Feeding Africa

With so many other issues vying for our attention, it’s easy to forget the critical importance of food security. Food, water and shelter come at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and, without fulfilling these, other needs barely register. Or, to put it more simply, “a man with food has many problems, a man without food has one.”

Surrounded as we are in the industrialised world by a wide choice of affordable food, it is all too easy to forget that there are still hundreds of millions of people who don’t enjoy that luxury. Enormous strides have been made in providing food for billions more people over the last half century, but there remains a stubborn core of global hunger, with 800 million people, predominantly now in Africa, still suffering from chronic malnutrition.

We know that this is to a large degree down to poverty. Some families simply can’t afford food, while lack of roads means that food cannot be moved where it is needed. But we still need to produce the food in the first place. And as agricultural productivity goes up poor farmers can begin to lift themselves out of poverty. At the end of the day, it is prosperity that will solve the problem of chronic malnutrition.

With this in mind, it is good to see that the World Food Prize has been awarded to someone who has helped address this vital issue (Africa agriculture pioneer wins 2017 World Food Prize). The winner – Dr Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank – has been honoured for working to improve the productivity of the continent’s farming sector. This is not just about feeding people, it is a necessary first step in a transition that will allow Africans to improve their quality of life and their living standards and generate sustained economic growth.

It is easy to forget that in 1950, with many countries still emerging from a catastrophic global conflict, there were only about 2.5 billion people (a little more than a third of today’s population), while the number of malnourished was at least equal to today’s total. At that time, economic development outside Europe, North America and Australasia was low and broadly similar across swathes of Asian and African countries. Few people then would have believed that countries such as South Korea and other SE Asian tiger economies would achieve the level of development we see today. They would be astonished to see the transformation of the Chinese economy.

Meanwhile, many sub-Saharan African countries essentially stagnated. Their populations grew as modern medicine began to reduce horrendously high mortality rates, but failed attempts at running a planned economy combined with high levels of corruption and rampant tribalism benefitted no-one except for a handful of kleptocrats. Weak government, political instability and civil conflict (plus proxy wars funded by the Cold War powers) provided an environment where ordinary people struggled to survive, let alone prosper.

Fortunately, many countries are now becoming more peaceful, with a degree of political stability. We may not approve of all the regimes, but the Asian economic miracle didn’t occur in free and open democracies either. Peace and stability form another part of the base of the pyramid of needs. Many more Africans are now beginning to realise they have a lot of problems, not just having enough to eat.

It’s worth reading what Dr Adesina had to say about his work:

“You know, you can find Coca-Cola or Pepsi anywhere in rural Africa, so why can’t you find seeds or why can you not find fertilisers? It is because the model that was used to distribute those farm inputs were old models based on government distribution systems, which are very, very inefficient. So I thought the best way to do that is to support rural entrepreneurs to have their own small shops to sell seeds and fertilisers to farmers. We started these agro-dealer networks and they spread over Africa. It brought farm inputs closer to farmers and it encouraged the private sector into the rural space.”

One of the key points is that this is not about international aid. Developed countries have poured billions of dollars into Africa over many decades for essentially zero return. There is a place for aid, particularly in emergencies, but it can create dependency if not spent on projects that then become self-sustaining. Even worse, too much of it seems to have ended up in the bank accounts of the very kleptocrats who mismanaged the economy in the first place. Providing effective credit and avoiding corruption were important elements in Dr Adesina’s work as a minister in Nigeria (see President of African Development Bank wins 2017 World Food Prize).

Another point is that this removes the role of the state in supplying the agricultural sector. Considering that free enterprise has driven growth across the world over the centuries, it is surprising that so many people still distrust the profit motive and regard state control as essentially benign. Ideology apart, it behoves policymakers to take note of what actually works. In this case, facilitating the growth of small shops run by rural entrepreneurs is clearly more effective than expecting a bureaucracy to define and administer a flexible system that meets the needs of farmers.

But perhaps the most important point is that we shouldn’t deny the benefits of prosperity to poor people in subsistence economies, based on rich world views of what is right. The World Food Prize was founded by Dr Norman Borlaug, the American plant breeder credited with leading the Green Revolution (for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize). By breeding high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat and rice, he enabled millions of farmers across Asia and South America to produce bigger crops and feed their families.

