Monday, 11 July 2011

Only 2%

One of the arguments regularly put forward by opponents of wind power is that the entire human activity of the UK contributes only 2% of the human output of greenhouse gases, that wind power will reduce that factor by only a tiny fraction, and that therefore it will have negligible effect on the overall outcome for the world.  And of course Wales contributes only 5% of that 2% - around 0.1% of the global total, which makes the arithmetical point even more clearly.
As far as the mathematics goes, I’d accept the basic point, but still reject it as an argument against the use of wind energy.  As an argument, it contains a number of basic flaws. 
The first, and most obvious, is that the mathematics don’t only apply to wind energy.  ‘We’re too small to make a difference’ can be applied to any proposal – it is, essentially, not an argument against wind turbines specifically, but an argument against doing anything.  Whether we are referring to wind energy, tidal energy, solar energy or whatever is irrelevant here – if we start from the perspective that our contribution is only ever going to be miniscule, then we will end up doing nothing. 
Then, if the world’s population is around 6 billion people, the UK’s population of 60 million represents around 1% of the total.  That we output roughly twice our ‘share’ of emissions should be no surprise, given the state of economic development in wealthy countries compared to poorer ones.  But that is the second flaw in the ‘only 2%’ argument – those of us emitting more than our fair share actually have a greater responsibility to reduce our output than those emitting less.
Ignoring the fact that there are variations from the average, for a moment at least, any population of 60 million, anywhere in the world, will be responsible for less than 2% of the world’s emissions.  And, since drawing lines on a map to delimit different countries and nations with different populations is essentially a fairly arbitrary process in this context, any country with a larger population can be viewed, in simple mathematical terms, as being an aggregation of populations of 60 million.
But if every population of 60 million decided that its contribution to the problem overall was so small as to make no difference, because any action which they could take would have a negligible effect, then no-one would do anything.  And that’s the third flaw in the ‘only 2%’ argument – it can be used by anyone and everyone to argue that their contribution will be so small as to make no difference, and is thus not worth making.
The point is that anthropogenic climate change is being caused collectively by the entire human population.  It is an aggregation of billions of small actions, most of which are too small to be significant in themselves.  It can equally be tackled by billions of small actions each of which is equally of limited significance.  To argue otherwise is to argue for doing nothing.
That’s valid if you don’t accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change in the first place (and that’s another argument entirely), but it’s completely invalid otherwise.  There’s a time for percentage figures and a time for absolute numbers; in this context, what matters is the reduction which we can achieve in our own emissions, not the proportion of the global problem which that represents.
I suspect that most of those who push the ‘only 2%’ argument are not convinced about anthropogenic climate change in the first place.  It would be more honest, though, to try and argue that case than to dismiss any effort to mitigate it as being too small to make a difference.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

Trouble is John, people don't want wind power.

It's not going to happen.

John Dixon said...

"people don't want wind power"

That's a bit sweeping, I feel. Some do, some don't. But the argument for or against needs to be conducted in the context of a wider debate about how we generate energy. Saying 'no' to everything isn't an option.

stuart said...

It's not that we don't want wind power it's that we don't want the English building wind turbines on our land for them to reap the benefits.

If the locals were to benefit in some way through jobs and lower energy bills I'm sure they'd be more welcoming.

John Dixon said...

Stuart,

I'd be extremely wary of claiming that the motivation of many of the opponents of wind farms is down to the fact that the benefit from them flows elsewhere. Whilst there ae some who think that way, it doesn't really seem to be typical of the attitude and approach of many of the objectors that I've seen or met.

Glyndo said...

There are many arguments against Wind Farms. But their main failing is that they do not provide dependable, consistent, energy. Couple this with the fact that their construction diverts monies away from other low carbon methods and you have the makings of a complete farce. Even the sainted George Monbiot is now arguing for an increase in nuclear generation. You are right John they will make a difference, and we should make a difference if we can, but other solutions would give us a better bang for our buck. They are an expensive diversion that actually prevents us from concentrating on better ways to move forward.

maen_tramgwydd said...

