Friday, October 21, 2016

Clearing the Air (again)

Text of the Sustainable Futures Report podcast at

Hello again. It's Anthony Day, it's Friday and it's the Sustainable Futures Report. In the course of preparing this episode I lost 1300 words. I wasn’t pleased. I’ve just had to write them all again.

So, here we go. This week: burping cows, HFCs, and Client Earth suing the government for failing to provide clean air. We’ll look at what said that the advertising standards agency (ASA) said about Friends of the Earth, and what the ASA says that it said. National Grid’s Winter Outlook Report is out and Client Earth pops up again to urge the government to revive the climate change act. The Lords are studying the environmental impact of Brexit. We’ll also have a brief look at the future with ABB and their wireless trolley bus.

I’ve put links to my sources at the end of the document.

This week we are talking about air quality. About the quality of air that makes it good to breathe as well as atmospheric pollution which can damage the ozone layer and accelerate global warming. Greenhouse gases are constantly in the news because they are the cause of global warming. Carbon dioxide is the most popular culprit and we think of cars, factories and aircraft all contributing to this invisible poisonous cloud. What is often overlooked is the role of cows. Cows eat grass. They digest it and a byproduct of that digestion is methane. This is called enteric fermentation. It’s not just cows that do this, it’s sheep as well (and camels). Altogether they account for about 30% of anthropomorphic  methane emissions. Though methane is emitted into the atmosphere in smaller quantities than CO2, its global warming potential (GWP or the ability of the gas to trap heat in the atmosphere) is 25 times as great. As a result, methane emissions currently contribute more than one third of today’s anthropogenic warming. In other words, warming caused by human activity.

According to estimates, around 90 million metric tonnes  of methane gas are released into the atmosphere every year due to the belching of cattle. Scientists in Denmark are now developing a strain of grass which will not only improve the diet of cattle but also significantly reduce the methane that they produce. This will reduce their effect on global warming, but there is still a long way to go. According to the Global Methane Initiative, 29% of anthropogenic methane emissions come from enteric fermentation, 20% from oil and gas, 11% from landfill, 10% from rice cultivation and 9% from waste water. There’s more at

HFCs or hydrofluorocarbons have been in the news this week. They have been used in air conditioning and refrigeration systems since CFCs, chlorofluorocarbons were phased out by the Montreal Protocol in 1989. The reason for this was that CFCs were found to be a major cause of the hole in the ozone layer.

As we said, the global warming potential of methane is 25 times that of CO2. Of nitrous oxide it is 298 times. There are two types of hydrofluorocarbons in use: HFC 32 which has 675 times the GWP of CO2 and HFC 23 with 14,800 times the global warming effect. Pity they didn’t spot that in 1989, but now nearly 200 nations have agreed to a legally binding deal to cut back on HFCs.

The deal was struck during talks in the Rwandan capital of Kigali late on Friday evening, and announced on Saturday.
Under the pact, developed nations, including much of Europe and the United States, commit to reducing their use of the gases, starting with a 10 per cent cut by 2019 and reaching 85 per cent by 2036. Scientific research has shown that otherwise the growing use of HFCs threatens to undermine the Paris Agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the deal was “a monumental step forward” in the fight against climate change, and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, Erik Solheim, said: “Last year in Paris, we promised to keep the world safe from the worst effects of climate change. Today, we are following through on that promise.”

Unlike the Paris agreement, the Kigali deal is legally binding, has very specific timetables and involves the agreement by rich countries to help poor countries adapt their technology.

Refrigerant gases like HFCs and CFCs are mainly used in a closed system, so they only cause problems when they leak, which could happen during maintenance or at end-of-life disposal. For this reason the disposal of fridges, including domestic units, has been closely controlled for some years in the UK and Europe. The other issue is the insulation within fridges and freezers. This is usually polyurethane foam, and the foam is created using a blowing agent which can be HFCs for this application. Disposal of fridges, freezers and chillers without releasing this gas is therefore critical, difficult and expensive.

It’s not clear what will replace HFCs. Some UK supermarkets have said that they will use CO2. That sounds counterintuitive, but they point out that it has no effect on the ozone layer and its GWP is much lower than HFCs. The problem only occurs when the refrigerant gas escapes and we can be sure that the supermarkets will take great care to make sure that it doesn’t. It’s a regulatory obligation and a reputational issue.

It occurs to me that most cars these days come with air conditioning and presumably up till now they have contained HFCs. What happens when your car reaches the end of the road and arrives at the breaker’s yard. Is the refrigerant carefully extracted from the system or is the whole car just chucked into the crusher?

Client Earth (
“We are activist lawyers committed to securing a healthy planet.”
Client Earth is a charity which calls the government to account to meet its legal obligations towards environmental issues. They say: “Clean air is essential for a healthy life. More than 400,000 early deaths are caused each year by air pollution in Europe. We are all affected but some, especially children and older people, are more vulnerable than others. We are fighting for everybody’s right to breathe clean air.” And they’ve taken the UK government to court over this. I quote from the Client Earth website:

“The government chose an arbitrary date of 2020 to comply with tough pollution laws because it was thought that would be the earliest it would be fined by the European Commission.

