In another bout of the relentless virtue signalling around all things woke, Nos Universitatis Hullensis has declared neutrality in the war against carbon, sort of. In fact, our most recent update from the vice-chancellor declares: ‘our goal to become a carbon-neutral campus by 2027’. There are no physicists or mathematicians at Hull, both subjects having long ago been dispensed with under previous regimes.
Chemistry is hanging on by a thread, but surely there is a dusty old physical chemist somewhere in a cupboard at Hull who can advise the vice-chancellor that, in proclaiming this nonsense, she is proclaiming the impossible. It defies the first and second laws of thermodynamics and, if these are too hard to grasp, it defies the laws of arithmetic. Seeking carbon neutrality is a case par excellence of the ‘zero sum game’.
If we can retrieve said physical chemist from the cupboard and dust him down, surely, he (maybe it is she – hard to tell under all that dust) could tell our vice-chancellor that carbon neutrality is an utterly impossible thing to attain.
We can play the game on our campus, stopping the use of this and re-cycling that. We can insist that everyone cycles or walks to work, plant a thousand trees each time we print a sheet of A4 and adopt all measure of ‘low carbon’—code for ‘incredibly low quality’—initiatives and we will never achieve the goal of carbon neutrality. In any case, why stop at carbon neutrality, why not go for negative carbon use? This is what the anorexic aims for and look at the results: emaciation and often death.
Carbon neutrality is just plain bonkers and, moreover, frankly unscientific. I say, without fear of contradiction, that one person’s carbon neutrality is another person’s pollution. Take the electric car. Apart from the fact these are grossly dangerous vehicles, yours truly having nearly been mowed down by one on a back street in Rotterdam—you can see them but, without the ‘va va vroom’ it simply does not register that they are moving—they are highly polluting…for someone.
Electric cars may not pollute our streets directly, but they require to be plugged in to the national grid to charge them up. Where do folk think the power comes from? Forget wind power, which is all but a token effort at heating a few houses, and solar power, which depends on another scare resource, the sun.
The national grid depends on burning massive amounts of coal and oil (aka carbon) and when we run low on electrical oomph we connect to the European grid and we have no control over what the source of the power is. Without a commitment to nuclear power, which is about the nearest we can get to a non-polluting and low carbon fuel, I am afraid we are merely shifting pollution around the globe in order to make ourselves feel better.
Returning to my campus and the laws of thermodynamics which, I believe, remain extant. The first law, which every schoolboy knows dictates that energy (in a closed system) cannot be lost or gained, it can only be transformed from one form into another. A university campus is not a closed system in this respect, but it is part of a closed system: The Universe.
The amount of energy available on Earth is slowly but surely diminishing as one of the ways in which energy is dissipated, by radiation, means that we beam energy out into the great beyond all the time. We do capture energy from the sun, mainly through photosynthesis which would knock the spots off solar panels if ever they had a fight, but there is a limit to how much we can capture. And the more of this energy we capture the more we use—which is the whole point of capturing it—the more we radiate back from whence it came. The balance in The Universe is maintained.
Then there is that tricky second law of thermodynamics which says, in short, that systems have a natural tendency towards entropy; in lay terms, chaos. Leave your garden for six-months and witness the results or abandon a building for a year and witness that. And how do we confront entropy? Why, by the expenditure of energy; it is unavoidable, constant and immutable.
So, the more we try to be carbon neutral on our campus, without acknowledging the utter impossibility of being so, the more someone somewhere must expend energy supplying us with the wherewithal to maintain our smug and low carbon existence. By all means let us cut costs, cut pollution and recycle what we can. But let us ‘do the math’ and stop perpetuating meaningless slogans.
John MacNab is a professor at the University of Hull