I live in one of Wales' cities, so I don't feel that I can be accused of nimbyism, in the personal sense, at any rate.

This morning I drove through the Afan and Rhondda Valleys and saw a couple of wind farms, not one of whose gigantic turbines was actually spinning.

To focus on the 2% argument as if that is the central one for opponents of onshore wind farms is a little unfair, in my opinion.

I oppose them on the grounds that they are not particularly effective, being situated generally away from urban centres with a consequent significant loss in transmission, together with the unpredictable nature of onshore wind reduces their efficiency considerably and requires other standby-by power stations.

The technology is essentially German, and its production and transport is far from carbon neutral. Control, monitoring and maintenance are done at a distance, often from the Continent, resulting in few employment opportunities for the communities in Wales most affected, many of whom are likely to be adversely affected from a drop in tourism as a result.

The lifespan of a turbine is somewhere around 25 years, requiring the construction of a replacement in due course. Each wind farm involves roadways, and the excavation of peat (which is destroyed and irreplaceable by both) on its uplands with a concrete base of some 1,000 metric tonnes of concrete for each turbine.

Stuart has a point in that Wales (and Scotland) are being disproportionately targeted in this respect to fulfil the UK's obligations under EU and international agreements. Even worse, is the fact that control over the major developments are retained in Whitehall and Westminster. Plaid’s support for onshore wind is an open invitation for Wales’ landscape to be carpeted with turbines up to 400 feet in height, and visible for many miles, including all of Wales’ national parks. In the meantime Wales’ taxpayers are paying the subsidies to the multi-national energy companies, as well as the inflated cost of the electricity produced. It’s a lose-lose situation for us here.

To go off on a slight tangent, this is an example of Plaid having lost its way, in trying to out-green the Greens, to little purpose. My comments on one prominent nationalist blog were censored the other week when I put forward objections to this technology.

Having said all this, were Wales a sovereign nation, and a democratic decision was taken after an informed public debate by its Senedd to construct onshore wind farms, I would be far more willing to accept them. At least then we could ensure that Wales and its people benefited to the maximum possible extent.

John Dixon said...

"To focus on the 2% argument as if that is the central one for opponents of onshore wind farms is a little unfair, in my opinion."

It would indeed be unfair if I'd done that, but I made it clear that it was 'one of the arguments'. It happens to be the one addressed in this particular post; I've addressed others in the past and will return to them in future. A single blog post is not a suitable way to go through all the arguments at once, so I tend to concentrate on a single aspect at a time.

For that reason, I won't deal here with all the points which you raise in your comment; I'd sooner return to the issues involved more specifically in other posts, although since many of them are matters of opinion rather than fact, I rather suspect that we'll continue to disagree.

One point which is a matter of fact, rather than opinion, though is your comment about "a consequent significant loss in transmission". On what basis do you make this claim? National Grid say that losses over the transmission network belonging to the Grid amount to around 2%; and I've seen figures which suggest that the losses in the local, lower voltage, distribution network amount to no more than 6%. Your claim of 'significant' losses is one I've seen often; but I've yet to see any justification for it with hard figures. If you can believe that you can support it with evidence, I'd be interested to see that evidence.

Anonymous said...

Plaid lost Ceredigion in 2005 partly because of wind-farms. So, we lost an MP who could stand up for Wales, the language, S4C etc and got an invisable MP instead. Wales has lost a nationalist voice.

Are we going to lose more MPs, AMs an other strong nationalist voices which promote the Welsh cause because a few wind-farms which produce next to no energy? No.

maen_tramgwydd said...

It appears to be quite a technical subject.

The figures I've seen vary around 6-7.5%, which is an average, and is not insignificant in my opinion. The greater the distance, the higher the loss. These figures are for overhead lines, the losses are greater where cables are buried, which brings us to the vexed question of overhead transmission across the landscape of Wales... in the case of mid-Wales, directly into England.

maen_tramgwydd said...

