Sunday, October 21, 2007

Listen here!

I know I haven't been posting for a while. That's because I've been podcasting. You can catch up with my latest thoughts at

This week you'll hear thoughts on keeping your business in business - fossil fuels or bio-fuels? - Paul Clarke on why it makes sense to drive a green car ( - carbon targets, carbon trading and better use of resources from Mike Smith at Yorkshire Forward ( - and has someone got it in for cows?

You don't need an iPod or MP3 player - you can listen in Windows Media Player on your desktop. Click here to give it a try!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"The time for doubt has passed"

That’s what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at yesterday’s Climate Change summit. The chief U.N. climate scientist, Rajendra Pachauri, said, “The time is up for inaction.”

Billed as the largest ever high-level meeting on climate change, the event re-emphasised the commitment of global governments to action. The next opportunity will be the Bali conference in December, when delegates meet to design a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. This commits nations to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012. The task of Bali is to set targets for future decades.

Doubts remain, however, with George W Bush. The US president did not attend the summit, although he joined the delegates for dinner. He has his own climate change event later this week and has invited the world’s sixteen top polluting nations. Environmentalists are concerned that the US wants to hijack the debate, or at least muddy the waters. The US is believed to oppose mandatory carbon targets, preferring each country to set voluntary levels. They also want developing countries to reduce their carbon emissions, even though they are far lower than American emissions.

The US has an increasingly difficult energy supply situation, though it has plenty of coal – one of the most polluting fuels. Cutting back on energy use or making energy more expensive by installing carbon clean-up technology will impact the American economy – currently showing signs of weakness - and George Bush will protect it at all costs.AAfter all, wasn’t it George Bush Snr who said, “It’s the economy, stupid”?

Some people are beginning to say, “No, it’s the environment, stupid.” Without an environment there can be no economy.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Liberal Helping

As the LibDem conference comes to a close we’ve seen another expression of green policies. The LibDems are particularly upset, because alone of the three major parties they have been talking about environmental issues for years. Both Labour and the Conservatives now have a green agenda, but the worrying thing is that there’s no consensus.

Measures that will really make a difference to our carbon emissions will not be popular with the voters. Two million signed a Downing Street petition against road pricing, and last week I saw one of those chain emails claiming that high petrol prices were an oil company conspiracy and we could drive prices down to 69p a litre if we only stopped buying from Esso and BP. If all the political parties adopted the same policies on the environment then elections would change nothing. Unfortunately there is still argument between the parties – and argument within parties. One LibDem was heard to say that green policies were about as realistic as perpetual motion! More public education clearly needed.

And will the parties stop arguing about green issues and work together to actually do something? As the Labour Party gathers for this week’s conference we can only wait and see.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

They think it's all over

Latest reports from the IPCC, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, indicate that a 2 degree rise in world temperatures is inevitable – within 10 years. There is now so much excess carbon dioxide in the global system that it is too late to stop this happening; there’s nothing we can do. It’s time to face up to the consequences and prepare to adapt to them.

Ironically the prosperous West may benefit form the temperature rise in the short term. Higher temperatures will mean substantially increased crop yields in North America, Northern Europe and Russia. Elsewhere the opposite is true. In some parts of the Third World flash floods will wash the crops from the fields and destroy buildings, bridges and roads. Rising sea levels will make other places uninhabitable – already parts of the Maldives have had to be abandoned.

Too much water in some places; too little elsewhere as the Himalayan glaciers melt and the rivers they fill run dry. Up to a billion people will lose their water supply. Many species will become extinct and diseases will appear in places where they have never been seen before.

All this sounds apocalyptic. Too dreadful to be true. Turn the page – let’s not think about it. And what can we do about it anyway? And there on the next page is an advertisement from the energy company Total. “Total is pursuing the development of gas fields across the globe…” And burning more gas releases more CO2. Three degrees? Four degrees? Six degrees?

It needs government action. It needs big business to take action. What we can do is be aware of what is going to happen and be aware of how it will change our lifestyles. We need to do as much as we can to cut our individual carbon footprints. We can change public opinion. Enough public opinion influences government and changes business behaviour.

Within 10 years. That means it won’t just affect our children or our grandchildren. It’s going to affect us.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

More on Biofuels

We can't just write off biofuels, but we can't accept them blindly either. My view is that there are only three solutions to the coming energy crisis: reduce, reduce and reduce. (Yes I know it's an old one) Once we have minimised our fuel use, where do we get the remainder from?

In some circumstances biofuels are economically viable, but in some cases they are not. US farmers are heavily subsidised to grow crops for bio-ethanol, but it is very doubtful that the energy in the bio-fuel exceeds the energy needed to plough the fields, fertilise the crop, irrigate it, spray it against diseases and pests (and produce and deliver the fertilisers and insecticides to the farm), harvest it, process it and deliver it to the refinery and then refine it. It's good business for US farmers, but it's pushed up the world price of wheat which is affecting UK pig farmers and third-world countries trying to buy food.

Have you seen this month's Ecologist magazine? An article talks about how Colombia is becoming a major producer of African oil palm, a biofuel plant. This development is supported by the US and the EU, and on the face of it, it's attractive. It provides a source of green fuel (plant growth is more effective in warmer Colombia) and it can displace some of the drug barons' coca crops. The drug barons see an opportunity too. They are taking over the land, if necessary driving out the local farmers at gunpoint, and planting the oil palms. The government plans to cover an area twice the size of Belgium with the trees. If necessary they cut down the rain forest. Mono culture is rarely viable, and before long the land is exhausted and turned to scrubland. The rain forest has been destroyed, the ecosystems have been destroyed, the livelihood of the local people has been destroyed and the possibility of growing more biofuel crops on that land has been destroyed - and for what? To allow Westerners to continue to drive highly inefficient vehicles!

Our fatal assumption is that we will be able to continue with our present lifestyle and continue to enjoy the same access to energy, but just get it from different sources. There is a serious risk that if we don't wake up to reality, and if chase solutions without thinking through their consequences, we will destroy the planet faster than ever before!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Every little helps

Yesterday I met Ian Berry, past president of the National Speakers Association of Australia. Ian speaks and advises companies on management and leadership, based on his long experience at senior level in major corporates. He’s concerned, too, with the future of businesses. Climate change is a key issue, but he sees it as part of the wider sustainability picture, which also includes resource depletion, energy security and corporate social responsibility. In his view business has the key to our future survival. He believes that businesses and pressure groups will form alliances and take actions long before governments get round to doing anything – and businesses truly have the power to make significant changes.

Today we hear that Tesco is giving £25m to Manchester University to set up the Institute for Sustainable Consumption. It’s easy to accuse the retailers – and others – of riding the green bandwagon just to keep up with their competitors, but £25m is serious money and once the Institute is established it will surely be difficult to ignore it. And if I heard Terry Leahy correctly, the ultimate objective at Tesco is an 80% carbon reduction.. That’s far more than the target the government is set to miss. It will be interesting to see which other organisations will set themselves similar challenges.

For the moment, the prize for leadership goes to Tesco.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Too late to save the planet

The BBC can be criticised for the way it justified abandoning Planet Relief, but the truth is that a television spectacular would have achieved nothing. Yes, many people would have made pledges and yes, some may have sent money, but most of us have excellent reasons for making long-haul flights, driving large cars and constantly consuming. In any case we cannot stop climate change. Even if all nations fulfilled their Kyoto targets the best we could hope for would be slowing it down, but with the US refusing to sign and the UK and the rest falling short even this will not be achieved.

British government action on climate is largely lip-service and superficial. They continue to build roads, support airport expansion and subsidise wind farms – the most ineffective form of renewable energy. The implication of their policies is that fossil fuels are limitless; they ignore the carbon consequences of burning all these fuels. They dare not tax energy, cut petrol use though road pricing or restrict air travel. There lies electoral suicide. That leaves action up to us.

Concern for climate change must not blind us to the threats of pollution, resource depletion and particularly energy shortages. It makes sense to address all of these by reducing, re-using and recycling as environmentalists recommend. This won’t save the planet but it may help us cope with the dire conditions we can expect as the oil and everything else starts to run out.

