Thursday 30 November 2023

Goodbye, Darling

We were never very kind towards Alistair Darling here.  Well, a Labour Chancellor, who once supported a Tobin tax - what do you expect?

But, to be charitable - as today we should - how could anyone have followed Gordon Brown in that a role, which meant reporting to the man hour by hour, being second-guessed all the time?  Quite amazing that he maintained the dignity he did.  BTW, he wasn't at the Treasury when Brown did most of the damage (1998-2007).  Oh, and he chaired the 'No' vote campaign during the Scottish Inde1 referendum.  Yes, we did have a bit of regard for the Badger.

RIP, Darling.  Tough trade, politicis.


Tuesday 28 November 2023

Euan Blair's Grand Adventure

Reading about the business fortunes of that prodigy Euan Blair (supposedly worth £420m at one stage - but very much on paper, we must conclude), I felt transported back to the extremes of the dotcom bubble of 25 years ago

Euan Blair’s apprenticeship company Multiverse has reported a near-tripling of pre-tax annual losses to £40.5m – its seventh straight year of losses since the son of the former prime minister Tony Blair set it up in 2016.

Seven straight years!  Wonderful!  There was a Doonesbury strip at that time, showing our hero Mike, by then in middle age, presenting his start-up business plan to an insufferable and very young exec at some private equity firm, who says something like: "Hmm - you project a loss this year, and more next year, and even more the year after: excellent!  Frankly, Mr Doonesbury, we find that businessmen of your generation generally just don't get it."

Still, who's the fool?  Last year, Blair Jnr ... 

... was awarded an MBE for services to education.  He also bought a five-storey townhouse in west London for a reported £22m. The seven-bedroom residence, which he shares with his wife, Suzanne Ashman, and their two children, features a two-storey “iceberg” basement with an indoor pool, gym and multicar garage.

Oh, but then he goes and spoils it all: 

I’ve always been clear that we believe a sustainable, profitable company is the best institution to deliver our mission, and I am accountable for building it,” he said. “And that’s why this decision needed to be taken.”

Well, well - he wants a sustainable, profitable company: who'd have guessed?  What a hide-bound little conventionalist the man is.  Careful, Euan, if you go setting expectations like that, somebody will conclude that maybe you ain't the one to build it after all.  And that 'decision' of his?  Why, sacking 44 of his staff, of course ...  His very middle name is 'sustainable'.


Wednesday 22 November 2023

Hunt's Autumn Statement - open thread

So - what do we think?   Does Hunt's Statement change anything?   Is the Tory goose so truly cooked, nothing can save it?   Has he succeeded in laying a trap for Labour?   Is he scorching the earth ahead of 2025, Gordon-Brown style?

Answers on a postcard ...


Friday 17 November 2023

Hockney at the Lightroom: outright genius

Rather late in in the day I have at last visited the extraordinary, innovative Hockney display in the Lightroom (London).

Hockney is an outright genius, on a par with Picasso, and more industrious (yes!), constructive and philosophical to boot.  Nobody has thought harder, and experimented harder, with the art of the visual space and indeed the visual space itself than he, deploying remarkable insight & vision (in every sense) alongside technology, the latter brilliantly displayed here - to vastly greater effect than his RA show a few years ago, or a couple of TV programmes of around the same time.

Sorry not to have been in a position to recommend it sooner; because it only runs until 3 Dec, and tickets for some slots are sold out.  So time is dreadfully short.  Still, if you can ...


Tuesday 14 November 2023

Biomass & litigating against Drax's costly little game

As noted here before, there's something ludicrous and indeed ultimately dangerous in governments making targets that are "legally binding" - particularly targets of the purely aspirational / virtue-signaling[1] kind - thereby inviting lawsuits when somebody can find an argument that the target won't be met.  My earlier observation was that governments will soon tire of this costly game, and will find ways to imunise themselves against it.  The best thing is not to set "legally binding targets" in the first place, because the alternative remedy against endless litigation is to put government beyond the law, a very dangerous step indeed.  