"Power flow

There is an average power flow of about 11 GW from the north of the UK, particularly from Scotland and northern England, to the south of the UK across the grid. This flow is anticipated to grow to about 12 GW by 2014.[9]

Because of the power loss associated with this north to south flow, the effectiveness and efficiency of new generation capacity is significantly affected by its location. For example new generating capacity on the south coast has about 12% greater effectiveness due to reduced transmission system power losses compared to new generating capacity in north England, and about 20% greater effectiveness than northern Scotland.[10]"

From:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Grid_(Great_Britain)

John Dixon said...

Maen_tramgwydd,

I'd agree with your figure of between 6 and 7.5% for the Grid and the local distribution networks together. It's in line with the response in my previous comment. Whether it's 'significant' or not is a question of degree, I suppose.

It's a figure which applies equally to other types of capacity, although I'd accept that distance also makes a small difference here. The other thing that makes a difference of course is voltage - the higher the voltage the lower the losses. In that context, the suggestion put forward by some for a lower voltage connection from Mid-Wales to the Grid will also increase losses. However, that brings us right back to the word 'significant'; and I simply don't see that the losses associated with wind are 'significantly' different from those of other electricity sources to be an argument against wind.

Anon,

Doesn't that in essence amount to saying that Plaid should never take a stance on anything which might be unpopular, so as not to divert attention from the 'core' issues? It's a valid stance for a nationalist party to take, but not really compatible with being a party of government.

John Dixon said...

Maen-Tramgwydd,

Agree with your second comment as well, although it doesn't conflict with the 2% loss across the Grid as a whole. I'd expect though that it may well be a factor in the Grid's desire to connect Mid-Wales to the Grid by going eastward directly to the Midlands rather than north or south within Wales, since the Grid lines across the north and south also carry a net eastwards flow, similar to the net southwards flow to which you refer.

maen_tramgwydd said...

It's 'when all things are considered' that I feel the argument for onshore wind (in Wales) is weak.

Of course there's a price to pay for 'greener' energy. In this case I don't believe the gain is sufficent to outweigh the loss. We'll have to agree to disagree, with no hard feelings.

Glyndo said...

"And of course Wales contributes only 5% of that 2% - around 0.1% of the global total"

And of course you have conveniently left out all factors not connected with electricity generation, like Industry and transport. This makes even 0.1% an exaggerated figure.

John Dixon said...

Glyndo,

Not sure what your point is there. The original figure of 2% isn't mine, and I didn't set out to prove or disprove its accuracy, only its irrelevance. You may well be right in suggesting that the proportion of that 2% represented by Wales may be even less; I haven't done the work to get any better than a stab at 5% based on population. However, whether it's .1%, .05% or any other number doesn't affect the argument.

Glyndo said...

Touché.

Hwntw said...

The simple electoral fact is that green concerns are only ever secondary in terms of people's votes. It's why they still whinge about having different bins and less collections even though it is repeated over and over again about landfill tax and the benefits of recycling.

Plaid as a nationalist party should not be promoting a green agenda that will hamstring us as a nation. Filling our nation with a mixture of dud technology like onshore windfarms and colonial jackpots of tidal etc going to London.

To be blunt, Wales' contribution won't mean bugger all in terms of the predicted global climate disaster, and Plaid have the challenge of gaining support to become a nation to choose it's own fate.

Being green zealots and alienating welsh people at the alter an green issues should be relegated in our priorities.

maen_tramgwydd said...

http://www.wind-watch.org/news/2011/07/11/dismay-as-london-judge-backs-firm-in-wind-turbine-battle/

This is what happens when Wales does not control its own resources and has its own judicial system.

Plaid's policy is an open invite for development and exploitation of Wales' resources by others.

John Dixon said...