Let’s face up to the consequences of climate change rather than pretending that a TV show or anything else we do will stop it happening.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Careless Words - an aside

As I hope you're aware, one of my taglines is "Will climate change your life?" - it's even the title of my book. Bit disappointing then to realise is that "change your life" is a phrase that triggers many spam filters. So if I sent you this by email you probably wouldn't ever get it!

Happily, "Will climate change your business?" is where I am now concentrating my efforts, and I've also registered in anticipation of market developments. Still, it just shows you can't be too careful!

Have a good week!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Let’s go carbon neutral!

Channel 4 was severely criticized for its programme about the "Great Global Warming Swindle" and last night turned its attention to carbon offsetting. This was an altogether more balanced documentary and demonstrated that the ideas of carbon offsetting and carbon neutrality need to be approached with scepticism.

Many big names on the high street, including HSBC, Barclays, Sky and Marks and Spencer either claim to be carbon neutral or to be on the way to achieving that state. What does this mean? Every individual, household or organization causes a certain amount of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, to be emitted. The major trigger is energy; we all use energy and most of it is created from the combustion of fossil fuels – oil, gas or coal.

Organizations that want to be carbon neutral try and reduce their use of energy as far as possible. For the energy that they cannot avoid using, they deal with the emissions caused by buying offsets. For example, if a lorry travelling the length of the country day in and day out creates ten tons of carbon dioxide, planting a specified number of trees will cause that CO2 to be absorbed. The programme showed other offsetting projects: the pig farm where methane from the pig manure was trapped and prevented from escaping into the atmosphere; the hydroelectric power station in Eastern Europe which emits no CO2 at all. If an organisation buys enough offsets it can claim that the net effect is neutral - overall it is adding no CO2 to the global atmosphere.

The problem is that there are inconsistencies and imprecision at every stage of the process. To start with, you need to define exactly how much carbon dioxide is being emitted before you know how much you have to offset. There are no universally agreed standards and this can lead to farcical situations. If you want to offset the emissions created by your air travel, British Airways will sell you offsets provided by Climate Care. However, if you approach Climate Care directly to offset your flights, they will charge you more because they use a different method of calculation from British Airways and they believe that the emissions caused by flights are greater.

Suppose we have agreed on how much carbon dioxide needs to be offset. How effective are the proposed solutions? There is no doubt that trees absorb CO2 as they grow. It will, however, take several decades to absorb the CO2 that your flight emits in an afternoon. Some of the trees shown on the programme were far more heavily subsidized by the Forestry Commission than by the purchasers of offsets. If the trees would have been planted anyway, they cannot be considered as truly offsetting a particular purchaser’s emissions. There is also the problem that trees do not live for ever and while they may a lock up the carbon dioxide for a time, it will be released when the tree eventually dies and rots or is burnt. In any case, when you think of the hundreds of thousands of people in the UK who make flights every day, it is clear that trees cannot be the whole solution.

What about the hydroelectric power station in the Eastern Europe? Suppose the developer has the choice between a fossil fuel power station emitting CO2 and a hydro station which emits none. If this is a new development, building the hydro station avoids a certain amount of CO2 emissions, but it does not reduce emissions unless a fossil fuel station of the same size is closed down. There was no suggestion in the film that this was the case, (and by the way it seemed unlikely that the carbon offset payments made by Sky to the project had had any effect on whether it was going to be built or not.) The scheme does not appear to have reduced the global CO2 burden so it cannot be considered as an offset. Sky’s claim to be a carbon neutral organization is difficult to support.

As I said at the start, there is no clear universal definition of carbon footprints or carbon neutrality. Organizations can define them as they wish and can, in their own terms, claim to be carbon neutral. This is good marketing and attractive to responsible consumers. The problem is that it is doing practically nothing to reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere or to have any effect on climate change.

It is very much like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It may make people feel more comfortable and make them believe that something is being done about the dangers ahead. In fact there are icebergs ahead – only this time the problem is that they’re melting!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Taking Precautions?

Have a look at the video on this link. It’s called “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See”. What it sets out to do is to simplify the climate change issues so that the solution becomes obvious.
Dangerous Climate Change will either happen or not happen: two possibilities. We can either take action or take no action: two strategies. This is then resolved into a simple 2x2 matrix:

Plan A
Plan A is Take Action. If climate change is NOT real, this strategy brings negative consequences. We cut back on carbon emissions by suppressing economic activity and we end up with a severe depression and then we find that it was all a waste of time.
However if climate change IS real this strategy helps us adapt and survive. Although we will have changed lifestyles and business models our actions will help us cope with the consequences of climate change.

Plan B
Plan B is Take NO Action. If climate change is NOT real and we take no action then things go on as they are, just getting better all the time.
However, if it IS real and we have done nothing about it, we are in serious trouble. We will see economic collapse, famine, flood, starvation, epidemics war and refugees. This is the worst case scenario.

As you will see from the video, the presenter says our course of action is a no-brainer. If Plan B could lead to the worst case scenario then the prudent course of action is to follow Plan A, because the worst case scenario will then be avoided.

No contest?

Well if we adopt Plan A and eliminate the worst case scenario we also eliminate the best case scenario – no action, no problem, no change. If we adopt Plan A things are going to get worse whether climate change is real or not. Even if climate change is real and Plan A helps us deal with it, our lives will be very different and will be seen by many to be worse. Never mind that they might have been far worse if we had done nothing; people will not have experienced that situation, only the relatively comfortable situation that existed before we started taking action. Many will refuse to accept that action was the right thing.

If dangerous climate change is as likely as no climate change, people will be more likely to accept the status quo and do nothing. If they think that climate change is less likely than no climate change then they will certainly do nothing. After all, two weeks ago a survey revealed that 56% of people in the UK believe (wrongly) that scientists are still in doubt as to whether human activity plays any part in global warming. And if the scientists can’t agree, who’s going to sell their car, stop the foreign holidays and turn down the central heating? Plan B – do nothing – will be favourite.

Maybe the shock of increased energy prices will make people think again, but until something like that happens no government that wants to get re-elected is going to take sufficient action to have an effect on climate change.

Footprints in the sky

Private air travel is growing dramatically. Charter passengers, including those using private jets, have risen from 3.5 million to 34 million in the 10 years from 1996 to 2006.

A private jet is attractive to those who can afford it because it saves time. You don’t need to head for a major hub like Manchester, Birmingham, Heathrow or Gatwick – you can leave from your local airfield. You can arrive 15 minutes before departure and embark without all those hours of security checks. At the destination your driver can meet you on the tarmac. It may be more expensive than business class, but for some people it’s worth it. London’s position as the leading financial centre in the world means that there are many wealthy people who will spend their money to save their precious time. Not just for business trips either: private jets make it perfectly possible to have weekends at the villa or on the ski slopes.

And what about the carbon footprint? The whole idea of one family jetting off in a private plane seems reckless, irresponsible, profligate. On the other hand, to paraphrase a well-known saying, the rich are always with us. And the rich would say that they create an enormous amount of the wealth of the UK that keeps people in jobs, funds the infrastructure through taxes and allows others to afford their own holidays in the sun. What these people don’t have is much time, so they spend their money to get the most out of it.

The wealthy people who take these flights can do so precisely because they are successful. They are the people who get things done and they are the people who will be crucial to taking the actions that will address climate change. We cannot afford to meet them head on. All we can do is present the evidence, suggest alternatives, map out the consequences. We all need to work together on this.

I hope we can reach consensus in time.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Save it!

We all know that we need to save energy to save the planet. What most people don’t realize is that everything we eat, use or wear involves the use of energy and indirectly causes carbon dioxide emissions. One of the things we take least notice of is water, particularly in the UK where many households still pay a fixed fee for their water, regardless of how much they use. Of course, commercial premises and more and more homes are on metered supplies, but the cost of water, at least at present, is ignored by most people.

One cubic metre of water requires 1kWh of electricity or other energy to pump it, filter it, purify it, and deliver it to the consumer. Every cubic metre of water therefore has a carbon footprint. Although Britain has been suffering from floods in recent weeks, droughts and hose pipe bans are becoming more and more common in the summer and if we do experience the weather extremes as predicted, water shortages can only get worse.

