What a parable for our times the great diesel scandal has been, as councils vie to see which can devise the heaviest taxes on nearly half the cars in Britain because they are powered by nasty, polluting diesel.
This week, it was announced many diesel drivers will soon have to pay fully £24 a day to drive into Central London, while 35 towns across the country are thinking of following suit. Already some councils charge up to £90 more for a permit to park a diesel car.
The roots of this debacle go back to the heyday of Tony Blair’s government, when his chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, became obsessed with the need to fight global warming.
Although he was an expert in ‘surface chemistry’ — roughly speaking, the study of what happens when, for example, a liquid meets a gas — King had no qualifications in climate science.
On one occasion he famously told an environmental audit committee of MPs that the world was warming so dangerously fast that, by the end of this century, the only continent on earth left habitable would be Antarctica.
His light-bulb moment came when he learned that diesel emits less CO2 than petrol. What a brilliant way it would be to save the planet, he thought, to manipulate the tax system to encourage motorists to make the switch — which millions did.
And here we are 15 years later, being told that, as an unexpected side-effect, more than ten million diesel vehicles on Britain’s roads are chucking out so much nitrogen oxide and other toxic pollutants they are being linked to 12,000 premature deaths a year.
This is only the latest in a seemingly endless flow of examples of supposedly ‘green’ government schemes which, one after another, turn out to have been standing common sense on its head, at a cost which is rocketing up by billions of pounds a year.
There may be other competitors for the title of the greatest scandal in Britain today, but this is so crazy that it is time we all woke up to how damagingly mad it has become.
Nine years ago, MPs voted almost unanimously for then Labour minister Ed Miliband’s Climate Change Act, thus making Britain the only country in the world committed by law to cut its ‘carbon emissions’ by 80 per cent in just 40 years.
Not one of those politicians bothered to wonder how in practice such an absurdly ambitious target could be met: which is why we have since seen successive governments thrashing about trying to adopt one dotty ‘green’ scheme after another.
Last week, I was asked in conversation: ‘Why is it that almost all these green schemes seem to end up as a fiasco?’ To which I replied: ‘You’ve only got one word wrong there. You can leave out the word “almost”.’
The truth is that every single green scheme the politicians have fallen for has proved to be a total fiasco: failing to achieve any of the results claimed for them and costing us more billions with every year that passes.
Consider the scandal of Drax in Yorkshire, until recently the largest, cleanest, most efficient coal-fired power station in Europe.
Now, thanks to an annual half-a-billion pounds of public subsidy, Drax has been switching from burning coal to millions of tons a year of wood pellets.
Absurdly, these are shipped 3,500 miles to Britain from the U.S., where vast acreages of virgin forest are being felled, supposedly to be replaced with new trees that will eventually soak up all the CO2 emitted by burning them.
Unfortunately, a bright spark has just pointed out in a report for a respected think-tank that it could take a replacement tree hundreds of years to grow to maturity — which would be far too long to have any supposed effect on any climate change. (It should be noted that the former coalition energy minister Chris Huhne, having been released from prison for perverting the course of justice over speeding points, became the European chairman of a firm called Zilkha Biomass, which makes its money supplying wood pellets from North America to Europe.)
The bottom line is that a new report has just confirmed that, far from reducing its CO2 footprint, Drax is now emitting more than it did when it was only burning coal.
Meanwhile, why is Northern Ireland going through its worst political crisis since the end of the Troubles? Because of the collapse of its power-sharing government over another green scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive.
When businesses discovered that for every £100 they paid for wood chips to heat their offices, warehouses and factories, UK taxpayers would pay them £160 in subsidies, not surprisingly they kept their boilers running round the clock as if there were no tomorrow.
When it was discovered that, by 2020, we will have paid those businesses £1 billion — even to heat buildings left empty for years — this created such a scandal that it brought down the government.
That example made headlines, but the same is happening quietly in the rest of the country, too, where owners of large houses openly boast that they are running their boilers flat out, even in summer, to cash in on the racket which gives them a 60 per cent profit on every £1 they spend on wood chips.
Some of that wood is now coming from clearing priceless ancient woodlands, such as a National Trust estate in Cheshire which the charity plans to turn back into open heathland.
Another scandal created under the same scheme is the way canny developers are plonking down large industrial installations called ‘anaerobic digesters’ in the middle of the English countryside, to turn huge quantities of crops into small quantities of methane for the national gas grid.
Official figures show that, thanks to subsidies costing us more than £200 million a year, 131,000 acres of maize are now being grown to feed the anaerobic digesters, on land formerly used for food crops.
Separately, toxic spills of the ammonia that is used in the process have repeatedly poisoned livestock and fish in nearby fields and rivers.
