Thursday, January 12, 2017

Talking about Sustainability

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It's Friday, 13 January but don't worry, there isn't another Friday the 13th until October. And where will we be by then? Well if you believe the followers of Guy McPherson then we will be facing the Apocalypse, but call me reckless and I'm sure many of his followers would, I just don't think things will be quite as bad as that by then. There's no doubt that 2017 will be a challenging year, particularly on the political front. Everything we do depends on a political framework so we can't ignore Brexit or Donald Trump or the lack of a credible opposition in the UK Parliament. But before I get on my hobbyhorse let's look at some things that I've picked up on the sustainability front this week.

You've heard of carbon capture and storage and you've probably heard that no one has yet made it work on a commercial scale, but have you heard of carbon capture and utilisation? Maybe that's the future. If you want to get away from it all, how about a VW camper? Yes I know they stopped making them in 2013, but they’ve just brought a new one out. Looks the same, but very different. Could be just what you’ve been waiting for, Clive. There’s good news from Swansea Bay, and I'll talk about the Green Investment Bank, which may not be green or a bank for much longer. I'll admit that I've given in to temptation and written to the local paper. I’ll tell you why and what I said, and if you want to save energy and be warmer at home you should have listened to me on Talk Radio on New Year's Eve. Missed it? Don't worry–here’s your second chance. I was talking to Martin Roberts.

[Talk Radio interview]

Swansea Bay

More on energy. This week sees the publication of a report which recommends that the government should go ahead with the development of the tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay. This is excellent news, because when the report was set up it was seen as a device to kick the project into the long grass where it would lie and be forgotten. I reported on Swansea Bay back in November. Tidal Lagoon Power plans to build a barrier across Swansea Bay in South Wales to hold back the tide and release the water through turbines to generate electricity. Predictable power twice a day, no carbon emissions and no fuel costs. The government made the construction of the Swansea Bay lagoon a manifesto commitment  at the last election.
The project will cost £1.3bn, most of it spent in Wales and the rest of the UK. That’s less than a tenth of the cost of Hinkley C, the planned nuclear power station just across the Bristol Channel. The output would of course be very much lower than Hinkley C which is planned to produce 8% of the nation’s electricity. However, with similar lagoons at Cardiff and Newport and in Cumbria and Somerset the total output could be the same. The cost of construction would be significantly lower, there would be no emissions, no hazardous waste to dispose of and the life of the plant would be very much longer.

The key obstruction to progress seemed to be the negotiation of the strike price. This is the guaranteed price for the electricity produced by scheme. Initially it was estimated at £168 per megawatt, which is very much higher than the figure of £90 agreed for Hinkley C, which itself is at least twice the current wholesale price. However, the report takes into account the longer life of Swansea Bay, around 120 years, which cuts the figure to a comparable £89.90. A spokesman for Tidal Lagoon Power told the BBC’s File on Four programme that building the Cardiff Bay tidal lagoon as well could bring the cost down to £60. Of course subsidies would be involved, estimated at 30p on a bill, but what price energy security? Let’s hope the government acts on the report.

Power of the Press

Yes, I’ve been writing to the local paper. There are some people with very fixed opinions who write every week and I bite my tongue because I often disagree. Anyway I picked up my pen last month and this is what I said:

“We learn from Philip Roe's letter that it is a fact that global warming has little to do with man or his flatulent cows. Could he perhaps share his evidence for this “fact”?"

Mr Roe came straight back:

“Anthony Day asks me to share my evidence that man has little to do with global warming. Even the most ardent tree huggers have got to admit that planet Earth is pretty huge. Man's gas input (carbon dioxide to methane) from road vehicles to flatulent cattle affecting the climate of this planet is of no real consequence. In all probability earth is getting warmer, but this is purely cyclic. Britain, in the Carboniferous period, was tropical yet there was no man around to affect that climate. Ice ages have come and gone over the last 2.5 million years. Cyclic changes which happen about every 100,000 years. CO2 (carbon dioxide) allegedly produced by man, is being blamed as the main cause of “global warming” but what about volcanoes Mr Day? Many volcanoes, both on the surface and subsea, pour thousands of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere day in, day out. Man-made, and naturally occurring, CO2 have a little to do with the earth's climate. The Greens would love to say we are the cause of climate change. Climate changes are cyclic and man can do nothing to alter that fact.”

I felt he’d been misinformed, so I sent off a response.

“Philip Roe (ThePress 23rd December) is mistaken in thinking that our contributions to methane emissions are negligible. In fact human activity, including agriculture and flatulent cows, produces 55% of the 558 million annual tonnes of this highly potent greenhouse gas.(Environmental Research Letters 12/12/16) He is right in saying that volcanoes emit tonnes of carbon dioxide, (CO2) day in, day out, but their 200 million tonnes are equal to less than 1% of the 24 billion tonnes emitted by human activity. (US Geological Survey) 
While climate change is cyclical over the very long term, it is clear that we are accelerating that dangerous cycle. Recognising the urgency of the situation, some 195 nations, including the US, the UK and China, have made a commitment to radically cut emissions of greenhouse gases as soon as possible. The good news is that efficient use of energy reduces emissions, so a well-insulated home and a high-mpg car will save you money and help save the planet as well. And Dutch scientists are developing a special grass which stops cows from burping as much methane.”