With this in mind I was interested to see the Interflush device at a conference at York University. This is a simple way of varying the amount of water which is used to flush the lavatory. Although there are some dual-flush units, most flushing systems deliver a full cistern of water every time. The same amount of water is used whether liquids or solids need to be flushed away. The Interflush adapts the traditional flushing siphon so that the flow stops as soon as the handle is released. At the level of the individual household, the savings are relatively small. However, we know that if each household fitted a single compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) electricity demand would fall by the equivalent of the output of a whole power station. Similarly, if every household adopted an Interflush the carbon footprint of the water industry would be cut by 250,000 tons of CO2 . The cost of water would be reduced for all consumers and the existing infrastructure would be able to cope with an increase in the number of consumers without upgrading.

Have a look at the website and see what you think!

Spot the Difference

The Great Global Warming Swindle, the Channel Four programme which claimed that carbon dioxide was not the cause of global warming, suggested that sunspots and solar activity were major force. The theory is that solar winds drive away the particles that cause clouds to form and the reduced cloud cover means that the surface of the earth warms. In fact, while this is a respected theory, the actual observations show that there was little solar wind at the time the global warming was observed.

Dr Michael Lockwood of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratories in Oxford has published a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society complaining that the programme was selective in the use of his research findings. The graphs that were displayed were cut short at the point at which global warming and solar activity clearly diverged. As Dr Lockwood said, the sceptics were “..taking perfectly good science and bringing it into disrepute.”

It looks as though man-made carbon dioxide is still firmly in the frame as a major cause of global warming.

Public opinion, however, still wants to believe that everything can go on as normal.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Mac mileage

So McDonalds are going to use waste cooking oil to power their vehicle fleet. This is a company we all seem to love to hate, and at first sight we could be critical and point out that biofuels are certainly not carbon neutral and that growing crops for biofuel is already having an effect on the price of wheat. Nevertheless, McDonalds deserve congratulation for this initiative because they are using waste cooking oil to create the fuel; oil that would otherwise have to be disposed of carefully to avoid creating pollution.

A plant already exists in Scotland which creates biodiesel from organic waste. It’s pure recycling. It’s getting a useful product from material which otherwise would be dumped.

In the north east of England two major plants are under construction for the production of biofuel. These will use specially grown – and imported – raw materials and there is already much doubt and debate about the effects that growing these crops will have on rainforest clearance and on food production in poorer countries. I also wonder how long the producer countries will be prepared to export the raw materials. If they harvest and process the biodiesel at home, they have a much higher value product to sell, and surely it makes more sense to export finished goods than vast quantities of bulky primary goods.

Biofuel from waste is truly green – so three cheers for Ronald McDonald!

Monday, July 02, 2007

Talking of Climate Change…

I spent this weekend at the Professional Speakers Association. We’re a group of experts who speak on our specialist subjects. My main activity is communicating the issues on energy and climate change to business audiences. As an expert on the topic it is essential that my communication skills are as good as they can be. Nothing is ever achieved if a message is sent but not properly received or understood. As a speaker I’m a member of Toastmasters International, which means that nearly every week I’m speaking in front of an audience – prepared speeches or impromptu – and getting feedback from the audience in a structured way. I know what I mean to tell them; often it’s very instructive to find out what they actually heard! Change of emphasis, change of pace, change of structure can all have a radical effect on the message received.

The Professional Speakers Association is for speakers making a business of speaking. Friday was a Board meeting and Chapter Leadership forum, but Saturday was one of our National Events. These events are designed for members but invited guests are welcome too. Our first session, which raised a lot of discussion, was given by Nick Oulton on the use of PowerPoint. Many people believe that slides have no place in a keynote speech because we are giving a speech, not making a presentation. Our speaker (presenter?) showed how badly PowerPoint can be used, and how dramatically different a well-designed presentation can be. Generally I’m with the purists: if it’s a slide show it’s not a speech. On the other hand, some of the statistics involved in energy and climate change are difficult to get across without a graph, and a flip-chart looks amateur. I can’t think of a prop I could use instead, but any suggestions gratefully received.

Our second speaker was Fergus McClelland, expert in all things vocal. He explained the different characteristics of all the microphones we are likely to come across. Each has different advantages and disadvantages and each must be tuned to your voice, so it’s important to make friends with the sound man who is likely to be working long hours and getting paid far less than the speaker. Fergus told us about recording equipment, mixing software and how to make our own CDs and podcasts.

Our third speaker was Terry Brock, stopping over on his world tour on his way back to Florida. Terry is into all things technical. He’s an entertaining and accomplished speaker and he was showing us how the latest technology can help us develop products and promote ourselves. It’s difficult to do him justice on the page, so I suggest you visit his website for yourself and find out the sort of things he’s recommending. I shall be adopting some of them myself, and you can be sure that I’ll let you know all about them.

As you know, I’m an expert who speaks about energy and climate change. I’m convinced that these are the greatest challenges that businesses and individuals currently face. The PSA helps me get that message across. Our Annual Convention will be at the Radisson Heathrow in November. Come and find out what Professional Speakers can do for you.

Friday, June 15, 2007

A World Without Oil (and Gas and Coal)

Yesterday the Independent published a front-page article about the coming oil crisis. At last the media, or this part of it at least, have recognised that there’s an energy crisis ahead. The article was triggered by the publication of the latest edition of BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy. A number of industry experts have taken issue with the rosy view they claim the report is taking. Some of them believe that oil supplies will begin to run out in four years. Some believe that cheap oil has run out already.

Paradoxically, taxation is one of the factors that have cushioned the British public against the evidence of an increasing oil price. Petrol is taxed at a fixed sum per gallon; unlike VAT which is calculated as a percentage of the selling price. Because UK petrol duty is relatively high, the cost of the oil at the pump is only a small portion of the price paid. If the cost goes up, the petrol duty per litre does not. Thus in the UK the price of petrol has risen from 85p to 97p over the last few months; an increase of some 14%. Over the same period US prices have risen from $2 to $3 – a 50% increase caused by the same underlying rise in oil prices. Another factor is the dollar rate: as oil prices have gone up the dollar has declined, offsetting the increases for us in Europe. This cannot continue, however. The signs are that the oil producers are less willing to accept payment in dollars as the American economy weakens. This will push prices up for the rest of us.

Going back to the BP review; there are some startling figures. The report calculates R/P - the reserves to production ratio. So if a country has 100 barrels and uses 10 barrels per year the R/P is 10: they have enough reserves for another 10 years.

Take a look at the UK figures:
Coal R/P = 12 years
Oil R/P = 6.5 years
Gas R/P = 6 years

Of course we will not be able to maintain our production rates as these resources get harder to find and more difficult to extract, so they will last longer than implied. They are still running out, though, and the UK is increasingly dependent on foreign supplies.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Heavy Weather

Climate change and global warming. Many people think we can look forward to more of the same only warmer, and particularly for those of us in the UK the prospect of warmer summers can’t be bad. The truth is that climate change is climate destabilisation, and the experts predict more unusual, more unseasonable and more violent weather.

Are we now seeing the evidence? Across a major part of the United States there are serious droughts. Droughts have gone on for so many years in parts of Australia that the government is planning to evacuate whole communities from areas that have become totally unviable. Then just this week, in the wine-growing Hunter Valley, another part of Australia, there have been torrential storms, flash floods, property damage and fatalities.

Last week there was a cyclone, though in the UK at least we heard little about it. It caused serious property damage and a number of people lost their lives. The scary thing about this cyclone, though, is not that it’s perhaps a bit early but that it occurred not in the US or Australia but in the Persian Gulf. They just don’t get cyclones there, but it tore through Muscat and Oman – you can see pictures of the damage in this blog.

Experts in climate change have mapped the weather over thousands of years, so it’s impossible to say whether the events of the last three or four years are evidence of a new trend. Even so, these storms are not inconsistent with the unpredictable, violent weather that climate change could bring. They may be a taste of things to come!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Festina lente G8!

Festina lente – hurry slowly.

After a lot of pre-conference posturing and sabre-rattling, Angela Merkel the German Chancellor and G8 president announced that the agreements on climate change were "the most important decision for the coming two years."

It really all depends where you’re coming from. Arguably the situation is better than it was before the conference. The United States will “strongly consider” ways of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2050. George Bush has said that the US will take a lead on meeting the climate change challenge and appears to agree with the Europeans that the United Nations and the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) are central to the process.

