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Their burning — whenever they could have been replaced by renewables — is costly capital destruction.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

Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May's offer to EU citizens leaves the 3 million with unanswered questions

So many EU citizens, so little time.

Ahead of the Brexit negotiations with the 27 remaining EU countries, the UK government has just published its pledges to EU citizens living in the UK, listing the rights it will guarantee them after Brexit and how it will guarantee them. The headline: all 3 million of the country’s EU citizens will have to apply to a special “settled status” ID card to remain in the UK after it exist the European Union.

After having spent a year in limbo, and in various occasions having been treated by the same UK government as bargaining chips, this offer will leave many EU citizens living in the UK (this journalist included) with more questions than answers.

Indisputably, this is a step forward. But in June 2017 – more than a year since the EU referendum – it is all too little, too late. 

“EU citizens are valued members of their communities here, and we know that UK nationals abroad are viewed in the same way by their host countries.”

These are words the UK’s EU citizens needed to hear a year ago, when they woke up in a country that had just voted Leave, after a referendum campaign that every week felt more focused on immigration.

“EU citizens who came to the UK before the EU Referendum, and before the formal Article 50 process for exiting the EU was triggered, came on the basis that they would be able to settle permanently, if they were able to build a life here. We recognise the need to honour that expectation.”

A year later, after the UK’s Europeans have experienced rising abuse and hate crime, many have left as a result and the ones who chose to stay and apply for permanent residency have seen their applications returned with a letter asking them to “prepare to leave the country”, these words seem dubious at best.

To any EU citizen whose life has been suspended for the past year, this is the very least the British government could offer. It would have sounded a much more sincere offer a year ago.

And it almost happened then: an editorial in the Evening Standard reported last week that Theresa May, then David Cameron’s home secretary, was the reason it didn’t. “Last June, in the days immediately after the referendum, David Cameron wanted to reassure EU citizens they would be allowed to stay,” the editorial reads. “All his Cabinet agreed with that unilateral offer, except his Home Secretary, Mrs May, who insisted on blocking it.” 

"They will need to apply to the Home Office for permission to stay, which will be evidenced through a residence document. This will be a legal requirement but there is also an important practical reason for this. The residence document will enable EU citizens (and their families) living in the UK to demonstrate to third parties (such as employers or providers of public services) that they have permission to continue to live and work legally in the UK."

The government’s offer lacks details in the measures it introduces – namely, how it will implement the registration and allocation of a special ID card for 3 million individuals. This “residence document” will be “a legal requirement” and will “demonstrate to third parties” that EU citizens have “permission to continue to live and work legally in the UK.” It will grant individuals ““settled status” in UK law (indefinite leave to remain pursuant to the Immigration Act 1971)”.

The government has no reliable figure for the EU citizens living in the UK (3 million is an estimation). Even “modernised and kept as smooth as possible”, the administrative procedure may take a while. The Migration Observatory puts the figure at 140 years assuming current procedures are followed; let’s be optimistic and divide by 10, thanks to modernisation. That’s still 14 years, which is an awful lot.

To qualify to receive the settled status, an individual must have been resident in the UK for five years before a specified (although unspecified by the government at this time) date. Those who have not been a continuous UK resident for that long will have to apply for temporary status until they have reached the five years figure, to become eligible to apply for settled status.

That’s an application to be temporarily eligible to apply to be allowed to stay in the UK. Both applications for which the lengths of procedure remain unknown.

Will EU citizens awaiting for their temporary status be able to leave the country before they are registered? Before they have been here five years? How individuals will prove their continuous employment or housing is undisclosed – what about people working freelance? Lodgers? Will proof of housing or employment be enough, or will both be needed?

Among the many other practicalities the government’s offer does not detail is the cost of such a scheme, although it promises to “set fees at a reasonable level” – which means it will definitely not be free to be an EU citizen in the UK (before Brexit, it definitely was.)

And the new ID will replace any previous status held by EU citizens, which means even holders of permanent citizenship will have to reapply.

Remember that 140 years figure? Doesn’t sound so crazy now, does it?

0800 7318496