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Martin Pawley: energy's low-level debate

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From time to time, I like to spend a winter's evening reflecting on the dangers facing the modern world, having tossed another log on the fire (contributing to 'the world's suicidal obsession with the burning of fossil fuels', as a professor writing to The Times would have it). Take global warming for a start. Two months ago, researchers from Pennsylvania State University revealed that the hot springs and geysers of Yellowstone National Park give off as much greenhouse gas as 10 coal-burning power stations. From this, they deduced that the world's natural geothermal systems must be making a big contribution to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that has not been taken into account by environmentalists.

This piece of information must have sent a large number of people scurrying back to their calculators: 600 climate scientists, 90 mps and 200,000 petition-signers who support the Greenpeace campaign to convince Tony Blair to phase out fossil fuels in favour of alternative energy sources. In their rush, they would have missed the announcement that, at present levels of efficiency, it would require 24,900 wind turbines to meet just 10 per cent of uk energy demand.

The thing is, dogged confrontations of this kind are not confined to armchair theorising about melting polar ice caps. They drive government policy too. The debate about where to put the dwellings that household- formation data shows we will need in the next 20 years, and the debate about road-traffic reduction, are being carried out in the same vein. In the first case, a surprising number of people seem ready to believe that, unless 'tough measures' are introduced to ensure that between 40 and 70 per cent of new homes are built in urban areas, then 4.4 million are about to be built in the green belt, in the course of something called 'the rape of the landscape'.

Exactly what these tough measures might be, short of chaps in striped shirts doing forced labour at gunpoint, is never explained. Britain is a country where 90 per cent of the population lives on less than 12 per cent of the land, and that proportion can hardly change very rapidly. Over the next 10 years, most new housing will inevitably be built in or around existing towns and cities.

As for the Road Traffic Reduction Targets Bill, here we see the same predilection for drastic remedies without so much as a 10-second pause to work out what they might mean in practice. The goal of reducing this traffic to five per cent less than its 1990 figure by 2005, and ten per cent less by 2010, may sound modest. But when matched against projected traffic increases, it turns out to be as draconian as forcing developers to build on brownfield sites, or phasing out fossil fuels in favour of windmills.

To achieve the 2005 reduction would require a 26 per cent reduction in vehicle miles, while the 2010 target would require another 33 per cent cut on top of that. Short of petrol rationing, or yet more labour at gunpoint, it is difficult to see how either can be enforced. Time for another log.

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