Mr Roe hasn’t come back on this. He’s turned his attention to letters urging the government to get on with Brexit just as quickly as possible. But then we heard from Alan Robinson.

“I am grateful to Anthony Day for correcting Philip Roe’s untenable assertion that mankind's contribution to greenhouse gases is insignificant. But Anthony only got it nearly right. He described cows first as “flatulent” and later as “burping”. It may come as a bit of a surprise but in fact methane emissions from ruminants arise mostly from fermentation of the cud before it enters the true stomach. The gas emerges from the front-end, not the rear. So “burping” is correct. Sadly it also means putting gas bags on bovine bottoms isn't much use. Eating kangaroo is better, because kangaroo burps are far less methane laden.”

So that’s me told. Actually I did know that it was burping and not flatulence that caused the methane (as careful listeners to the Sustainable Futures Report will well know.) Didn’t know about the kangaroos, though.

The Baking Powder Solution

So that’s methane. What about carbon dioxide?

Tuticorin Alkali Chemicals in India, which runs a conventional power plant, plans to turn 60,000 tonnes of CO2 a year into soda ash – or baking powder. It will do this using a new technology which captures the emissions from the plant boiler’s chimney and mixes them with rock salt to make soda ash – a chemical that forms a key ingredient in glass, sweeteners, detergents and paper products, as well as food. The firm’s managing director, Ramachandran Gopalan, told BBC Radio 4: “I am a businessman. I never thought about saving the planet. I needed a reliable stream of CO2, and this was the best way of getting it.” The company states that the plant is now running with virtually no emissions seeping into air or water. Globally the technique could be used to absorb 5-10% of man-made CO2 emissions.

The method has been developed by two chemists from India who set up a company called Carbonclean, which is now based in Paddington in London. They relocated there from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur after failing to find finance in India – but later secured £3.6 million from the UK government. Imperial College London and Leeds and Sheffield Universities helped Carbonclean develop the technology. Nice to hear that the UK government is supporting at least some green initiatives.

Read more at:

Roger Harrabin presented Climate Change: The Trump Card on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm on 3 January. (iPlayer) He also talks about the environment post Trump and about the biggest solar farm in the world. 

Green Wheels

Volkswagen has revealed a new camper van concept, the I.D. Buzz, at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit.
It looks a bit like the iconic VW Microbus made famous by the 1960s hippie movement, but it boasts eight seats and an all-electric drivetrain with a range of 600km or 370 miles. The I.D. Buzz has full integration with futuristic self-driving technology. The steering wheel is only needed some of the time – with a "gentle push" it retracts back into the dash, allowing the car's occupants to chat among themselves. Its quoted 0-62mph time is five seconds and it has a limited top speed of 160kmh – just shy of 100mph. 0-60 in 5 seconds? That’s not a hippie car.

There’s some discussion over whether VW will ever put the I.D. Buzz it into production. In any case it’s not expected to hit the road before 2020 at the earliest. Nevertheless, like other manufacturers VW has announced that it will be involved in setting up a network of charging points to make electric driving convenient, and it has many other electric vehicles under development. A logical move, given that the outlook for the diesel market is extremely black. VW is also reported to be developing a self-drive taxi fleet to rival Uber. The 8-seater ID Buzz could be the vehicle of choice.

Green Investment Bank

Do you remember the Green Investment Bank? it was set up by the UK’s coalition government to support new, emerging and green technologies, and according to a report in the Guardian Newspaper it has been quite successful, with projected returns of around 10%. Of course the whole Green idea was completely unattractive to former Chancellor George Osborne who took the opportunity to change the bank’s constitution so that it could invest in a much wider range of projects. The next stage was to sell the whole thing off. And Theresa May's government planned to do just that. The rumour is that the buyer is Macquarie, an Australian investment group which until recently at least had a major stake in Thames Water. Based on their past record, what they could do is simply buy the bank, sell off all its investments and close it down. Macquarie could then invest the proceeds elsewhere, with no guarantee that this would be in the UK or in green technology. Hence my earlier comment that it would no longer be green or a bank. As I write this I learn that Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, has forced a debate in parliament, claiming that Macquarie has a dismal and terrible environmental record, [and] also has an appalling track record of asset-stripping.  MPs of all parties have raised concerns over the sale, but the government has refused to comment in detail or even to identify the bidder, saying that the whole thing is “commercially sensitive”. Watch this space. We'll wait and see.

And finally...

And finally, who is that Guy McPherson I mentioned at the start of all this? Well, go to Guy McPherson and you’ll find out all about him. I wouldn’t bother, if I were you. It’s too depressing. Guy is an American academic who predicts near-term human extinction - that’s well within the next 10 years. It’s hardly surprising that there’s a headline on his home page which asks, “Contemplating suicide?” I don’t want to be flippant about this, and there’s no doubt that humanity is taking exceptional liberties with the planet and we urgently need to do more about it, but 2017 can’t be that bad. And, if you’ll forgive another cliché: while there’s life there’s hope.

Still, no time to sit around and wait for things to happen. Many a mickle maks a muckle. Get that aerated shower head on your shopping list for Saturday and check whether your local council is still doing free loft insulation. And a new boiler will really save you money if you haven’t got a condensing one already.

That’s it for this week. I’ll be back next week with another Sustainable Futures Report. I’m Anthony Day. Thanks for your comments, ideas and suggestions. I’m always ready for more. Just send them to

Till next time!