Friday, October 28, 2016

Climate Change, Transport and Energy

Available as a podcast at  

I took this picture from a moving car (I wasn't driving) on
the M62 motorway near Hull in East Yorkshire. Is it a
tornado? It certainly didn't touch down anywhere.
Hello this is Anthony Day with your latest Sustainable Futures Report. This week there's been a lot in the news about climate change, about transport and, as always, about energy. We’ll look at the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, talk about decarbonising the transport fleet with connected cars, self-driving cars, BEVs, PHEVs and ULEVs. And if you’re prepared to let someone else drive, how far can Clare Gilmartin take you? What’s the future for tidal power in Swansea Bay and is there any point in protesting at Drax? 

Decarbonising the Transport Sector

All right, a BEV is a battery electric vehicle, a PHEV is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle and a ULEV is an Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle. These all featured in this week’s webinar by the Climate Action Programme - (That’s programme with two Ms and an E.) Climate Action works in a unique, contractual partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It establishes and builds partnerships between business, government and public bodies to accelerate international sustainable development and advance the ‘green economy’.

Speakers on the webinar, entitled “Electric Mobility - decarbonising the transport sector” were Dr Daniel Sperling, University of California, Davis; Dr. Thomas Becker, Vice President Governmental and External Affairs, BMW Group, and Andy Eastlake, Managing Director, Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership - a public-private partnership that exists to accelerate a sustainable shift to lower carbon vehicles and fuels and create opportunities for UK business.

There is rapid growth in the sales of electric vehicles, but they still represent less than 1% of total global sales. Battery costs are dropping sharply and the increased range which this can deliver will make electric vehicles more attractive. By a combination of regulations and incentives, California is planning that 15% of sales will be represented by Zero emission vehicles by 2025. There are three major challenges to the spread of electric vehicles. First, the policy challenge. The market signals are out of line with the regulations. In other words, what the regulators want is not necessarily what the consumer wants. Regulations can make vehicles too expensive and undesirable. Secondly the expansion of low emission vehicles is held up by the lack of an infrastructure of charging stations. This applies to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as much as to electric vehicles. In the early stages there is no business case for anyone to set up such a refuelling stations. The third challenge, to carmakers, governments and planners is assessing the impact of new mobility options. First is the electric vehicle. Then there is the self driving vehicle. And then there is the concept of the shared vehicle, which can mean several people sharing a vehicle to make a single journey, or a single vehicle used by different people at different times. 

Carmakers have to conform with the regulations which are currently focused on CO2 and emissions targets but must also be aware of the opportunities and risks from rapidly developing technology. They are already on track to double fuel efficiency between 2010 and 2025, and we'll talk later about connected mobility and autonomous driving. The success of vehicle development depends on government support and on consistent policies from country to country. The European Union, (soon to be irrelevant to Britain we’re told), is an example of this, but there is fragmentation in many markets across the world. This means that carmakers must develop different  models or different versions of models for different markets, which reduces economies of scale and raises prices. 

BMW is already in the carshare market with its ReachNow app. For the moment it operates only in Seattle and Portland in the US. The website - - tells us:


 “ReachNow is a new premium car sharing service that makes it easy (and fun) to get from A to B. Our cars are readily available on-street in most neighbourhoods.”


“When you want it and for how long you want it. Your BMW or MINI is yours for just 41 cents a minute (promotional). Let an afternoon drive turn into a weekend, we won’t bother you.”


“When finished, just park it at any legal space within our Home Area and walk away.”

BMW is also active in Copenhagen, Denmark. There, a fleet of 400 BMW i3 EVs is available to anyone with a travel card. This allows them to take the bus, train, metro, or waterbus and complete their journey by car. They can drive the vehicle anywhere in Greater Copenhagen.