Environmentalists have criticised the Green Revolution for increasing fertilizer use and damaging the environment, but without acknowledging the fact that hundreds of millions of people would have died if things had stayed as they were. The Population Bomb may really have exploded. Today, some development agencies are still wedded to the idea that organic farming is the way forward, without acknowledging that yield increases would be limited and even more habitats would be destroyed as more land was farmed. There is a school of thought that does not want today’s poor to ‘repeat the mistakes’ that the West made.

Of course, progress such as in the Green Revolution can have a downside for some people, at least in the short term. Even in the longer term, a more efficient farming sector and a growing economy will see large numbers of people leave the land and cause social disruption. But ask most people and they would jump at the chance of a better standard of living, rather than just being a better-fed subsistence farmer. Let’s hope there are more Dr Adesina’s out there and let’s hope that governments allow them to get on with their work.

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The Future of Renewable Energy

If news reports are to be believed, renewable energy is the future, alongside electric vehicles and carbon capture and storage. The government-mediated transition to this new economy (with the help of taxpayers’ money, of course) will provide energy security and create jobs in addition to meeting the primary objective of reducing carbon dioxide emissions and thereby keeping the rise in average global temperatures from pre-industrial levels to less than 2°C.

Well, sorry to rain on the parade, but there is a lot of wishful thinking associated with this view and, whether you are committed to or cynical about the whole exercise, some clarity is needed. So, for example, we hear about the rapid growth in sales of electric cars, without the broader picture.

The availability of more models from companies keen to show their green credentials while protecting their core market means more choice for early adopters who are prepared to pay the necessary premium. But we can’t project forward to future market dominance when most car buyers can’t afford them and the vast charging infrastructure needed to make them viable – a very different proposition from the token charging stations now available – is unplanned and uncosted.

As for carbon capture and storage (the magic wand that would enable us to continue burning coal and gas for the foreseeable future), the probability of an enormous network of costly, bespoke storage reservoirs being built over the next couple of decades is vanishingly small. And without either this or a guaranteed supply of low carbon electricity (wind, solar or nuclear), electric cars make no sense except as a way to improve urban air quality.

So, a report in the FT that Wind and solar expected to supply third of global power by 2040 needs to be looked at to see whether its promise of a smooth transition to green energy is realistic. The story is based on a report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance and, to quote, BNEF says that The plunging cost of wind and solar power mean they will be cheaper than coal-fired generation in many countries within five years, and will provide a third of the world’s electricity in about 25 years…” and “…unsubsidised solar power costs less than electricity from new coal-fired plants in the US, Germany and Australia, and by 2021 will reach that tipping point in other countries including China, India, Britain and Mexico.”

The report concludes that 34% of the world’s electricity will come from wind and solar by 2040 (up from just 5% today). Contrast this with the most recent forecast from ExxonMobil, which believes the total contribution of renewable energy by that date will be just 11%, with a hefty chunk of that coming from (mainly existing) hydro schemes. Some will say that oil companies have vested interests in talking up the contribution of fossil fuels, which is undeniable, but BNEF is also effectively a lobby group for an alternative view. What is interesting is that the International Energy Agency (a government-funded body that reflects its members’ commitments to emissions reduction) estimates a 21% contribution from renewables other than hydro, suggesting the Bloomberg report is over-optimistic.

The BNEF argument is that costs of solar and wind are falling to the extent that they will be cost-competitive without subsidy. At one level, this is correct, but what they ignore (or perhaps don’t understand) is that the acknowledged need for backup from coal- or gas-fired stations running on standby, plus additional transmission and integration costs, pushes the overall cost of electricity ever higher. This should be the focus of attention, rather than a market based on the marginal cost of delivering a unit of electricity when the wind is blowing. Perhaps making suppliers responsible for a guaranteed supply of electricity when needed, rather than simply buying it from them when it is available, could focus minds.