Hurry? Well they hope to have something in place by 2009 to replace the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012. Some people would argue that targets for 2050 are all very well, but if we don’t make real changes within five or ten years, then climate change will be out of control. (The same lack of urgency is written into Britain’s Climate Change Bill, by the way. Progress will be reviewed once every five years. Do you know of any project, business, public authority which can get away with reporting less than once a year? And the climate is an immediate and crucial issue!)

Going back to G8. Few commentators are happy with the outcome because it is so full of caveats and maybes. Fifty percent of what? Fifty percent of 1990 levels is more than 50% of current levels. The UK and Europe were aiming at 60% of 1990 levels; the US is proposing 50% of current levels. The climate is uncompromising. We need what the climate needs. George Bush is largely uncompromising: China and India as the two largest developing nations must come to the table and commit to cuts. No matter that emissions in the US are six times per head what they are in China. George Bush will not accept actions which put the US economy at a disadvantage. And "strongly consider" achieves nothing. Somebody has to act. Plenty of room for negotiation – some would say for delay.

Of course everyone admits that it’s urgent, but no-one in power seems ready to take urgent action.

Lente is just not in it. Festina, festina, before it’s too late!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Managing the message on climate change

I’ve already commented in the past that the climate change debate is a dialogue of the deaf. Certainly there’s lots of dialogue – maybe it’s because it’s World Environment Day tomorrow and the G8 Summit starts later this week.

Looking again at George Bush’s announcements on climate change we see a worrying message. He wants to call a global summit in America to discuss the issues to an American agenda. We already have the G8. We already have the IPCC. The last thing we want is the world’s biggest polluter trying to take over the debate. The US has made it clear that its economy depends ultimately on coal, and certainly that country has massive reserves. We know that burning coal releases CO2 – and many other substances that are far more harmful. The US line is that technology will find a way and we don’t need to cut consumption while we’re looking for the solution. No carbon trading or limits, they say, - we must not prejudice economic growth. The US is gambling on undiscovered technologies – and some believe that science proves that gamble is already lost.

Today China has entered the debate. In advance of the G8 they have announced a climate change initiative, but they too emphasise that the protection of economic growth is crucial. They recognise that there is much to be done, because China’s rapid industrialisation has led to far worse pollution than anything in the West, quite apart from CO2 emissions. As I’ve mentioned before, China is a major polluter but the pollution per head is much lower than in America and in many other countries.
We need to support China’s efforts to clean up.

We need to get used to using less energy ourselves (-not a bad strategy as it’s going to get scarce and expensive) and we need to build on what has already been developed by the G8 and IPCC – not start a new debate. We need a clear and constructive dialogue – not a dialogue of the deaf.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

US to act on climate change?

In advance of the G8 summit, where climate change will be a prominent issue, George Bush has announced America’s commitment to action. This has been met with some cynicism, given that apart from Australia the USA was the only country to refuse to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The view of the present US administration has always been that specific emission targets would hamper the American economy, and while China was doing nothing to cut emissions America could not afford to put itself at a disadvantage.

Kyoto did not put restrictions on China or any of the other developing nations because their per capita emissions are so much lower than those of the western world. China is accused of building coal-burning power stations – the most polluting form of energy – and opening a new one almost every week. On the other hand it still has 3 million citizens without electricity, it has very little oil or gas, it will produce clean electricity from the Three Gorges Dam and it is a leader in solar power. Every member of the Chinese cabinet is an engineer, so the consequences of climate change and energy shortages are not lost on them. Much of what China produces is destined for the American market, so it could be argued that they are making American emissions by proxy.

At the end of the day the important issue must be to cut energy use and cut emissions, not argue about who is doing what and why. George Bush is talking about a policy to be in place by the end of 2008. Even if we suspect his motives we must welcome the fact that he is talking about the issue, even if 2008 is probably too late if those who say we have only 5 years left to save the planet are correct!

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Good Housekeeping

More and more organisations are adopting environmental policies and taking specific actions to implement them.

Eclipse Internet, the ISP within Kingston Communications, has recently announced that it is carbon-neutral. The main input to an IT company is power and in calculating the organisation’s footprint Eclipse also included the emissions due to the daily commute of the workforce. This proved to be a not insignificant 23% of the total. Beyond making sure that heating and lighting in the offices is as efficient as possible there is only so far that such a company can go to reduce its carbon footprint without offsetting.

Carbon neutrality has been achieved in collaboration with the CarbonNeutral Company, by investing in projects which will either produce power without CO2 emissions or positively reduce CO2. Eclipse has invested in wind-farm technologies in India, a methane capture project in Pennsylvania and a Ugandan forestry project. All of these are designed not only to reduce carbon dioxide but also to support the local economies.

Carbon neutrality has a money cost – the cost of investing in the offsetting projects. The return is more difficult to quantify, but consumers are becoming more insistent that everything they buy should be “ethical”, “green” and “eco-friendly”. In response many big names on the High Street are making the investment. In time carbon neutrality may become the norm - or at least the aim - for every company (though not every company will be able to achieve it). Some progress towards carbon neutrality is likely to be expected of any organisation seeking public contracts.

Those who are first into this area will probably find their goals easier to reach through a wide range of offsetting projects. Later converts will have a smaller choice, but hopefully will sign up anyway.

Hopefully too, the market will be regulated so that the marginal operators who have been giving offsetting a bad name will be squeezed out.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Expanding Stansted

The British government is supporting the building of a £2.7bn second runway at Stansted airport. Already the atmosphere in the area is polluted to twice the level known to cause environmental damage. Increased airport use is expected to cause more pollution which will seriously damage Hatfield Forest, one of the oldest in Europe.

Quite apart from this, it is difficult to understand how the government balances this expansion with its commitment to cut carbon emissions by 60% by 2050. UK carbon emissions fell at the end of the 90s but they are on the rise again, and the 64,000 additional flights each year will mean that deeper cuts must be made elsewhere.
And then there’s the issue of resources.

Peak Oil means that fuel for all sorts of transport is starting to run out. There is no substitute for oil for aviation fuel, and even the oil industry itself is beginning to admit that future supplies will be more difficult to get and much more expensive. The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) believes that energy shortages are much closer and much more serious than the effects of climate change. (Read their newsletter.)

Nevertheless, the government continues to act as though economic growth can last for ever. When resources become scarce will we come to resent the resources wasted on airports we can no longer use?

Friday, May 25, 2007

It's a washout!

Do you have a washing machine? If it's British model, chances are that it's connected up to the hot and cold water systems. I've heard a rumour that new washing machines will be cold-fill only, as is standard practice in Europe. On the face of it, that's a good thing. Only one water valve, less wiring, simpler plumbing in the kitchen. But what if you have a lot of hot water, from your solar panel or from an older boiler with a hot-water cylinder? You can't use that. Your machine will fill up from the cold supply - and then use electricity to heat the water.

If you're buying a new washing machine this weekend check how green it really is. And if you're planning to install a solar panel to heat your water, make sure you can use all the hot water you generate!

Have we got the energy?

I received a post today asking why I thought that renewable energy could only ever account for about 20% of our total requirements. Surely if we cut our total energy use that proportion could be greater? I also said that microgeneration could actually increae co2 emissions. Why?

Here's my answer:

"I suggest you read "Energy beyond oil" by Paul Mobbs which is an excellent review of our energy options - and challenges. It explains all the technical issues in detail but in a very readable form.

Yes, I agree we can go a long way towards reducing our energy demand, but in spite of those people who are already cutting down, UK energy demand continues to grow. We will have to make life-changing decisions to really have an effect. The problem with renewables - wind, wave, tide and solar - is that they are intermittent and cannot be controlled to match the fluctuating demand from the grid. Indeed, if they account for a major proportion of electricity production they provide great difficulties for the grid controllers who have to deal not only with fluctuating demand but fluctuating supply as well. If they can't balance supply and demand the risk is that the grid becomes unstable with cascading failures and power cuts. Biomass and biogas are renewables which can provide power 24/7 and are controllable, but the problem here is that growing biofuel crops competes for land where food is grown (or in some cases where rain forest grows) and the planting, harvesting, processing and transporting of biofuel all takes energy so biofuel is not carbon neutral and some studies have suggested that the process absorbs more energy than it yields.

