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Hello I'm Anthony Day and this is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, 29th March and for the avoidance of doubt this is the date on which the UK did not leave the EU. This is not a political blog, at least I'm more concerned with global politics than local difficulties, so I won't be mentioning the B-word.
The Sustainable Futures Report
The Sustainable Futures Report is an independent round-up of sustainability news, which comes to you without advertising, subsidy or sponsorship. I do get help from my patrons and I’d like to thank them all for their continuing support. Anyone can be a patron. You can show your appreciation of the Sustainable Futures Report by donating $1 per month or even more. You’ll get a shout-out on the podcast at the very least but there’s more - you’ll find all the details at www.patreon.com/sfr. By the way, I’m finally getting round to a major revamp of the website and patrons will be identified on the roll of honour on the site.
In this Episode
In this episode I'm talking about energy: coal, Hinkley C and hydrogen; about transport, specifically the future of HS2; about cleaning up Canada and about pollution: plastic pollution and air pollution. And how we can avoid the jaws of death.
First of all, though, let's talk about water. Why there’s sometimes too much, sometimes too little and what we can possibly do about it.
Britain has been preoccupied by domestic politics for months now to the exclusion of almost all else. Nevertheless, you may have seen reports of a catastrophic storm on the borders of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi and the island of Madagascar. Cyclone Idai made landfall on 4th March at the port of Beira with winds gusting up to 175mph. It hovered over the area for about a week, destroying buildings and killing up to a thousand people. The torrential rain which accompanied the winds has flooded vast areas of the countries and rain continues to fall. A BBC reporter took a helicopter 15 miles inland and could still see water in all directions. Beira itself remains an island of destruction in the middle of the waters. In the countryside people’s houses have been destroyed, their crops washed away and their livestock, if not drowned, left with nowhere to graze. The people themselves have nothing to eat, no clean water to drink and relief efforts are held back by the floods and by roads and bridges which have been washed away. Many telephone masts have been destroyed and communication breakdown has made relief even more difficult. Is this the consequence of climate change? Once again it’s impossible to link it directly but it’s wholly consistent with forecasts of extreme weather as the world warms.
The immediate concern is that people are starving, people are at risk of cholera and people are dying. How is the international community responding? Help is on the way but a million people are in need of aid. All the usual charities are involved so you can support them as you see fit. Our governments should send aid too. I think we have an obligation, because if this disaster was caused by climate change that certainly wasn’t caused by emissions from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi or Madagascar.
The Jaws of Death
At the other extreme, Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the UK Environment Agency, gave a speech to the Waterwise Conference earlier this month. He called it “Escaping the jaws of death: ensuring enough water in 2050” He was talking about avoiding drought.
He started by making the point that water companies see climate change as their biggest operating risk, which, as he said, is another good reason to believe in climate change. This is how he explains the jaws of death. He's describing a graph. The demand for water rises steadily from left to right. As climate change causes more frequent droughts the supply of water declines from left to right and the point at which the lines cross is the jaws of death. That point could apparently be 20 to 25 years from now.
There is pressure from both supply and demand. By 2050, the amount of water available could be reduced by 10-15%, with some rivers seeing 50%-80% less water during the summer months, which will mean higher drought risk, caused by the hotter drier summers and less predictable rainfall. At the same time UK population is growing with a particular concentration in the south-east of England.
We can reduce demand, he says, by reducing leakage, by more water metering, sustainable drainage systems, insisting on new building regulations to drive greater water efficiency, and finding ways to cut down the amount of water we each use as individuals. Electrical devices now come with labels to show how efficient they are. In future, appliances like dishwashers, washing machines and even toilets could be marked with a label to show how effectively they use water.
To bolster supply the UK will need pipelines to transfer water from one region to another, desalination plants, new reservoirs and the political will to get these things built.
You can find a link to the full text of the speech on the Sustainable Futures Report blog at www.sustainablefutures.report.