All this could be very different, of course, if there was no need for backup. Supporters of the idea of a European ‘supergrid’ evening out supply and demand across the continent are not often heard these days, perhaps indicating a recognition that even this would provide no guarantee of supply continuity. But the other option is energy storage: storing excess when it is being produced and supplying it when it is needed. In which case, we should perhaps all be heartened to read that Storage ‘not fundamentally needed’ for future power grid, scientists say.

The report, from the European Academies of Science Advisory Council, seems to suggest that, although small-scale photovoltaics, plug-in cars and domestic-scale batteries could provide much of the buffer needed to maintain supplies, demand-side management could make the need for storage redundant if there were enough competing suppliers of electricity. Based no doubt on modelling, this should be taken with a pinch of salt, but it is an indication that no-one can really predict what the future holds for our electricity supply systems.

But to take a step back, a further quote from the FT story is very pertinent and should make policymakers sit up: “BNEF points out that even if its projections are correct, the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector will be only about 4 per cent lower in 2040 than they are today. To hit the trajectories that might be needed to stand a good chance of keeping global warming to the internationally-agreed objective of ‘well below’ 2C, more radical action would be needed, said Mr Zindler.”

If quite fundamental changes to electricity generation are likely to have such a small impact, even with optimistic assumptions, then how feasible is the supposedly essential project to slash carbon dioxide emissions by mid-century likely to be? For example, to make significant progress, the thorny issue of domestic heating has to be addressed. Is it to be by electrification, in which case that electricity has to be low-carbon, or is to be by conversion to hydrogen (which presents enormous challenges), in which case the electricity needed for hydrogen production also has to be low-carbon?

The answer to this conundrum has to be research and development, rather than throwing more and more money at technologies that are not up to the task. In the meantime, more focus on flood, drought and heatwave resilience would not go amiss. There is no sign that the projected greater incidence of extreme weather is happening, but they will continue to happen unpredictably and we need to be prepared.

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Risk-free food

Food plays a unique part in our lives. At minimum, it is essential for life, but it also has great cultural significance. For those of us lucky enough to live in peaceful, prosperous societies, eating can be an important source of pleasure rather than simply a means to keep us alive.

But eating is not entirely risk-free. The present-day surge in rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes is strongly related to the ubiquity of affordable food, and food poisoning of varying severity can still be an unpleasant fact of life. But, alongside these very real risks, many people choose to minimise other perceived or hypothetical risks and eat food they consider safer or healthier, which has led to a view of organic food being superior.

While choice of variety and freshness of produce can undoubtedly make food tastier and more enjoyable, there is no intrinsic reason why such quality cannot be delivered via ‘conventional’ farming and, indeed, it often is. Nevertheless, the ‘organic’ branding has proved to be very successful, despite there being no consistent, demonstrable differences in terms of safety or nutritional value.

A key part of the organic message is, of course, the eschewing of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The use only of animal and green manures is for environmental rather than safety issues (the environmental impact is actually not a black and white issue, but these arguments are for a separate occasion), but the refusal to use synthetic crop protection chemicals has a food safety component.

A strong association between the words ‘natural’ and ‘safe’ has become established in the general psyche, while ‘synthetic’ and ‘chemical’ are seen as hazard warnings. With the concept of dose-related risk being lost on the general public, the detection of even tiny amounts of pesticides is regarded as a risk to health. No amount of quoting Bruce Ames, talk of safety factors or analogies of drops in Olympic-sized swimming pools seems capable of changing this. It is a view based on emotion rather than rational argument.

While minimisation of risk for all concerned (with due regard for benefits) should always be the aim, the most recent formulation of EU pesticide regulations in terms of hazard is regarded by many scientists as an unnecessary step too far. The negative impacts on farmers and the food supply have been put forward as reasons to retain the previous risk-based regulations, but to no avail. The orthodoxy among regulators now is that pesticides must become ever safer.

A significant victory for the anti-pesticides brigade is the temporary banning of neonicotinoid insecticides, based on their unproven link with major declines in bee populations. The aim is now to make that ban permanent if possible. But an even bigger target for the campaigners is glyphosate, the world’s most widely used weedkiller, which has made a fortune for Monsanto under its Roundup brand.