Hwntw,

"To be blunt, Wales' contribution won't mean bugger all in terms of the predicted global climate disaster"

So, do nothing then? And if everyone else uses the same argument... That was, of course, precisely the point of my original post - an argument that an individual contribution is too small to make a difference is ultimately an argument for no-one to do anything.

"The simple electoral fact is that green concerns are only ever secondary in terms of people's votes."

Not the words that I'd use, but I basically agree with the point. A lot of 'green' sentiment turns out to dissipate when it means that the actions required aren't only required of 'someone else'. But that takes me back to the point that if everyone wants 'someone else' to take action, no-one does anything.

By extension, of course, if your main concern is to concentrate on what people want and are prepared to vote for and ignore other issues, doesn't that justify the current stance of Plaid's leadership in completely downplaying the idea of an independent Wales?

Maen_tramgwydd,

I agree with your basic point here that Wales' resources should be exploited for the benefit of Wales, of course. But is that really an argument against exploiting those resources at all - which is how some seem to be using it - or an argument for changing the economic model under which they are being exploited?

In the specific case of wind farms, I admit that I sometimes wonder if it isn't being used as an excuse to oppose developments, and whether some of those using the argument might not find other grounds for opposition if that issue was resolved.

Anonymous said...

"Trouble is John, people don't want wind power.

It's not going to happen."

The four most popular political parties in Wales all support some use of wind power. It is already happening.

"To go off on a slight tangent, this is an example of Plaid having lost its way, in trying to out-green the Greens, to little purpose."

If that's true then Labour are also trying to out-green the Greens. Pointless comment. Plaid has never held the sustainability/energy portfolio at the Assembly or the energy/climate change portfolio at Westminster.

maen_tramgwydd said...

Anon: 12:59

I don't understand the point you're trying to make.

Plaid's 'green' agenda was aimed at getting Green votes.. to me that seems pointless in itself as it's a party which gets even fewer votes than Plaid does.

The folly of trying to outdo Labour in leftist policies, and similarly the Greens, is amply displayed by the sad position Plaid now finds itself in. It didn’t wash with the electorate which voted Labour. The Greens didn’t come close to a regional seat. Plaid lost ground – with more serious consequences than even the number of seats lost suggests.

The fact that the four parties support wind is undeniable. Three of them are unionist parties which have allowed Wales to stagnate economically since time immemorial, and which hitherto have been happy for control of Wales’ resources to remain at Westminster.

Plaid's adoption of the policy, whilst control remains in London, is less acceptable to me. It's a party which has long opposed the exploitation of Wales' water resources by English cities, because that water is not benefiting the people of Wales in the least. Much the same thing can be said for wind, when Wales is providing a disproportionate amount of the UK’s quota. There's a basic inconsistency there.

John

As I've indicated above, I'm sceptical of the value (on balance) of offshore wind in a small country like Wales (which has a varied and sublime landscape) but that balance would be somewhat different if Wales controlled it's resources and benefited directly from them. Then it would be a democratic decision by the people of Wales.

John Dixon said...

Maen_tramgwydd,

I accept and understand your scepticism about the value of wind energy. I don't share that scepticism, but I accept that there is room for debate, particularly on how we 'value' the costs and the benefits and how we weight them in order to reach a decision. And I entirely understand the issue about making it a decision for Wales, not one imposed upon us for the benefit of others.

But your comments about "Plaid's 'green' agenda was aimed at getting Green votes." and "trying to outdo Labour in leftist policies" go to the very heart of what is to me a key issue. For some of us, those were not positions adopted in order to win votes, they were positions adopted because we believed them to be right for Wales. Just like independence, in a sense - right for Wales even if we failed to convince Wales of that fact.

I'd accept though that for others, 'policies' - of any description - were and are no more than a matter of electoral tactics, which can and should be changed as and when necessary. Examples of the extent to which that thinking permeates the party's approach have multiplied over the last decade or so, but it would be well off thread to start listing them here. My disagreement with that viewpoint was, and remains, fundamental.