In closing, Sir James Bevan said, “The issue for me is not whether water companies remain privatised or are taken back into public ownership: it’s what will deliver best for the public and the environment. That is where the debate should start and finish.”
Talking of toilets, have you ever thought about all the clean fresh drinking water that you flush down the loo?
This week I’ve been talking to David Emslie of Novaloo who has an answer to the problem.
David Emslie of Novaloo.
If you’re anywhere north of Birmingham in the UK David can help you save water each time you flush. His contact details are on the blog. 01904 891213
If you save water you save the energy needed to filter it, purify it and deliver it to the point of use. You save the energy needed to take it away and treat it in a sewage plant. If saving water saves energy it almost always saves a carbon footprint as well. Of course if you can use nothing but renewable energy for the process there’s no carbon footprint involved. Sadly, as we noted last week, most of the world’s electricity still comes from fossil fuels.
Not in the Orkney Islands, though, off the north coast of Scotland. Up there they have more renewable energy than they can use and the interconnector cable is not big enough to take the surplus back to the mainland. This has been very frustrating for communities which have invested in renewable energy and find that they cannot sell it. And there is currently a moratorium on new windfarm developments although the present farms are exploiting only a very small percentage of the total potential. Last year, a new tidal energy turbine generated more electricity in its first year than the whole of Scotland’s wave and tidal sector produced before it.
The answer to all this is hydrogen. Hydrogen is being produced on the islands by electrolysis, which involves running a current through water to split it into its components of hydrogen and oxygen. This is not a very efficient process, but if you have got abundant renewable electricity it's a sensible solution. It's much better than extracting hydrogen from natural gas, which leaves carbon dioxide.
The original idea was to use the hydrogen as an energy store which could be called on at times of peak demand, but now hydrogen boiler heating systems are being fitted into a primary school and Orkney Islands Council, a significant force in the development, is running a fleet of hydrogen-fuelled vans. A new car-ferry to serve the islands is being built and will run on hydrogen and an existing ferry is to be converted.
The eyes of the world are on this new hydrogen economy.
At the other end of the UK, in Somerset, work continues on the new nuclear power station at Hinkley C. One of the first things that Mrs May did when she became prime minister was to put the project on hold. This station uses an unproven design and two other stations using the same technology - one in Finland and one in France - were both way over budget and way behind schedule. The plant was to be built by EDF of France and China’s General Nuclear Power Group on the promise of an index-linked energy price at about twice the current market rate. In the event Mrs May changed her mind and the project proceeds. Assuming the technical difficulties experienced in Finland and France can be overcome the station will produce zero-carbon electricity for many years to come when it finally comes on line. It’s already several years late. Hopefully that will eventually offset the carbon footprint of the 3m tonnes of concrete that will be needed as well as all the other emissions associated with the construction and with the eventual decommissioning.
EDF is planning to build a similar plant at Sizewell in Suffolk where there is strong local opposition. Campaigners point out the decision to halt the Wylfa B and Oldbury B projects as evidence of the state of the new-build programme. You’ll remember that Toshiba closed its nuclear development arm and walked away from a planned nuclear power station near Sellafield. Hitachi abandoned plans to build the nuclear station at Wylfa B in North Wales.
Construction of Hinckley C began in 2016 so it would be very difficult to stop it now. The government still needs to find capacity to meet future electricity requirements and from clean sources. Of course the alternative is to manage demand. The government’s best effort so far seems to be the promotion of smart meters (I must look at that again in the future.) Alternatively maybe we should exploit the full potential of the wind and waves in places like Orkney and upgrade the interconnector to bring the power ashore. After all, if we are talking about importing electricity by cable from Iceland, and that is a serious suggestion, Orkney is very much closer.
Still on energy, in Cumbria, halfway between Orkney and Hinkley, development of a new deep coal mine has been approved. It was approved unanimously by the council in the face of strong local opposition. The key issue is that it will create 500 jobs in an area of chronic and high unemployment. Each year it will produce 2.5m tonnes of coking coal for steel production. Helpfully the mine promoters suggested that some of the steel could be used for wind turbine masts.