The revelation came in a High Court hearing today, [18th October] where environmental lawyers ClientEarth are back in court against the government over its failure to tackle the pollution crisis across the UK.

ClientEarth’s barrister, Nathalie Lieven QC, told the court that 2020 was an arbitrary date rather than one which would bring the UK into compliance with EU air quality rules “as soon as possible.”

The High Court was told that the Secretary of State’s “entire approach was driven by cost.”
The Supreme Court ordered the government to draw up a new Air Quality plan in April last year but ClientEarth argues that it was woefully inadequate and wants the High Court to order new measures to deal with pollution. The organisation’s QC said that there was “at the minimum, a heated debate going on in government” at the time about compliance dates.

ClientEarth’s skeleton argument notes that Defra officials said they had “used projected exceedances in 2020 as the basis for defining the worst areas…based on our understanding that 2020 is likely to be the earliest the EU will move to fines.”

But Nathalie Lieven told the first day of a two day Judicial Review hearing that the obvious year to choose for “as soon as possible” compliance would have been 2018 or 2019.
She also said that modelling undertaken by Defra didn’t even consider earlier dates. “There is simply no evidence to support the proposition that no more could have been done,” she said.
“The Secretary of State chose to use a model which…she knew was highly optimistic…in order to justify minimal measures.”

Jonathan Grigg, Professor of Paediatric Respiratory and Environmental Medicine at London’s Queen Mary University, said: “Every day that passes, air pollution is damaging the lungs of children across the UK. It is therefore not acceptable to hope that air pollution will fall at some point in the distant future.
“The government must act now to protect this generation of children.”

The following day, last Wednesday 19th October, the judge presiding over ClientEarth’s case against the UK government for breaching EU air pollution laws said cost was the crux of the case.

Client Earth made this statement: ClientEarth has argued since the start of its legal action several years ago that cost has affected the government’s progress on compliance.
Mr Justice Garnham’s remarks on day two of the Judicial Review follows evidence in ClientEarth’s argument heard yesterday which revealed that former Chancellor George Osborne had blocked more ambitious plans to reduce UK pollution on cost grounds.
In exchanges with Defra’s barrister, the judge said cost was “the nub of this case; how much cost played a part in the decisions taken.”
ClientEarth argues that the government failed to take action to comply with legal air pollution limits “as soon as possible” and was focused on cost over compliance.
Defra has set out its defence today. Its QC said Defra has “always accepted” it was in breach of EU pollution limits and “did not resile” from its duty to reduce NO2.
She added: “This does not mean that the question of cost and proportionality do not come into consideration.”
Defra argues that: “The Air Quality Plan contains proportionate, feasible and effective measures to address the anticipated non-compliant nitrogen dioxide levels in particular zones.”
In later exchanges, the judge suggested that proportionate action “achieves the objective with minimal innocent casualties,” but said the government seemed to consider what was proportionate “in regard to the rest of government business.”
He concluded: “You mean by that, cost.”
ClientEarth CEO James Thornton said: “It is patently obvious from the evidence we have heard so far in this case that cost has been the primary and overriding factor in the government’s lack of action on air pollution.
“The judge is correct that cost does appear to be the nub of this case – and at the heart of government’s failure to protect our health by complying with the law. Time spent balancing cost against projected effectiveness is time when thousands continue to die and be made seriously ill by air pollution.
“Health is more important than Treasury bean-counting and ministers should, urgently, put health first.
“We all – children and adults alike – have the right to breathe clean air.”
The two-day hearing has now concluded. Judgment has been reserved. ClientEarth hopes for a ruling in the coming weeks. I’ll keep you posted.

Let’s turn briefly to the fracking debate.

In an article on about the Labour Party Conference, Dan Lewis of the Institute of Directors stated that “the Advertising Standards Authority [had] comprehensively rejected misleading statements on the health risks [of fracking] from Friends of the Earth.”
I went to the Advertising Standards Authority’s website for more, but found nothing. So I wrote to them. Here’s the reply from Matt Wilson, Press Officer at the ASA: 

I’m afraid that the article you’ve referred to and other reports around this have jumped the gun. We haven’t rejected arguments against fracking by Friends of the Earth (FoE) in its advertising. We are currently investigating complaints about FoE’s advertising claims but no decision has been reached.

We will publish our findings in due course.

“…it’s perhaps worth me mentioning that what has been reported on was a ‘draft ASA decision’ that appears to have been leaked. But the ‘draft’ bit is key, we haven’t made a final decision. A draft decision can change.

Draft decisions ultimately are passed to ASA Council, the body responsible for making the final ruling. So, at this stage, no decision has been reached and the investigation is ongoing.”

As of 19th October the ruling is still awaited.

