Friday, March 18, 2016

Taking the Long View

This episode was published as a podcast on Friday 18th March at

This week, of course, is dominated by the budget, and coming on a Wednesday it telescopes my deadlines. Not helped by the fact that I’m on jury service this week and the judge won’t let me take my laptop into court. Who needs a jury anyway, when we now have the thinking power of Google’s Deep Mind? Deep thinking has been going on at the National Infrastructure Commission, thinking about tunnels under the Pennines and more tunnels under London, among other things. I bring you sounds of the past, and a very little about Hinckley C and EDF because I think we’ve all had enough of that. And do you remember COP21? Americans are claiming that President Obama had no constitutional right to enter into the Paris agreement.

Hello, yes, this is Anthony Day and here is the latest edition of the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 18th March. Let me take a moment to remind you about the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange coming up on the 14th April. Go to and book now before you go away on your Easter Holidays and before the tickets run out. If you can’t make it, or even if you can, you might be interested in the report of the Sustainable Best Practice Survey published at a very reasonable £25. But just for you, if you go to the front page of today you can download a copy absolutely free.

The National Infrastructure Commission 

was announced by George Osborne in October’s Autumn Statement and has already published three reports: Smart Power, Transport for a World City (that’s the one about more tunnels under London) and High Speed North. 

The National Infrastructure Commission is headed by Lord Adonis and when he was a government minister he was highly respected for mastering his brief. High hopes, therefore, for his performance in this role.

Smart Power

Here’s what it says in the website:
The National Infrastructure Commission was asked to consider how the UK can better balance supply and demand, aiming towards an electricity market where prices are reflective of costs to the overall system.
The Commission’s central finding is that smart power – principally built around three innovations, interconnection, storage, and demand flexibility – could save consumers up to £8 billion a year by 2030, help the UK meet its 2050 carbon targets, and secure the UK’s energy supply for generations.
The report ‘Smart power’ makes practical recommendations to this end - not new subsidies or substantial public spending - but towards the creation of a level playing field and a better managed network.

This is a refreshing approach. Up till now the energy debate seems to have been mainly about supply and very little about  demand. It will be interesting to see how this is developed into government policy, and in particular how demand can be controlled at the consumer level. It will be interesting to see as well if the government will implement its commission’s recommendations.

The Northern Powerhouse is one of George Osborne’s pet projects and the Commission’s High Speed North report was given plenty of publicity in advance of the budget. 

On this issue the website says:

Our central finding is that the North needs immediate and very significant investment for action now and a plan for longer term transformation to reduce journey times, increase capacity and improve reliability.
On rail, this means kick-starting HS3, integrating it with HS2 and planning for the redevelopment of the North’s gateway stations.
On roads, investment should be brought forwards for an early boost in capacity on the M62, the North’s most important east-west link, alongside funding to identify and assess proposals for tackling a range of other strategic challenges.

They say that the development of the HS3 should begin between Manchester and Leeds, the two largest economies of the North.
Phase one should reduce journey times from 49 to 40 minutes and increase capacity by 2022.
Phase two could cut times to just 30 minutes. An integrated plan covering both phases should be drawn up before the end of 2017.

These are very encouraging deadlines, promising some service improvements as soon as 2022. In the context of major capital projects that’s very rapid, but we’re only talking about cutting journey times from 49 minutes to 40. The phase 2 target is to cut the journey time to 30 minutes, about as long as it currently takes to cover the same distance between London and Reading, but there is no date set for that. Of course, these improvements have been promised before, just before the last election, for example. They have also been deferred. Just after the last election.
So far Osborne’s budget has promised £300m to make sure that the plans can be completed by the 2017 deadline. £80m was also made available for planning the North-South Crossrail 2 from Hertfordshire to Surrey - the subject of the commission’s third report. The actual cost of constructing Crossrail 2 is estimated at around £30 billion but no figures for the cost of HS3 have been suggested. The key question is where the money will come from. While it might be irresponsible to borrow to cover current expenditure, with the lowest interest rates for some 80 years this surely is the time for government to borrow to invest in infrastructure for long term benefit. Mr Osborne’s policy is not to do this: a missed opportunity that I think we and future generations will come to regret.

Subsidies for Oil?

The Chancellor has been criticised for going against last year’s Paris agreement on climate change by introducing further subsidies for the oil industry. For the sixth year in a row he has avoided increasing fuel duty. Petrol is currently the same price as it was 10 years ago, and significantly cheaper in real terms. He also said he would support the oil and gas industry by permanently zero-rating Petroleum Revenue Tax, reducing the Supplementary Charge from 20% to 10%.

Petroleum Revenue Tax (PRT) is a tax on the profits from oil and gas production in the UK or on the UK continental shelf. Up until 31st December the rate was
50%, falling to 35% from 1 January 2016. Following the budget PRT is effectively abolished as it will be set at 0%, backdated to 1st January.

The supplementary charge is an additional charge, and now the only charge, on an oil company’s profits from production. This is cut from 20% to 10%

Talking about a sugar tax, the chancellor said,

“I am not prepared to look back at my time here in this Parliament, doing this job and say to my children’s generation:
“I’m sorry. We knew there was a problem with sugary drinks. We knew it caused disease. But we ducked the difficult decisions and we did nothing.”