It’s undoubtedly a dilemma. There has been limited employment in the area since the steelworks and the coal mine closed decades ago. There is limited help from the faraway Westminster government and there won’t be any help from the EU if the government’s Brexit plans go through in the next few weeks. If I lived there I’d seize almost any opportunity of work. But coal mining itself, as well as the actual burning of the coal, creates greenhouse gases and we’re on notice of climate catastrophe if we don’t cut emissions rapidly and dramatically.
What would I do if I were in government? Put a moratorium on new coal mines - and on fracking for that matter. Recognise that regions such as Cumbria need support - and deliver that support. Unfortunately the UK’s present government doesn’t look far outside London, doesn’t believe in intervention, doesn’t understand industry and doesn’t have an industrial strategy and doesn't have much of a social policy either.
Some would argue that the UK government’s parochialism is demonstrated by its commitment to HS2, the new high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham and eventually beyond. Studies have shown that such lines usually benefit the larger city, in this case London, which will effectively add Birmingham to its commuter belt. Meanwhile the cities in the North, like Leeds and Manchester, cannot expect to be connected to the line until 2033, although it’s not absolutely certain that the second phase will actually be built. Apparently there is no money at present to upgrade the trans-pennine line which links Newcastle, Hull, York and Leeds with Manchester and Liverpool. On some sections of that line trains manage little more than walking pace.
According to pressure group STOPHS2 the company has admitted that HS2 will increase rather than reduce emissions.
New Economics Foundation
A report from the New Economics Foundation suggests that HS2 is looking like an expensive answer in search of a question. Let me share a few paragraphs from the overview of their recent report:
“The problem with HS2, [however,] is that it is the product of decades of government retrenchment from the fiscal realm and strategic planning, and of a fragmented rail network, with multiple private sector and public stakeholders. It is also the product of an economy in crisis, an economy desperately trying to unhook itself from London-centricity and all its malcontents, but actually compounding the problem by starting the project in London.
“Following a shambolic 18 months on the railways, with disastrous timetable changes, the wrong kind of weather, and the cancellation of planned electrification schemes, the government has launched a ‘root and branch’ review. However, the review is missing some key roots and branches, two of them being HS2 and the latest package of maintenance and upgrades agreed with Network Rail. These have been deemed out of scope but should be included.
“There are two fundamental problems with the railways in the UK that, in the interests of ensuring immediate and long-term value for public money, need addressing before the much-needed major investment is committed. The first is the absence of an overarching rail or transport strategy, which leaves HS2 looking like the solution to a problem that has not yet been defined. It is what many in the rail industry call an engineering-led project rather than something that enjoys strong strategic or economic justification. The second fundamental problem is the chaotic ownership and management structures that will almost certainly lead to the squandering of investment capital.”
In conclusion it says:
“£4 billion has already been spent, but this sunk cost is not a reason to spend a further £50 billion or more of public investment. Before further cost is sunk in HS2, a full and independent inquiry is needed – the government’s root and branch rail review could perform this function if its scope and method were broadened and taken out of the DfT.
“We also conclude – with absolute certainty – that the existing rail network as a whole needs significant investment; it is not a choice between HS2 or nothing but a question of strategically purposeful investment everywhere. Critically, this should benefit the widest number of passengers possible and not just the relatively wealthy, those travelling long distances for business, and those in London.”
You can find a link to the full report on the blog.
They do things differently in other countries. Patron Eric de Kemp sends me details of the latest Canadian budget and what it means for Natural Resources Canada. (NRCan)
- $1 billion to drive energy efficiency,
- $10 billion over nine years to support 42,500 new energy-efficient housing units across the country.
- $5 billion from the Canada Infrastructure Bank for green projects, including those that will push electricity deeper into the national economy, including the Taltson hydroelectricity expansion and the Halagonia Tidal Energy project.