Glyphosate has been attacked for many years because of hypothetical environmental damage. However, it is generally regarded as one of the most benign crop protection chemicals; it targets a particular biochemical pathway found in green plants, but has very low toxicity to animals. That doesn’t mean that it is not used in combination of adjuvants with higher toxicity, but that can be true of any crop protection chemical. In any case, the major suppliers and distributors have an excellent record of minimising risk and training spray operators.

Things changed when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the World Health Organisation, declared glyphosate to be a potential carcinogen in 2015. This category (2B) includes a wide range of common materials, including bitumen, titanium dioxide, carbon nanotubes, bracken, aloa vera extract, as well as doing carpentry, dry cleaning, printing or working shifts as a living. This is a lower risk category than many components of coffee, which have been shown to be mammalian carcinogens.

This re-categorisation was controversial but has, of course, been seized upon by campaigners who want to see glyphosate banned (the reasons for this are many and varied, with human safety not necessarily being the highest on the list). It has, not surprisingly, delayed the re-approval of the herbicide in the EU. Despite EFSA’s continued view that re-approval is justified, some MEPs are pressing for this to be refused.

However, a report this week from Reuters provides some interesting and important background to this issue (Special report: cancer agency left in the dark over glyphosate evidence). The key point is that the person who chaired the IARC meeting at which the decision was made – epidemiologist Aaron Blair – was aware of unpublished data that significantly weakened the case against glyphosate.

The Agricultural Health study was a large-scale study of about 89,000 farm workers and their families, capable of showing statistically significant links between a range of chemicals and various cancers. However, the published results did not include the work on pesticides, said to be “to make the paper a more manageable size”. Blair himself was one of the authors, and has testified that access to this data would probably have changed the committee’s decision.

Reuters asked for independent assessments. This is what they got:

Tarone [a retired statistician who had worked alongside Blair] said the absence of herbicide data in the published 2014 paper was “inexplicable,” noting that volume of data had not been an issue in any previous published papers. He said updated AHS data and analyses on herbicides “should be published as soon as possible” to allow “a more complete evaluation of the possible association between glyphosate exposure and NHL risk in humans.”

Spiegelhalter [Cambridge Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk] told Reuters: “In the drafts I saw, none of the herbicides, including glyphosate, showed any evidence of a relation” with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He noted that the study was statistically strong enough to show a relationship for other pesticides – so had there been any link to glyphosate, it should have shown up.

The motivation for all this we can only guess at, but it seems that there is a predisposition among some scientists to damn pesticides unfairly. If evidence that glyphosate caused harm had remained unpublished, there would have been an outcry. We can only hope that scientific evidence wins out in this case. If not, a further dangerous precedent will have been set and farmers (and gardeners) will have lost an extremely useful weedkiller. But whatever the outcome, our food – whether organic or mainstream – will be as safe as ever.

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American exceptionalism

The United States is an exceptional country in so many ways, as visitors can attest. For Brits, a common language at first masks the vast cultural divide between the Old and New Worlds. Americans themselves though are keenly aware of the sense of difference. This uniqueness is not just about culture, but about the country’s position in the world. Having been the world’s largest economy since the 1920s, the willingness to engage more fully in global affairs led to the superpower status that has dominated world politics since the middle of last century, albeit in competition with the Soviet Union for much of that time.

This sense of difference, mission and superiority is encapsulated in the concept of American exceptionalism, which has been embedded in the national psyche since independence, although economic power has added another (important) dimension. This has not always made the USA popular, and the country remains out of step on some otherwise-consensual issues, such as refusing to be bound by the International Criminal Court.

Now, President Trump has taken a big step in reinforcing this pattern, by pledging to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. There has been intense criticism of this decision, although it was not entirely unexpected. This is overlaid on a deep dislike of the President from many quarters although, it has to be said, this is countered by equally strong backing from his supporters. The 45th President is certainly both a divisive as well as unconventional head of state, but it’s worth taking a step back now that the dust has settled to analyse just what this latest move means.