Microgeneration? Microgeneration of electricity comes from wind or solar. Micro-hydro is possible, but very, very few people will have a suitable water source. In all cases we must look at the total life cycle, which includes the energy used and CO2 emitted in the manufacture, installation and disposal of the turbine or solar panel. Unless the unit saves more CO2 during its useful life than is emitted at these stages, it is actually contributing to CO2, not saving it. A wind turbine needs a steady flow at about 10-12 metres per second. If you go to the DTI wind speed database you will find the average speed for your postcode. The average is only about 6mps. A turbine running at 6mps produces a lot less than half the electricity of a unit at 12mps - it is not a simple straight-line relationship. The other problem - which rules turbines out for most urban locations - is turbulence. Trees, roofs, chimneys and lamposts all cause turbulence which means the airflow - and direction - is constantly changing. The turbine may overspeed, which will damage it, or run too slowly to produce any power. If it is swinging backwards and forwards in the gusts it will not produce a useful output. Once you have the electricity you either have to convert it to ac and transform it to mains voltage (a process absorbing energy) or use it to charge a battery. In the second case you have the additional cost of the battery and of your low-voltage dc lighting circuit or whatever you are using, together with the CO2 emissions involved in manufacturing this kit. In the first case you can sell electricity back to the grid if you aren't using it, but the bit left after transformation and rectification will be subject to further losses in the grid and you will be paid only 4p per unit compared with the 10 or 15p it will cost you to buy it back.

Solar panels have the same problems of rectification and transformation if you go for mains voltage and the same extra costs of batteries etc if you go for low voltage dc. I believe the disposal of solar panels is problematical because of the heavy metals and rare elements they contain. In fact the increasing scarcity of such substances will probably severely limit the availability of solar panels.

Sorry this is such a long answer. Hope it makes sense!"

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Energy White Paper

Today the government publishes its energy white paper. Already there is speculation and comment in the press, but there seems to be a danger that the whole debate is going to be taken over by an argument over nuclear power. Nuclear power accounts for about 20% of electricity generated, and therefore less than 8% of the energy used in the UK. People claim that renewables will take care of the other 92% in time, but the fact is that they are deluding themselves. Wind farms, tidal schemes, biomass and solar can all make a contribution, but they can never replace more than about 20% of our energy needs.

At least people are beginning to realise that we use more gas than anything else and in the very near future most of it will be coming from Russia, not the North Sea. Even if we can maintain gas supplies and develop our renewables sector, neither of these will replace oil as a transport fuel. Biofuel and hydrogen are not an option (see elsewhere in this blog). Even if electric cars were viable there is no incentive to build 30 million of them to replace our existing fleet.

A columnist in the Independent complains that nuclear power is only viable because it receives government subsidies. On the letters page someone complains that there are not enough subsidies for domestic micro-generation. At least nuclear power produces electricity, but in the majority of UK locations micro-generation will never pay for itself even after subsidies, and actually causes more CO2 pollution than it saves.

The truth is that we are approaching the point where we will be unable to obtain enough energy even to satisfy current levels of demand. We are approaching the point where available energy will decline each year to levels which will demand radically changed lifestyles – no big cars, no commuting, no foreign holidays, colder houses and so on. Of course, this is far too horrible to contemplate.

Let’s just argue about side issues like nuclear power and rooftop windmills instead!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Fred Flintstone didn't drive a gas guzzler...

This is the title of an article by Ruth Lea in the latest New Statesman. You can find it here. Here's my reply:

"Yes, I agree, we can’t control climate change, and natural cycles and solar activity are probably part of the problem. But we can’t ignore that mankind has increased the amount of atmospheric CO2 dramatically in the last two centuries. We know that the greenhouse effect is real – it keeps the surface of the planet at a temperature that supports life – so upsetting the balance of greenhouse gases must be a risk.

Yes, the UK emits only 2% of the world’s greenhouse gases so we cannot change the world on our own. It’s a truism to say that if no-one does anything then nothing gets done, Yes, China is opening new power stations, but it’s trying to bring its population – 30 million of whom still have no electricity – up to a standard that’s still far lower than our own. China will generate carbon-free electricity from the Three Gorges Dam and is very advanced in the use of solar power. We must support them by our example.

We can cut our carbon footprint by cutting fossil fuel use. This will help us to adapt to the coming global energy crisis as fuels, led by oil, begin to run out. (And we’re talking within the next five years!) There is no alternative fuel with the capacity to replace oil and no technological solution to the shortages. It is just too horrific for most people to consider that the energy that drives our cars, heats our homes and produces everything we eat, use or wear is coming to an end. Read what the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas has to say. Check on the statements of Dr Ali Samsam Bakhtiari, formerly of the National Iranian Oil Company; the presentations of international energy banker Matthew R Simmons and the books of Richard Heinberg and many others.

Changing to low-energy light bulbs is a step forward, but nothing to the changes that global energy shortages will impose on us in the next few years. We need to adapt to this now. Doing nothing is just not an option. Recognising the true problem would be a start."

Catch 22

I was with a group of businessmen last week discussing climate change. Chatham House rules so I can’t be more specific, but the conclusions will reach Whitehall in due course.

One of the more obvious conclusions we came to was that encouraging more people to work at home would benefit the environment. Less commuting means less travel and less pollution. If people do not travel in every day the head office can be smaller, with lower energy bills, lower water usage and a lower carbon footprint. The company saves money and so do employees. Unfortunately there’s a catch.
Employers have a statutory duty to provide employees with a safe working environment. They are responsible for proper lighting levels, an adequate temperature and for ensuring that the employee has a work station with a chair that will provide proper support. The employer must ensure that all equipment is safe and that electrical equipment has been PAT tested.

To do all this in the employee’s home would infringe the employee’s rights. Not to do it lays the employer open to a claim if the home worker has a problem, like breaking a leg by tripping over the cat or getting a shock off a faulty fax.
For the employer it’s therefore safer to make everyone work in the office. Generally employees commute in their own time and at their own expense, so there’s no problem to the organisation there.

Saving the planet? Sorry, it just doesn’t make business sense.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Dialogue of the Deaf

Tony Blair made his farewells to George Bush this week and the President confirmed that climate change "is a serious issue and the United States takes it seriously." Meanwhile the US, represented by its chief climate negotiator Harlan Watson, was rejecting caps on US emissions and refusing to consider participating in carbon trading. The position of the US delegation was that targets and timetables were unimportant - the priority was not to jeopardise economic growth.

Although the US is about to be overtaken by China (a country with five times the population) as the biggest polluter in the world, the actions of the US are crucial to controlling carbon emissions on a global scale. Global warming is , after all, global. The Americans may believe that the economy is more important than the climate, but there are thousands of scientists who believe that to carry on as we are will damage the planet irreparably and destroy the economy at the same time. In some parts of the US government these scientists are loudly quoted, but when it gets down to business they go unheeded.

And what of Gordon Brown? Will Britain take a more robust position with the US on green issues in future? Sadly no. Gordon does not see the environment as an important priority!

Friday, May 18, 2007

They win some, we lose a lot more!

The government has announced a plan to shut 2500 POst Offices in order to save money.

Closing Post Offices may save the government £4m per week (very tiny in total expenditure terms) but it puts the cost of travelling to more distant central offices on to the consumer - many of whom are elderly or poor, or both. If people have to travel into town then maybe they will do their shopping there and the local shops near the closed post offices will lose business until they too close. Then everyone has to travel into town.

I thought the government was committed to lower carbon emissions, but these extra journeys will do the opposite. They may save £4m per week, but the hidden costs will be far, far more!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

One Billion Climate Refugees

One of the consequences of climate change that the IPCC report has noted since the beginning is the problem of refugees.

We generally live in a stable climate and although there's a wide range of difference between the equator and the poles, we usually find people who think the place where they live is "not too hot - not too cold." As climate change destabilises weather patterns there are places which will become uninhabitable. Places like Egypt and Bagladesh will suffer from floods as sea levels rise. Other places will suffer from drought and desertification as the rains fail. Either way, these places will no longer support crops, livestock or people. People must move to find somewhere to survive.

Even in prosperous Australia the drought has gone on so long that the government is seriously considering evacuating whole communities.