Andy Eastlake of the Low Carbon Vehicle Programme reminded us that decarbonisation applies not just to cars but also to buses and trucks and commercial vehicles as well. They already have an electric double-decker bus and trials are in progress with autonomous vehicles. The integration of these vehicles with conventional vehicles will be a challenge. In the UK, ultra low emission vehicles– battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles–have 1 1/2% of the new car market. The major growth is in the plug-in hybrid sector as a result of grant structures and the company car tax regime. Consistency of regulation is key, both over time and between countries. The market will decide how quickly low emission vehicles will be adopted. Whatever technology delivers must be convenient and attractive to the consumer. For purely electric vehicles, range and charge time will be crucial factors. Consumers need to have confidence that the information they receive about the benefits of different types or vehicle or methods of ownership  is reliable. They haven’t forgotten the VW diesel emissions scandal. I think it has a higher profile in the US where VW owners are getting their cars repaired, receiving compensation and/or selling their cars back. Fines on the company have provided a substantial pot of money for developing the infrastructure for ULEVs. 

Air Quality

 An important driver of consumer acceptance will be urban air quality. The UK already has serious problems with this. As we saw last week the government  is even being taken to court for ignoring the Supreme Court's instructions to do something about it. 

By the mid 2030s a dramatic fall is predicted in the UK population of conventional cars so that by 2040 the vast majority will be low emission vehicles. At least that’s the ideal. By 2050 the national fleet will be divided more or less equally between battery electric cars, plug in hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. In other countries where it is more difficult to establish a viable infrastructure the change-over may take longer.


We mentioned connectivity. This week the Economist Intelligence Unit, published a report entitled “Driving to the future - The development of connected cars” It’s a free download. 
Many of our cars are already connected, directly or indirectly, to the radio, to the satnav satellites, to the mobile phone network and to 3G or 4G for data transfer. Already the average car has the computing power 20 laptops and runs 100m lines of code. As technology develops, and as carmakers adopt it, the functionality of vehicle connectivity expands. Telematics is already feeding data to insurance companies about driving styles and distances, allowing them to tailor policies to individual drivers. The next step could be analysing accidents, to see exactly how the car was being driven immediately beforehand and giving some indication of who was to blame. The potential is there to gather vast amounts of data - not just about driving styles but about favourite routes and journeys, and how many people are in the car. This data - big data - creates opportunities for cross-marketing, so the driver can receive recommendations for a restaurant or other business in the area. All this raises the question of privacy and security versus benefits, but if the consumer values the benefits he or she will usually accept the invasion of privacy. After all, we all accept the Terms and Conditions unread when we load a new piece of software because we know that the terms are non-negotiable and if you don’t accept them you don’t get the product.

The next stage of connectivity will be a link to home automation. Controlling lights, locks, curtains and heating from the console in the car. Beyond that, connectivity can offer self driving and autonomous vehicles. A vehicle that drives itself saves the driver, or non-driver, time effort and stress. It can save fuel, free up road space and cut accidents. The non-driver can sleep, work, read or watch television. The non-driver could even be drunk or under 18. Tesla announced this week that all its cars would be delivered in future with self-driving hardware already fitted. 
The self-driving software is still under development, but it shows that Tesla sees the day of autonomous vehicles coming very soon. Tesla’s Autopilot option on the Model S is available now and will move the car from lane to lane when requested by the driver, checking that there is sufficient space, keep the car in lane automatically and park the car at the end of the journey. It’s not infallible, but 90% of fatal accidents are calculated by Google as due to human error. Computer control will be very much safer.

The transition, before cars are self-driving - will be the most difficult period as more and more tech is loaded into cars, all bidding for the driver’s attention. We know that mobile phones take a driver’s attention from the road. Even hands-free phones are distracting. It’s been calculated that interacting with tech can delay a driver’s reactions by 25%. In the US in 2014 more than 3,000 people died in accidents caused by distracted drivers and 431,000 were injured. There are no clear or universal standards or regulations on what sort of technology is permissible in a car in view of the driver. Something which needs urgent attention!

Other applications of connectivity relate to commercial vehicles. “Platooning” means using connectivity to run two or three HGVs close together - speed and distance automatically controlled. The next stage is to have a driver only in the leading vehicle. The stage after that is to have no drivers at all. All this is in the future of course, but from where I’m standing the future is closing in fast!

