned that BP in its day job is also one of the main ‘sponsors’  of global warming.  He finds this unacceptable. 

I suspect that the rest of the members of the Company will not be following Sir Mark’s example, as they no doubt need the work.  I do wonder, though, where the RSC will get alternative sponsors from to continue its work if they are all scrutinised to ensure the sort of moral purity now required.  Maybe next time we attempt to renew our subscription as friends of the RSC, we too will have first to undergo a morality inspection – perhaps to ensure that we don’t mix our recyclables with our non-recyclables.

Steps are being taken to overcome the problems of carbon emission. And strangely, much of this is being done by the oil companies and, dare I say it, for profit.  BP, for example, is also the largest developer of solar power in Europe and the biggest provider in Britain of electric car charging points.  Many other huge energy-intensive companies are manufacturing wind turbines, all of which depend on steel manufacture for the actual turbines and towers and concrete for their bases.  Should we prevent them from making the things which will reduce fossil fuel dependence in the name of preventing CO2 emissions in their manufacture? Should we decide to renounce electricity and go back to the stone ages instead? There is a tendency in this direction.  Promoters of a 12-mile-long pair of tidal barrages at Morecambe, one of the UK’s biggest bays, claim the £8.5bn scheme would generate substantial amounts of clean electricity and so help Britain to have zero net carbon emissions by 2050. Opponents worry that bridging the bay with causeways containing turbines, sluice gates and navigation locks would damage the UK’s largest area of continuous mudflats and sand-flats. apparently a magnet for migrating birds, fish and molluscs.

“We love renewable energy and want to see the decarbonisation of our energy network,” said Susannah Bleakley, chief executive of the Morecambe Bay Partnership, a local conservationist group. “But this is the wrong development in the wrong site.”

It always is.  That the tidal barrage is estimated to last for 120 years and supply enough energy for 2 million homes is not apparently enough for the purists.  Molluscs before global warming – which will of course destroy the molluscs anyway.

There are in fact lots of things going on in the world of carbon capture and sequestration and in the production of energy in novel ways, not involving the release of CO
2. This includes solar panels using new, low price, commonly available, materials instead of the difficult to produce silicon-based cells now used.  We saw the first hydrogen powered train the other day and earlier this year we even had the promise of artificial photosynthesis, the first steps in the development of which have now proved successful. All of this is and will be supported by a combination of researchers in Universities and Companies. It will ultimately be brought to the market for use in the fight against global warming by Companies hoping to make a profit from the technology and having, therefore, the sort of mixed motives which so trouble Sir Mark.

But I would like to reflect on a possible world where carbon emissions have been tamed so that the change in the climate is limited to something which does not after all destroy humanity.  What would this imply for the world order?  Obviously there are too many variables to be at all sure, but I think that we can even now see what would be likely to be general trends.  And I think that we can say that a desire to limit the emission of Carbon Dioxide does not only affect the English theatre. 

When you think about it, it will have massive effects on a global scale if we are indeed successful. Some of the oil states have already started to factor in the change.  Many of them have for a time now been establishing sovereign wealth funds, just as Norway did some many years ago from the tax revenue received from its North Sea gas reserves. They planned for the exhaustion of their gas reserves. Forward looking oil states are not only looking at the depletion of their oil reserves, but being realistic as to the demand for oil and gas in the future.  So much of it at the moment is used to power (and lubricate) internal combustion engines.  But in our ecological new world? Not nearly as much. 

So then will we see the countries with massive deserts around the equator start to be the new ‘gulf states’, using their natural resource of land to support vast arrays of solar panels? I think that this is inevitable.  Connecting to other countries or even other land masses is technically possible even though it involves energy loss along the way.  The fact is that transporting oil and gas has also involved the use of energy, not to mention the building of massive infrastructure including pipelines and, of course, so many ships. 

The question is more whether the investment in solar panels will be accompanied by enough political stability in the very poor countries which would be the obvious beneficiaries of the necessary investment and so the new order. If not, then the scheme cannot work. I can see, however, that there will be lots of people willing to invest in such a scheme providing that sufficient stability can be assured.  After all, total stability is not required.  The oil-rich states have hardly been completely stable over the years, but international investment in their oil-fields has nonetheless continued.  Capitalism, including communist-inspired capitalism from China, seems mainly to find a way.

If we assume that it will somehow work out, what happens to the countries at present dependent on oil sales?  They will diminish, although by no means cease to benefit from oil.  Not only will there still be some demand for oil as a fuel, but there will also be a demand for refined petroleum products for the production of plastics.  I think that this will increase as time goes on.  But undoubtedly, the geopolitics will change.  Iran, as the second largest oil exporter in OPEC and which is to a very large extent dependent on its oil exports, both crude and refined, will suffer, as will Iraq and the various small but immensely rich and powerful gulf states. 

America has its own deserts, as does China and so nothing much will change there in terms of their importance.  But if Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states cease to be as important as oil producers, then they will cease to be countries which we have to support and protect and supply arms to, whilst holding our noses at their mediaeval morality.  It seems to me that the main new beneficiary of the change in the provision of energy will be Africa.  One could say, not before time.  Shall we thereby rid ourselves of the moral dilemma of supporting undemocratic, dictatorial regimes in order to have the energy we need?  I doubt it.  I'm not entirely sure what Sir Mark will do though if his electricity supply comes from a mixture of African countries, democratic and dictatorial.  Will he have himself cut off from the grid and install his own windmill?  I wonder if he ever played Don Quixote?

Paul Buckingham

25 June 2019

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