Why waste oil burning it when we can use it to make things?

The cost of <em>not</em> switching to renewables.

Grist's David Roberts highlights a really important piece of research by the World Future Council, examining the non-climate-change-related cost of not switching to renewables.

The reasoning is simple: fossil fuels can be burned to make energy, or used as a raw material (e.g. for production of plastics). Every barrel of oil we burn for energy is therefore a barrel which we can't use as a raw material. Thus:

Their burning — whenever they could have been replaced by renewables — is costly capital destruction.

The report concludes that the "future usage loss" resulting from current consumption is between $3.2trn and $3.4trn a year.

Roberts writes that "the exact numbers here are, like numbers in all economic modeling, probably going to turn out to be wrong," and he's definitely right. At first glance, the most important thing absent from the initial paper is no discussion of the difference between present and future value.

This isn't just the problem that resources worth $3.2trn at today's prices might not be worth that at tomorrow's; its also that rigorous economic analysis always discounts the future.

Consider it this way: if you had the option to be paid £100 now or £100 in a year, you would clearly choose the former. The money in the future is less valuable, even though it is nominally the same amount. That's partially because people want things now, of course; but it's also because if you took the £100 now and put it in a savings account, it would be worth more than £100 in 12 month's time. (And let's not even begin on the discussions of how new technology will change the value of fossil fuels as raw materials in ways we can't begin to predict. How will things change, for instance, if conductive plastics take off?)

The same thinking needs to be applied to the question of the "destruction" of potential resources. Their value today — and thus the degree to which they ought to encourage us to switch to renewables — is lower the further into the future we are going to use them.

But really, the discussion of the actual value is slightly moot. Unless we're doing a massive overview of the costs of climate change mitigation — a second Stern report — then we can't properly weigh those costs against all the others. What we can say is that this is an under-discussed benefit of switching to renewable technology sooner rather than later, and of promoting climate change prevention rather than mitigation.

Incidentally, the research also provides a counter-point to the claim that it's not safe to leave fossil fuels in the ground. That's the argument that:

If we build enough renewable energy capacity to supply our entire system, there are still fossil fuels ready to burn. The people who built the renewable capacity may not want to burn them – but what about the next government? Or the next generation?

One option is to prevent future irresponsibility by burning fossil fuels today but with carbon capture and storage, ensuring that the carbon goes back underground. But another option is to switch to renewables and then continue using the fossil fuels for material production, locking up carbon not in vaults underground but in plastics.

In that analysis, even landfills get an image rehabilitation. They become gigantic carbon sinks, encouraging further use of fossil fuels as raw materials, removing more and more potential atmospheric carbon from circulation. There's hope for everyone yet.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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