First, to put it in context, America has form on climate change policy. President Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, but never put it to a vote in the Senate, where it would have been heavily defeated. Vice-President Gore has been a high profile supporter of the IPCC orthodoxy for some time, but George W Bush, who defeated him to become 43rd President, attracted criticism for his withdrawal from the Protocol.

Some people have wondered how a different result at this election – the tightness of which introduced us to the concept of ‘hanging chads’ in Florida – would have altered the situation. The simple answer is ‘not at all’; a hypothetical President Gore would have retained Bill Clinton’s position, but there was never a chance of the Senate voting to ratify the Protocol. The Obama administration reversed the position again, by supporting action to reduce emissions, via the Clean Air Act and various EPA actions.

More recently, President Obama was a vocal supporter of the Paris Agreement and the joint support from the US and Chinese governments was instrumental in getting rapid ratification by the great majority of countries that have signed. Virtually all 196 parties to the UNFCC have signed, with the exception of Nicaragua and Syria. By ensuring that the language of the Agreement was couched in the language necessary to argue that it was not a Treaty, ratification by the Senate was deemed not to be needed, and Barack Obama ratified it by Executive Order.

While the debate about the constitutionality of this rumbles on in some quarters, Donald Trump has accepted its legitimacy by announcing the US withdrawal, rather than pronouncing it invalid. The important issue is what his action really means and what the wider implications may be.

The first point is that, although the Paris Agreement has been lauded as the first global agreement on climate change policy, it is toothless. It effectively uses peer-group pressure to encourage individual states to keep on the straight and narrow, demanding only that countries produce their individual plans to reduce emissions and commit to setting more ambitious targets at a later date. For emerging economies and less developed countries, its importance lies in the promise of finance from richer countries to smooth their paths towards lowering emissions.

The second point is that America has already made very good progress in cutting emissions – without any commitment to international targets – by switching from domestic coal to even-cheaper domestic shale gas to provide much of its energy, along with improvements to energy efficiency. And it seems certain that a number of US States and cities will continue along their own paths to cut local emissions in any case. In other words, the Donald’s decision will make precious little real difference.

However, the symbolic importance of this action is huge. While peer pressure may work to an extent, there are really only four main players on a global scale: China, the USA, India and the EU. Between them, they account for more than 50% of global emission. China has been the biggest emitter for some time and, while India’s emissions rank significantly lower, the country will become a much bigger user of energy as the economy grows and the population overtakes that of China before too long.

The EU is ideologically committed to its present path of emissions reduction, despite a distinct lack of enthusiasm in some of the newer member states and the high costs of only modest success for Germany’s energiewende. China and India have nothing to lose: their emissions are continuing to grow and their only commitment is to have these peak at some undetermined time. To do this, they will receive a significant subsidy from rich country taxpayers. They can well afford to join with the EU in condemning American action.

Having spent decades hammering home the message that global action on emissions reduction is vital, this action by one of the big players may have little practical impact on planned actions, but it does make other countries perhaps consider the once unthinkable: a watering down of stated ambitions and even a withdrawal from international agreements.

If known waverers are tempted to follow Donald Trump’s lead and other countries are perhaps spurred into action by economic realities, the culmination of years of negotiation could be fatally compromised. No matter that it may make little or no difference to levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, the loss of support for the Paris Agreement from more than a handful of countries could mark the high water mark of international consensus on climate change policy. The present complex, unwieldy and ineffectual top-down policies may have effectively had their day. For those who believe that slashing emissions is an urgent priority, this should catalyse a search for new, simpler and economically-competitive ways to achieve their goals.

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A Manifesto for Science

Today, we have published our Manifesto for Science, a subject that has received virtually no coverage in this election campaign. The full text is below:

A MANIFESTO FOR SCIENCE

The Scientific Alliance believes that generating new knowledge and applying it wisely can continue to improve the prosperity and quality of life for all British citizens while protecting and enhancing the environment. This manifesto has been issued to suggest what steps can be taken by a UK Government to enhance the benefits of scientific discovery and application.

Legislation that is proven to work

  • We support legislation developed from evidence-driven policymaking and believe it is vital policies and legislation should be subject to objective independent post-implementation review to ensure optimum effectiveness and avoid damaging unintended consequences.
  • Policymaking is also likely to be improved by encouraging more trained scientists and engineers to stand for election to both the UK Parliament and national legislatures.

