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.