Why Fraser Nelson's Olympic optimism about climate change and fossil fuel consumption may be misplaced

  • 10 Aug 2012, 14:00
  • Robin Webster and Verity Payne

Source: Senor Codo via Flickr

The Olympics has prompted something of an identity crisis in the media for Britain. Suddenly, we're good at sport, everybody's happy, we like ourselves, and global warming isn't a problem.

Well, that last point is what Spectator editor Fraser Nelson argues in opinion piece for the Telegraph, anyway. British success at the Olympics has inspired him to proclaim:

"The world has never been richer, healthier, freer or more equal than it is today".

We were interested to read the paragraph in which Nelson turns to energy and climate change. To illustrate how much more optimistic the British should be about our lot, he argues we shouldn't listen to anyone who says climate change poses a future threat. He claims:

"The truth is that the world's fossil-fuel consumption is falling, mainly due to more efficient cars and factories."

This is not correct, according to two authoritative assessments of global energy use.

The most recent BP Statistical Review of World Energy, released in June, gives a view from the fossil fuel industry. It says global energy consumption grew by 2.5 per cent in 2011. Overall, fossil fuels represent 87 per cent of global energy consumption.

According to BP, demand for oil grew by less than 1 per cent in 2011, while demand for gas grew by 2.2 per cent. Demand for coal increased by 5.4 per cent, or 8.4 per cent in emerging economies. So according to the most recent BP statistics, globally we are using more of all the major fossil fuels.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) - which publishes statistics on global energy use - agrees. The graph below from the IEA shows where the world got its energy from between 1971 and 2009. The purple, blue and green sections - representing energy from coal/peat, oil and natural gas - have grown substantially over the time period.

Screen Shot 2012-08-10 At 10.09.38

Coal accounted for 45% of total energy-related CO2 emissions in 2011, followed by oil (35 per cent) and natural gas (20 per cent). The IEA estimates that emissions will grow by 58 per cent globally by 2030 unless new policy measures are introduced.

Global warming not synonymous with doom

So much for the causes of global warming. But what about the impacts? Nelson goes on:

"Nor is warming synonymous with doom. Scour the raw data of the Government's climate change "risk assessment" (as I did) and you find that a warmer Britain will mean, on average, 11,000 fewer deaths each year by 2050 because fewer pensioners will die from the cold. But do not expect to find this point made in any official report. The Environment Department is there not to give impartial advice, but to scare us."

We also looked at the Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) report by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) earlier in the year. It suggests there will be between 5,000 and 24,000 fewer premature deaths from cold as winters get warmer, and that without measures to alleviate problems by the 2050s there will be an extra 1,000 to 6,000 premature deaths per year due to hotter summers.

Setting aside the issues of whether scientists generally issue warnings about climate change by saying it will cause "doom", (they don't) and whether assessing the risks of climate change can be reduced to predicting whether less people will die from cold in the UK in a warmer world, (it can't), we also noted that overall Defra does not suggest that pros will outweigh cons for the UK.

This table, which gives a summary of the risks and opportunities the report identified for human health, illustrates the point:

DEFRA CCRA Health Summary

Source: UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Government Report.

That looks like a complicated picture, with real benefits and real risks, and plenty of uncertainties. Highlighting one projected positive outcome doesn't make that complicated picture disappear.

Anyway, back to the gold rush!

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