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A blank sheet of paper on a Monday morning is a challenge, but by Friday, or rather Thursday evening at the latest, it's another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report. Yes, this one is for Friday, 15th March and I'm Anthony Day.
This week, today in fact, there's another march. Also in this episode Jeremy Leggett puts China's climate mitigation lead in the context of geopolitics. Jem Bendell has published a paper which he thinks puts him at odds with the academic establishment. I look at what he has to say and I hope there will be opportunity to ask him some questions for a future episode. I told you about the Carrington Event just before Christmas. It seems that something very like it happened some 2,600 years ago. Could it happened again? Norway is revising its investment plans and with a month’s experience of being an electric car owner we can tell you that buying an electric vehicle could be the best decision you ever make, or possibly the very worst.
First of all, news from Patron and mechanical engineer Esteban Villalon and his colleague chemist Guillaume Loiseaux. Together they established Lavoisier Composites in May 2018. The purpose of the company is to design and manufacture components from carbon fibre composites, using offcuts discarded by the French aerospace industry which would otherwise be incinerated.
Their flagship product is Carbonium, composed of intermediate modulus carbon fibre and high temperature epoxy. Carbonium Gold has been created by intimately marrying carbon and gold.
As with burr walnut, each piece of Carbonium® Gold reveals a golden grain whose singularity and finesse are unique. Applications include the creation of cases for high-end watches.
The partners claim that compared with equivalent materials on the market, the creation of Carbonium from material which would otherwise be discarded reduces the carbon footprint by 13 kg per kg of material used.
This week Lavoisier Composites was one of the 10 finalists at the JEC World StartUp Booster in Paris. Lavoisier Composites won the accolade with 54% of the votes.
By the time you read this another school strike for climate justice could be in progress. Students from all over the world are leaving school to protest.
The UK Student Climate Network is typical.
“We are choosing to rise up and take direct action where older generations have failed,” they say. “We are already facing devastating and irreversible impacts around the world. This is our final chance to fight for our futures, and our ages will not be what stop us. On Friday 15th of February, more than 10’000 students across the UK went on strike to protest lack of government action to combat our climate crisis. Now we’re doing it again: join us on the 15th March to amplify our voices once again.”
What do they want?
“We, the students, demand that…
The Government declare a climate emergency and prioritise the protection of life on Earth, taking active steps to achieve climate justice.
The national curriculum be reformed to address the ecological crisis as an educational priority.
The Government communicate the severity of the ecological crisis and the necessity to act now to the general public.
The Government recognise that young people have the biggest stake in our future, by incorporating youth views into policy making and bringing the voting age down to 16.”
As Greta Thunberg said, “You don’t have to school strike, it’s your own choice. But why should we be studying for a future that soon may be no more?”
Who is Greta Thunberg?
She’s a single-minded 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden who has been concerned about her future since the age of eight. She convinced her mother to give up flying, which had a significant effect on her mother’s career as an international opera singer. She convinced her father to become vegetarian. Last August she started sitting outside the Swedish Parliament every Friday with a banner demanding action on climate. She says, “The first day, I sat alone from about 8.30am to 3pm – the regular schoolday. And then on the second day, people started joining me. After that, there were people there all the time.”
Since then she’s done a TED Talk, she addressed COP24, the UN climate conference in Katowice and she spoke at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos.
There are rumours that she will be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. She’s 16.
Greta’s climate strike was inspired by students from the Parkland school in Florida, who walked out of classes in protest against the US gun laws that enabled the massacre on their campus.
Today, 15th March, students in more than 70 countries will walk out of school to protest about lack of action on climate which threatens their futures.
The key question is whether governments will act. I’ve said before, that governments will only do what politicians think people want. That may not be right or sensible. Changing public opinion is the key, and if these protests continue they will certainly raise public awareness. The task remains to change public opinion.
I’ve mentioned Jeremy Leggett several times on the Sustainable Futures Report. He is heavily involved in the promotion of solar energy through his company Solarcentury and with the distribution of solar powered lanterns to poor families in Africa through the charity SolarAid. He is a former chairman of Carbon Tracker, he teaches and addresses conferences throughout the world and was the first winner of the first Hillary Laureate for International Leadership in Climate Change. You can find a lot more on his website at www.jeremyleggett.net
This month he published his review of China’s Vision for Climate Action, which puts the whole thing in a geopolitical context.