It was, and is, an essential element of my nationalism that I don't just want to see an independent Wales, I also have a view of what sort of Wales that should be. Perhaps, in reality, this whole debate just exposes the fact that Wales needs - and has long needed - more than one nationalist party, but could never afford the luxury.

maen_tramgwydd said...

Agreed, Plaid is a coalition, and has to cater for a very broad spectrum of opinion.

I wouldn't describe myself as 'left of centre' but rather as 'radical' and 'libertarian'.

For me, constitutional reform is the first priority, preferably in the form of a independent republican Wales, with a written constitution having strong safeguards on human rights. Failing that, or in the meantime, reform of the UK along the same lines.

Without those fundamental constitutional reforms I don't see that any particular reform agenda is going to get very far, whether it be socialist, green, or whatever, given the UK's constitutional settlement which leaves a perpetual political elite in government (both in Whitehall and at Westminster). Wales and the UK's problems are too deep seated.

I appreciate that constitutional reform, both in Wales and in the UK, is not a vote winner, and that nationalist parties such as Plaid and the SNP have to have interim policies and strategies on the road to independence. Therein, of course, is the conundrum.

Wales is undeniably left of centre in electoral terms. For me Plaid is the (only) vehicle for achieving self-determination, which must be its clear goal.

Subsequently, whether it remains in being as a leftist party in its own right is another matter, or is dissolved to be replaced by other parties.

Unfortunately the electorate hasn't accepted Plaid's adoption of a leftist stance, preferring Labour's, (hardly credible since Labour abandoned many of its socialist principles decades ago) but it goes to show that Plaid isn't credible in those target voters' perceptions either. Neither has the party been successful in explaining its socialist vision, not only to voters but to party members as well.

The road that Plaid has trod in recent years has blurred the distinction between it and its three major rivals in Wales, and it has paid the price for so-doing.

Anonymous said...

"Plaid's 'green' agenda was aimed at getting Green votes.. to me that seems pointless in itself as it's a party which gets even fewer votes than Plaid does."

Or could it be that Plaid actually believes in renewable energy? Their former chair who died last week was himself a pioneer of wind farms. It's nothing to do with the Green party.

"trying to outdo Labour in leftist policies"

Or in fact Plaid has been a party of the left for 30 years, adopting 'community socialism' in 1981. It's not about oudoing Labour on anything, it's Plaid's own identity as expressed by several generations of their politicians.

John Dixon said...

Anon 22:43,

I agree with the points you make - it was what I was trying to express in an earlier comment when I said that "For some of us, those were not positions adopted in order to win votes, they were positions adopted because we believed them to be right for Wales."

Maen_tramgwydd,

Your conclusion, "The road that Plaid has trod in recent years has blurred the distinction between it and its three major rivals in Wales, and it has paid the price for so-doing", is one with which I wholeheartedly agree, and it's a point which I've made on a number of occasions. The analysis put forward by some as to how things got to that point, however, is another question.

The suggestion by some in earlier comments seems to be that it is a result of trying to 'outgreen the Greens' or 'out-Labour the Labour Party'. I assume that's based on the green socialist agenda which the party has progressively adopted as policy over the years, and to which many are completely committed. However, for the preiod culminating with this year's election, the party's leadership not only avoided promulgating green or socialist policies, it also avoided promulgating Plaid's constitutional aims.

Rather than its current position being a result of adopting those standpoints, a credible alternative analysis of how Plaid 'blurred the distinction' would be that it actually failed to promote the alternative policies and standpoints which it had agreed on, choosing instead to try and fight an election on the 'middle ground' where all parties were esentially in agreement.

maen_tramgwydd said...

Anon 22:43

Yes, I know only too well of D J Davies' ideas on community socialism, and of Saunders Lewis' belief in Wales as a community of communities, but those ideas were never translated into any practical socialist platform or achievable policies which people would actually vote for. And they didn’t. Socialism and international socialism are difficult enough concepts to define being somewhat elastic in their meanings. Community socialism is even harder to get to grips with.

