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I warned you that we’d be talking this week about a plastic ban in Kenya, a rosy future for North Sea oil, a lower ozone layer, taxing meat, and electric mushrooms, but the sustainability news just goes on. Listen up to hear about electric insights, geothermal engineering, dams, fracking, the plug-in hybrids that aren’t, new rules on waste, threats to environmental legislation, how nuclear power may be the future but Toshiba wants no part of it and a strange Icelandic saga.
This is Anthony Day with the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, 16 November 2018. A very warm welcome to all listeners.
Plastic Bags Fine
In Kenya, using plastic bags for onetime use can carry a maximum punishment of four years in prison or a fine of 4 million schillings. That’s more than £30,000. Since the law was introduced in August last year some 100 manufacturers and sellers have been prosecuted. Not surprisingly, plastic bag use has virtually disappeared. Instead people use reusable fabric bags or put their shopping in buckets. Bread can still be wrapped in plastic and plastic drinking straws are still permitted. Many people are in favour of the of the new law, although the manufacturers claim that some 60,000 people have been put out of work and some street traders say it is more difficult to keep food fresh.
Other countries as diverse as China, France, Rwanda, and Italy have taxed or banned plastic bags, although none has gone as far as Kenya. For Kenya the pressure was certainly on, as most of the 100 million bags given away free by supermarkets each year were littering the country. They smothered the cities and were consumed by livestock. Cows at slaughter were often found to have swallowed up to 20 plastic bags.
New waste strategy
Whether such measures would work here is unlikely, although plastic bag use has fallen since charges were imposed. The Guardian reports that the UK government’s new waste strategy will significantly increase contributions from retailers and producers towards the cost of waste disposal and recycling from an average of about £70m a year to between £500m and £1bn a year. The number of businesses required to pay will also increase. Recycling will be developed in line with the EU’s commitment to the circular economy, expected to remain part of the UK’s policy after Brexit. Such pressure on retailers and manufacturers could encourage them to reduce the use of plastic at source.
Looking at what we personally bring back from the supermarket each week it is mortifying to see what’s in single-use plastic. It’s easier to count what isn’t. Cereal is usually in cardboard cartons, but some have a plastic window or a plastic inner bag. Drinks are in glass bottles, apart from mixers like tonic, and soft drinks. Beer and soup come in cans, but these have plastic linings, albeit extremely thin. All other food is wrapped more or less in single-use plastic. Toiletries and household cleaners are in plastic containers. The problem is that there is no UK national recycling policy at present, and although most plastics can be recycled in theory, where I live only one type of plastic is accepted for recycling.
The BBC has news of a possible solution to the microparticles problem. Vast quantities of microparticles are poured down the drain when clothes made of synthetic fibres are washed. They may make their way to the local sewage farm, but these facilities have no means of straining the fibres out, so they eventually end up in the sea. However, if you add the Cora Ball to your wash it goes some way to reduce the damage. It’s four inches (10cm) in diameter, made from recycled and recyclable plastic and imitates the structure of coral in the ocean. While it doesn't catch everything, the company says it captures between a quarter and a third of microfibres in every wash. In the UK the Cora Ball costs about £29 and is so popular that at least one retailer won’t have any more stock before 10th December. Are you sufficiently dedicated to get your ball? Should last 5 years.
Retailers to pay up to £1bn for recycling under waste strategy
Oil & Gas
As usual there’s news on the energy front. There’s a story from the BBC this week that there’s still a lot of opportunity for oil and gas from the North Sea. For an investment of up to £330 billion it could be possible to extract as much as 17 billion barrels of oil equivalent, worth over £1,000 billion. This is 17 billion barrels in addition to the 43 billion already extracted since the North Sea was first opened up.
The Scotsman newspaper is more cautious about this report, based on analysis by researchers from the University of Aberdeen. One important factor will be the ratio of gas to oil actually recovered. It is also stated that the forecast depends on opening up over 400 new fields, of which nearly 300 are classified as technical reserves. I think that means that nobody can be certain whether there is any oil actually there, or whether it can be extracted economically.