It’s a long and detailed presentation and you’ll find a link on the blog. Here are some points that I have picked out.
China is a leader in climate change mitigation. This must partly be due to the fact that it has suffered some of the worst air pollution in the world. As a one party state with a president for life it can move quickly. In 2016 it cut 1.8 million jobs in coal and steel and it cancelled 120 GW of coal-fired generating capacity including plants already under construction. By March 2018 it was able to announce that it had already reached its 2020 Paris Goal. This was set in terms of the amount of CO2 per unit of GDP and it was cut by over 40% in relation to 2005 levels. However, although the CO2 per unit fell, as GDP grew the nation’s carbon emissions also grew in both 2017 and 2018.
China leads the world in solar installations and all China's new power demand in 2015 was met with wind and solar. Domestic consumers even said they were ready to pay more for renewable power, probably because they saw this as a way to reduce their pollution.
China leads the world not only in solar capacity but also in battery production with a pipeline of 217 GW hours in comparison to 47 in the US and 1.4 in the UK. China has 317 million smart meters and has covered 100% of urban consumers and 70% of rural consumers. It has built smart buildings and an electric highway to charge electric cars. Shenzen has 16,000 electric buses, and that's just one city. The plan is that all buses will be electric by 2020, all trucks by 2025 and all cars by 2030.
Trade disputes with the United States are beginning to affect the Chinese economy and in order to maintain employment and GDP it has had to backtrack on some of its environmental actions. For example the restrictions on coal and steel imposed in 2016 were relaxed in 2018. It is suggested that coal power station building has been restarted. In the north of the country fracking has started and locals complain of polluted water and threats to the environment. The deposits in this area are much deeper than in other countries and heavy explosives are used to start the fracking process. Ironically it appears that British experts are advising the Chinese on fracking. The Russians are building a pipeline to supply gas, another fossil fuel, to China,. It appears that in China, as in the United States, climate protection has to take second place to economic activity. Economic activity is also driven by military activity, both in terms of preparations for conventional defence and in terms of cyber warfare.
China can react quickly to new situations because, as I said, it is a one party state. It is worrying to see the level of control that the government beginning to exercise over its people using the latest technologies. They plan to have facial recognition data stored for every Chinese citizen by 2020 and to use this for all sorts of purposes in including pre-identification of criminals. Already every resident of Beijing is in the database and their behaviour even down to the emotional level is being surveyed. Apparently by 2020 anyone judged to be untrustworthy will be unable to move a step.
Sounds like the stuff of bad fiction, but there's no doubt that this sort of thing is possible.
Are we all deniers?
Another vision comes from Professor Jem Bendell of Cumbria University. If you look at his video, link on the blog, he seems a very reasonable person and I really don't want to believe in his predictions of social collapse.
“Ah,” says Professor Bendell, “then you too are in denial.”
He's published a paper, and there is a link to that on the blog as well, a paper which was rejected on peer review by the scientific journal that he wanted to publish it in. In the paper he analyses three types of denial. He complains that nobody has done any serious work on preparing for social collapse as the result of climate change. He’s been criticised for putting forward these ideas because he's told it would lead to unjustifiable panic and misery. Needless to say that he disagrees. Having read his paper and watched the video of a talk which he gave last December I'm left with a number of questions. How fast is this social collapse likely to occur and what form will it take? What can we do about it and what is the deep adaptation that he talks about? You may have come across an American professor called Guy McPherson who is associated with near-term human extinction and appears to me to be very depressing person. Jem Bendell seems much more optimistic than that. I've written to him and requested an interview because I would like to explore his ideas in more detail. I'll let you know if I get a response. Although I know that Guy McPherson is always ready to talk to anyone I'm resisting the temptation to ask him for an interview because, as I say, I find him just too depressing.
Do you remember the Carrington event that I spoke about before Christmas? It was a solar storm.
In a paper published this week in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of USA, researchers reveal that analysis of Greenland ice cores provides evidence of an enormous solar storm around 2,610 years ago - or 660 BC. It is only the third such event reliably documented and they say, “These results indicate that this event was an order of magnitude stronger than any solar event recorded during the instrumental period and comparable with the solar proton event of AD 774/775, the largest solar event known to date.”
