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About the lecturer

Michael Kelly ended his academic career as the inaugural Prince Philip Professor of Technology at the University of Cambridge. His main research focus was in new semiconductor physics and technology for ultra-high-speed electronic devices and the manufacturability of semiconductor structures at the nanoscale. His interest in the topic of this lecture was roused during 2006–9 when he was a part-time Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for Communities and Local Government. When the Climate Change Act 2008 was signed, he pointed out to Ministers that 45% of UK carbon dioxide emissions came from heating air and water in buildings, 27% from homes and 18% from all others. He persuaded Lord Drayson as Science Minister to undertake a pilot programme called ‘Retrofit for the Future’, in which over 100 social houses were retrofitted to reduce their emissions. More on that in the lecture. 


On his return full-time to Cambridge he was asked by his engineering colleagues to lead the teaching of final-year and graduate engineers on present and future energy systems, which he did until he retired in 2016. The introductory lecture of that course was on the scale of any energy future transition and is the forerunner to this lecture. This last point is to dismiss the cavilling critics who suggest that an electronic engineer should not be able to address these matters. He regards the invitation to deliver the GWPF annual lecture as a singular honour, being able to inject the concerns of real-world engineering firmly into the public debate, in front of an audience with a strong representation of parliamentarians.


The 2019 Annual GWPF Lecture; Energy Utopias and Engineering Reality by Michael Kelly


I want to begin by presenting four examples that show how clearly the world is better off today as opposed to thirty or one hundred years ago because of, among other things, a sufficient supply of energy. The incidence of hunger, poverty, illiteracy and child mortality have all been reduced by more than a factor of two over the period 1990–2015 (Figure 1a). Death rates associated with gas and nuclear energy production are less than a sixth those of oil and coal (Figure 1b). Deaths from natural disasters have dropped by 90% over the 20th century, excepting the Sri Lanka and Fukushima tsunamis in 2004 and 2011 (Figure 1c). Warnings by radio and telephone are the main reason. More people live in safer and better conditions and are better fed than at any previous time in human history. The United Nations has played an important role, first with the Millennium Development Goals over the period 2000–2015 and now the Sustainable Development Goals over the period 2016–2030.

1a Human Welfare

I now have a simple pragmatic question to ask. Suppose I agree to pay you £100 to dig a two-metre-deep hole for me to bury family treasure. You set about digging, but find your progress thwarted by a hundred people with wheelbarrows full of earth coming to fill in your hole. What would you do? Keep on digging regardless or stop and try to find out what is going on? To your protest that you are being paid to dig a hole, you are told that the others are being paid much more to fill in any holes that appear!

At this time there are people in several countries, including both the United Kingdom and New Zealand, both of whose passports I hold, who are straining to turn off the last coal-fired power stations in the cause of climate change mitigation. But the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, the largest civil engineering project in the world, will help over 2 billion people in West Asia and Africa out of poverty and hunger over the next 30 years, just as earlier projects took 600 million people in China from rural squalor to middle-class comfort over the last 20 years. The initiative will include 700 new coal-fired power stations, over a third of which are currently being built. I do not support the neo-colonialist tendencies associated with the initiative, but it will go further than any other project to deliver the first and second of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: the elimination of world poverty and hunger. The climatic Sustainable Development Goal is number 13 on the list.

Biblical scholars will recall the story of the Tower of Babel, with key lessons which engineers have long since learned. When people set out to build a tower to heaven, they had no way of knowing how to determine that they had in fact completed the tower by reaching heaven. Nor did they know in advance how much it would cost. Climate mitigation shares the same two characteristics – no one can define what it means to have averted climate change, nor how much it will cost. Extinction Rebellion simply have no idea of the scale of cost of what they are demanding by 2025: if they did, they would back away.1 b Mortality in Energy Production1 c Mortality in Natural Disasters



Figure 1: Energy brings improvements in human welfare

Sources: (a) Johan Norberg, FAO, World Bank, UNESCO, EPA; (b) Markandya and Wilkinson (2007)

via Our World in Data; (c) OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database and Our World in Data.





Next, I refer to germane speeches from three US presidents. In his farewell address in 1961, Dwight Eisenhower said: holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger than public policy could become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

That is where we are now. The following year, John F. Kennedy used the famous expression

‘We choose to go to the Moon’, while speaking to a crowd in Houston. As he was saying this, his key advisors could have confirmed that there were no known scientific or technological impediments to this project – it just needed will and support.

But contrast this with Richard Nixon, who said, during his 1971 State of the Union address:

I will also ask for an appropriation of an extra $100 million to launch an intensive campaign to find a cure for cancer, and I will ask later for whatever additional funds can effectively be used. The time has come in America when the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease. Let us make a total national commitment to achieve this goal.

When Nixon said those words, no advisors would have suggested a cure for cancer was around the corner, as we must recognise 50 years later.

So the recent academic plea for mass leave of absence to ‘save the planet’ was quite misleading in appealing to the moon-shot as an exemplar – climate is more akin to the cancer example.

Just so that there can be no doubt whatsoever, the real-world data shows me that the climate is changing, as indeed it has always changed. It would appear by correlation that mankind’s activity, by way of greenhouse gas emissions, is now a significant contributory factor to that change, but the precise percentage quantification of that factor is far from certain. The global climate models seem to show heating at least twice as fast as the observed data over the last three decades. I am unconvinced that climate change represents a proximate catastrophe, and I suggest that a mega-volcano in Iceland that takes out European airspace for six months would eclipse the climate concerns in short order.

The detailed science is not my concern here. The arguments in this lecture would still apply if the actual warming were twice as fast as model predictions. Project engineering has rules of procedure and performance that cannot be circumvented, no matter how much one would wish it. Much of what is proposed by way of climate change mitigation is simply pie-in-the-sky, and I am particularly pleased to have so many parliamentarians here tonight, as I make the case for engineering reality to underpin the public debate.

I plan to describe;

  • (i) the global energy sector,
  • (ii) the current drivers of energy demand,
  • (iii) progress to date on decarbonisation, and the treble challenges represented by
  • (iv) factors of thousands in the figures of merit between various forms of energy,
  • (v) the energy return on energy invested for various energy sources, and
  • (vi) the energising of future megacities.

I make some miscellaneous points and then sum up. The main message is that our present energy infrastructure is vast and has evolved over 200 years. So the chances of revolutionising it in short order on the scale envisaged by the net-zero target of Parliament is pretty close to zero; zero being exactly the chance of the meeting Extinction Rebellion’s demands.

The energy sector – its scale and pervasiveness

As society evolves and civilisation advances, energy demands increase. As well as increasing demand for energy, the Industrial Revolution led to an increase in global population, which had been rather static until about 1700. Since then, both the number of people and the energy consumption per person have increased, and from Figure 2 we can see the steady growth of gross domestic product per person and energy consumption through the 19th and 20th centuries until now.Growth in Energy and GDP are Correlate