Anyhow: someone has seen fit to litigate against HMG for its ridiculous "BECCS" policy - bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.  For those unfamiliar with the notion: some kinds of bioenergy may fairly reckoned to be (almost) carbon neutral.  If one captures this energy output (e.g. as electricity), and permanently sequestrates the CO2 emitted in the process, one may with equal fairness be reckoned to have achieved "negative emissions" (subject to having accurately reckoned on the extra energy, emissions etc needed for this entire operation). 

Even on its own terms[2], there's a gigantic flaw in this logic (along with some smaller difficulties).  In practical terms and with existing technology, to do this on the industrial scale required to be useful, the range of biofuels that may be employed is essentially confined to rather high-quality wood, which only comes from the trunks and boughs of mature trees.  But using these as fuel is far from carbon neutral over anything like a sensible timeframe.  Even with perfect counterfactuals the resulting "carbon debt" is measured in decades or even centuries; or maybe it's outright irrecoverable.  Drax - the world's biggest tree-burner, likes everyone to believe they are burning bits of old bark and sweepings from the carpenter's floor - but that's utter bollocks.  The bio-stuff that genuinely doesn't incur much carbon debt when it's used as fuel (e.g. the aforesaid crud; the products of coppicing; fast-growing reeds etc) just can't be used by Drax - it simply ain't the right quality to be used by their kit.

But.  The UK's plans for achieving NZC 2050 are wholly dependent on BECCS - just as indeed are the UK's credentials as regards its current CO2 performance significantly dependent upon Drax and a handful of other industrial-scale tree-burning power stations, whose contribution to the UK's numbers (not to mention whose subsidies) depends upon a "carbon accounting" sleight of hand which allows them to ignore the carbon debt they run up when burning high-quality timber.  Drax isn't reducing CO2 emissions right now (as it is being subsidised to do), it is in fact increasing CO2, because burning biomass with long carbon debt is even more CO2-intensive than coal-burning; and twice as much as burning gas, which in the UK is nowadays the only practical alternative[3].  

The whole thing is a multi-billion pound scam that consumes our money and whole forests every year; and should never have seen the light of day (courtesy of the two successive LibDem energy secretaries, Huhne and Davey, the former of whom has benefitted financially from the biomass industry, post his other disgrace).  We're stuck with it until 2027 (when the subsidies run out), but there is absolutely no need to extend Drax's scam beyond that date and allow it to be the pioneer of BECCS, as it intends - and as HMG seems intent on encouraging.

Why is it tolerated?  Easy: as well as the spurious CO2-reduction credits for both Drax and HMG, the electricity is flexible ("despatchable"); the fuel can be obtained from friendly nations; and there are lots of UK jobs involved - the logistical side of shifting millions of tonnes of wood pellets every year has become quite an industry, not to mention the jobs that are envisaged for building the BECCS set-up.  

The parties bringing the litigation with the aim of calling a halt to all this, are drawing the High Court's attention to the total lack of scientific logic behind the BECCS concept in practice.  

It will be interesting to see what the justices make of it.  Much as I dislike the "lawfare" phenomenon, on this occasion I reckon the lawsuit has merit.



[1] Nobody will do anything about this before the next GE: and we then run the risk of a Starmer government legislating for "legally binding targets" on a range of ghastly woke social-engineering goals.  Plenty on the redistributive / reparationist left will welcome this with open arms.

[2] There is absolutely no point in arguing against it on other terms.  You may like the sound of your own voice but otherwise you'll not get a hearing.

[3] Incidentally, there's evidence Drax may not even be living up to the crazy low standards of "sustainability" they are obliged to meet now, sleight-of-hand and all, let alone any stricter ones that would be appropriate in terms of the genuine science and logic of the situation.

Monday 13 November 2023

Something afoot on the Kherson / Crimea front

Here's an interesting development.

