COMMENT: Don’t be selective with energy statistics

By John Parnell

Energy statistics can be overwhelming and baffling (Source: flickr/Jonk)

There is a famous Mark Twain quote about statistics but I prefer the line from comedian Vic Reeves: “88.2% of statistics are made up on the spot”.

Although I’m sure that the think tanks, consultancies and academics churning out data on energy costs put more thought into their work, the application of these stats is frequently inaccurate, often misleading and occasionally irresponsible.

Yesterday, a well-respected right of centre think tank in the UK, Policy Exchange, published a report claiming that the government’s renewable energy policies would add £400 a year to the typical domestic energy bill by 2020.

The report effectively said the Government had notbeen honest when presenting the full costs of climate and renewable energy policies on households.

Newspapers of a similar inclination repeated the claims, which were gobbled up by their readers.

Within hours, several figures from government and clean energy lobbies were able to present equally persuasive statistics countering the £400 claim.

Ultimately, neither faction is likely to have contributed much to public opinion.

Clearly there is a problem.

Energy is a commodity like no other. You cannot untie its relationship with climate change.

Any discussion of energy prices must include the exhaustive list of external factors that feed in and out of how we acquire and consume energy.

Without it you are only presenting half the picture. You are not clearly presenting the full impacts and costs of our addiction to petrol and gas to the public.

Fossil fuels are vulnerable to international events and their price is hugely volatile.

Around 20% of all the world’s traded oil passes through the shipping bottleneck at the Straits of Hormuz. Political tensions there between Iran and the Gulf Arab nations make the Straits seem narrower everyday.

And yet the cost of the threat posed by climate change as we head towards a future with as much as six degrees of warming is almost incalculable.

UK economist Nicholas Stern tried. He estimated that pre-emptive action on climate change would account for 1% of global GDP while a warmer future could cost us as much as 20% of our global GDP.

This growing risk from climate change has already been picked up by the investor community and just today, was passed to US consumers in their home insurance premiums.

There are economic benefits too associated with renewable energy.

It has the potential to create millions of jobs worldwide addressing energy efficiency and in the manufacture and supply of renewable energy technologies.

A recent study by NASA and Columbia University said cutting soot and methane levels could save 4.7 million premature deaths.

The renewables industry is not looking to shakedown the politicians.

As Solar Spirit Director Eric Robb pointed out in her RTCC article last Friday,  they are realistic about what the state can and cannot provide.

But let’s not forget that the IEA estimates fossil fuel subsidies at of $400 billion annually.

As technology costs continue to fall, there will be no need for support in certain sectors.

Calculating the total value of renewable subsidies and dividing by the number of households does not provide data to help people make informed decisions on their energy choices.

If those for or against renewable energy are going to put headline-grabbing statistics into the public domain, they have a duty to ensure the data is grounded in the context of a complex, warming world.

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