Keep it clean and keep growing
It's Friday! This is Anthony Day and here is another Sustainable Futures Report. Thanks and welcome to all my patrons. Welcome to listeners all over the world – a record number for last week’s episode. I must be doing something right. If I'm not, or if there is something I could do better, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org .
My objective with the Sustainable Futures Report is to bring you news about climate challenges and information about technical advances and plans and initiatives which can safeguard our planet while improving the quality of life for ourselves and for everybody else.
So what's new and sustainable this week?
This week the British government published its Clean Growth strategy. Australia updated its energy policy as well. Both will be controversial. One of the major oil companies has seen the light and finds it’s electric. Talking of seeing the light, a famous journalist seems to have had a Damascene conversion. Will the Daily Mail allow him to write for them ever again? Would you like a nuclear power station at the bottom of your street or would you prefer to rely on the tides? But there are more question marks over tidal power from Swansea Bay. Are the developers getting themselves in a hole? Electric cars seem to be coming to a bump in the road in Norway and in Canada there may be problems in the pipeline. How big is your carbon footprint? If you show me yours I’ll show you mine.
Clean Growth Strategy
Leading the way to a low carbon future
I’m often very negative about what governments do about developing a low emissions economy as opposed to what they say about it. After all, David Cameron initially promised the greenest government ever and only a few years later was talking about ‘that green crap'. George Osborne dismantled the differential road tax system which previously penalised cars with a high fuel consumption and high emissions. Now everyone pays the same in the UK, unless they are driving a pure electric vehicle.
Let’s hope that the climate growth strategy which the government published last week represents a true change of direction. They’ve printed a lot of the paragraphs in green ink, presumably to emphasise their commitment. But is there substance behind the show?
There’s certainly a lot in this document. The executive summary alone runs to 15 pages. It talks about green finance, industrial efficiency, energy efficiency at home, low carbon transport, clean smart flexible power, efficient use of natural resources and the launch of an annual Green Great Britain Week. There are budgets and there are timescales and if the government commits to fulfil them they will certainly make a radical change for the better.
Some of the proposals could go further; some of them seem to be backtracking. For example, the plan is to develop world leading Green Finance capabilities, including setting up a Green Finance Taskforce. But didn’t we have a Green Investment Bank? The government changed its constitution so it didn’t have to concentrate on green investments and then sold it off to an Australian company.
The government plans to demonstrate international leadership in carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS), by collaborating with global partners and investing up to £100 million in leading edge CCUS and industrial innovation to drive down costs. When George Osborne was Chancellor he announced a £1bn fund for the development of CCS, and then withdrew it at short notice.
The government will support the recycling of heat produced in industrial processes, to reduce business energy bills and benefit local communities. Can’t argue with that.
The government will support the recycling of heat produced in industrial processes, to reduce business energy bills and benefit local communities. Can’t argue with that.
The government will invest around £162 million of public funds in research and innovation in Energy, Resource and Process efficiency, including up to £20 million to encourage switching to lower carbon fuels. It will support innovative energy technologies and processes with £14 million of further investment through the Energy Entrepreneurs Fund.
“We want all fuel poor homes to be upgraded to Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) Band C by 2030”, says the report, “and our aspiration is for as many homes as possible to be EPC Band C by 2035 where practical, cost-effective and affordable.”
2035 is some way off, but the challenge of raising as many homes as possible to Band C is not inconsiderable. British homes are some of the worst-insulated in Europe, some of them are very old and until recently building regulations have accepted relatively low levels of insulation. Not only are many British houses old, but many of them are historic. Data shows that uptake of energy-saving technologies such as UPVC windows, new boilers or cavity wall insulation is lower in areas where many properties are subject to preservation policies. Analysis has found that £3.8bn savings could have been made on energy bills between 2006 and 2013 had energy consumption dropped in these areas at the same rate as in other neighbourhoods.
“Preservation policies play an important role in protecting our historic buildings but our research shows that there is a trade-off,” said Grantham Research Institute associate professor and report co-author Dr Charles Palmer. “The results highlight that preservation policies have inadvertently hindered some households from cutting down their energy use and their bills.”
The government intends to consult on strengthening energy performance standards for new and existing homes under Building Regulations, including future-proofing new homes for low carbon heating systems. And of course all households will have the opportunity to have a smart meter to help them save energy by the end of 2020.
The ill-fated Green Deal was intended to address many of these issues. The government will have to come up with something in its place. Something that works and something that is less complex and financially attractive to householders. It may have to be an obligation on private landlords.
