Cheerleading Not Science

Yesterday Professor John Loughhead the Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change published a blog: ‘Securing the UK’s Energy Future: the role of gas’.

Given it came so soon after COP21, the global climate change talks, my initial reaction was one of dismay. Natural gas is a fossil fuel so the more we use it the worse climate change will get. However I thought I should put this aside and examine what was actually said in the blog.

This blog is by the chief scientist at DECC so my starting point, as for any other reporting of science, was ‘what was the question being asked?’ Fortunately the blog opened with a question: ‘how do we achieve an 80% cut in our carbon emissions by 2050, while maintaining a secure supply of energy at an affordable price?’

Is this a good question?

My view is that it’s not bad but it could be framed much better. Firstly I think we can make it slightly clearer without changing its meaning substantially:

How should energy be supplied in the UK in coming decades given objectives of reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, maintaining a secure supply of energy and keeping prices of energy affordable?

This blog was particularly focussed on gas, both conventional and from fracking, but as you logically need to have some idea of the role of other sources of energy to understand the role of gas the above question seems like a reasonable one. Indeed there is much to like in this question. It is asking about our future energy supply which is an important issue on which our health and livelihoods depend. It brings together three important considerations – carbon reduction targets, security of supply and affordability.

However there are several issues with its current framing. Most importantly is its approach to climate change and carbon reduction. Climate change depends on the global cumulative carbon footprint, not just the UK’s one and not just up until 2050. This framing is particular important when considering developing new supplies of fossil fuels. For example fracking will only lower carbon emissions if the fuels it displaces are not burnt elsewhere in the world. Otherwise it is simply increasing the cumulative footprint. There is no recognition of the need at some point to reach net zero, or even negative, carbon emissions. There is also no recognition that the faster we go with carbon reductions the fewer harms from climate change we will see.

Another potential issue with the framing of this question is that there are many other impacts of the energy system e.g.on the local economy, on health, on competing land use. I think it would have been useful to explain why the issues in the opening question are the primary concern of the author.

My final concern about the framing of the question is: Should a scientist, in his role as a scientist, be trying to answer this question? The blog strongly emphasises that it is based on scientific evidence. There is no suggestion that value judgments have been made by the author or those doing the reports he cites. Yet there must necessarily be value judgments made in the evaluation of preferred future energy mix; for example in weighting the importance of different benefits and impacts or judging how important distributional issues are. My personal opinion is that scientists, even government scientists, should openly give opinions about what policy choices they think are best and say when policy contradicts this. But if they do it is important that they explain when differences of opinion are due to scientific knowledge and when they are due to value judgments.

Is the argument well made? 

This blog mentioned lots of things which are relevant to a discussion of what is the best energy mix in the coming decades; including emissions reductions, the need for heating, the need to maintain security of supply, affordability, the work of the Climate Change Committee, the removal of coal from the mix, our existing infrastructure like the gas grid, and the safety of fracking.

Implicit but not always stated was that when these factors are examined gas is shown to be a necessary part of the future energy mix. There was no attempt to explain how other energy sources related to these issues, beyond saying that wind and nuclear would be important in the future mix. This is the fundamental problem with this blog. It repeatedly said that gas would be important in our energy mix for decades to come but without developing a clear idea of the alternatives which this was better than. There was no clear consideration of other options. There was no counterfactual. Without some discussion of other options and a clear list of the criteria being used to judge them how can we decide what options might be best?  One notable omission, which I thought really should have been mentioned, was the role of energy efficiency in reducing demand. I was pretty shocked that this wasn’t mentioned given the early emphasis in the blog on emissions reductions. Any understanding of energy supply options must include the question of how much energy we will need which will depend on how much energy efficiency we can achieve.

This lack of comparison of options made it very hard to make a judgment about the piece’s conclusion that gas will be important for decades to come. There just isn’t enough information given. Gas may have very real strengths in terms of existing infrastructure and consistency of supply for example but unless this is explicitly compared to the relative costs/benefits associated with renewables, nuclear and efficiency options then how can we know. Other issues like security of supply and affordability which are (I think) presented as arguments for gas here could be strong arguments for greater renewables. For example on the face of it there seems to be great potential security advantages to using renewables supplied by a distributed UK wide renewable network. Affordability will crucially depend on future policy decisions. For example if subsidies for gas were cut what would that do to these choices? What would happen if an increased carbon price were introduced into the system?

The blog did not get into these arguments instead pointing to the work of others. The referencing to this other work was really abysmal. For example early in the blog the following was written:

“So what does the evidence tell us? According to various projections including those from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), if we are to meet our future carbon targets, the UK’s energy supplies should be mostly made up of gas, nuclear, and wind in 2030[1].”

I went to reference [1] expecting to find a CCC report so I could look at what research they had used and what assumptions and value judgments they had made. To my surprise I found the reference to be a report by an energy consultancy firm to the CCC on carbon capture and storage (which has recently been in the news in the UK because of the Chancellor cutting funding for its development). This report includes in its introduction information from the CCC’s fourth carbon budget. The work of the CCC is extensive and may well include strong arguments for why, based on their modelling, gas will be an important part of the mix. It seems sensible for the chief scientist from DECC to base his arguments on this work but I don’t think it’s good enough for his blog just to say that the CCC say so (and then reference something else!). A brief paragraph could have explained who did the modeling, what the main characteristics of the model, what assumptions were made and what were its conclusions. Without knowing where to look exactly and having lots of spare time to dig around it is impossible to examine these assumptions and the resultant conclusions.

Another example of poor use of evidence was shown when arguing for the safety of fracking; “the evidence shows that the shale gas industry can be taken forward safely. Reports by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, and Public Health England all conclude that risks can be safely managed, with best practice enforced through regulation”.

No references were given but I know that Public Health England have reported on fracking here. Their report did not conclude that all risks of fracking could be safely managed. It could not do this because ‘considerations such as climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, sustainable use of water resources, nuisance issues such as noise and odours, traffic (apart from vehicle exhaust emissions), occupational health, and visual impact, are not considered in this review.’ So although the report did conclude that based on available evidence ‘the potential risks to public health from exposure to the [chemical and radiological] emissions associated with shale gas extraction will be low if the operations are properly run and regulated’ it could not make a judgment about all risks. The sentence above would read very differently if this was made clear by adding the following words: ‘Public Health England conclude that [some of the] risks can be managed safely’. Overstating the evidence in favour of a particular course of action is concerning in something written by a government scientific advisor.

My final thought concerns the tone of the argument. It seems to me wrong for a scientist to talk about a policy choice as a certain future outcome e.g. ‘gas will play a role in years to come’. There is no certainty in the future and we have choice as to what our future energy mix includes. This author may have weighed up the evidence and concluded that gas should be part of the future mix but it seems decidedly unscientific to fail to acknowledge that this is based on value judgments, as well as evidence, and to suggest that this ‘will’ happen.

Conclusions

It’s my view that the blog which I’ve reviewed here was not of the standard which we should reasonably expect of a chief scientific advisor to the government. The question being asked was poorly framed, the argument poorly reasoned and the evidence poorly used. Given this, this blog appears to be little more than cheerleading for government policy while using science to give a veneer of authority. There may be good arguments both for and against the use of gas over the coming decades but this blog did nothing to help clarify this.

Postscript

I would value constructive comments on my blog. Are my criticisms fair? Am I trying to hold a simple blog to too high a scientific standard? Has my concern about climate change meant I’ve missed good arguments within the blog?

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