Securing Britain’s advantages in Science

  • Research in science and engineering is a major driver of economic growth and the UK currently has a number of internationally-recognised strengths. The next government should maintain and support the country’s current science base and facilitate its further expansion.
  • It should also take a balanced and objective view on emerging technologies such as gene editing and ensure that their potential benefits are realised by providing appropriate support within a science-based regulatory framework.

Energy

  • An affordable and secure energy supply is vital for a prosperous modern society and this is recognised by all major political parties. The nature of the system that delivers this must not, however, be predetermined by political considerations. Scientists and engineers can deliver national objectives but the public should be fully aware of all costs and environmental impacts.
  • Low energy costs are fundamental to a dynamic modern industrial economy and the overall costs of generating and distributing electricity should be a key consideration when developing a strategy.
  • A sensible way forward would be to set up a truly independent body of experts, led by an eminent and respected chair, with a wide-ranging brief to review the cost, security and carbon-intensity of the system as well as energy efficiency measures – such as insulation – and their broader implications. This body should report its findings and recommendations on how best to achieve the desired outcome to Parliament rather than Government.
  • Given concerns about the operation of the electricity market and well-meaning but misguided proposals for price capping, a similar body should be set up to review all options for governance of the electricity system, also making its recommendations to Parliament.
  • Use of indigenous energy supplies should be encouraged wherever economic and technologically justified. We should, however, also be open to the potential of any and all energy sources, including nuclear fission (and, in future, fusion) and storage technologies to contribute to a secure and affordable supply.

Benefitting from Brexit

  • The Scientific Alliance believes it is important that a post-Brexit agricultural support scheme continues to safeguard the rural environment and economy while facilitating global competitiveness and delivering an acceptable level of food security.
  • Brexit gives the UK a unique chance to review clinical research regulations including genomic editing, murine modelling and accessing new medicines pre Phase 3 trials for self-funders. This would strengthen our position at the forefront of life science research.
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Rational Policymaking

Governments are elected for a whole variety of reasons, but a key one is that we hope they will spend taxpayers’ money wisely. Bill Clinton’s famous phrase – “it’s the economy, stupid” – really sums up politics in a nutshell. For sure, voters may be tempted to vote for the party that promises the most goodies, but ultimately all the good things in life have to be paid for.

The money may all come directly from taxes or it may be supplemented by borrowing. Many major economies have run large deficits for years, but we as individuals still pay the price of this because some of our tax pounds, euros or dollars are used for interest payments. With global interest rates so low, this may seem like a good deal, but as they inevitably rise at some point, debt financing will becoming an increasing burden. On a more personal level, domestic finances will also be hit hard as large mortgages and car loans become unaffordable. At some point in the economic cycle, this will end in tears.

The soundest economic advice – both for governments and individuals – is therefore always to put money aside for a rainy day when times are good, rather than simply spend whatever comes in. The Norwegian sovereign wealth fund built up from oil and gas revenues is a case in point. Meanwhile, in the UK, the last Labour government increased spending rapidly when times were good, only to be caught out by the 2008 global financial crisis. The earliest the country’s books look like being balanced is now the early 2020’s, with the squeeze on funding of public services becoming increasingly obvious.

Any large organisation has inefficiencies, and national government departments are certainly no exception. Significant costs have been cut at national level without the sky falling. At the same time, local government has had very large cuts to income while managing in most cases to deliver core services satisfactorily. But there is only so far we can go with cost-cutting; the other side of the coin is to increase tax revenues. Facilitating economic growth boosts revenues without most people complaining.

We expect our elected governments keep us safe and put in place policies that enable all citizens to have a roof over their heads with affordable food, heat and light and decent medical care. We also expect an adequate infrastructure for transport and IT. How these basics are delivered is immaterial; it just needs to be done and to be done as efficiently as possible.