Background: the Ukrainians have had a small beachhead on the east bank of the Dnipr opposite Kherson, for so long now it almost amounts to a lodgement.  Russian milbloggers have been hyperventilating about this for weeks as being a(nother) threat to Crimea, even as they crow over the obvious relative failure of Ukraine's summer offensive, which has failed to reach Tokmak (never mind Melitopol).  There have been strange goings-on in the Russian force opposing this bridgehead which has completely failed to push it back into the river, precarious though it looks, amidst rumours of the original Russian commander there being an ineffectual martinet and lately dismissed, and his highly regarded successor being recently wounded badly in one of many precision strikes by Ukraine on Russian HQs while top-level meetings are in progress.

Now we have this, from the official Russian news agency:

The original post had been up for one hour 22 mins.  I'm sure you don't need me to interpret for you the euphemism "regroup to more advantageous positions".  The Russians did a lot of that Sept-Nov last year.

Well, of course, they have an answer to the TASS debacle:

Yeah, right: annulled as issued by mistake, errr, no, wait a minute, allegedly on behalf of ../.. a provocation.   So which is it guys?  A mistake - or Ukraine having hacked TASS ... twice!  Not sure which is more awkward, really.


Friday 10 November 2023

AEP - manic religious enthusiasm for wind power

Several folks around here cite Evans Pritchard from time to time, noting that some of his stuff is excellent and some is bonkers.  His latest on the wonders of (offshore) windfarms is firmly in the latter character, being in the nature of an outpouring of religious fervour.  How else can we explain this? 

Barry Norris from Argonaut Capital disagrees [with AEP's uncritical enthusiasm], calling wind “an unsustainable economic rent seeking parasitical industry”. Rent seeking, certainly. But unsustainable?  The cost of running a gas power plant this autumn (around £84 MWh) is still almost double the average tariff paid to wind companies under recent CfD contracts (£46 MWh).  It was nine times more during the gas panic last year.  The Treasury pockets the difference.  It is a reverse subsidy.  Home-harvested wind also slows the leakage of our national wealth through the current account deficit.  Mr Norris doubts that wind companies will be able to meet commitments agreed in their CfD contracts, and will require a renegotiation.  I agree.  The strike price will have to rise in the new unforeseen circumstances.  He expects a ”shabby bail-out”: I call it a reduction in the wind tax paid to the Treasury.

Oh dear.  Aside from the entirely dishonest use of the "9 times" statistic (as coined by Ed Miliband, oft-parroted by greens, and true for just a couple of days last autumn): why will higher-than-expected gas prices require renegotiation of windpower contracts?  Answer: because that's not the unforeseen circumstance.   The problem is not high gas prices - which ought to assist other forms of energy - but shortage of raw materials and skilled labour (see diagram below) as every developer on the planet is seeking to pile (literally) into the same things at the same time, on a truly gigantic scale.  A bit, errr, inflationary, wouldn't we say?  And

(a) Those CfDs, far from the being hedge they were offered as (via auctions), were in fact used as speculative punts by the developers, hoping that they'd be able to source their raw materials at prices which the CfD would reward with an acceptable rate of return.  But that's what they were - naked speculative punts.  And pretty stupid ones too, because ...  

(b)  ... this wasn't remotely unforeseen.  Trust me: the banks knew this all along: both the speculative aspect, and the inflationary outcome.

AEP puts up a couple of diagrams.  One neatly proves that windpower is horribly variable, which doesn't really assist his cause.  The other is this (right).  Does he feel it demonstrates the feasibility of what he's so stricken with?  I'd say a resource-heavy surge that the "Development" projection represents should trigger a reality-check for the most optimistic forecaster.  Even the "Consented" tranche is f**ked.  What does he imagine the impact of actually materialising demand on the scale of this graph would be on the price of raw materials?  

As with so many aspects of the Net Zero thing, there's a very strong odour of incense here: it's basically a religion. 