Undoubtedly in my mind Plaid has declared its 'socialist' ethic more vocally in the last three decades – to what extent it did so in order to win support outside of its traditional heartlands, or out of a genuine belief in it is debateable. There was a definite lurch to the left in the 1980, but it didn’t result in electoral success.

It isn't clear to me how Plaid would translate its declared left of centre sympathies into a programme of action to better the lot of Wales and its people. Hitherto it hasn’t done so or at least to any degree that appeals to the electorate. In reality it can’t do so without the power which lies at Westminster being transferred to Cardiff.

As far as I can see there is no coherence there. I don't think it would have to try very hard to outdo Labour, but even so, it has failed in that endeavour, at a time when Labour has deserted most, if not all, of its core socialist principles in a bid to win over the support of middle England.

It isn't socialism or community socialism (or any kind of socialism) that is going to better our lot in the medium to long term. That can only happen when Wales' economy is in the hands of Welsh politicians wielding power in Wales - and even then it isn't guaranteed - however, without it, there's no hope whatsoever.

Plaid's emphasis has been in the wrong place. It's put the cart before the horse.

John Dixon said...

"Undoubtedly in my mind Plaid has declared its 'socialist' ethic more vocally in the last three decades – to what extent it did so in order to win support outside of its traditional heartlands, or out of a genuine belief in it is debateable."

As far as I'm concerned, the answer was unquestionably "genuine belief"; but I'd accept that there were others for whom it was more of a tactical decision.

Choosing timescales is always difficult; what looks like a trend in one direction over 30 years (and I don't disagree with your analysis over that timescale) can look like quite a different trend over a shorter period. And I'd argue strongly that the coming of the Assembly in 1999, IWJ's ascent to the leadersip in 2000 (no-one would, surely, ever describe him as either green or socialist), and entering One Wales in 2007 were three events all of which led to a significant back-pedalling on that ethic, to the extent that, by 2011, the party's stance was indistinguishable from that of the other parties on most issues.

And neither do I disagree with your wish, if I may paraphrase a little, for the argument about self-government to be central. It was always the unifying factor which kept people with very different ideological perspectives working together.

But I don't necessarily see the two (nationalism and socialism) as being alternatives; but from my perspective, the problem is that not only has Plaid's leadership largely abandoned the self-government argument, it's also largely abandoned the argument about using self-government to create a different (socialist, green) type of Wales. And it is the abandonment of both which leaves the party trying to compete solely on the basis of being the 'best managers'. That was doomed to fail from the outset.

Anonymous said...

maen_tramwgydd

"Yes, I know only too well of D J Davies' ideas on community socialism, and of Saunders Lewis' belief in Wales as a community of communities, but those ideas were never translated into any practical socialist platform or achievable policies which people would actually vote for."

Disagree fundamentally. Plaid did adopt a number of obviously socialistic (from a Welsh perspective) policy programmes during the 80s and 90s including Dafydd Wigley's political plan for 1 million jobs, and all of Phil Williams' work- sometimes these platforms (and other factors) increased Plaid's vote at elections, sometimes they didn't, but the party did win and hold a number of seats during that period at local and UK level, contributing to the Wales-wide swing towards autonomy.

"There was a definite lurch to the left in the 1980, but it didn’t result in electoral success."

Not true. There were definite electoral successes in the 80s and early 90s. The period saw the party take Ynys Mon off the Tories and Ceredigion, on a blatantly green ticket, off the Liberals. And the ultimate electoral success of all was 97, for all its faults there wouldn't be a distinguishable Welsh politics if not for that step. And Labour would never have agreed to devolution, or won the vote itself, if Plaid hadn't featured.

You are right that the emphasis has been wrong in recent years, but they certainly haven't been emphasising 'socialism', not since the 80s when a then-Marxist Dafydd El was party President. They have been branding themselves as quite moderately centre-left in recent years, or even 'left-leaning'. The problem isn't with socialism but has arguably been with not being nationalistic enough.