Then there was the dream of ‘carbon capture and storage’, for which Gordon Brown’s government offered £4 billion for companies to come up with a way of removing CO2 from the coal and gas used to make electricity, and then piping it away for burial in holes under the North Sea.
Only one Scottish power station took up the offer, spending £1 billion before it discovered that it didn’t work.
But even though geologists say it can never work, the Government still talks about it as the only way it can allow coal and gas-fired power plants — which still supply more than half our electricity — to stay in business.
Consider, too, the not-so brilliant idea of bribing motorists to switch to supposedly ‘green’ all-electric cars. So far, this has cost us more than £50 million in subsidies, for the mere 50,000 cars which have been sold, at £25,000 or more a time. This is only a fraction of the 26 million cars on Britain’s roads.
And what gets cynically hidden by the authorities is that much of the electricity used to charge their batteries comes, of course, from fossil fuels. Add in emissions from the manufacturing process and, unsurprisingly, these vehicles give out more CO2 than they are claimed to save.
Yet under the latest ‘carbon budget’, a five-yearly environmental plan nodded through by MPs to meet our commitments under Miliband’s misguided Climate Change Act, they still fondly imagine that, within 13 years, 60 per cent of all Britain’s cars will be electric.
The latest wheeze to catch the attention of gullible politicians has been a mega-project to spend £40 billion on six giant ‘tidal lagoons’ around Britain’s coasts, beginning with one in Swansea Bay, to harness the power of the tide to provide ‘clean, green’ electricity.
This seemed so irresistible to David Cameron and George Osborne that they put it in the Tory manifesto at the last election — and the then chancellor even mentioned it in his Budget speech. Only when the figures were looked at more carefully did they realise how little electricity this would produce. Not only that, it would be the most expensive in the world!
The firm behind the scheme asked the Government to agree to give it a uniquely high subsidy. The project will only work, it said, if the power produced could be sold to the National Grid at a staggering £168 per megawatt hour.
This was well over three times the wholesale price of unsubsidised electricity from coal or gas-fired power stations, and would naturally be paid for by every UK householder through green surcharges on our electricity bills.
As a result of such concerns, a report on tidal energy was commissioned from a former energy minister, Charles Hendry. His objectivity can be guessed at when you learn that he is chairman of the world’s largest offshore wind farm project. Unsurprisingly, he was gung-ho for giving tidal lagoons the go-ahead.
But how can ministers justify proceeding with another pipe dream which, according to some conservationists, apart from its ludicrous cost would inflict serious damage on wading birds, eels and other fish?
This is because the building of gigantic stone tidal barriers miles long interferes with the natural ecosystem. Indeed, this disruption to the natural order is a common problem with schemes which are designed to be good for ‘the environment’. When, for example, the Somerset Levels suffered serious flooding in 2014, it emerged that this was not just a freak of nature.
For 18 years, the local rivers and drainage ditches had not been dredged by the Environment Agency, with the deliberate intention of keeping more water flooding out on to the Levels, to provide a habitat for birds and other wildlife.
One former head of the agency, who previously ran the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, had remarked that she wanted to see ‘a limpet mine’ on every one of the pumping stations which — separately from the dredging — were used to pump out the water channels to prevent flooding.
When the lack of dredging led to the inevitable, and the Levels disastrously flooded for the second time in three years, it not only did £100 million worth of damage to homes and businesses.
With bitter irony, it also resulted in the drowning of huge numbers of the birds, badgers and other creatures the conservationists had wanted to save.
Flooding aside, however, by far the greatest environmental damage, at the greatest cost to our household bills, has been done by the £52 billion so far spent on covering vast areas of our countryside and the sea around our coasts with wind and solar farms, which are now adding £5 billion a year to our electricity bills.
Apart from the way these eyesores have come to dominate parts of our landscape, studies have shown the shocking damage the windmills do to birds and bats, including species such as golden eagles, which are supposed to be protected by law.
Research by the ornithological society SEO/Birdlife suggested that each turbine kills between 110 and 330 birds a year, though the RSPB countered this saying that ‘our own research suggests that a well-located wind farm is unlikely to be causing birds any harm’.
(Conservationists claim the wind industry has a vested interest in covering up the true extent of bird deaths.)
And all this is to produce just 14 per cent of our electricity, available so intermittently that if it wasn’t for those remaining CO2-emitting coal and gas-fired power stations stepping in when the wind wasn’t blowing and the sun wasn’t shining, our lights would have already gone out.
Yet to meet that Climate Change Act target, the Government still dreams of closing down all our remaining fossil-fuel power stations, instead relying on ‘zero-carbon’ electricity from renewables such as wind, sun and wood-burning, and a number of new nuclear power stations, which seem ever less likely to be built after wrangles over funding.
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