Friday 3 November 2023

The London ULEZ in action

Transport for London have published their first set of what must loosely be described as "numbers" since the ULEZ was extended, from their ANPR cameras and payment / fines records.  It's fair to say that little can be taken by way of meaningful conclusions from this effort, although it is conceivable they'll be in a position to do better between now and the Mayoral election next year.  Whether "better" will include anything genuinely meaningful and useful is open to question.  Don't bother looking at what has appeared in the meejah on this: the TfL numbers provided are so ropey that pressmen and politicians alike have been resorting to guesswork in an attempt to make a commentary-narrative from it.

Under the weighty heading "Compliance Data" we have been given numbers for the first month, plus historical figures, supposedly for the purpose of demonstrating "improvements".  Can they properly be compared?  No, because the number of cameras deployed has been changing p- increasing - throughout, AND coverage by cameras in the extended zone was very patchy indeed in that first month.  (Some boroughs have not been cooperating, which means TfL has been largely confined to installing cameras on "its" roads - the Red Routes - although these do, or ultimately will, provide quite a mesh for capturing vehicle movements of any distance within the full zone.)  Maybe, perhaps some time in 2024, they'll have a fairly full network of functioning cameras.  Even then, there are helpful online resources enabling the crafty driver to (attempt to) plot a route that avoids them.

Then there's the obvious issue that drivers' behaviours in the early weeks of a scheme aren't necessarily indicative of how things will be when it settles down.  

TfL's own commentary cheerfully mashes up DVLA data relating to vehicles known to exist and be registered to a London address, with vehicles actually logged by the cameras.

Finally, there are as yet no data whatever on air quality which in principle is the purpose of the exercise.

Granted that much of this data shortfall will "improve" over time (in the statistical sense of more cameras in action, data collated from a longer period of the scheme's operation, and air quality data actually being provided), it still isn't clear we'll get solid conclusions on what ought to be the political issues arising.  Partly that's because all the politicos involved are quite capable of cherry-picking data, not to mention abusing statistics and of course lying outright.  But even if the data were turned over to the most objective statistical analysis, there are several fundamental problems, including:

  1.  It is really obvious that the number of dirty old bangers on the road has anyway been decreasing steadily, for the simple treason that they fall off the perch eventually and are replaced, if at all, by inevitably newer, cleaner models.  This has been going on inexorably for decades.  Khan won't be able to prove what part, if any, of the "increase in compliant vehicles" is down to his ULEZ extension, as opposed to the steady march of technology, or indeed to people no longer being able to afford to drive - including firms going out of business.  He may not even find a handy inflexion-point on the graphs to call in aid.
  2. Still less will he be able to conclude definitively on any changes in air quality that might be registered in due course.  (a) Road vehicles are only one contributor to air pollution.  Another very large contributor is the vast fleet of diesel engines associated with building sites: diggers, cranes, gennies, etc etc.  According to Private Eye, Khan has resolutely refused to implement the latest European standards on building-site emissions, on the grounds that to do so might impact on London's economy (and he's probably right, at least at the margin).  Plus, (b) the road network is constantly changing - indeed, Khan himself is having a new cross-Thames tunnel constructed, which is bound to result in increased traffic.  Stick all that up yer exhaust pipe, Sadiq, and smoke it.
None of these objective difficulties will prevent the politicos from bandying their chosen "analysis" next year - and of course Khan from brandishing his cute little book "Breathe" on the subject of air quality.  (Nicely reminiscent of Gordon Brown who laughably wrote a tome on "Courage" ...) 

There are several possible desiderata in play**, that in an ideal world we might seek to audit.  The easiest will be "number of compliant vehicles on the road".  But that is at best a proxy for "air quality", and if the latter doesn't show a material improvement that can somehow legitimately be claimed by Khan's scheme, the former will be irrelevant.  Which leads us to "value for money".  Ah yes, VFM.  Well, let me simply say that last month I scrapped a car, for which Khan kindly paid me £2,000.  Which was around double its market value (or three times what Webuyanycar offered me).  Me and tens of thousands of others.  Thanks, Sadiq.



** Some will suspect that another desideratum is - more cameras surveying our streets ...