There’s a clear commitment to radically change the transport fleet, and it’s already been announced that the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans will be ended by 2040. In addition the government will spend £1 billion supporting the take-up of ultra low emission vehicles (ULEV), by helping consumers to overcome the upfront cost of an electric car and by developing one of the best electric vehicle charging networks in the world. There will be £50 million for the Plug-in Taxi programme, which gives taxi drivers up to £7,500 of the purchase price of a new ULEV taxi, and this is alongside £14 million to support 10 local areas to deliver dedicated charge points for taxis. There will be £100 million for a national programme of support for retrofitting or purchasing new low emission buses in England and Wales. The greenest journeys involve no power assistance at all, so there will be £1.2 billion to make cycling and walking the natural choice for shorter journeys.
There will be support for developing electric batteries and trials of Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) platoons, where one driver controls three or four vehicles on trunk routes, which could deliver significant fuel and emissions savings.
The section on transport mentions the new third runway at Heathrow. It doesn’t really explain how increased emissions from increased air traffic will fit in with emissions reduction targets, beyond suggesting that sufficient savings will be made elsewhere.
There will be measures to deliver better environmental outcomes from agriculture, there will be a new network of forests in England and a target of zero avoidable waste by 2050.
The government will work with businesses and civil society to introduce a “Green Great Britain” week to promote clean growth, starting in 2018.
According to the document, “the cost of onshore wind power has fallen by 50 per cent since 2009, but the cost of offshore wind is falling even faster. In the UK, government investment has helped to deliver a 50 per cent drop in costs over just the last two years.” However the accompanying graph shows that the cost of onshore wind is still significantly lower than both offshore wind and solar PV, and competitive with gas.
Nevertheless, remembering that government supporters oppose onshore wind there are no plans to ease restriction on its development.
There’s a passing reference to tidal power in the paper, but while the Hinkley C nuclear station is mentioned by name, the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon is not. Hinkley C is seen as a great opportunity, but I’m not convinced that a nuclear power station financed by the Chinese, already late, built by the French to an unproven design and contracted to supply electricity at twice the price of wind power is a sensible investment.
According to Private Eye, a satirical magazine with a reputation for far-reaching investigative journalism (issue 1454), the government has secret plans for neighbourhood nuclear power stations. Small Modular Reactors (SMR) are the sort of power plants found in nuclear submarines, and sailors live in close proximity to them for months without adverse effects. We have British expertise in the field. Rolls Royce is a major supplier. The units are largely built in a factory and delivered to site for final assembly and commissioning. There are no emissions in operation and there is a lot of waste heat from the process, which could be fed into a district heating system. Apparently the government has drawn up a list of potential sites in 50 cities around the UK. The list is secret, and it’s certainly not mentioned in the Clean Growth Strategy. Well, would you want a nuclear power station at the end of your road? Would you vote for the government that installed it?
A decision on the tidal lagoon has been awaited for well over a year now. There are arguments about the true cost per megawatt hour of the power that the scheme will produce. It all turns on calculating the full working life of the project. There are also doubts about the construction itself. It will involve building a barrage out of millions of tons of stone. That stone will have to come from somewhere, and when it's been extracted there will be a very big hole left behind. The preferred quarry, currently disused, appears to be in southwest Cornwall in an area of outstanding natural beauty and a site of special scientific interest. The material will be transported by sea - through a marine conservation area. If it all goes ahead, can we say that the power from the barrage will be really green?
All in all, I think the Clean Growth Strategy is to be welcomed. The key issue is whether this austerity-obsessed government will actually find the money to make it happen. One phrase I found in the report worried me: “Every action that we take to cut emissions must be done while ensuring our economy remains competitive.”
Australia in the Dark
Last September South Australia suffered serious power blackouts and this has led to the National government launching a new energy policy. First they commissioned Dr Finkel to review the energy sector, focusing on the sustainability of the current system, its environmental impacts, and affordability for consumers. Among other things he recommended a Clean Energy Target (CET) and demonstrated that a CET would lower power prices by subsidising investment in clean power generation, increasing the supply of electricity.
The government thought different (and who listens to experts anyway?) and has launched the National Energy Guarantee scheme. Under this plan energy companies must source a given percentage of their power from supplies which are available 24/7, which will include coal, gas, batteries and pumped hydro. In the short term at least, that’s a reprieve for coal. In the future there will be no subsidies for renewables and no obligation on energy companies to supply renewable energy. Even so, the government claims that the companies will develop sufficient renewable supplies to ensure that Australia meets its Paris Agreement emissions targets.
The government also claims that the scheme will reduce prices to consumers. Commentators suggest that this may only become significant in later years and will be negligible to start with.
