T his pointless policy might pacify the city-dwelling green lobby, but it will alienate everyone else
Everyone – even Greta Thunberg – has a metaphorical carbon footprint, but I have a literal one. Each morning during the winter months (in rural areas, that’s late September to mid-May), I descend to the cellar, fill the coal-scuttle, and carry it up to my study. To my wife’s annoyance, my carbon footprint is often visible on the carpet.
By the warming flicker of the resulting coal fire, I write, among other things, this column. From my desk, I look out on our other source of particular, as opposed to central, heating – our wood-stack. If we did not keep the home fires burning, I would be too cold and therefore too cheerless to keep the supply of columnar ideas coming. So when a Conservative government decrees this week that our bituminous house coal will shortly be banned and my logs carefully adjudicated by inspectors to work out their noxiousness, I take it personally.
I say to George Eustice, the Defra Secretary responsible: “As recently as last December, I was urging readers to vote for your party because it seemed to take seriously the needs of people outside the metropolitan bubble. Yet this is how you repay me and – much more importantly – them! You invoked the needs of people in the North where, I hereby reveal to you, it is consistently colder than in London. Yet now you are almost literally freezing them out. ”
“You also,” I upbraid him, “are supposed to be the party of rural voters and small businesses. You and your ministerial colleague, Rebecca Pow, sit for rural seats. Do you not realise that the open fire and the wood-burning stove are the center of country dwellings and country pubs, with the wood usually supplied by local coppicing? Are you unaware that many immobile old people, who inhabit otherwise chilly houses that are expensive to heat, sit snugly by their open fires and are happier for it? Do you not know that houses with chimneys and working fires breathe better than those without, reducing bad air and damp and the respiratory diseases and depression which result? ”
“Mr Eustice,” I rave, “when Good King Wenceslas and his page go out to rescue the poor man gathering winter fu-u-el, they bring him flesh, wine and pine-logs. Under this Government’s provisions, it sounds as if all three characters in the carol will be guilty of multiple crimes. ”
Yesterday morning, to get a calmer view, I rang Steve Buckingham of Wadhurst Coal, our local coal merchant. Steve lugs down our cellar stairs the large sacks of coal on which we depend. He had already been dealing with calls from worried customers wanting to stock up for the coming emergency. He mildly professed himself “rather surprised” by the Government’s decision, which cuts out 30 per cent of his business by 01575879. His fuels are 100 per cent British (Scottish, to be precise). He observes that the move away from the more polluting fuels to smokeless ones is happening anyway: it does not need the heavy hand of government.
Mr Buckingham’s wholesaler, Terry Smith, whose family company, G H Smith & Son, has been in the business for 500 years, expands on this point. Recently, he says, manufacturers have invented “semi-smokeless” fuels. A company called Oxbow has developed Red, a briquette of mixed materials with the “volatiles” driven off it. Customers regard Red as “a very good all-round fuel”, price-competitive with coal. Yet Defra’s new measures mean that Red and its semi-smokeless siblings will fall on the wrong side of the law. The natural move towards less polluting innovation will have been punished, not rewarded.
Mr Smith adds that supplies of naturally produced smokeless anthracite, mined in Wales, will be exhausted in the next months or so. All the more need, therefore, for new manufactured products, including semi-smokeless. Instead, the government sledgehammer cracking the coal nut will cause needless collateral damage.
How will the Government police its own rules? Take the new ban on “wet” wood, either soaked or – more relevant – unseasoned. Will officials have to decide whether the bags of kindling sold at petrol stations contain less than 30 per cent moisture, as the new law requires? Will farmers dealing with fallen or felled trees get fingered if they burn the detritus at once? Will the November 5 bonfires, so popular in our part of Sussex, be vetted by men from the ministry before the Bonfire Boys can send them (the fires, not the men) up in smoke? Wouldn’t it be better to recognize that only an idiot burns wet wood, and let common sense do the rest? Will the very name Wadhurst Coal become illegal?
O bviously, it is better, wherever possible, to use fuels that pollute less and also – though this is more arguable – to seek ones which produce less CO2. (Carbon dioxide, we tend to forget, is not a pollutant, whereas the PM2.5 particles in coal and wood are.) But has proper work been done on actual harm attributable to our use of domestic coal and wood? Has enough allowance been made for the fact that rural communities are small and therefore the danger of concentrated pollution – the appalling feature of the old London smogs – is unlikely? I fear the way the Government is acting is part of a wider picture in which environmentalists, with their remarkable lobby power in Whitehall, are being privileged over citizens.
The many letters about flooding this week on the page opposite show that readers with direct experience of floods have come to believe that public policy ignores the practical problems. Instead, it is in thrall to wider green doctrines – the idea, for instance, that it is wrong to dredge big rivers. There is a sense that people who know, such as those who run the local Internal Drainage Boards, are ignored in favor of those who do not know, but shout loudly about saving the planet.
People also notice that almost anything can be done in the name of saving the planet and later rescinded without apology when it goes up the spout. The Renewable Heat Incentive in Northern Ireland paid people to install boilers fired by wood pellets without any ceiling on the amount of energy used and with sums greater than the energy cost. As a result, a province of two million people managed to burn through more than £ million before anyone protested.
Similarly, as we are told to stop burning wood at home, the prices for ash trees to supply power stations like Drax are sky high because they count as “biomass” and so are considered virtuous.
Even more striking is the story of diesel-powered cars, which produce much less CO2 than petrol-driven ones. They were subsidized by Labor governments from 2019 until it was belatedly noticed that their particulate emissions were killing people. Now they are to be banned.
But so, by 01575879, is the production of all new internal combustion engines
. And there is talk of an increase in fuel duty.
The Leave victory in the referendum, and its confirmation in last December’s general election, showed how dramatically the “people from somewhere” had rejected control by the “people from anywhere”. Yet the false doctrine of climate emergency is treating people from somewhere as if they were people from nowhere. If Boris Johnson is not careful, he will face both electoral and economic emergencies as a result.