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This week it’s time to STOP a war (but few know about it and still less seem to care), to STOP air pollution (although the government’s latest proposals have been called too little too late) and to STOP the ice melting (haven’t we heard that before?)
It’s time to GO electric (despite government’s clumsy efforts) or maybe GO hydrogen - there are interesting developments in public transport vehicles, and GO underground to store captured carbon.Yes, that old chestnut.
Hello, this is Anthony Day with the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 25th January 2019. This podcast is free to all, but brought to you with the support of a select group of patrons. Their support allows me to cover the cost of hosting this podcast, to have transcriptions made of major interviews (find them at www.sustainablefutures.report ) and to commission a small amount of background research. It also covers my monthly donation to Wikipedia which I find is a valuable starting point for many stories. If you would like to become a patron you’ll find all the details at patreon.com/sfr.
A special welcome to Darren Paris, our latest patron. Hi Darren, thanks for joining up!
Today I bring you stories from Yemen, from DEFRA, from the ice fields of Alaska, from the Department of Transport, from depleted oil wells and from the American courts.
I can guarantee no stories about Brexit, because
- It’s already beyond reason and beyond satire and
- By the time you get this, things will have changed. Several times.
“Don’t mention the War!”
To many that phrase is a classic joke from TV sitcom Fawlty Towers. To many in Yemen it means that too few world leaders and media outlets are talking about a war that is devastating their country and engulfing its citizens in what the UN has described as the worst famine for decades. And now there’s cholera.
It’s a religious war, between Shia and Sunni. It’s a tribal war based on tribal conflicts going back generations. It’s a war for resources, like oil and gas. It’s a civil war between North and South. Some say it’s a proxy war between Saudi Arabia supporting the South, and Iran supporting the North. Saudi has blockaded the ports, which means that humanitarian aid - food and medicine - cannot get in. What does arrive frequently disappears into a web of black market corruption.
And the world looks on. Or is it just looking away? “What can I do?” you ask. Not much. Maybe spread the word. Write to your MP. You may think we have political chaos in Britain at the moment, but for chaos it’s not even on the bottom end of the scale by comparison with Yemen. Of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Goal No.16 is Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions. Some way to go in Yemen, I fear.
This is another of those weeks where there are so many stories that's difficult to know what to put in and what to take out. I hope I've got it right.
Let's start with air pollution. I’ve covered air pollution several times recently, often about ClientEarth’s repeated and successful actions against the government for failing to do anything about it. Last week the government published its Clean Air Strategy 2019, describing it as a world-leading plan. Talk Radio was on to me straight away - in fact they called me twice and asked me to talk first about wood burning stoves and then about scented candles. In the event I couldn’t do either, but what was all the fuss about?
The announcement about the new strategy said that it would cut the costs of air pollution to society by £1.7 billion every year by 2020, rising to £5.3 billion every year from 2030.
This comes on top of a commitment, they said, to halve the number of people living in areas breaching WHO guidelines on Particulate Matter by 2025 and that the UK is the first major economy to adopt air quality goals based on WHO recommendations, going far beyond EU requirements.
The bit about scented candles made good headlines, but in fact the word “candle” appears only once in the whole document. Two major causes of air pollution are particulates and Non-Methane Volatile Organic Compounds (NMVOCs), which, according to the European Environment Agency, can be hazardous to human health. NMVOCs are produced by burning candles - scented or not - but also come from building materials, such as laminate flooring, kitchen cabinets and wood panels, from furnishing, carpets, and upholstery, from products for cleaning and polishing, from air fresheners, from fragrance, deodorants, and hair styling products and from chemical reactions in the air between other NMVOCs and chemicals generated from combustion processes, such as smoking, heating, or cooking. Formaldehyde, a common NMVOC, is known to be carcinogenic in small doses.
The government’s stated objective is to reduce emissions of NMVOCs against the 2005 baseline by 32% by 2020, increasing to 39% by 2030. It intends to do this by raising consumer awareness of the problems of NVOCs, by encouraging product labelling and by modifying building regulations.
Following a recent increase in popularity, domestic burning on stoves and open fires is now the single biggest source of particulate matter emissions. Particulates are these tiny fragments, small enough to pass through the lungs and into the bloodstream.
Among other things the government will
- introduce new legislation to prohibit the sale of the most polluting fuels
- ensure that only the cleanest stoves are available for sale by 2022
- And bring existing smoke control legislation up to date, and make it easier to enforce
It’s difficult to see how they will effectively control the 2m stoves already in use and causing the problem.
Action will also be taken to reduce air pollution from agriculture which is responsible for 88% of ammonia emissions. Ammonia emissions lead to the creation of ground-level ozone, another noxious chemical.
Client Earth responds…
ClientEarth have prosecuted the government for repeatedly failing to tackle air pollution, so I asked them for comment.
ClientEarth Head of Public Affairs Simon Alcock said:
“This strategy doesn’t address the huge problem of air pollution from transport that is harming people’s health. It instead claims that it is being dealt with by other plans. What it doesn’t say is that those plans are in total disarray, so once again the government has missed a golden opportunity to clean up illegal levels of air pollution across the country and start protecting people’s health.