Just a thought on HS2. The plan seems to be to make this new railway line capable of carrying trains at up to 400kph, that’s about 250mph. To do this the lines need to be as straight as possible, which means that they may not go directly into the towns and cities that they are intended to serve, they will go to new out-of-town parkway stations on the motorway or bypass. Time between stations will be short, but time from stations to start point or destination will be longer. Autonomous cars will travel much more slowly, but they will go direct from door to door. Journey times may not be much longer.

Just a thought.

Science Daily 

reports that the globally averaged concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached the symbolic and significant milestone of 400 parts per million for the first time in 2015 and surged again to new records in 2016 on the back of the very powerful El Niño event. This was reported in the World Meteorological Organization's annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. 
CO2 levels had previously reached the 400 ppm barrier for certain months of the year and in certain locations but never before on a global average basis for the entire year. The longest-established greenhouse gas monitoring station at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, predicts that CO2 concentrations will stay above 400 ppm for the whole of 2016 and not dip below that level for many generations.
The growth spurt in CO2 was fuelled by the El Niño event, which started in 2015 and had a strong impact well into 2016. This triggered droughts in tropical regions and reduced the capacity of "sinks" like forests, vegetation and the oceans to absorb CO2. These sinks currently absorb about half of CO2 emissions but there is a risk that they may become saturated, which would increase the fraction of emitted carbon dioxide which stays in the atmosphere, according to the Greenhouse Gas Bulletin.
Between 1990 and 2015 there was a 37% increase in radiative forcing -- the warming effect on our climate -- because of long-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide (N2O) from industrial, agricultural and domestic activities.
"The year 2015 ushered in a new era of optimism and climate action with the Paris climate change agreement. But it will also make history as marking a new era of climate change reality with record high greenhouse gas concentrations," said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. "The El Niño event has disappeared. Climate change has not."


You probably know David Mitchell as a comedian and panel game and chat-show host. He also writes a regular column for The Observer, the British Sunday paper. This week he asked, “Is climate change still happening?”  “It must still be happening”, he goes on, “because if it'd stopped you would definitely have heard … A sudden halt in global warming would be an unmissable opportunity for climate change deniers to crow, for dark souled petrol salesman to denounce the scientific community as a bunch of delusional tree huggers, for the scum of the earth to lay into the Friends of the Earth.” The WMO certainly thinks it’s still happening, David. David Mitchell’s point is that if we accept as scientific truth that carbon emissions cause climate change which threatens the continued existence of life on this planet, why will we expand Heathrow? It’s already one of the most polluted sites in Europe, and incidentally expanding Heathrow is expected to create more pollution than an extra runway at Gatwick, which is the alternative option. It reminds me of a cartoon I saw recently, of a man in a desolate landscape explaining things to his children. “Yes, I know,” he says, “that we’ve trashed the planet. But for several years shareholder value was simply awesome.” The worrying thing is that these things are just too serious to joke about.

As expected the government announced this week that Heathrow expansion would go ahead, although it will not be without opposition. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has denounced the plan and Zac Goldsmith, Conservative MP for Richmond, which is under the flight path, has resigned his seat and will stand as an independent in the resulting by-election. Prime Minister Theresa May has said that members of her government may canvass against the decision though may not directly oppose the government. Subtle. It surely indicates splits below the surface of the party. The Richmond by-election may also be a problem. In the Witney by-election which took place last week, following the resignation of former prime minister David Cameron, the Conservative ruling party saw its majority cut by some 80% as the Liberal Democrats resurfaced as a credible political party. In Richmond the by-election may be seen as an opportunity to pass judgement not only on the airport plans but also on the government's handling of Brexit and on the performance of the Prime Minister herself. Given that in this constituency 70% were in favour of remaining in Europe, the government could well have a fight on its hands. The Lib-Dems are certainly pouring in all resources.