Unfortunately, this is where politics comes in. On the Left, there is a belief that “common” ownership (that is, the State) should deliver services, largely because of a distrust of the profit motive. On the Right, there is a stronger belief in free markets as the preferred way to provide things efficiently. In practice, there is a very broad centre ground, in which some form of regulated market economy rules. And there are some things that, flawed as they may be, governments of any stripe tinker with at their peril.

As others have said, the NHS is almost a national religion in the UK. Certainly the revolution in healthcare delivered to all for free (at the point of delivery, but paid from taxes; nothing is really free) by the Atlee government brought massive benefits to many people. But the vast, many-tentacled organisation that is today’s NHS is proving difficult to fund adequately through taxation and has multiple areas of crisis, from staff training and retention to equitable availability of expensive drugs and treatments.

In practice, a significant proportion of NHS expenditure goes through private providers, which has increased efficiency in some respects. And no other country has quite the single monolithic structure that is care provision in the UK. Hospitals run by independent foundations, care funded via insurance schemes, much larger numbers of primary care providers which individual patients are free to pick and choose; all these and more deliver care successfully in other advanced economies. Rather than ask “how do we improve the NHS?” future governments should ask the broader question “how do we deliver high quality care to everyone most effectively?” No lesson from other countries should be ignored.

There are plenty of other examples of the wrong question being asked, inevitably giving the wrong answer. HS2, for example. To be fair, the question in this case was how to increase capacity on the west coast main line railway, which is a reasonable one. But the answer was politically determined, with a new high-speed rail link being built as what can only be seen as a national vanity project. Shortening the London to Birmingham journey time by 2026 at a capital cost of £22bn does not seem like value for money. Extending the lines to the north west and north east by the mid-2030s is likely to cost nearly twice as much.

The project has been justified economically by the assumption that shorter journey times are worth money to people, an assumption that is hard to justify in this age of mobile phones and broadband connections. And the elephant in the room is ticket cost. Already, walk-on rail fares to the HS2 destinations are very high and paid almost exclusively by businesses. HS2 trains are likely to be occupied exclusively by business travellers at peak times and by those who have booked many weeks ahead to get affordable off-peak fares. The elephant in the room may very well turn out to be white.

A better question to have asked would have been “how do we make it easier for people to make north-south journeys when they need to?” The answer may have been to provide more road capacity, which could be used more flexibly by cars and long distance coaches. An alternative may have been to make the existing line suitable for longer, double-deck trains.

Something that affects all consumers as well as all businesses is energy, in terms both of reliability and cost. Energy policy is currently a mess, driven not by efficiency and security targets, but by goals for the reduction of CO2 emissions. This is compounded by requiring politically-driven targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency to be met. The rational answer to the question of how to reduce emissions would be to incentivise organisations to do this in the most efficient way via a flat rate ‘carbon tax’. If applied over recent decades, the result would have been a move from coal to gas (which has already occurred) plus investment in new nuclear stations. Most renewables wouldn’t get a look in unless they were able to operate without subsidy.

In a week’s time, the UK will have a new government. Before too long, that government will no longer be bound by EU regulations and should be able to take a more objective approach to policymaking. It will have an obligation to take advice from experts when formulating policy, not just those lobbying for a particular solution. Energy supply, so crucial to all aspects of life, would be a good place to start.

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Emissions reduction without tears

In recent weeks, I have been very critical of both the costs and feasibility of relying on renewable energy, particularly when it comes to the enormous task of converting effectively all land-based energy use to electricity. Normally, such a change would be driven by a quantum leap in technology (the distribution of first gas then electricity direct to individual homes) or economics (in a more limited way, the ‘dash for gas’ in the 1990s). The ‘rush for renewables’ on the other hand, is driven entirely by government policy on reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

Targets have been set for renewables – which means wind and solar at present, plus burning imported wood pellets in lieu of coal – because conceptually they are clean and sustainable while generating no direct emissions of CO2 (none of which applies to wood-burning). However, because wind and other forms of ‘free’ energy are diffuse, they need expensive infrastructure to capture them, and because they rely on natural phenomena, they are intermittent and therefore non-despatchable.

All this means that they need essentially equivalent backup capacity and can realistically only fulfil a proportion of overall energy needs. This is one reason why another option preferred by policymakers is carbon capture and storage (CCS), which theoretically allows as much coal or gas as we like to be used as a fuel, with the resulting CO2 captured and buried.

