Investing in fossil fuels like ‘pouring public money into fax machines’

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Teesside Wind Farm (Owen Humphreys/PA) (PA Archive)
Teesside Wind Farm (Owen Humphreys/PA) (PA Archive)

Continuing to invest in fossil fuel industries would be like “pouring public money into keeping fax machines going at a time when people use emails”, a Government minister has said.

Appearing before peers on the Environment and Climate Change Committee on Thursday, environment minister Lord Goldsmith said it would be a “huge strategic error” for governments to try to hold on to old industries which do not strive to meet climate change prevention targets.

Speaking ahead of the Cop26 summit in Glasgow next month, he said there was still much for Government departments to do to ensure policymaking aligned with net-zero goals.

But Lord Goldsmith said good progress had been made, especially in moving away from traditional fossil fuel industries.

He told peers: “It’s not either-or, it’s not either deal with climate change or grow your economy.

“It is inconceivable, I think, that we won’t go through this low carbon transition.

“I think you’d have to be pretty brave to bet that in 20 years time we’re going to have something like the same fossil fuel global infrastructure that we have at the moment. The market would certainly suggest otherwise.

“I mean, (former US) president Trump tried very hard to keep the coal industry going on his watch, but it declined faster on his watch than it did under (former US) president Obama.

“And I think some of the market trends we’re seeing… offshore wind, we were told to expect it to reach parity in 2040/2045, that was generally accepted, that was an internal government view as well.

A power cable being laid at an offshore wind farm (Owen Humphreys/PA) (PA Wire)
A power cable being laid at an offshore wind farm (Owen Humphreys/PA) (PA Wire)

“We’re very close now within the next year or two, maybe three years, of reaching that point. But you know, we’re over a decade earlier than anticipated.

“All the trends in relation to solar power, the same.

“The transition in relation to electric vehicles is happening far faster, I think, than people anticipated.

“And I think our 2035 target (to only allow zero-emission vehicles) will look a bit silly at some point when the car companies will just make that transition because that’s an economically sensible thing to do.”

He added: “So for us to decide no, actually we’re not going to deal with climate change, we’re going to cling to this old system which is probably going to be obsolete in 20 years time in any case, I think would be a huge strategic error, let alone an ethical one, it would be a strategic economic error.”

He warned the UK would be “miles behind in a world that has left us behind”.

And he said: “I think we’d be mad to turn away, it feels to me like doing so would be like pouring public money into keeping fax machines going at a time when people use emails.

“It just doesn’t – that’s also a clumsy analogy – but it just doesn’t make sense from an economic point of view, in my view.”

Cop26 chief executive Peter Hill agreed, adding that while the costs of transitioning were coming down, the costs of not doing so were also rising.

Lord Goldsmith said it was “amazing how wrong” Government estimates of the cost of transitioning had been.

“All our estimates have been wrong in relation to costs. I mean, it’s amazing how wrong we’ve been.

You can take politicians out of the picture, this transition is still going to happen

Lord Goldsmith

“If you look at every internal UK Government prediction in relation to the costs of transition, they’ve been massively out, massively pessimistic, in fact, whether that’s offshore wind or onshore wind, whether that’s solar, or the reducing prices in relation to electric vehicles and batteries, and so on.

“If you look at the European Commission’s predictions in relation to uptake of solar here in the UK, they’re out by about 15 years.

“I mean, it is hard, it’s very hard to know what to predict where the market’s going to go, the market is so far ahead of the politics, that my view is that the job of the politician is not to try and force the market but to accelerate it.

“You can take politicians out of the picture, this transition is still going to happen.”

Mr Hill added: “Impacts are now being felt. They’re not a distant prospect, they’re a now prospect, and I think that is having an impact on politics everywhere.”

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