In my opinion (and it’s me now, not the press officer talking) the clear lesson is “don’t believe everything you read”. Even if it’s written by the Institute of Directors. And it shows that those promoting fracking will use any means to discredit the opposition.

Winter Outlook Report

The National Grid’s Winter Outlook Report was published at the end of last week. National Grid is responsible for the supply of electricity and gas and is the crucial interface between domestic and commercial consumers and the energy suppliers. Last winter was one of the mildest winters in 60 years, but the Outlook is prepared for winter 2016/17 to be harsh. National Grid predicts a safety margin of 6.6% for electricity, which is well within its legal obligation. This is a better picture than at the start of the year, when several power stations were closed or taken offline. 

Management of the grid is immensely complicated and needs to be monitored second by second. Major increases in demand which could result from a cold winter are handled by manipulating both demand and supply. Major industrial users have interruptible contracts and agree to cut their energy usage for short periods when demand peaks. Eggborough power station which was closed at the start of the year will be available on standby. The interconnector cables which export electricity to Ireland are running at reduced capacity and therefore that demand will be lower this winter than last. There are interconnectors between the UK and the continent, allowing electricity to flow in each direction. Given the hour’s difference between the UK and the near continent, peak demand comes at different times. The interconnectors can balance this out. 

UK electricity is generated from coal, from gas, from nuclear and increasingly from renewables. Despite my dire warnings in earlier episodes, it looks as though our lights will stay on this winter. I always have great respect for the people in the control rooms managing the energy of the nation.

National Grid is also confident that gas supply will meet demand. Again, there’s a range of sources: storage and pipelines from the North Sea and from the continent. There are interruptible contracts for gas as well. When I last looked we didn’t get a significant proportion of our gas from Russia, which may be a good thing given current political tensions. Of course, if Russia decided to restrict supplies to its European markets, particularly Germany, that might have a knock-on effect on our supplies from the continent. It would be a very serious decision for Russia to take. It might help it make political points, but economically it would be painful. Russia is already suffering from the low oil price, still just above $50. Would it forgo revenues from selling gas?

I think we can sleep easy this winter - and warm.

Client Earth have popped up again. “UK Climate Change Act isn’t working and must be revived”, they say.
“Robust policies to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets must be brought forward urgently.”
This is the conclusion of their new report, “Mind the Gap - Reviving the Climate Change Act” .

“ClientEarth analysis finds that the persisting fourth carbon budget ‘policy gap’ – the difference between the emissions reductions needed to hit the fourth carbon budget emissions target, and the actual reductions current policies will produce – is a legal failure and a clear breach of the Act.
“The environmental law group says that the government must use its new Carbon Plan, due later this year, to breathe new life into the Climate Change Act. But how the government implements the CCA needs to be reset too, before it is too late.
“ClientEarth lawyer Jonathan Church said: “A policy and reporting reset is essential if we are to hit emissions targets. We can’t afford to drift for the next five years – as we have done for the last five years – without proper climate policies and progress.
“With its new Carbon Plan, the government has the chance to make the Act a living law and put the UK on the path to a clean, green energy future.”
“Five years ago, the Government admitted its policies would miss emissions targets by 187 megatons of CO2 – equivalent to Vietnam’s emissions in a whole year. Since then, it has not corrected its course.”

So it’s not just schoolchildren in America suing governments for mishandling climate change. We must wait and see whether all this litigation does any good.
Here’s a press release:

The House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee is conducting a short inquiry exploring the future of environment and climate change policy following the vote to leave the European Union.
In this inquiry the Committee is seeking to:
  • identify the United Kingdom's key interests in environment and climate change policy after the UK leaves the EU, domestically and internationally
  • explore what opportunities arise from Brexit and what challenges lie ahead in the area of environment and climate change policy, in particular relating to environmental protection
  • understand what the governance and accountability framework could look like outside the EU
  • consider the extent to which the UK could, or should, continue to co-operate with the EU in these policy areas.
The Committee will be taking oral evidence in October and November, and plans to publish a report in early 2017.

I’ll keep you posted.

The Wireless Trolley Bus

Engineering company ABB has been running a number of press ads recently. One that caught my eye was about an electric bus that doesn’t need overhead wires and doesn’t need to spend hours recharging. It’s not just an idea; these buses are already running in Geneva. It’s a bendy bus which will carry 133 people. The route has 50 stops and at 13 of these there are charging points. When the bus stops to drop or pick up passengers an overhead arm automatically connects with a charging point on the roof of the bus and gives the battery a 15-second boost. These boosts are enough to keep the vehicle running, and it means a smaller battery is needed so there’s more room for passengers. Find out more at (There’s a more specific link on the podcast).

And that’s it for this week. This is Anthony Day thanking you for listening and inviting you to send your comments and ideas to me at There will be another podcast next week. Who knows what will have happened by then?

As I mentioned last time, The Sustainable Futures Report has recently been invited to join the Better World Podcast Collective. You can find it at There you’ll find a number of podcasts on sustainability and related issues.

That's it or the moment.  I’m off to think up some more ideas. 


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