The main problem is that, with the exception of one or two very specific projects, government-funded attempts to encourage CCS projects have ended in failure. The other issue is that net energy requirements would rise substantially to fuel the capture and transfer of carbon dioxide. Suffice it to say that this is not a technology that is likely ever to make a real contribution to emissions reduction.

Some people would argue that, apart from the waste of money (paid ultimately by consumers and taxpayers) the failure of these favoured technologies to produce the transformation envisaged doesn’t matter. In their view, trying to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is better done once we have a viable way to do it. If you take this view, then we also have to factor in the opportunity cost of going down what is currently essentially a blind alley. The money devoted to making electricity supply more expensive could be used in a whole host of much better ways.

If, on the other hand, you believe that drastic emissions reduction as envisaged by the IPCC in general and the Climate Change Act in particular are either essential or a justified precaution, you should be concerned that the current focus on renewable energy is not the way to meet the targets.

Unfortunately, there is rarely a meeting of minds between these two schools of thought, but there is a way forward that should be attractive to both groups is they are open-minded: nuclear energy. Despite the knee jerk opposition from some groups, nuclear fission has proven to be the only safe and reliable generation technology that does not produce CO2 in the process. Chernobyl – almost a worst-case scenario – resulted in the deaths of 47 workers and nine children with thyroid cancer, while wildlife has continued to thrive in the exclusion zone around the entombed reactor. This loss of life is tragic, but small in comparison to the ongoing deaths from coal mining or other industrial accidents. In the case of Fukushima, there have been no radiation-linked deaths, despite the high death toll from the tsunami itself.

While never going to be ‘too cheap to meter’ as former prime minister Harold Wilson unwisely said, nuclear power plants generate electricity at a very competitive price, which is significantly lower than wind when the cost of backup is taken into account. Fuel costs are very low, but there remains the difficulty of high capital cost. This is one of the reasons why the price agreed with EDF for electricity from their planned HInkley Point C plant is £92.50/MWh. This is unnecessarily high, but still good value for a reliable supply of electricity for half a century or more. Nevertheless, the price has been criticised by the renewables industry, whose plants would increase the cost of electricity to the consumer to higher levels still.

Another reason why the price negotiated with EDF was so high is that there are rather few companies in a position to get funding for nuclear new build at present. The planned closure of German reactors and the shrinking of the French fleet to make way for renewables have put potential suppliers in a very difficult commercial position. This has been exacerbated by severe cost and time overruns on new reactors in Finland and France, caused in part by the need to meet revised safety standards after construction had started.

One of the contributory factors to the very high capital cost are the exceptionally demanding standards on release of radiation. In the real world, it is rarely possible to relax safety standards, but the current ones are based on there being no safe dose for exposure, whereas the strong evidence is that the body copes very well with minor radiation damage (including from solar radiation) on a daily basis.

But if the will is there, the current commercial difficulties are not insurmountable. Once there is an order book, construction costs begin to come down as reactors are built to a standard design. There is also a good argument for building small modular reactors (SMRs) that could be factory assembled and delivered ready for commissioning. Although economies of scale would be lost, SMRs could also be used for urban combined heat and power schemes and production line techniques would bring their cost down.

The difficulties are well worth overcoming. Uranium is plentiful and much of the ‘waste’ currently generated represents additional fuel for a different fuel cycle. Current pressurised water and boiling water designs are not the only ones; molten salt-cooled reactors hold a lot of promise. In the longer run, thorium is an even more abundant fissile element that could supply clean electricity for centuries. And fission isn’t the only game in town. Nuclear fusion continues to be developed using various approaches; not just the planned ITER tokamak. Don’t hold your breath, but at some stage commercialisation may no longer be 30 years away.

Some more creative thinking is needed. Renewable energy is not able to transform our energy networks in the way envisaged by some, so we need a ‘no regrets’ policy that delivers the emissions reductions prescribed while leaving us with an affordable and reliable energy supply if climate change turns out to be less of a problem than we thought. At the heart of this lies nuclear.

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