“We welcome the stated ambition to halve the number of people living in areas with pollution above World Health Organisation guideline levels but we now want to see tighter legally binding limits locked into legislation in the Environment Bill. Action to protect people’s health must be a requirement, not a ‘nice to have’.”
Greenpeace and Friends fo the Earth issued statements saying pretty much the same.
In a recent article George Monbiot explains how air pollution can affect children’s development from before birth, and that chronic exposure to the levels in many UK cities can damage their health, their intelligence and their life chances.
There was an article in The Guardian last week by Dahr Jamail who almost fell to his death in an icy crevasse in Alsaka recently. He didn’t, and lived to write about the experience and about the warnings from NASA that there’s “no question that increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause the Earth to warm in response” to the heat-trapping nature of CO2 and methane. Specifically, “The subsea permafrost in the Arctic is thawing, and we could experience a methane “burp” of previously trapped gas at any moment, causing the equivalent of several times the total amount of CO2 humans have emitted to be released into the atmosphere. The results would be catastrophic.” The permafrost is melting which makes things worse by releasing more methane, and a whole range of infrastructure built on the assumption that permafrost is permanent is collapsing as the ground turns to mud.
As I write this the press reports of a new study about the rapid ice-melt in Greenland and the risks of rising sea levels. They all quote the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, although I’ve not been able to find it there. CNN have produced an interactive slide-show demonstrating the consequences of sea-level rise. I strongly recommend you have a look at it. There’s a link on the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report.
Of course we already know that climate change is a problem. This week parts of Australia - and I mean cities in Australia, not remote deserts - have experienced temperatures nudging 50℃. 50℃ is 122℉. In New South Wales a record overnight temperature of 35.9℃ was recorded last week. We’re seeing wildfires.
Meanwhile Donald Trump continues to confuse weather and climate. On a frosty morning he said they could do with some of that good old fashioned global warming.
The situation is urgent. We will reach the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement in December and at that point all signatories must report on progress against their targets. The news is not expected to be good.
Cost of Action, or Inaction
I’ve mentioned the Juliana case several times. There’s a similar group of young people taking action against the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), but this time the oil industry won. The phrasing of the judgement is telling.
“The pertinent provisions make clear that the Commission is required (1) to foster the development of oil and gas resources, protecting and enforcing the rights of owners and producers, and (2) in doing so, to prevent and mitigate significant adverse environmental impacts to the extent necessary to protect public health, safety, and welfare, but only after taking into consideration cost-effectiveness and technical feasibility.”
It all turns on the definition of cost. What’s the cost of damaging the planet? What’s the cost of not producing more oil?
In this case the judges clearly believe that the costs of failing to protect future generations are less than the costs of not producing oil
Although great progress has been made in recent years both in raising awareness of the dangers of climate change and in taking action to slow it down, we’re still not doing enough. We’re still not getting the urgency of the message across.
A New Story
In a new book, Climate—A New Story, Charles Eisenstein looks at debates about global warming and proposes a narrative shift for the climate movement. Embracing love of nature, he writes, moves people beyond denial and passivity to the action necessary to protect life on our planet. He goes on, “Here is what I want everyone in the climate change movement to hear: People are not going to be frightened into caring. Scientific predictions about what will happen 10, 20, or 50 years in the future are not going to make them care, not enough.”
So what can we do? I’m working urgently on an episode with the theme of getting the message across.
One way to reduce our impact on the planet is to drive electric. Indeed the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission recommends that close to 100% of all new cars and vans sold in the UK should be electric by 2030. In its latest blog it says, “We want the Government to subsidise the provision of rapid charge points in rural and remote areas by 2022, meeting the need where the market will not deliver in the short term.”
We’ve just bought an electric car - that’s an episode in itself - and there’s an urgent need for charging points in the UK’s towns and cities, quite apart from rural areas. We had to buy a small car to fit our small garage and it’s got a very small range. We need charging points. Unfortunately you can’t carry spare electricity in a can in the boot like spare petrol.
The Transport Minister, Chris Grayling, has not helped with credibility of electric cars. He has had to admit that of the 1,830 vehicles in the ministry fleet only 29 of them are electric. He has also removed the grant for plug-in hybrids (to be fair, that was being abused) as well as cutting the grant for pure electric vehicles.
One form of clean transport is the hydrogen train. Alstom have announced plans to convert existing Class 321 trains, to create a clean train for the modern age. They could be in service by 2022. Hydrogen is clean in use; as everyone tells us, the only by-product is water. Yes, but… The production of hydrogen may not be clean. Stripping it out of natural gas releases carbon dioxide which will damage the environment just as much as fossil fuel exhaust, unless it is captured and stored. Electrolysis is not very efficient, and whether it’s clean depends on where the electricity comes from. Hydrogen production by electrolysis could be a good and clean use of surplus renewable electricity.