News from Canada
Last week, Generation Energy, a two-day event, took place in Canada. I was able to listen live to part of the debate on line; a panel of provincial energy ministers. I was interested to learn that both Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador get 98% of their electricity from renewables and have enough to export to the US. I assume it’s hydropower.
I was already aware of the Canadian Tar Sands, and it seems it’s controversial over there as well as internationally. The ministers were defensive and emphasised the employment prospects and said that they were committed to responsible ways of extracting the oil and gas and transporting it safely. Jim Carr, the minister of natural resources in the Canadian cabinet, said that 99% of Canadian oil and gas exports went to the USA. He asked the audience whether they thought that was a good idea and nobody put a hand up. Apparently the plan is to develop alternative markets in Asia. This will require the development of pipelines and port facilities in the West.
In the days after the conference, oil company Transcanada sparked controversy by announcing that it was abandoning plans for a pipeline to the East. The company did not specifically blame government regulations for the decision, but there is speculation that this was part of the reason, as well as difficulties in finding an acceptable route through indigenous tribal lands.
Maybe with increasing pressures to replace oil with renewables and other fuels they were concerned that the pipeline would never repay the investment. Meanwhile development of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, part of a system delivering Canadian crude oil to Texan refineries in the US, is still uncertain. The scheme was blocked by the Obama administration, but Trump made a campaign promise to reverse that decision and did so in January. Now there is speculation that TransCanada will pull the plug on that one too, “for commercial reasons”. A decision is expected before the end of December.
Shell buys New Motion charging points
Another oil company, Shell, is clearly hedging its bets by buying a network of electric vehicle charging points. It has acquired The New Motion. According to Fleet Europe magazine, the company has been active since 2009, is an industry pioneer and operates more than 30,000 private electric charge points for homes and businesses in the Netherlands, Germany, France and the UK. It also operates a network of more than 50,000 public charge points across 25 European countries, with more than 100,000 registered charge cards. Until today, the company was not profitable, with 2016 resulting in a 4 million euro loss over a turnover of 13 million euros, due to the important investments The New Motion made in expanding its network. But as more and more car manufacturers announce electric models and a range of 250 - 300 miles becomes the norm, the market for electric vehicles is beginning to grow.
The UK and other countries have announced that they will not permit the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles after 2040. That is not going to change any immediate purchasing decisions, but Paris announced last week that only electric vehicles will be permitted to enter the city from 2030. The pressure to the phase out fossil fuels is gradually becoming more urgent.
Bumpy roads in Norway
In Norway the government has announced increased taxes on electric cars. Norway has the highest number of electric cars per head, partly because it has masses of hydro-electricity and partly because the government pays a subsidy on electric cars; not just on purchase but on every year of ownership. Now the plan is to put a tax on new electric cars weighing over two tonnes. This is similar to the tax on new internal combustion cars and the logic is that these heavier cars cause more wear and tear to the roads. It means that the big Tesla will cost an extra $12,000 and there will be an extra $3,500 on the electric Jaguar launching next year. The new compact Tesla will be exempt from the charge, and so will the Vauxhall/Opel Ampera.
Norway is a paradox. It is awash with clean green energy which it exports into other parts of Europe. At the same time it has huge oil and gas reserves in the North Sea. Now it is being taken to court by Greenpeace, claiming that its plans to start drilling for oil in the Arctic are not only environmentally reckless but illegal. Watch this space.
What’s your carbon footprint? I just checked mine on carbonfootprint.com and it came out at 11.7 tonnes. Apparently the average for someone in an industrialised nation is 11 tonnes, but the average for the UK is only just over 7 tonnes. Even that is way, way above the sustainable level of about 2 tonnes. I’ll look into it in more detail in a future episode.
Peter Oborne is an outspoken journalist who for years has been a strident climate change denier. To everyone's surprise, probably including his own, he's changed his mind.
He’s reported as saying,
“I think I was rather too impressed by climate sceptics to begin with, “I’m in favour of scepticism, you see. But the evidence now is overwhelming. We have galloping climate change.
“I don’t accept the sceptical views that this is cyclical. This is an enormous issue and we have all been culpable. The right has been culpable for not treating this as a serious matter and I intend to start writing about it.”
Suddenly his views are diametrically opposed to those of the owner and the editor of the Daily Mail, the newspaper he most often writes for. If he writes about climate change I hope he finds an equally powerful publisher.
And that’s it…
And that is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 20th October, brought to you despite a desperately slow internet connection today and a computer which refused to re-open this document after I’d completed 95% of it. Fortunately I have a rolling back-up, so would only have lost the last half-hour’s work if I hadn’t been able to change my computer’s mind. (I switched it off and on again.)
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I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
There will be another next week.
Have a good one until then!