The IPCC has estimated the number of refugees at 3m per year. That's 150m by 2050. Just yesterday Christian Aid published its report "Human Tide". It predicts 1,000,000,000 refugees by 2050; that's 1,000m

The message is clear - we must do what we can about climate change. This means cutting our CO2 emissions, but let's be in no doubt - that may stop things getting worse, but it will take a time for it to have an effect. In the meantime we need to be ready for the floods and forest fires with defences and rescue plans. We need to stop people being displaced, but if they do become refugees we need plans and locations for resettlement.

There's no doubt that there's a climate crisis - and no end to the different problems it throws up!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Electric Dreams

Johan Hari has an article in today's Independent called "Big Oil's vendetta against the electric car."

You have to admit that Johan Hari writes a good conspiracy. A lot of what he says is true, but it’s only part of the story. Electric cars are clean and silent, but only because the pollution and noise are generated at the power stations. Over 50% of the energy input to a conventional power station is lost in the process and more energy is lost as it travels across the grid, making electric cars very inefficient. Of course he may claim that we should be using green energy, but we would need to double our total electricity output to meet our transport needs. With only 4% of electricity coming from renewables at present – mostly from landfill gas and waste incineration – there is a long way to go.

The capacity of the grid would have to be doubled as well; will Mr Hari accept twice as many pylons? The other problem is that many of us have to park on the street and could not plug in our cars “like a mobile phone.” However, assuming you could charge your car and drive from London to Scotland as he claims, a 300 mile range would still leave you 100 miles short of Edinburgh.

The quoted fuel economy is impressive. Mr Hari tells us that he can buy the electrical equivalent of a gallon of petrol for only 30p. Given that a gallon of petrol contains 36kWh of energy, that is equal to less than 1p per unit. Can he tell us the name of his power supplier?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Coal on a Roll

The UK’s carbon emissions are rising. Ten years ago they began to decline because of the ‘Dash for Gas’. Coal-fired power stations were closed and new, clean gas stations took their place. Ten years on gas is more expensive and more and more of it has to be imported. Some say that we will be importing 80% of our needs as early as 2015.

The problem is that UK demand for gas continues to grow and so does world demand. With the power industry accounting for a third of the UK’s carbon emissions the choice of fuel for generators has a direct effect on whether the UK meets its targets. Coal is cheaper at present and government subsidies for desulphurization plant mitigate the cost to some extent. Clean coal requires investment to deal with carbon emissions as well as the sulphur and other pollutants. Powerfuel plc has recently entered into a joint venture with KRU, one of Russia’s largest coal producers To re-open Hatfield Colliery in South Yorkshire and build a clean coal generating station. The unit will produce gas from coal slurry, treat it for impurities and burn it to generate electricity which will be sold to occupants of a new business park planned for the site, and to the grid. By-products will be sold to the pharmaceutical industry.

Carbon sequestration – the storage of CO2 from conventional generation - in mines, spent oil wells or at the bottom of the sea; is theoretically possible but not yet in commercial operation. To make it a reality will take time and public money. With a five to ten year lead-time on major power stations we probably won’t have these systems in place in time to meet the targets. There may be a problem raising the money as well. It will all come from taxation, of course, but there’s still a great deal of resistance from the man in the street to spending money on going green!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Are you local?

I see that an on-line petition about Peak Oil has been lodged with No 10 Downing Street. Sign it if like me you believe that energy is running short and government should be doing far more about it.

Oil is our principal transport fuel and it is also a valuable chemical feedstock. As shortages begin to bite the will be pressures on transport – it will get just too expensive to drive. We may be talking about 30 years hence, but it won’t be a case of going on as usual and suddenly adapting at the end of year 29. Lifestyles will have to change. Principally that means making things local – local schools, local hospitals, local places of work, local sources of food. We could see the renaissance of the community, if that’s not too elaborate a phrase.

Without doubt there will be change – when wasn’t there? This change will be different. In some ways we will be going backwards – losing our freedom to just up and go, to spend today here, tomorrow on the other side of the Atlantic and the next day almost anywhere else in the world. We’ll lose our freedom to just get in and drive, unless it’s really necessary and justifies the cost. On the other hand, we may see an end to not knowing our neighbours, and become part of a mutually supportive community. Of course this is in the future, and someone, I forget who, said “I never make predictions – especially about the future!” Still it makes sense to examine the possibilities. Have a look at this blog. See what Steve “Habib” Rose has to say on the subject of neighbourhoods.

Friday, March 16, 2007

More about the bill

The government’s Climate Bill has been published. It has already led to much debate and it is, after all, a discussion document. Nothing is expected to be approved and implemented much before the end of 2008. There are many grounds for criticism, but first of all let us welcome the fact that something is being done, even if we don’t think it’s enough. Hopefully we can get it changed before it’s put in place.

The overall target of the bill is to reduce the country’s carbon emissions by 60% by 2050. There will be a series of five-year objectives and there will be legal sanctions if these are not met. If carbon emissions are as serious as we are led to believe, you could almost expect that progress towards targets should be monitored on a weekly basis rather than every five years. The government’s reaction is that if they were to set annual targets it would be easy to fail to reach them in any one year which suffered a very harsh winter. These things should average out over five years. Nonetheless, there should certainly be annual targets and annual reports on how close we are to meeting those targets because otherwise there will be no chance of meeting the five year target.

This bill introduces legal sanctions for failure to meet the emissions targets, but the way they are presented seems quite odd. It is not the polluters who will be penalized, but rather the government minister responsible, who will be hauled before the courts for a judicial review and if found guilty will have to make amends. These amends are the purchase of carbon offsets. This implies that if we don’t actually meet our targets, we can buy our way out of the problems by buying carbon credits. Secondly, these carbon credits will of course be bought with taxpayers’ money although the taxpayers themselves will have little control over the emission levels. Thirdly, ministers rarely stay in a particular office for more than two or three years, so by the time it becomes clear that five year targets have been missed the minister responsible will be far away.

Another aspect of all this is that the government talks exclusively about the control of carbon. The unspoken assumption is that if we restrict our carbon emissions then everything will carry on as normal. In fact, the best scientific estimates are that if we reduce our carbon dioxide emissions we will prevent things from getting worse than they otherwise would. The public does not seem to be aware that global warming, or rather global overheating, is a fact; that climate change is highly probable; that the sea-levels are measurably rising; that glaciers are receding and ice caps are melting and that there is probably nothing we can do to stop this happening within our lifetimes or within those of our children or grandchildren.

If we do cut back on our carbon emissions we may prevent from things being as bad as they might otherwise be. We still need to protect ourselves against the floods, the famines, the forest fires and the violent and more frequent storms that may well be caused by climate change as a result of global overheating. Nobody seems to mention this.

And as for the disruptions that will be caused as fossil fuels run out - well that’s another story that you’ve heard me comment on in previous posts!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

No point having a blog

..unless people read it! I learnt the other day that people are most likely to visit a blog if they have read about it in someone else's blog. Apparently this beats search engines and any opther form of referral. I got this information from Graham Jones who specialises in internet marketing and optimising your presence on the web. Here's a link to his blog -

It's worth a visit - he's always giving away free stuff!

And if you write a blog on energy and climate change issues as I do, send me a link and I'll put it in another post - and I hope you'll do the same for me!

It's the law

...or at least it soon will be. Today the British government publishes its Climate Change Bill which is expected to set 5-year targets for carbon dioxide emissions. This comes after a weekend when the Conservative opposition were making it clear how green they were. Bit of a balancing act - they want to restrict air travel, but they don't want to upset families who might vote for them so maybe they will target the frequent fliers. Gordon Brown has also set out his stall in a speech, making it clear that he's green and voter-friendly at the same time.

The bill has already attracted criticism. Why have 5-year targets and not annual targets? If things are as desperate as the press and politicians tell us surely we should be watching the situation week by week. It's easy to be cynical and assume that climate change is just another bandwagon and a convenient excuse for raising more tax.

My own view is that the whole thing is far too simplistic. The unspoken message is that if we cut carbon dioxide we will stop global warming, avoid climate change and everything will go on as normal. In fact, the only effect we may have is to make future climate change less bad than it might otherwise have been. If we cut carbon dioxide by cutting our fossil fuel consumption we will also cut production of the other nitrous and sulphurous pollutants than no-one ever mentions, so that might be a hidden bonus.