Meanwhile, Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party, joined the debate and re-iterated that in a week where the WMO said we were entering a new climate change reality the decision was a disaster - and in conflict with Theresa May’s own announcement that the UK was the second best country in the world for tackling climate change. It is suggested that while there is no way of avoiding increased emissions from air traffic, the government will offset this by reducing emissions from homes and the transport fleet. So far they are well behind their targets on this.
It appears that the expanded airport will handle 250,000 extra flights each year; that’s some 800 flights per day. Many of the passengers will be transit passengers and therefore of no direct benefit to the UK, although maybe of benefit to Heathrow’s airport shops. British Airways is against expansion. It believes that the costs will be loaded on to airport charges with no perceptible benefit to the passenger. There is a decline in business flights, so aviation growth is driven by holidaymakers and by airfreight. Why does airfreight all have to go from Heathrow? Why do holidaymakers from across the country have to travel from Heathrow, when it will frequently mean a long journey from home, maybe an overnight stay and additional travel time eating into holiday time? A number of businesses in the regions have expressed support, but what is the journey to the airport actually going to be like? The M25 motorway in that area is already up to 14 lanes wide and frequently snarled up and solid. The passengers and airfreight for those 800 extra daily flights will only make congestion worse, so it will not only be impossible to get to the airport, but impossible to get to places to the South and Southwest of London.
While the government has approved the plan to expand Heathrow, this has not yet been voted on by Parliament. This is not expected to happen for at least a year. Then the new runway will take 10 years to build. The inhabitants of Harmondsworth and neighbouring villages, whose homes are scheduled for demolition, will just have to sit and wait. We’re told, however, that the decision to expand Heathrow demonstrates that a post-Brexit Britain is open for business. Except to the biggest economic bloc in the world, perhaps. But that’s another story.

Ticket to Ride

Clare Gilmartin, chief executive of Trainline, the world’s largest independent online rail ticket retailer, says that only 20% of rail tickets globally are bought online. That means that 80% of rail journeys involve people queuing in stations.” Her mission is to change all that. Trainline sells 100,000 tickets every day, one every three seconds, for 44 train companies across 24 European countries, although it has less than 2% of the market. E-tickets are available for 50% of journeys in the UK and the plan is to make them available for 100% of journeys by 2018.

So if the airport is just too much hassle and you can’t face a car-share, just click on your phone and buy an e-ticket to ride.

Protesting at Drax

The first climate change camp at Drax was in 2006, when protestors tried in vain to close the plant down. Drax, near Selby in Yorkshire, was the country’s largest coal-fired power station, delivering up to 8% of the nation’s electricity. Now, nearly half its power is generated from wood chips: biomass. Last weekend the protesters were at the gate again. This time they had no intention of disrupting the plant, but they wanted to draw attention to a £470m subsidy which they claim Drax receives for being green. Biomass is renewable. If you burn wood but plant trees, these new trees absorb the CO2 that is released when the biomass is burnt. The trouble is that the CO2 is released here in the UK - some say more CO2 than if the plant was burning coal - but the trees are growing in the United States. That’s right, the biomass is mainly imported from the US. They had to build chipping plants over there. They had to redevelop a port to handle biomass. They either built or converted bulk carriers - cargo vessels - to carry the wood across the Atlantic. They built new trains to carry the wood chips from the port to the power station and they built new storage silos as wood chip has to be carefully handled to avoid premature combustion. Constructing every part of that supply chain had a carbon footprint. Operating every part of that supply chain has a carbon footprint. The protestors claim that there are nowhere near enough new trees to absorb all that CO2 and they describe the whole process as greenwash and a carbon con.

Should the subsidy be withdrawn to force the plant to close? In practical terms there is absolutely no chance of that as Drax is such a major power supplier and successive governments have dithered to the point that there is little to spare in the nation’s generating capacity. At least the protesters have made us aware of grave doubts about whether Drax is truly sustainable. I admire Drax as a triumph of 1960s engineering which has been retrofitted and upgraded as technology advances and regulations bite deeper. At heart though, it’s still a 1960s project. A bit like Concorde. And that stopped flying in 2003.

And that's it...

I’ve had to hold over Tidal power in Swansea Bay to a future episode. If you’re anxious to learn more now go over to the BBC iPlayer and look for File on Four for the 18th October.

Yes, that’s it for yet another week and this is Anthony Day thanking you for listening. You can find out more and access other podcasts on sustainability and other topics at the Better World Podcast Collective site. You can find it at

Your feedback to is always eagerly received. In the meantime have a very Happy Halloween and I’ll be here next Friday.

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