- $130 million for NRCan to build more fast-charging and refuelling stations for zero-emissions vehicles, as well as new incentives for Canadians to purchase eligible electric and hydrogen vehicles
- 100-percent write-off for companies that buy these vehicles.
- $150-million for related skills development and training.
- $15.2 million over five years to establish a virtual Canadian Centre for Energy Information.
- New funding to support work in such areas as the Polar Continental Shelf Program, the United Nations Convention for the Laws of the Sea, and contaminated sites.
- $100 million over four years for the Clean Resource Innovation Network, to make Canada the global leader in sustainable resource development.
Sounds like a strategy. But is it possibly designed to head off criticism of the nation’s determination to exploit the Alberta tar sands and export the oil to Asia?
I couldn't finish an episode without commenting on climate change and pollution. David Attenborough has been criticised in the past for his wild life programmes giving the impression that there’s nothing really to worry about. To be fair, he was very direct when he addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos this year.
His latest offering, Our Planet, an eight-part documentary series, starts on 5 April. Let’s hope it will raise awareness of the urgency of the climate crisis in the same way as he focussed our minds on plastic pollution. I’m afraid I don’t subscribe to Netflix so I won’t be able to comment on the programme. However, a 60-minute film, Climate Change – The Facts, will be screened this spring on BBC One. I’ll look forward to it.
Talking of plastic pollution, all that glitters is not gold. In fact the glitter used to decorate greetings cards, gifts, craft projects and fashion accessories is actually made from etched aluminium bonded to polyethylene terephthalate. It’s another form of micro-plastics, easily washed into watercourses and eventually the sea, and increasingly found in the stomachs of all sorts of animals and fish.
Supermarkets have been urged to stop selling it but are accused of dragging their feet.
Don’t forget air pollution. I reported last week on a new asthma research centre ideally located in London where the air is so bad. But that’s nothing compared to a report from the BBC on air quality in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Reporter Stephanie Hegarty had a particulate counter counting PM2.5s. These are minute particles which get lodged in the lungs and can pass through into the blood stream. Children exposed on a daily basis to such pollution can suffer significant developmental problems. The report told us that a safe level of such particles was 25. Her counter showed 999 - it couldn’t register anything higher. The problem in Ulan Bator is that climate change is driving nomadic herders off the steppe and into the city. The city is growing in an uncontrolled way and in winters where the temperature falls to -25 families are burning raw coal to keep themselves warm. Hundreds of these small stoves cause the blanket of pollution which hangs over the city.
Back in London the pollution is nowhere near as thick as in Ulan Bator where it blocks out the sun, but it’s still at dangerous levels as it is in many other cities across the world. Something for the owners of the new Woodhouse Colliery to think about perhaps.
Meanwhile global emissions continue to grow as recorded in the Global Energy & CO2 Status Report from the IEA. (I’m sure I mentioned that in a recent Sustainable Futures Report but I can’t for the life of me find it.) There’s a link to the report on the blog and also a link to a thread which discusses it in detail. Thanks to patron Tom de Simone for this.
If you’ve ever been to Brussels you’ve probably seen the Manneken Pis. It’s a statue of a small boy relieving himself, just off the Grand’ Place. It’s just been calculated that he’s peeing between 1,000 and 2,000 litres of water down the drain every day. At least he’s not flushing it as well! Anyway, the powers that be have decided to install a recirculating system to save water.
We lived in Brussels for 10 years. During that time he must have passed some 3.5m to 4m litres. That’s up to 4,000 tonnes of water.
And on that note…
…I leave you for another week. Thank you for listening. Thank you particularly to my patrons and don't forget patreon.com/sfr.
Next week, on Friday, 5th April there will be another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report. Please let me have your thoughts and ideas and suggestions and I'll do my best to incorporate them - but for the moment I'm Anthony Day, and that was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Till next time!