The real threat of course is Peak Oil. As production volumes decline we will be forced to use less, travel less and consume less, but we could never tell that to the voters. As conventional oil declines it's likely that we will start exploiting oil from coal, shale or tar sands. And when we do that you can forget carbon dioxide limits or pollution controls!

Friday, March 09, 2007

2020 vision at the EU

This week European Union leaders have been debating carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and they have a firm commitment to achieve at least a 20% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared to 1990. Furthermore, they will increase energy efficiency in the EU so as to achieve the objective of saving 20% of the EU's energy consumption compared to projections for 2020,

Central to this is a binding target of a 20% share of renewable energies in overall EU energy consumption by 2020 and a 10% binding minimum target to be achieved by all Member States for the share of biofuels in overall EU transport petrol and diesel consumption by 2020.

Leaving aside the controversy generated by Channel 4’s film – whether CO2 reduction is possible or worth while – there must still be doubts about whether any of this is achievable. Elsewhere in this blog I have commented on how biofuels are much less green than people would like to think. Biofuel crops absorb CO2, but growing, harvesting and processing them takes up so much energy that the net gain is small or in some cases negative. Growing the crops puts pressure on food crops or rain forests, and to some extent we will burn green fuels while exporting the disadvantages of the fuels to third world countries where the crops are grown.

Biomass is part of the way towards reaching the EU’s 20% target. Today Drax Power, which runs the UK’s largest power station, announced plans to grow biomass on an area equivalent to one fifth of the land of Wales. This will produce sufficient fuel to provide 10% of the requirements of Drax. The station produces 8% of the UK’s electricity, so biomass will account for just 0.8%. If we took over the whole of Wales to grow biofuel crops we would still only achieve 4% of the UK’s electricity – and where would we put the Welsh? -

The Great Global Warming Hoax

Last night’s Channel 4 documentary has caused a great deal of comment.
The film didn't say that global warming wasn't happening; just that man-made co2 wasn't the cause. Whether they are right or wrong, we need to cut fossil fuel use because it's finite and it's beginning to run out. That will cut co2 emissions, and, depending on your point of view, that's either a bonus or irrelevant!

Also we should recognise that there are two aspects to global warming (or overheating, as I prefer to call it - warming is stable and essential to life.) One is trying to stop it, and that's undeniably difficult and may not work. The other is that we are observing the effects of global overheating through climate change and we should be doing what we can to protect ourselves, and others, against those effects.

If we go ahead with a high-carbon solution to the 3rd world's energy shortage we will raise expectations, invest a lot of money and end up with something which doesn't work when the fuel gets too expensive. We're talking 3-5 years.

Focussing solely on co2, and solely on its climatic effects, is very short-sighted. It is absorbed by the seas and it changes the acidity of the seas and affects the fish and other organisms that live there. That's the base of the food chain. When we burn fossil fuels and emit co2 we also emit other pollutants, particularly nitrous compounds. These pollute our air, our food and rivers and seas, again damaging the very environment we live in.

It would be great to be able to rely on one television programme and say that there's no problem at all - we can go on as usual, only more so. The oil is running out (gas too, though maybe 30 years later) and in the short term we can get oil from coal, shale and tar sands. All of these are highly polluting, but if we can create a consensus that co2 doesn't matter the oil companies will be happy to exploit these resources. They will ignore the energy inputs, the vast quantities of fresh water needed and contaminated water released. Life will continue as usual, we'll just run out quicker.

I am firmly against the eco-warriors who want to smash capitalism and put the blame on multinationals, George Bush and anyone else they can think of. I am very concerned that the arguments are so polarised, because I believe that there is a middle way, a rational, pragmatic approach to the changes on our planet and a sensible re-evaluation of the risks and the actions we can take. Business as usual is not an option, but selling the car, putting out all the lights and living on bread and water in a tent is not a sensible strategy either!

That’s why I believe in common sense on climate change.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Bush goes bio

Newspaper reports claim that there are signs at last that the White House is taking the environment seriously. This week President Bush was in Brazil to discuss the new ethanol economy - road fuel manufactured from plants. To me this seems more of a realisation that fossil oil is running out, rather than a desire to use "green" fuels. There are serious doubts in any case over whether biofuels are truly green. While the plants used for biofuels do absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, they do not absorb all the co2 released by the whole growth/harvest/processingrefining/use cycle. Some say that the energy input is greater than the energy content of the biofuel produced. Land used for fuel crops displaces food crops, or in some cases displaces rainforest. Cutting down the rainforest releases carbon dioxide and so removes part of the largest co2 absorber in the world. Growing fuel crops instead of food means poorer nations may go hungry.

The signs are that fossil fuel shortages -Peak Oil- are just around the corner. There will never be enough biofuel to replace all the oil we now use. It's a good plan to plan to use less. At least you'll save money and it won't hurt as much when shortages really bite!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Learning to commute/commuting to learn

Today the nation's 10 and 11-year-olds learn which school they will be allowed to attend from next September. Parents are determined that their offspring will attend a "good" school and make every effort, including moving house into the right area, to make sure this happens. If it doesn't many are expected to appeal.

Unfortunately, the "good" school is all too frequently not the local school. Children are learning to commute for hours each day to get to the chosen establishment. Parents drive them or fetch them, or put them on buses or trains. Some even go by taxi. One father was heard to remark that all this commuting would "prepare them for later life."

You can make up your own mind whether commuting is part of a desirable lifestyle. As long as people can afford it, they'll do it. Whether the planet can afford it is not a question that most people take into account. If Peak Oil truly happens in the next few years then the spiralling cost of petrol will make many people think again. Economy is the only long-term solution, and that means self-sufficient communities which provide the full range of amenities within minimal travelling distance. The government will have to think again about closing local post offices, maternity and A&E departments, and centralising schools. Mind you, that might be more expensive, because governments don't count the extra travelling costs for individuals.

And what would it really be like without a car? Several thousand people in SE England are finding out today as their cars shudder to a halt and need repairs costing hundreds of pounds. Contaminated petrol is supposed to be the cause, but no-one has yet taken responsibility and the actual contaminant has not been identified.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Getting the message across

Last night I gave a presentation on energy and climate change to a group of 50 actuaries here in York. It went well, and there were several questions afterwards.

The problem is that it's a very serious subject, and also quite complex. Actuaries are used to difficult concepts of course - they spend their time deriving mathematical models of insurance risks. I think I kept their attention, because no-one walked out before the end!

Still, it would be good to inject a bit of humour into the proceedings. How can I make climate change amusing without making it trivial?

Any ideas? Any climate change jokes?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Some light on the problem.

Australia, along with the United States, gets a lot of criticism for not signing up to the Kyoto Protocol on the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. While the US has the highest level of emissions in the world, Australia, at over 500m tonnes of CO2 per annum, has the highest level of emissions per head of population. Surprising, then, that their prime minister has just announced that incandescent light bulbs are to be phased out by 2010, in favour of compact fluorescent lamps (CFL).

Incandescent light bulbs, the normal filament bulbs, produce their light from a white-hot wire. The problem is that 90% of the energy used is lost in heat. CFLs use energy much more efficiently – and they last a lot longer: 8000 hours rather than 1000 hours. They are more expensive to buy, but prices are coming down and the last lot I bought on the internet came to well under £2 each (including postage).

Australia is not the first to introduce a CFL policy. Cuba started to change over to CFLs two years ago, and when I was there in January 2007 I didn’t see a single traditional filament bulb.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Underground Coal Gasification - (Press Release)

Last week, London hosted the most significant and extensive conference on Underground Coal Gasification ever held. Over 100 delegates from 19 countries heard speakers from around the globe updating on projects and Technology in China, India, Australia, USA and Europe.

The conference was held at the London headquarters of ABN AMRO and organised by the UCG Partnership, and included major industry players, government and academia.
Underground Coal Gasification is a method of converting un-worked coal into a combustible gas, which can be used for industrial heating, power generation or the manufacture of hydrogen, synthetic natural gas or diesel fuel. The gas can be processed to remove its CO2 content, thereby providing a source of clean energy with minimal greenhouse gas emissions.

World Energy Consumption in 2004* breaks down into 41% from oil, 23% from natural gas, 23% from coal,6% from nuclear, 4% from hydro and 3% from renewables.