The instrumental period is roughly from 1760 to date and therefore includes the Carrington Event which occurred in 1859. This implies that the Carrington Event was not particularly large, even though it caused disruption to the telegraph system and Northern Lights were seen as far south as the Caribbean. The electric lightbulb was not commercialised until 1879, 20 years later, so at the time of the Carrington Event there was no electrical infrastructure or National Grid to be affected by the solar storm, apart from the telegraph wires.
The recent research shows that such events are not uncommon and indeed minor solar storms in more recent years have caused disruption in Canada and in Sweden. Much larger solar flares have occurred, but fortunately they have been ejected from the sun in a direction away from the earth. As far as the next solar storm is concerned it seems that it’s a question not of if, but of when. Ours is a wired society, and every bit of wire would be at risk. The first wave of solar particles would knock out communication satellites and then play havoc with all the pylon lines, telephone towers and anything with an aerial. An extreme storm could presumably wipe out computers and mobile phones. The good news is that while it takes 8 minutes for light to reach us from the sun, charged particles ejected from a solar storm take 17 to 24 hours to arrive, so we have time to prepare.
Not so good news from Norway
You may have been encouraged to learn this week that Norway's $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund is expected to sell off its oil and gas holdings.
Actually that’s only part of the story. While it has $37bn of shares in oil companies such as BP, Shell and France's Total it is only planning to sell off its interests in minor oil companies. It will also restrict investment in new exploration.
Norway is Western Europe's biggest oil and gas producer and its sovereign wealth fund, known officially as the Government Pension Fund, is used to invest the proceeds of the country's oil industry. Norway's finance ministry said oil would still be central to Norway's economy.
"The oil industry will be an important and major industry in Norway for many years to come," it said in a statement.
Norway has the highest number of electric cars per head in the world. Maybe they are trying to make amends.
Riding the Electric Highway
We’ve had an electric car now for just over a month and have learned a lot... As I said at the beginning, an electric car could be your best decision or could be your worst. Let me explain. Most major manufacturers offer electric cars although some of them keep it secret even from their sales forces so it can be difficult to get some of them to sell you one. Provided you can get over that, the advantages of an electric car are that they are clean with no emissions, cheap to run with no road tax in the UK at present, generally high spec in terms of equipment and with good performance. The fuel cost for running an electric car works out at about 3p per mile as opposed to 15p per mile for a petrol or diesel car. This is partly due to the fact that an electric car is about 85% efficient while a conventional car is only about 35% efficient. The actual cost varies because you can charge your car at home overnight on cheaper rates, some public charging points are free and of course if you go for a Tesla, which is one of the most expensive electric cars, all charging at Tesla charging stations is free. On the other hand, charging on the motorway costs about twice what you would pay for electricity at home. For business drivers benefit in kind is lower than the equivalent petrol or diesel models. Electric car performance is good because an electric motor can deliver its maximum torque from rest all the way up to maximum speed. There is no clutch or gearbox to slow things down. The top of the range Tesla can out-accelerate a Formula One car. The fact that there is no gearbox simplifies maintenance, and there is no oil to change, no spark plugs, no radiator or antifreeze, just an electric motor and some batteries, all of which makes maintenance cheap and simple. Total running costs are generally lower than for a petrol or diesel car, although initial purchase costs at the moment are higher. There are some good secondhand deals at present, but technology is rapidly advancing so take good care to understand how last year’s model may be different from the current one.
If you have off-street parking and can charge at home, if you have a regular commute of 50 miles or less (the national average is 35 miles), if you rarely travel more than 100 miles from home, then an electric car could be ideal for you.
If you regularly travel long distances and you don't know from one week or even from one day to the next where you are likely to be, then using an electric car becomes much more problematic. It raises the questions of range anxiety, charging and charge point networks.