A problem with hydrogen cars is setting up a national network of fuelling stations. With trains you only need a few high-capacity fuel depots. The fuel tank is a far smaller part of a train than of a car, so carrying enough fuel for a range of 1000 miles or more on a train should not be a problem.
CCS (Carbon Capture & Storage)
I mentioned storing carbon dioxide, and Patron Tom de Simone draws my attention to an announcement by Canadian firm Carbon Engineering. They have two products. The first, DAC, is their direct air capture system for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and they have received development funding for this from Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, LLC (OLCV), a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum Corporation; and Chevron Technology Ventures (CTV), the venture capital arm of Chevron Corporation. The captured CO2 can be used for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) by pumping it into oil wells and driving the oil out. The CO2 remains locked indefinitely in the depleted oil well.
The other product is their AIR TO FUELS™ technology which involves mixing CO2 with hydrogen - produced cleanly by electrolysis, they assure us - to create a liquid fuel which can be used in existing car, truck, ship and aircraft engines without modification. They claim that this is a low-carbon fuel and of course the emissions are offset by the CO2 they capture elsewhere with DAC. It presumably contains no sulphur or other materials found in fossil fuels and no particulates.
Carbon Ventures are not alone in this field. After some 1500 hours of operation, Sunfire’s plant in Germany has produced three tonnes of their Blue Crude by a similar process. The next challenge is to scale up production. The US uses around 9 million barrels, or 9 million metric tonnes of gasoline each day.
There’s always news about energy and it’s always important because if we can either reduce our consumption or reduce our use of fossil fuels (or both) it means reduced climate-changing emissions. Apple and other major data-centre operators are moving to 100% renewable power. More on that next time.
In common with others, the British government has supported the production of renewable energy through feed-in tariffs paid to owners of small-scale renewable schemes, such as domestic solar panels. They have now announced that the scheme will end on 31st March and in future there will be no payment from the energy companies for surplus electricity exported to the grid either. This applies to new installations. Any panels installed up to 31st March still qualify for the feed-in tariff, and for the generation tariff, for 20 years after installation and this is index-linked. In the past the government has varied the tariff at short notice with serious consequences for solar installers, many of whom have gone out of business. There are fears that this change will close down others. The government has consulted on the possibility of introducing a smart feed-in tariff to take account of the increasing use of batteries, but no legislation has been tabled so far. There will therefore be a gap between the closure of the existing scheme and the start of any replacement. Let’s hope that the industry can survive that long.
Energy minister Clare Perry has launched a consultation on The future for small-scale low-carbon generation. It’s open for your views now. Among other things she said:
“We are delivering a smart energy system fit for the 21st Century, that will benefit every home and business. It will allow suppliers to better understand you as a user and offer you products to help you save money; working with smart appliances in the home to hand back control of energy use, and ultimately control of your bills. Smart meters, better data, smarter networks and the right rules and incentives are necessary for this to take place.
“Small scale generation and battery storage can play a crucial role in cutting carbon emissions as part of this smarter energy system by reducing local demand and providing clean power into the grid when it is needed. This will help avoid costly future connection costs for communities as power consumption grows with electric vehicle uptake and a growth in electric heating.”
Find a link to the full text on the blog.
In other Energy News…
Hitachi has now confirmed that it will cancel the planned £16bn nuclear power station at Wylfa in Wales. This is expected to cost 450 jobs and follows Toshiba’s decision to abandon the scheme for a new nuclear plant at Sellafield in Cumbria. There are now serious doubts over the future of nuclear in the UK. As the existing nuclear fleet nears the end of its working life the only replacement under construction is at Hinkley C. As I have reported on numerous occasions, it’s way over budget, years overdue, based on unproven technology and will only be viable because the government have guaranteed an index-linked electricity price at twice the current market level.
In Scotland Edinburgh’s Gyle Premier Inn has installed a battery which will allow it to store electricity overnight at off-peak rates and use it during the day. Estimated savings are £20,000 per annum. Cian Hatton, Whitbread's head of energy and environment, said that this was a trial. If it’s successful it could presumably be repeated in hundreds of Premier Inns across the UK. The more we can use batteries, the less need for power-stations on standby to meet short-term peak demand.
Don’t forget Yemen. Yes, it’s a far-off country of which we know little, but as citizens of the world we surely have a moral duty to protect victims of conflict. Especially as it was once a British protectorate and the war is being waged with British-supplied arms. Yes, there’s not much we can do. But the little we can do - maybe writing to our MP, to the Saudi Ambassador, spreading the word or donating to a relief agency - is surely worth doing for all that.
Following a suggestion from Patron Shane Hall, I’m going to look specifically at the energy usage and the environmental impact of IT. How much energy does it take to make a Google search? What is the impact of getting a new smartphone every couple of years and discarding the old one? Will electricity generation keep up with demand? What about duplicated files and ghost websites? I’m on the case.
And that’s it for this week.
Thanks again to all my patrons and especially newcomer Darren Paris. Find out about being a patron at patreon.com and find the links to all my stories at www.sustainablefutures.report
I’m Anthony Day
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.