In future years will he be saying to his children’s generation, “I’m sorry. We knew there was a problem with fossil fuels. We knew they caused air pollution and respiratory diseases, global warming and climate change. But we ducked the difficult decisions and we did nothing.”?

This is Anthony Day with the Sustainable Futures Report. Don’t forget your complimentary report on the Sustainable Best Practice Survey. Just follow the link on the home page to download. Do it now. This free offer cannot last for ever. 
Still to come: why artificial intelligence is all go, reactions to COP21 and those sounds from the past.

Google's Deep Mind beats Go world champion 

Go is an ancient Chinese board game which has been proved to have more possible moves than there are atoms in the universe. It is infinitely more complex than chess. And AlphaGo, a computer programme from Deep Mind, has just beaten the World Champion.  Out of five games it won the four and the champion won one. Why is this important, and what’s it got to do with sustainability? 

Because there are so many possible moves in the game the computer cannot win by brute force, by trying every possible move before making its choice. There are just too many choices. The machine has trained itself, a bit like a human, by practising - playing the game again and again. It has the advantage that it can play very much faster than a human and it can remember everything that it has learnt. It can’t actually move the pieces and it can’t make a cup of tea after the game, so it isn’t going to take over the world very soon, but the implications for jobs and employment are significant. 

We have already seen machines take over routine jobs in supermarkets, banks, libraries, filling stations and post offices. This next generation of Artificial Intelligence is starting to think, to weigh up possibilities and evaluate strategies rather than just make simple rule-based decisions. This means that previously skilled professions, like the law and accountancy, may increasing use expert systems instead of paralegals or articled clerks. The Treasury and the Financial Conduct Authority are evaluating robotic financial advisors which are already available on line. As more jobs are automated there will be even fewer opportunities for young people, graduates or not, to get worthwhile employment or any employment at all. It will probably also displace older workers, many of whom are struggling to reach higher pension ages.

A sustainable economy must surely depend on a degree of social equity, and until now paid employment has been the means of wealth distribution. If there are no longer jobs for all, the risk is that the divide between rich and poor in society will become dramatically wider. One suggested solution is a basic income for all, paid regardless of employment status, so everyone can enjoy a basic standard of living. It would give people security between jobs, help those too ill to work and provide a buffer while people work to set up their own businesses. Presumably it would be clawed back through the tax system from people on higher incomes. It would replace some existing benefits, together with the related administration costs. Justin Trudeau, the new Canadian prime minister, is an advocate of the idea and there are moves to set up a pilot scheme in Ontario.

We live in interesting times.

Limits to presidential power

COP21 - the Paris Climate Change Agreement - is strongly opposed by many politicians in the United States. Some claim that it is an international treaty, and therefore beyond the power of the president to accept unilaterally.

Here’s an extract from a paper by Stephen Groves, Senior Research Fellow at The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

Unless and until the White House submits the Paris Agreement to the Senate for its advice and consent, the Senate should block all funding for its implementation, including any funds for the Green Climate Fund (GCF) or any other financing mechanism included in the President’s umbrella Global Climate Change Initiative (GCCI).
Congress should also withhold funding for the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to prevent future Administrations from participating in COP meetings and causing additional harm to U.S. national interests. Finally, Congress should take preventative legislative measures to ensure that no funding tied to implementation of the Paris Agreement is authorized or expended through other vehicles such as appropriations for the EPA or other executive branch agencies.

Find the complete text at:

Interesting times indeed.

Queen Street Mill

Last week I told you that I was going to visit Queen Street Mill.

On the podcast you’ll hear the sounds of Queen Street Mill in operation.

It’s more than a rumour that the mill, along with other museums in the North, will close although it’s not clear exactly when. On Saturday 12th March the i newspaper published a front-page article about it headed “Betrayal of the North.” I wrote this letter which they published the following Monday:

Thank you for Saturday's report on museums at risk in the North. Last Thursday I was at Burnley's Queen Street Mill, taking photos, video and sound recordings before it's all gone. This is not just the last mill of its type in Lancashire, it's the last working steam-powered textile mill in the world. It will be open until the end of the month - including the whole of the Easter weekend - but after that the staff are not clear what will happen. They fear that if it's locked up and left it will just rust and never run again. 

Regardless of whether these museums are in the North or the South they are an irreplaceable part of our heritage and an educational resource. It would take a relatively small amount amount of money to preserve them by comparison with, say, the £60m of public money promised to London's private "Garden Bridge". Perhaps George Northern Powerhouse Osborne could make a gesture in Wednesday's budget.

Did he make a gesture? Well he didn’t say anything about it in the speech, but there may be something in the budget book. I’ll have a look at that over the week and let you know what I find next time.

Not much to say about Hinkley C and EDF. Not much that you won’t have heard about already. Last Sunday The Observer suggested that it was one of George Osborne’s pet projects and cancellation could mean the end of his leadership hopes. It all goes to show that if you look hard enough you’ll always find a silver lining.

That’s it for another week. This is Anthony Day winding up your weekly Sustainable Futures Report, urging you to sign up for the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange at and dashing off to find more interesting and important issues to report on. Of course, if you have something to say, something to ask or something you think should be covered, please get in touch. That’s

Yes, that was the Sustainable Futures Report, this is Anthony Day and that’s the end!

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