However, world proven reserves 2005** has oil accounting for 19%, gas with 17% and coal with a massive 64%. Add total reserves to total resources and coal accounts for 95% of the fossil fuel energy content of the planet*** – hundreds of years of energy.

Delegates heard that UCG represents a real answer to the energy gap issue since UCG provides security of supply and a low cost clean energy with substantial volume. Russia, Australia, USA, India, China, South Africa and the UK all have projects developed or being developed with plans being made for further studies in Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Ireland and Pakistan.

The technology of UCG is now ready for scale-up to large projects to produce syngas for power generation and coal to liquids. Security of supply, the potential for CO2 capture and storage, the lower costs of gas production and its rapid development to fill the energy gap are the principal motivators for the vast increase in activity in UCG.

The conference urged the UCG Partnership, which represents the industry and provides public information on UCG, to continue to urge Governments to provide a workable framework in which UCG projects can flourish and develop quickly. This includes an easier licensing, a simpler environmental and planning framework, risk management and the removal of unnecessary bureaucratic red tape. Encouragement from the very top of Government is needed urgently.

*USEIA, 2005
**BP, 2006
***AAPG and BP

Monday, February 12, 2007


Here's a brief summary of my views on energy and climate change. Download the MP3 file here.

FAR more

Correcting my earlier post…
The Fourth Assessment Report (FAR) published last week by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) was in fact only the preliminary summary. The full report will be published later in the year. The document we have so far is the summary and guide for policy-makers.

As the New Scientist points out, this is a rather special type of document. It is not a peer-reviewed paper. It has been subjected to political scrutiny and editing, to provide a text acceptable to all governments. Apparently the attitude of the US was remarkably different this time, reflecting a power-shift following the success of the Democrats in the mid-term elections.

Some people (not me, unfortunately) have already seen the full report. From this they conclude that much has been left out of the summary. For example, scientists are beginning to think that ice sheets could melt much more rapidly than previously thought. Research is not yet conclusive, and for this reason the theory was excluded from the study. You can argue if nothing is yet proven on this it would be scare-mongering to include it. On the other hand, if we have identified a potential problem, should we not flag it up as a potential risk?

Sea levels may rise faster than expected; there is observable evidence to show that this is the case. This is not in the summary report as it is inconsistent with the models currently used. The full report, due in July I think, will make interesting reading.

There’s no point in waiting; we must take action now. But we must act with care, and be ready to modify our actions as our knowledge grows and our understanding of the climate system develops.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Trapped Wind

The problem with wind power is matching supply with demand. High winds at night can produce more power than needed while on cold, still days the turbines produce nothing at all. Storing electricity has always been difficult and most systems, like flywheels, capacitors or lead-acid batteries are either too expensive or too small. Pump storage is a large-capacity solution. It uses surplus power to pump water up to a reservoir. This water is released to turn hydro-electric turbines at times of high demand. Pump storage is expensive, and needs the right kind of geography with mountains and lakes.

Research in Australia (New Scientist 13th January 2007) has developed the flow battery. This uses electrolytes consisting of chemical solutions based on the element vanadium. The electrolytes are pumped into the flow cell where they are charged by the wind turbines and then pumped out to storage tanks. The size of the battery is therefore only limited by the size of the tanks. When the wind drops the electrolytes are pumped back into the flow cell where they release their electricity. Systems have already been successfully installed and improved the productivity of wind farms by buffering the differences between supply and demand. So far the flow battery is too large to fit in a vehicle, but research continues with alternative chemical compounds for the electrolyte.

At this stage the system is expensive and the future success of flow storage batteries must depend on the cost and availability of vanadium.

Monday, February 05, 2007


The Fourth Assessment Report (FAR) has just been released by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (IPCC) No real surprises. We expected the news to be bad and the report says things are getting worse and urges governments again to take action to avoid total catastrophe.

How likely is it that governments will respond? The United States and Australia refused to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol on the reduction of greenhouse gases, and the process of designing a new protocol, to apply after 2012, is stalled. While Britain will reach its Kyoto target, this is mainly due to the closure of coal-fired power stations in the late 90s. Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions are once again rising. Britain is still building roads and expanding airports. Germany has just buckled under to the automotive lobby and relaxed emission standards for new cars. China, which as a developing country was not required to make emission reductions under Kyoto, continues to expand, to use increasing quantities of coal and to produce 15% of the world’s CO2 emissions.

Cutting emissions means cutting the use of fossil fuels or installing equipment to trap the CO2. In both cases this means extra costs: in both cases this will depress the economy. The US economy is already in bad shape so industrialists resist anything that might make it worse. Their tactic is to attack the science and suppress the evidence. The New Scientist (3rd February 2007) claims this is happening with the support of the US government, and that lobbyists who used to deny the danger of smoking are now attacking the climate scientists.

Not a reassuring prospect.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Book

My book, "Will climate change your life? How to drive a 4x4 and still save the planet" will be published on 26th February.

Click here to find out more and to receive a free copy of my e-book "Europe's Energy Conundrum - the next 10 years."

Peak Oil - a Cuban case study

In January I spent two weeks in Cuba, and before I went I saw the video “The Power of Community – how Cuba survived Peak Oil” ( )

Cuba suffered an economic shock when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. For the previous 30 years it had been receiving substantial support, including technical assistance and cheap oil in exchange for sugar. All this stopped almost overnight. For the same 30 years the United States has operated a trade embargo and travel ban against Cuba, and this continues to the present day.

Cuba has some oil of its own, though not nearly enough for transport, electricity generation and – crucially – fertiliser and pesticide production. At the time of the Soviet collapse Cuba was using more fertiliser per acre than the US; agricultural production fell dramatically. Food rationing was introduced but the population began to suffer from malnutrition. The film shows how large state farms were broken up into individual co-operatives and how every spare piece of land in the cities was turned over to growing vegetables. With no fertiliser, agriculture had to be organic, and with no fuel for tractors, oxen and horses returned to the land. Farming became labour-intensive; more and more people became farmers.

In the early 90s power cuts were common - lasting up to 24 hours. If people could get to work (and transport was severely disrupted) they often had nothing to do because there was no power. It's only in the last few years that electricity cuts have largely disappeared. The solution has come in three ways. First, the ageing national grid has been superseded to a large extent by building a lot of neighbourhood generators to replace the few large power stations and the nuclear station that the soviets never finished. (Not CHP - in that climate you just don't need the heat!) Secondly the government has managed demand, and you don't see filament bulbs anywhere - they're all CFLs. There is also a programme to replace domestic appliances with more efficient ones. (But Cuba is a poor country, and the volume of domestic appliances must be small.) Thirdly, Fidel - or Raoul - is now big chums with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela which has lots of oil. (This is fortunate, as all generating plants, large and small, seem to be oil -fuelled.) Cuba has sent 20,000 doctors to Venezuela and receives oil in return. I've not been able to determine whether this is as much as Russia used to provide.

There is still a transport problem exacerbated both by oil shortages and by the lack of spare parts for vehicles. Mass transit is just that: people packed into goods lorries. Government vehicles of all kinds are expected to take hitch-hikers, and yellow-uniformed hitchhike co-ordinators are stationed at the side of the road to ensure that they do. Cuba was one of the first Latin-American countries to have railways. They are still there, but like the roads they are long overdue for repairs and maintenance.

So has Cuba successfully survived Peak Oil? The country certainly suffered an oil shock with far-reaching consequences, and while things are better than they were in the early 90s people say that things are still not what they were before the Soviet Union collapsed. The on-going US embargo has continued to make things difficult, though ironically Cuba still buys millions of dollars of food from the US, and Cuban expats in the States also send about $1billion back home each year. With only 11m people in 111,000 km2, [UK 60m – 242,000km2] the country has the potential to be self-sufficient in agriculture, but the command economy has been unable to achieve this. The 2006 Annual Economic Review notes that MPs at the Economic Committee complain of labour discipline problems which lead to low productivity, corruption and squandering.

Do we have a lesson for the rest of the world? The world will suffer similar problems from Peak Oil, but it is unlikely that they will arise quite as suddenly as they did in Cuba. The most important difference is that Cuba has replaced its Russian oil, at least to some extent, with Venezuelan oil. The world doesn't have such an option.

On a global scale, when the oil's gone, it's gone!