Range anxiety is the fear that you will not get back to base or to the nearest charging point before you run out of power. If you do run out, the AA cannot turn up with a can full of spare electricity. Your car will have to be put on a lorry and taken to the nearest charging point. Range is a key issue and only the more expensive models have a range of over 300 miles. By comparison my petrol hybrid will do 500 miles on a full tank. The actual range of each model is a sore point. Like mpg, there is an official method of measuring this. But like mpg it frequently bears little relation to reality. For example, the very small car that we have just bought claims a range of 99 miles in the brochure, but we are told that a more realistic range is 70 miles. This may be so, but once charged to 100% it shows a range of only 60 miles. (This is exceptional - most electric cars have a nominal range of at least 160 miles.) The actual range, as with a petrol car, will vary depending on how you drive it and will be affected by use of the heater, the wipers and the lights. It's also affected by the weather. The battery does not work as well on cold days and its capacity declines as it gets old. It will probably do better than the indicated range, but it just doesn’t want to encourage me to risk running out.
When choosing an electric car look at the claimed range and decide whether 70% of this will be enough for your normal journeys.
Recharging en route
If you travel away from base you may need to recharge your car in order to complete your journey. Many of the brochures claim that you will be able to recharge to 80% within 30 minutes or some models in even as little as 10 minutes. Fine, you think, so I can recharge to 100% in only about 40 minutes. Wrong. The physical characteristics of batteries means that the last 20% charge takes very much longer than the first 80%. So if you're on a long journey bear in mind that a recharge will give you only 80% of 70% of the brochure range..
What’s your point?
Now you need to find a charging point. Not all points are the same and whether you can use them depends on the type of socket that your car is fitted with. There are at least three main types plus Tesla. The plug socket on your car determines whether you can use a rapid, fast or slow charger. If you are planning to charge away from home I strongly recommend that you get a car with rapid charging capability. For one thing. Ecotricity has a near monopoly of all the charging points on motorway service areas in England and almost 100% of these are rapid charging units. You cannot use them unless your car has a rapid charging socket, although a car with such a socket can also use fast and slow chargers, given the right cable, which you have to carry with you. The other factor which you must be aware of is the capacity of the charging unit in your car which determines how fast it can be charged. Some charging points will deliver up to 100 kW and there are plans to introduce a network of units which can deliver 350 kW. If the charger in your car is rated at 22 kW, say, that's all you'll get, regardless of the capacity of the charging point.
Finding a charging point
Where do we find these charging points? An app on your phone will show you where they are, which type of plugs they have and whether they are currently in use or not. In fact there are many apps, but the thing that they have in common is that they may not show the correct plug type, the point may be in use when it is shown as available and in some cases the point may have been out of use for days but nothing has been done. You really do need to plan your journey carefully and have a Plan B in case the point you want to use is not available.
Accessing a charging point
When you get there you’ll find that the charging point is operated by one of at least six different networks. Some of these points will be pay and go, but most of them need you to have an app on your phone or an RFID card and an account before you can use them. More planning. Some charging points, particularly in high-demand areas like motorway service areas, will give you no more than 45 minutes. Some charging bays have a maximum stay of an hour, although some offer free parking while you’re charging.
My overall conclusion is that the electric car is here to stay, but it’s certainly not suitable for everyone yet.
Some final points if you think you might go electric next time.
- Insist that the car is 100% charged when you go for a test drive. You can then see the range that the car displays and check how far it differs from the brochure figure.
- Check the capacity of the charger and the size of the battery and get both figures written into the sales contract.
- Unless you’re looking for a city runabout, only buy a car which supports rapid charging.
- Check which cables come with the car. You should get one that allows you to slow charge from a domestic powerpoint. That should be standard, but I’ve heard of some manufacturers asking £500 for this cable. You should also get a cable which links your car to a Type 2 medium/fast charger. Rapid charging points have the cable built in (“tethered”) which plugs directly into your car.
- Get the salesman to include a free home charging point as part of the deal. You’re going to need one, and it will cost him less than it will cost you. It’s not unreasonable to tell him that you can’t consider an electric car if you can’t charge it at home.
- Don’t sign a maintenance contract. It won’t need much maintenance and it won’t cost much when it comes because it’s so simple.
- As I said before, if you’re buying second hand, check how the model you’re buying differs from the current model.
Well, that’s another blank page converted to 4,000 words and 15 pages of text about sustainability.
For this week that’s all for the Sustainable Futures Report.
I’m Anthony Day and thank you for listening. Thank you to my patrons who support the Sustainable Futures Report from $1 per month. It helps me cover the cost of hosting and research. You can join them at patreon.com/sfr.
If you have comments, ideas or suggestions, please do contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And that really is it.
Until next time.