One thing that concerns me is that we knew long before the recent IPCC report that there’s a limit to the amount of fossil fuels that we can burn before we reach an irrevocable tipping point. Wouldn’t that £330 billion investment be better spent on low-carbon energy, or on energy efficiency so that we can fit demand within a reduced supply?
The Telegraph, not noted as a campaigner against the causes of climate change, sees these potential North Sea reserves as a bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations. Or maybe they could be a shot in the foot - or worse.
Electric Cars (or not)
On the transport front, closely related to energy, is news about electric cars. As I reported earlier, 12th November, saw an end to the government subsidy for plug-in hybrids and a reduction in the grant for pure electric cars. We ordered our electric car back in September, but we’ve just learnt that it will be ready for delivery in the third week of January so we’re taking the full £1,000 hit. And there’s more, which I’ll tell you about another time.
The worrying news is the revelation that many plug-in hybrids have never actually been plugged in. The idea is that they are very clean if they are regularly charged up because they can typically run for 40 miles on battery alone, which is longer than the average commute. Official figures demonstrate that typical economy would be around 130 mpg from combined use of the petrol engine and the battery. The government offered a capital grant towards the cost of these cars, a substantially reduced road tax and a much lower tax charge on drivers of company cars. No wonder sales of these vehicles grew rapidly. Now a report reveals that companies and consumers have taken advantage of all these tax benefits but ignored the advantages of the technology. Many of these cars have never been plugged in, running on petrol alone delivering less than 50mpg instead of 130 and emitting high levels of co2 emissions. The curse of unintended consequences strikes again!
It makes sense to withdraw this subsidy, but I can’t see the logic in reducing the grant for pure electric cars.
From electric cars to electric mushrooms.
According to Cosmos magazine US researchers have generated electricity from a mushroom using energy-producing bacteria, an electrode network, and a 3D printer. The Engineer reports that the team at Stevens Institute of Technology achieved this by covering a white button mushroom with 3D-printed clusters of cyanobacteria that generate electricity and graphene nanoribbons that collect the current. Writing in Nano Letters the researchers describe their breakthrough as engineered bionic symbiosis. Not much electricity is produced at this stage, but it’s an interesting line of research.
Electric Insights - and Gas
Electric insights is a website published by the Drax Group, owners of the UK’s largest power station here in North Yorkshire. One of the articles reviews electricity production for the third quarter of this year and shows the mix of sources. Low carbon sources accounted for an average of 57% of production across the quarter. Of this just under half came from nuclear, followed by wind, biomass, solar and hydro, in order of importance. Coal contributed less to the total supply than anything else, except hydro. Gas produced 37% of the total.
The power station at Drax was originally built to burn coal. Now it burns biomass in some of its boilers, but management is looking to expand into gas-fired generation. They say:
“The proposed project comprises up to four new gas turbines (up to two for Unit 5 and up to two for Unit 6), each powering a dedicated generator of up to 600 megawatts (MW) in capacity. Each unit would provide steam, via a Heat Recovery Steam Generator, to the existing steam turbine for that unit which would generate up to 600MW per unit. Once re-powered, Unit 5 would have a gross electrical output capacity of up to 1,800 megawatts and Unit 6 would have a gross electrical output capacity of up to 1,800 megawatts. The repowered units would have a new combined capacity of up to 3,600MW or 3.6 gigawatts (GW).
“It is also proposed to construct up to two battery storage facilities, one per generating unit and each up to 100MW.”
Not everyone agrees with the plan, not least our friends Client Earth, the group of environmental lawyers who have successfully sued the government several times over the UK’s poor air quality.
ClientEarth climate accountability lawyer Sam Hunter Jones said: “The UK government claims to be a climate leader, yet if major energy projects such as this from Drax are granted planning consent, the UK will risk carbon lock-in that would seriously undermine its ability to meet its climate change commitments.
“The government’s own forecasts published this year show that the UK does not need a major roll out of new large-scale gas generation capacity. There is evidence that even those low forecasts overestimate the level of need and are also not sufficient to meet the UK’s decarbonisation targets.
