A Facebook friend posted a video of Patrick Harvie, co-leader of the Scottish Green Party, looking very animated. The audio was off. I wondered what he was talking about. Having sworn an oath to ignore political posts, I scrolled on by but couldn't help wondering.
Perhaps he was talking about Millerhill power station. Opened in 2019 on the outskirts of Edinburgh, it burns rubbish and generates electricity. I look at it every time I drive along the A1, last sighting it on the way to the Covid vaccination centre at Queen Margaret University, the chimney standing like a middle finger salute to the Scottish green movement. Perhaps Patrick had watched the recent Channel 4 Dispatches
programme, Dirty Truth About Your Rubbish
, which revealed that these stations incentivise burning plastic over recycling and after coal are the most carbon intensive way to produce electricity.
Millerhill has an excellent website. They publish a surprisingly detailed breakdown of the toxins they are spreading over the people of Musselburgh, Dalkeith and South Edinburgh. We can see, for example, that in May 2019 they hit 61.6% of their heavy metal emission limit for that month. In February 2020, they reached 74.8% their cadmium and thallium limit. What was in the rubbish that month? Simple maths suggests that if they run this close to monthly limits, by the law of averages sometimes they must exceed daily limits. Perhaps he was shouting: 'We want to know when to shut our windows and doors and we want to shut that station!'
Maybe he was getting passionate about plastic pollution which, according to Professor Shanna Swan at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, is not only polluting the oceans but, by interfering with our hormones, is seriously impacting human sperm count. She predicts that by 2045 most couples will be required to turn to assisted conception. Good news for the planet and also a good reason for burning plastic rather than burying it, but another reason for burning it far from populated areas. 'Boycott plastic packaging! Buy frozen fish in cardboard boxes,' he was insisting. If only I could lip-read.
Maybe he was calling for an immediate ban on the export of oil from the North Sea once an independent Scotland gets its hands on the stopcock. Turn it off. After all, we are a tiny nation representing only 0.07% of the population of Earth and our carbon footprint per person is already quite modest. By far, our biggest contribution to global warming comes from the oil and gas we export. Stop that and we jump forward decades. That would be a fantastic promise for the Green Party to make. It should be on page one of the manifesto.
The green movement is a muddled thing populated by loving, caring and romantic people who are perhaps not so scientifically minded and inclined to trust anyone who claims to be one of them. It is a movement particularly vulnerable to infiltration, the most well-known example being Mark Stone AKA PC Mark Kennedy, but there are many far more subtle infiltrators – people with interests in industry and politics – who come and go without detection, organising some protests while quietly, inexplicably failing to organise others.
History might record the biggest misstep by the green movement to be the 'Atomkraft? Nein Danke!' campaign in Germany, which over time closed reactor after reactor with the closure of all to come about by 2022. While the Germans have hugely increased their renewable energy sources, mostly wind, they have also had to greatly increase their use of coal and gas, making (over years) now almost zero headway in reducing their carbon footprint. With Nord Stream 2, they are clearly committing themselves to decades of burning gas. Meantime France, from whom the Germans buy some of their electrical energy, has one of the smallest carbon footprints per person in the developed world. How do they do it? Nuclear power.
Scotland has done well in increasing green electrical energy. In 2020, Scotland produced 97% of the electricity it requires from renewable sources. That sounds brilliant. It's like we've crossed the line and some, but with our roots still in the new technology of 1840, about 80% of Scottish homes are not heated by electricity, they are heated by gas. Looking at my own bill, last month I consumed 417 KWh of electricity and 2,354 KWh of gas. More than five times more. It's a rough guide but if we are to stop burning gas and heat our homes with green energy, it looks like we will need to generate about five times more green electricity than we currently do when we factor in the electrification of transport. How can we do that? Build five times more wind turbines and five times more of the gas-, rubbish- and wood-burning stations required to back them up? That is one big infrastructure programme and we are a very long way from the finishing line.
A friend, who worked as an energy trader, explained the system to me. The owners of wind farms use the weather forecast to predict how much energy they will provide tomorrow between some time and another and get a contract to provide it. If the wind does not blow, they must fulfil that contract somehow and do so by paying usually gas-fired stations to take their place. It's a shady market. As was pointed out in the 2019 environmental documentary, Planet of Humans
, every time you see a wind farm you should imagine the ghostly outline of the gas-fired power station it is twinned with. Another way to view it is that wind farms are one way to reduce the carbon footprint of gas-fired, wood-fired or rubbish-fired stations like Millerhill.
Millerhill was built without a peep of complaint from the Scottish Greens. That strange lack of protest comes to mind whenever I see it.
Maybe, and this is a long shot, maybe the co-leader of the Scottish Greens was calling for the replacement of Hunterston B set to be decommissioned in 2022 with a new nuclear power station. Nuclear power after all is the most people- and planet-friendly form of power. WHO estimate that seven million people die every year from air pollution from burning fossil fuels, while multiple organisations report deaths per KWh of energy generated by nuclear power to be smaller even than hydroelectric.
We can watch the recent movie about Chernobyl and be horrified, while Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain,
a movie about a fertiliser factory where, in 1984, 2,259 local people died and 3,900 were left with permanent disabilities is forgotten. We did not stop making fertiliser after Bhopal, nor even after seeing the explosion in Beirut, because fertiliser is regarded as essential. We would starve without it. Many other industrial processes pour permanent poisons into the environment.
Perhaps the co-leader of the Scottish Green Party had watched Ben Fogle visit Chernobyl and saw how wildlife is flourishing in the exclusion zone and he was now passionately explaining that the time has come for the green movement to regard nuclear power as equally as essential as fertiliser and well worth the risk. Without it, we will have to build many more gas-, wood- and rubbish-burning power stations to generate electricity when the wind does not blow over the hundreds of new wind turbines. 'We will never get to carbon zero that way!' he was passionately explaining. 'We have to get real!'
I eventually had to go back and listen to find out exactly what the co-leader of the Scottish Greens was actually talking about. It was none of the above. Dressed as Mole from Wind in the Willows
, he was raging with a passion not about saving the Earth or clearing the filth from the air that we breath. He was not talking about the tragic extinction of species after species of animals that took millions upon millions of years to evolve. Nor was he talking about the melting of the ice caps, the rising of the sea or the flipping of the climate into a superheated frenzy. He was instead passionately condemning members of some committee for daring to question the perfection of our beloved leader. What hope have we got?
John McGrath is a retired teacher of Physics and Maths who lives with his partner and daughter in Portobello