“Approving this new gas capacity risks either throwing the UK’s decarbonisation off course, or locking in redundant infrastructure resulting in significant environmental impacts and costs to the taxpayer.”
Sadly the government doesn’t seem to be listening, and will probably urge Cuadrilla to step up its search for fracked gas to feed the new turbines.
Exploratory fracking continues at the Preston New Road site in Lancashire, but it has triggered 37 minor earth tremors. They were all undetectable at the surface without specialised equipment, but two were large enough to require operations to be suspended. A Cuadrilla executive had previously said that he didn't expect to cause such serious quakes. Of course, if gas is found in commercial quantities it will still be years before production begins.
Maybe better results could be obtained by drilling different holes. On its website, Geothermal Engineering Ltd says:
“Our planet is a huge source of energy. In fact 99.9% of the planet is at a temperature greater than 100 degrees Centigrade. Geothermal Engineering intends to tap into this heat and, in so doing, aims to produce significant quantities of renewable electricity and heat. Contrary to current methods of generating power (oil, coal, nuclear), electricity from geothermal sources has low or no carbon emissions, no waste products, a minimal physical foot print on the earth and is renewable. At a time when fossil fuel reserves are rapidly being exhausted and concerns increase about global warming, Geothermal Engineering aims to act today to safeguard the planet for tomorrow by producing clean Heat and Power from the Earth.”
Drilling began last week at a site near Redruth in Cornwall, southwest England. One hole is expected to be 1.6 miles (2.5km) deep and the other as deep as 2.8 miles (4.5km), which would be a UK record for a borehole. The plan is to pump water to the bottom of the first hole, and for it to percolate down through a geological fault to the bottom of the second hole, absorbing heat as it goes. This heated water, at about 190℃ will be extracted through the second hole and will be used to power the UK’s first geothermal power station. There should be enough electricity for 7,000 homes. This is tiny in the scheme of things - only about a third of the output of a single offshore wind turbine - but it is a proof of concept, and unlike a wind turbine it is not intermittent. It can run continuously 24/7.
Creativity and Imagination wanted!
We tend to have a mindset that expects us to heat our homes by burning something like oil or gas, or by using electricity. The truth is that there is a lot of natural heat out there which can be harvested by using an air-source heat pump, a water-source heat pump as mentioned in previous episodes, or by this geothermal system. It’s clean, it’s cost-effective. We need engineers - and governments - with the imagination to use it.
Meanwhile, in the face of conflicting advice, the government continues to promote the nuclear option. The National Infrastructure Assessment recently published by the National Infrastructure Commission proposes that half of the UK’s power should be provided by renewables by 2030. It also says specifically that “Heating must no longer be provided by natural gas, a fossil fuel.” Although it does not suggest a target date for this to be achieved. “The Commission’s modelling has shown that a highly renewable generation mix is a low cost option for the energy system…Government should not agree support for more than one nuclear power station beyond Hinkley Point C.”
The government has been planning a major nuclear power station in Cumbria near the Sellafield reprocessing plant. The main contractor was expected to be Toshiba, but this company has decided to wind up its loss-making nuclear facility. The plant is now very unlikely to be built.
This may raise doubts over another planned station at Wilfa in North Wales. The contractor here is Hitachi, and for the moment construction is expected to start in 2020. The National Infrastructure Commission suggested that a second power station should be built after Hinckley C in order to maintain the nuclear supply chain. This seems a little perverse and at odds with its suggestions that renewables are more cost-effective.
A Good Read
Incidentally, the National Infrastructure Assessment report is worth a read because apart from energy it covers issues including autonomous vehicles, revolutionising road transport, building the digital society, decarbonising the UK and reducing the risks of drought and flooding.
Dam Lies and Statistics
Statistically, nuclear power is the safest form of energy. Even the Chernobyl disaster was the direct cause of less than 50 deaths. Of course any death is unacceptable, and we must honour and remember all those who suffer fatal accidents at Chernobyl or elsewhere.
Statistically hydropower is the most dangerous. This is because a collapsing dam can rapidly engulf and sweep away hundreds of people. The BBC cites a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.
The report finds that hydropower has been the leading source of renewable energy across the world, accounting for up to 71% of this supply as of 2016. This capacity was built up in North America and Europe between 1920 and 1970 when thousands of dams were built. Nowadays, however, more dams are being removed in North America and Europe than are being built. The hydropower industry moved to building dams in the developing world and since the 1970s, began to build even larger hydropower dams along the Mekong River Basin, the Amazon River Basin, and the Congo River Basin. The same problems are being repeated: disrupting river ecology, deforestation, losing aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity, releasing substantial greenhouse gases, displacing thousands of people, and altering people’s livelihoods plus affecting the food systems, water quality, and agriculture near them. The paper studies the proliferation of large dams in developing countries and the importance of incorporating climate change into considerations of whether to build a dam. It also examines the overestimation of benefits and underestimation of costs.
So even without catastrophic failure, dams can have wide-ranging negative effects.
A few short stories
First, I spoke last week about ozone and how the ozone layer protects us from harmful radiations from space. At ground level, however, it's bad news. Ozone contributes to poor air quality, particularly in developing countries. It makes breathing difficult and adds to the health problems caused by polluted air. Delhi and Hong Kong are particularly affected.
Should there be a tax on red meat?
Scientists at the University of Oxford say governments should consider imposing price hikes on red meat - such as beef, lamb and pork - to reduce consumption.
They say it would save lives and more than £700m in UK healthcare costs, according to new research.
Publishing in PLOS, the public library of science , the researchers say: “The consumption of red and processed meat has been associated with increased mortality from chronic diseases, and as a result, it has been classified by the World Health Organization as carcinogenic (processed meat) and probably carcinogenic (red meat) to humans. One policy response is to regulate red and processed meat consumption similar to other carcinogens and foods of public health concerns. Here we describe a market-based approach of taxing red and processed meat according to its health impacts.”
Red meat is one of the least efficient forms of food, given the large quantities of feed and water that are needed to produce each kilo of meat on the butcher’s slab. As more people in developing nations aspire to a Western diet we may well see prices rise even without taxes.
How will environmental standards be affected by Brexit?
Apparently there’s a problem already. Some 400 staff have been moved from the Environment Agency to work directly on preparations for a no-deal Brexit. While the cat’s away, the mice will play. Let’s hope that the cats will be sent back to monitoring air and water pollution, recycling, flooding, habitats and species and all the other things our laws are intended to protect, as soon as possible.
At the time of writing, wildfires in California have taken more than 40 lives and at least 100 people are unaccounted for. These fires are exceptional, driven by warm winds from the desert. President Trump blames poor forest management. Others see it as yet another example of the consequences of climate change. Venice saw exceptional floods last week and almost every week since the middle of the summer I have reported on exceptional weather in one part of the world or another. I'll talk more about climate change, again, next week.
That strange Icelandic saga. Iceland is a frozen-food retailer here in the UK. Like a number of other store chains, it’s just released a new television commercial for Christmas. This one is different. It makes the point that Iceland no longer uses palm oil in its own-label products. It explains how palm oil is unsustainable, how palm oil plantations are devastating forests and how they are driving orangutans to extinction. It’s an animated cartoon, with a voice-over by actress Emma Thompson. The television advertisers have said that it’s political, and they refuse to carry it. They say it was made by Greenpeace, which is a political pressure group. That’s true, but nowhere does it mention Greenpeace. There’s a link on my blog so that you can view it for yourself and make up your own mind. https://youtu.be/JdpspllWI2o And if you haven’t got time for that, I’m going to close this episode with the soundtrack to the ad.
But before I go let me thank you for listening. Let me thank my patrons in particular for their help, ideas and support. It’s always very welcome - and if you want to be a patron you’ll know by now that you just have to hop across to patreon.com/sfr and sign up. And if you’ve any ideas to share, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m Anthony Day. That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
And now here’s that soundtrack. Iceland have dedicated it to the 25 orangutans we lose every day. They say:
“Until all palm oil production causes zero rainforest destruction, we’re removing palm oil from all our own label products.”
Listen, and let me know if you think this is political.